If Suffering Poker Withdrawal Among Friends From Home Game, There’s An Online Fix

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When people talk about the poker fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, they focus on the shutdown of hundreds of commercial casinos and card rooms across the country or the postponement of the World Series of Poker.

What gets overlooked is the millions of Americans who play among friends in monthly home games — the teachers, mechanics, and insurance agents who wouldn’t recognize Phil Hellmuth if he rivered a full house to beat their flush on an all-in.

Just like everything else in America, those competitive but convivial gatherings have been canceled the past month by health concerns over social gatherings outside of one’s own household. There’s no telling when those home games are coming back, and those who look forward to them as an edgy, fun break from life’s stress or monotony are suffering.

That was the case with my own regular group of eight until we discovered an opportunity in Pennsylvania: We could create our own online home game!

This is the story of how we started that — for better or worse — and how you can, too.

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What’s our tell? We’re old and slow

The last seemingly reliable statistic I could find on how many American adults play cards for money on any regular basis is 17%, from a Pew Research Center 2006 survey. If that’s true today, that would be about 35 million people.

I’m presuming the vast majority are like me and Bill and Rich and the rest of my informal club in our 50s, 60s, and 70s — guys who do it as much for the social interaction as the money involved.

No one among the group but me has ever played poker in a casino. I’m the only one prior to a week ago who had ever played online. And, honestly, I’m not very good when playing among hardcore rounders, despite being somewhat of a savant (or let’s make it “savant,” to ensure proper sarcasm applies) among my little crowd from the worlds of media, academia, and theater.

With betting limits ranging from 50 cents to $2, it’s a huge or crushing session when someone wins or loses more than $100 in a four-hour evening of play. The dealer calls his own game — sometimes the familiar-everywhere Texas hold’em or seven-card stud, but also many games with wild cards and even games we think we invented and no one else plays.

It doesn’t move all that fast because:

  1. We’re kinda old
  2. Sometimes we forget it’s our turn until nudged
  3. We have to pause for the umpteenth time to deliberate over a game’s rules
  4. Someone interrupts play to discuss sports, a movie, a family matter, or a health ailment (increasingly the latter, like the recent time I played with a catheter attached)

If you think this group sounds ill-prepared for the fast-paced world of online poker, well, congratulations for reading our tells so well.

PokerStars home club to the rescue

A few weeks after our March game was canceled, it was Peter, in the throes of withdrawal, who emailed me a YouTube video from an online poker site explaining how we could create own own club to play. I sent him back a note explaining that site was based in New Jersey and off-limits to us Pennsylvanians.

But then I explored possibilities on PokerStars, the one legal site within Pennsylvania for now, and realized we could do the same thing: create an invitation-only club, schedule online games, select games we like, and play at the stakes we desire. We’d be enjoying our pastime in our sweats and PJs without ever leaving home, using up gas, or requiring a hall pass from the wives.

What could go wrong?

Well, for starters, there’s the technophobia. We lost two of our gang of eight before things ever got started.

“I fear I would at best disturb play with my ineptitude and at worst embarrass myself dreadfully by failing to figure out how even to join in,” Jim said, echoing Greg’s same decline to take part.

OK, well, surely, things would go aces for the remaining six, right? Right? (Um, perhaps you’ve heard of aces being cracked?)

Creating the club was the easiest part

It actually wasn’t so hard for me to set things up.

At no charge, PokerStars has on its site “Create a Poker Club” software for download by the individual who will manage the club. You pick a name for the club and an invitation code for it and then receive an email providing a PokerStars ID number for the club. You circulate the invitation code and ID number to those you’re interested in having as part of the game.

Clicking an icon picturing a house on the bottom right of my PokerStars screen, I could then enter the “club lobby,” choose whether to create a cash game or tournament, select the type of game from among different versions of Texas hold’em, Omaha, stud, or games I’d never even heard of (my apologies, Badugi). Once I clicked “create a table” and entered various parameters including stakes, the game was set.

Except my five compatriots all had to create PokerStars accounts and deposit money, and now Jim was looking like a savant with his forecasts of techno-flailing.

Peter said he had to register twice under two different names before one of the attempts worked.

Bill said his attempts to deposit money initially kept getting bounced back, no matter what he tried.

Bernie’s computer system was too outdated to be accepted, and then his iPad as an alternative couldn’t find the home game option, and then his updated computer wasn’t recognized as within the boundaries of Pennsylvania, while sitting in Pittsburgh. And then he was told he couldn’t use Zoom and the PokerStars home game option at the same time.

“It was all very confusing,” Bernie said.

“It isn’t the most crisp website,” Peter summarized.

Somehow, though — in some cases with the help of the PokerStars support team’s emails — everyone was eventually able to use their new accounts, click on that home icon, and enter our club code and ID to access our poker table at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday.

The fastest poker we’d ever played

That’s when the fun began — a little too swiftly for most people’s tastes.

We always play cash games instead of tournaments, because it’s no fun to have someone knocked out of a tournament sitting idle.

We had voted on Omaha hi-lo as our game of choice, generally finding it more interesting than hold’em. (You use two cards from four you are dealt, combine those with three out of five community cards as in hold’em for the best hand, and there’s a split-pot low hand if three or more non-matching community cards are 8 or less.)

I set the blinds and betting stakes at a modest 50 cents/$1, on the assumption that the computer would be dealing us a lot more hands than we normally play. We didn’t want the initial money swings to get crazy.

As soon as at least two club members clicked to take seats at the table, the automatic shuffler began firing out the cards. We could identify one another by User ID nicknames we set up in creating our accounts. A little screen on the lower left enabled us to type in bits of conversation as we played hands, which quickly went as follows:

“This is too fast!”

“Who won that hand? Can we slow this %&*# thing down???!!!”

The computer, as computers are wont to do, was steadily, speedily, with no concern for our complaints, dealing hands, determining winners, sending chips representing our money into one another’s accounts.

In the few seconds between hands, a line would flash announcing the one or two winners of the prior hand. It would disappear so quickly that we poor baby boomers could barely process it while trying to assess our chances with the four new hole cards suddenly appearing for the next hand.

But troupers that we are, we played on — and on — for 3½ hours.

No time for celebrating, commiserating

After an untold number of hands in those 210 minutes — many more hands, certainly, than we would have lumbered through normally with our own shuffling, dealing, and conversation — we finished with one player $120 ahead, another up $65, and four losers ranging from $34 to $100.

We also quickly came to realize that while creating a poker club is itself free, that’s not the same for the benefit of playing. Our wins and losses weren’t all balancing out even, like in our regular games. That’s because PokerStars was raking the pot for nearly 5% for itself, as it does for its regular cash games.

That’s the American way, after all, and when I asked the group for assessments afterward of how it went, they were more concerned with the speed than the money.

“It was fun playing, but not so much fun that I want to do it too often,” Bill said. “It was a little too fast. The game ends and the next game starts 3.2 nanoseconds later, and before you figure out what just happened and why you lost or who you lost to, you’ve got four new cards and you’re being asked to start betting.”

“I miss celebrating good hands and commiserating over losing hands,” Rich added. “My eyes were starting to lose it at the end.”

And tragically, we lost one of our remaining six — ironically, the very man who had inspired the idea of using this format to replace what we’d lost.

“It wasn’t a fun experience,” Peter concluded. “I play poker because it’s a good time with people I like. Zoom helps (half the players were conversing with one another using Zoom during the game) a bit, but the speed, as apparently all agree, is absurd, like being on a relentless conveyor belt.”

And that poker-loving player said he’d be sitting out the next game. Chalk up another casualty of the coronavirus, even if of lesser consequence than is the case for too many.

It’s a bug being worked on, honest

As the only one who had played online before, I was the only one familiar with the pace of games on PokerStars, so I maybe wasn’t thrown by it as much. But I certainly understood the concern.

As club manager able to control games, I have access to a button determining the speed of play. How many options does it have for our cash games? Exactly one: fast.

I used the site’s “help” function to send a query to the PokerStars support team asking if I might be able to slow things down. Its response: “Unfortunately, on home games cash tables players cannot choose the game speed ‘normal,’ only ‘fast’ tables. This is a bug that has been reported and we hope to have resolved soon.”

I sent that sad report along to my dwindling number of cohorts. I also determined that next time we would devote just one hour to Omaha hi-lo with its split pots, which are a lot harder to decipher quickly in terms of the winning hands. We will devote separate hours as well to stud and hold’em.

We will see how that goes this week. We will see if everyone’s computers access the site quickly and easily, now that we’ve all done it once. We will see if we can keep up better. We will get our poker fix, win or lose, and see afterward if we get any more dropouts, which would be disastrous in terms of a quorum worth continuing.

But perhaps saddest of all, we won’t be able to chat about our prostates or knee replacements or any other ailments. But hey, that’s what poker has come to during the pandemic.

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Gary Rotstein

Gary is a longtime journalist, having spent three decades covering gambling, state government, and other issues for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in addition to stints as managing editor of the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette and as a reporter for United Press International and the Middletown (Conn.) Press. Contact Gary at [email protected].

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