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The Kid In The Home Game

by Nathan Gamble |  Published: Mar 10, 2021

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My father and I continued to frequent the underground poker scene around town, but he, and subsequently I, became more involved in running home-game style tournaments of our own for some of his co-workers.

They began as friendly affairs, $20 buy-in tournaments, sometimes with a rebuy, sometimes with an add-on, and never more than a couple tables of participants. Poker night was slow enough until the win of an unassuming accountant in 2003, at which point every Tom, Dick, and Jane wanted to play hold’em.

The game blossomed into a four-year affair, growing from cheap Bicycle cards pulled out of a back drawer into special-ordered Copags and Kems. Poker tables with green felt and black leather railings were dragged into the house, and even custom chips were purchased to prevent counterfeits from being introduced. We grew the tournament from two tables of nine players into an upstairs-and-downstairs affair which at peak capacity saw 11 full tables with alternates on standby; a total of 100 unique entrants and at least 50 re-entries.

We never took a rake, we never charged a dollar. We even pooled money for the pizza and to upgrade the chips and cards. It was all for the love of the game and the camaraderie of the sport. This was my introduction to tournament poker at 15 years old.

While everyone else went on breaks and enjoyed their time shooting the breeze outside before the tournament started, I was always moving about table to table, setting out chip stacks, ensuring there were dealer buttons and cut cards, and overseeing the seating for all of our players.

It was crucial to ensure that we had at least one player at every table whom we could trust with re-entry chips and the money which they would receive in exchange. We had several of the old-school players which we would delegate with this responsibility to help lighten the burden and thankfully never had any problems when it came down to the prize pool. This allowed my father and I to continue to play tournament director while breaking tables, reseating players, handling money, taking food orders, keeping track of blind levels, resolving disputes, and so on while actually finding the time necessary to play a hand or two along the way. It was a fast-paced environment, which now allows me to show appreciation when I sit down in well-managed tournament these days.

Because we never took a rake, there was never any illegal activity taking place and no reason to fear the police showing up and putting an end to our poker party. But that didn’t stop them from taking a peek once or twice. One time we answered the door expecting pizza and were greeted by an officer asking for the owner of the house. We naturally put the tournament on hold before finding the owner and letting everyone know that there was an unexpected break.

After an extended conversation outside, we were informed that the neighbors had complained about the excessive number of cars on the street, which makes sense given this was a residential neighborhood and we had over 100 players in the house. As it turns out, everyone needed to make sure their cars were facing the proper way. It took 30 minutes of bumper cars, but the tournament was back on and we started including parking instructions in future event announcements.

Most people that see me nowadays first notice my giant red beard, but underneath that fiery facial hair is an absolute baby face. At 31, I look like I’m barely old enough to crack a beer when I’m clean-shaven. When I was 15, I looked like I was 10. It was only because my father was the ‘Tournament Director’ that I was allowed to play, and even that didn’t stop the questioning looks at almost every table which I sat.

After a while, I became a fixture of the events and went from being the kid who helped set things up to the kid they looked at across the table who was consistently beating them out of their hard-earned cash. We had upped the entry for the tournaments to $50 a person with subsequent rebuys and knockout bonuses, all of which added up to a player being in for around $150-$200 on the day if they took advantage of the liberal play that was allowed in such a setting. It was pocket change for the majority as they were computer engineers and managers for Fortune 500 companies, but for me it was big money and I played to win every time. To this day I still have several trophies sitting in my parents’ house from my victories, two of them even coming in back-to-back tournaments. And while they aren’t the same as a WPT trophy or a WSOP bracelet, they meant more to me back then than the amount of money which they accompanied.

The thrill of the home game experience is a thrill which I want to pass on to everyone that reads these articles, and with anyone I interact with in the poker world. We were all learning the game together, no one knew what a range was and there was no talk of GTO. It was simply looking a player in the eye and saying, “Nah, you ain’t got it this time.”

While poker has evolved to a level that was unimaginable 20 years ago, I still encourage everyone to start with the basics. Get a group of friends, share some beers, share some laughs. It shouldn’t be about money at first. Let’s face it, most players aren’t going to win long term anyway. A large number of poker professionals tend to forget that people can simply play the game for fun and not for a living. Find the enjoyment that brought you into this great game we love and share it with the newbie at the table. I guarantee you’ll have a more pleasant evening and, as a bonus, will be more likely to see them around the table the next time they come to town. ♠

Nathan Gamble is a native of Texas where he learned to play Texas hold’em from his father. He is a two-time WSOP bracelet winner, the first coming in the 2017 WSOP $1,500 pot limit Omaha Eight-Or-Better Event, the second in the 2020 Online WSOP $600 PLO8/b event. A fixture of the mid-stakes, mix game community, he can often be found playing $80-$160 mix games at the Wynn since moving to Las Vegas in 2019. He is active on Twitter under the username Surfbum4life and streams mixed game content regularly on Twitch under his username Surfbum4lyfe.