A Handy Guide to Hosting the Best Virtual Poker Tournament

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Including the best online poker platforms to use, how to organize buy-ins, and arranging a simultaneous chat.

Whether you're planning a game with friends across the country or you're trying to play among some of the best players in the world, a virtual poker tournament can be just as exciting as one face-to-face. Here, we're put together tips for hosting your own digital poker tour so you can play against your most worthy opponents wherever they live. 

Choosing Your Online Poker Tournament Platform

There are several popular online poker platforms. If you're playing cash games, DonkHouse is simple and customizable, allowing the players to create virtual rooms for no fee. Each player must visit donkhouse.com and create a profile. The host can set up tables with specific stakes. The 10-cent/20-cent blinds table is particularly popular. A classic poker rule of thumb is to sit at a table with approximately 100 big blinds. So, the 10-cent/20-cent virtual room is ideal if you're looking to sit in for the night with about $20. If you're looking to host a $1,000 a night cash game, you'll want to select the room with $5/$10 blinds. Once a host designates a room for his or her guests, players can sit at the table with as much or as little play money as they so chose. To ensure that play money has real monetary value, the software will track the financial movements over the course of the game and output an excel spreadsheet that tracks everyone's gains and losses for the night.

For a tournament-style game, PokerStars Home Game lets you designate a members-only private poker club. Once you've downloaded the app to your computer, the host should select Create a Poker Club, give it a name, and create an invitation code for members. Under Manage Games, you can schedule poker tournaments and customize the tournament format; under "Blind Interval," you can make sure there's an increase in blinds every 15 minutes, and at "Payout," you can decide whether the top two or three players earn money at the end of the tournament, or if winner takes all.

Organizing Buy-ins and Payouts

There are a few different ways to customize your pay structure for your virtual poker tournament or cash game. All of them will require a cash transfer app, such as Venmo. On Venmo, you can have one person, likely the host, function as the "bank." At the start of the night, whenever someone buys in with play money (via Donk House or PokerStars), they Venmo the host an equivalent amount of real money. At the end of the night, the host (serving as the "bank") will Venmo everyone back the amount they're owed. So if you buy in with $200 and lose $100, the host would Venmo you back $100 from the pot of money he collected, but if you have a great night and wind up with $600, the "bank" would pay you out $600.

If you want to reduce the amount of back and forth transactions, you can use the DonkHouse excel spreadsheet to dictate the simplest way to settle up after each game (i.e. Player A can Venmo Player B without using a "bank" format). 

For those planning to play more routinely than once a week, you could also consider using the Splitwise app. As the host, create a Splitwise group, invite all your poker friends, and create an additional Splitwise user called The Bank. When setting up the Splitwise group, be sure to check the setting that says "Simplify Debts." When players buy in, they will record a transaction that says they've borrowed money from The Bank. When they buy out for the evening (or if they want to buy in for additional money), they record another transaction wherein The Bank borrows money from them. This functions similarly to the Venmo bank set-up, except instead of the host managing The Bank, all players self report and the app automatically calculates who owes who money. This method, of course, has a steeper learning curve, but for long-term play allows you to painlessly keep track of balances without having to settle up every night.  

Coordinating a Simultaneous Virtual Hangout 

The trick is to minimize the amount of screens on everyone's computer and number of programs players are running at once. Therefore, we recommend using Slack or Discord if you want to have an ongoing chat. Making a Slack channel for your tournament is simple. At Slack.com, scroll down to the bottom left where it says "Need to create a workspace?" and click get started. If most of your players spend their work day on Slack and need a break from the interface, you can also try Discord. Designed specifically for online gamers, Discord is known for its superior audio chat capabilities. You can create a chat room just for your poker group at Discordapp.com.

Remind your guests that the chat channel is optional, not required. Some people like to just focus on the game, and not have any additional windows open on their screen, which is perfectly fine. You can also use the Slack or Discord channel to get your game started. If you set a sign-on time (Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. EST, for example), your guests know exactly when to virtually congregate. But for impromptu games, or games with fewer players, players can post in the Slack or Discord channel to get a game started.