My PJM stablemate Max Stein has made it to the final nine of the World Series of Poker, where this year even the first out will go home with a million dollars in prize money. That’s high-stakes poker, and just getting to that table means that Max is one of the best poker players in the world right now.
For lower-stakes fun, my two favorite games are Omaha and Bourré (boo-ray!).
Omaha is a variation on Texas Hold’em, made friendlier for family poker night. It isn’t played no limit, and the big blind is typically 50¢ with a 25¢ small blind. We usually play with a $1 maximum raise. The other difference is that each player is dealt four hole cards instead of two, and must build their hand with two hole cards and three cards from the community pile. Better chances of building strong hands and the smaller stakes both serve to keep people from folding, so it’s just a friendly game to play.
Bourré is without a doubt my favorite card game, because it can make you sweat just like Texas Hold’em — but even faster. It’s one of those deceptively simple trick-collection games like Hearts, but you don’t play for points. And unlike poker, there’s no betting, only a 25¢ ante. It’s best played with seven or more players, and you’ll understand why in a moment.
First, of course, everybody antes up.
Before the cards are dealt, the dealer shows one out of the middle to reveal the trump suit. (The deal rotates each hand.) The player to the left of the dealer starts the first trick, playing any card in his hand, so long as it isn’t trump. The rest of the players follow in order, with the high card of the lead suit taking the trick. If the first card is the eight of hearts, the high heart takes it — assuming nobody plays a card of the trump suit. In case multiple trump cards come out, the highest trump card wins.
You must play suit if you have it, and you can’t lead trump until trump is broken. The winner of the current trick begins the following trick, again using any card he chooses except trump, unless trump has already broken.
Non-lead-suit, non-trump cards may not take any tricks.
When all cards have been played, the player with the most tricks takes the pot — if they’ve collected a minimum of three tricks. If nobody collects three tricks, then the pot stays, the deal rotates to the next player, and another hand is dealt.
But here’s what makes Bourré so sweaty.
If a player doesn’t collect at least one trick each hand, then they must match the pot. So if you have seven players, there will be seven tricks per hand, and it becomes almost a sure thing that at least one person is going to match the pot at the end of each and every hand. And with every pot-winning hand, a minimum of two people are going to have to match the pot. To be clear: Matching doesn’t mean you have to match the initial pot of a buck-fiddy or two dollars. You have to match the current sum total of whatever is on the table.
The initial pot of just $1.75 (seven players putting in 25¢ each) will grow geometrically, especially since it usually takes three or four hands before anybody manages to collect three tricks and win the pot. If you really want to turn up the heat, get eight people to sit down and play. Fewer tricks dealt out over more players means the pot grows faster and that it’s likely to take even more hands before there’s a winner. I’ve seen a two dollar pot shoot up to $50 or $100 or more in short order.
Oftentimes it’s just one player, with a couple of losing hands in a row, putting in half of the money. The good news is, you may fold before any new hand is dealt. The bad news is, you can’t get dealt back in until the pot is won and everything starts anew.
You may find yourself in a place where you can’t afford to match the pot again, but you also can’t afford to fold because you have so much of your own money already sitting on the table.
This is the point where you become what is called “pot committed.” You can’t afford to lose, but you can’t afford to fold.
Bourré is the absolute sweatiest fun you can have with your pants on — but that doesn’t mean I’m about to invite a cardsharp like Max Stein to my table.