A Common Sense Rewards System

I’ve been involved in poker since the late 90’s and have worn several different hats throughout that period, most notably as a professional poker player.

In my teen years, I helped run a game in a private club which also included running “The Sheet.” The sheet was a credit line we gave to players when they went broke in the game and wanted to keep playing.

One thing was always understood about the sheet, you were going to get stiffed on occasion, but it was still worth having. Mostly, it was the losing players who borrowed money on the sheet, and because they were given this credit line it helped keep the games going longer, which meant more revenue through rake.

These games were full of losing players and the rake was astronomically high. I remember my first night in charge of running the game, we started the game at about 11pm and by 5am every single chip that started on the table was raked. The game was 8 handed, yet somehow the players failed to notice that they were ALL stuck! All 8 players were losing.

It was a $10-$20 limit hold’em game with a 5% rake up to $10. It was a loose passive game so it was common to hit the full $10 per hand with few exceptions.

In addition to the rake coming out of the game, the lowest denomination chip available was $2.50 white chip. The dealers smartly put a lot of those chips in the pot in the hopes of getting a bigger tip. They’d get $2.50 every hand, and often as much as $15 for a bigger pot.

There was probably $400 to $500 coming off the table an hour. Seems like it would be an unbeatable game, but the players where so bad I could still beat it for $35-$45 an hour.

In the months I helped work the game and play in it, I can honestly say I never heard a single player say a word about the rake. It was surreal. I was aware of it, of course, and how much higher it was than the session fee games I’d play during the day that charged a measly $5 a half hour to play. In that game, maybe $125 came off the table per hour, but my win rate was similar in both games. Pros dominated the session fee tables because they understood the concept of rake and how it affected their bottom line.

While my win rate in both games was similar, the underground games didn’t go regularly. They would run for a time, players would go broke, owe money on the sheet, and not come back for a while until they could pay it off. With that much money coming off the table per hour, it crushed all the losing players that didn’t have extremely deep pockets.


Before I started playing in these games I played in a club that had no rake and didn’t charge for food. Players were expected to tip at least $2.50 a hand, but didn’t always. If the waitress brought you food, you were expected to throw her a chip or two.

They did it this way because they believed they could get around the laws related to running an illegal gaming house. Since they weren’t taking any rake, they believed what they were doing was above board. The Ontario government didn’t agree, but that’s another story for another time.

They ran a sheet at this game too, but also had a unique way of keeping games going in addition to that. This may seem controversial, but they tracked what each player won or lost and at the end of the month, they gave the biggest losers free money to play.

They understood, that without those players the games wouldn’t run. They were the VIPs that kept games going.

There is something genius about this idea, but it’s oft putting to do in such a confrontational manner. Partly, while you want to keep the biggest losers in the game, you also don’t want to wake them up to how much they are losing by doing some kind of losers leader board! The way this club handled it was subtle and appreciated by the losing players. The guys who ran this club, there were three of them, all shared one characteristic: they were charming.

They knew how to deal with suckers in such a way that wasn’t patronizing. They empathized, but didn’t mock them.


So why am I telling you these stories? Because, especially this last one, helped shape my long held views on rewards systems for poker and what they should look like. All rewards should go to losing players, as the winning players will get them in the end anyway.

What reward do the winning players get? They get to play in good games and make a living. The reward they get is the right to play. You don’t shut the doors on anyone. If someone has the buy in, they should be allowed to sit down and play.

It makes zero sense to give the winning players, who are already making a profit from your more valuable customers, additional money. It’s asinine.

You don’t need to cater to the winning players. As long as you offer good value games with enough losing players, they will happily show up and earn. They don’t need any extra incentive to come play. If the game is profitable… they will play.

This doesn’t make me anti-pro, I’ve been a pro for half my life! It’s simply me being aware of the ecological balance of a poker game that will always have winning players, losing players, and the house. If the house take isn’t covering their expenses and their sheet, then I don’t have a game to be a pro in.

If the WSOP didn’t make a substantial amount of money over the summer via rake, then there just wouldn’t be one. It isn’t a charity. They run these events to show a profit. They charge what they deem fair. For me, as a pro, if I don’t think their pricing is fair… then I wouldn’t play. If I didn’t think I could beat the game because of a combination of field strength and rake, then I simply wouldn’t make the investment.

At no point would I begrudge the WSOP for what they choose to charge. I might not like it, but I’ve always believed in a free market. Offer a product or service, and if people see value in it, they will pay for it. if not, so be it.

I’m fully aware that many pros who read this may be upset by it, but it doesn’t make it any less true. As a customer, a losing player is more valuable to a poker game than a winning player is. It really shouldn’t anger you- it’s an obvious fact.

I’ve used this example before, but it illustrates the point so well I want to close with it again:

If you ran a raked game at your house and could send a limo to pick up the two biggest fish in your game, or the four best pros… who gets the limo?