How to play Poker
Poker is a collective group of gambling card games which has a diverse and complex family tree. Its roots can be traced back to China, where playing cards were invented in the early 12th century. Colourful illustrations were added to the cards by royal families in India, and the ornate Asian decks soon reached Europe via the merchants of Venice and Crusaders returning from the Middle East.
The Italians deserve credit for developing the modern 52-card “Latin” deck with its four suits—Spades, Hearts, Diamonds and Clubs. Much later, following the French Revolution, Parisians would finalize the ranking of the “court cards,” with the Ace outranking the royals—King, Queen and Jack.
Such Renaissance games as Basset and Brelan from Italy and Pochen from Germany are considered to be antecedents to Poker. They led to variations called Glic and Piquet in France. In turn, the English came up with Primero, Bragg, Lanterloo, Gleek and Ombre.
These distant cousins of Poker featured “action rounds” of betting, which became extremely popular for socializing as well as gambling in the 17th century.
It was in the 18th century, however, that a game called Poque emigrated from France to the Louisiana Territory of North America. It was played with a 20-card deck—just the A-K-Q-J-10—comprised of four suits, so that each of four players would receive five cards.
Four Aces was the top hand, followed in descending order by four Kings with an Ace and any other four of a kind, a full house (three of a kind and a pair), triplets, two pair, and one pair.
Between 1830 and 1850, the Americans—who had taken to calling the game “Poker”—adopted the Latin deck for their play, and added Straights (runs of five cards in sequence) and Flushes (five cards of the same suit) to the ranks of winning combinations.
Then, sometime before the close of the 19th century, another innovation was introduced—the “Draw.”
A draw permitted players to discard some of their cards in return for fresh ones to improve the hand. It also allowed an additional round of betting.
About the same time, a rule called “jackpots” became in vogue. It required a player to have a pair of Jacks or better to open the betting, thus cutting down on bluffing and making the game more acceptable in social circles.
The game that evolved from French Poque to become Poker is today best known as the version we call “Five-Card Draw.” It may also go by the name “Jacks or Better” or “Cowboy Poker.” It is played with a standard 52-card deck by anywhere from two to eight participants, most commonly four to six.
Five-Card Draw is representative of the main division of Poker games known as “Closed Poker,” in which all of a player’s cards are unknown to the opponents. The other major division is “Open Poker,” in which some of a player’s cards are dealt face up, while others are hidden, face down (aka, “hole cards”).
“Stud” Poker is a well known variation of Open Poker, and the five-card version of Stud can be played by up to ten participants.
It is customary for the initial dealer at a game of Poker to be selected by dealing one card to each player. Typically the player who gets the first Jack becomes the dealer for the first hand.
Another method of choosing who deals is by “cutting the cards,” with each player selecting a card blindly from the deck and the highest ranking card indicating the dealer.
Thereafter, the deal rotates clockwise hand-by-hand to the other players until each has had an opportunity to be the dealer. One full cycle of deals is called a “round.”
In most versions of Poker, players indicate that they wish to receive a hand by placing a small wager, called the “Ante,” in the center of the poker table. The bets that accumulate in a pile there are called the “pot.”
Some versions, however, such as Texas Hold’em, have predetermined antes known as “blinds” which are assigned to players based on their seating positions relative to the dealer.
In all forms of Poker, the cards are dealt one at a time, clockwise, beginning with the player seated to the dealer’s left. In most versions of the game, each player receives five cards, although some games are played with more (such as Seven-Card Stud or Baseball) or fewer (such as Three-Card Poker or Guts).
Also, most versions require some additional wagering after the cards have been dealt, and players have the opportunity to “raise” (bet more) to increase the pot, “call” to match a raise, “check” to wait and bet no more if no one has raised, or else “fold” and drop out of the hand, forfeiting any opportunity to win.
The object of the game, of course, is to win the “pot” by having the best hand among the players remaining at the end of all the betting. The pot may be won in either of two ways. The most common is called a “showdown,” in which the players remaining show their hands and the highest ranking one wins.
The other way to claim the pot is by making a wager that no other player is willing to match. In that case, the winner collects all that has been bet and does not need to show the winning hand to the other players.
Poker Hands Rank
One of the first aspects of playing Poker that a newcomer has to commit to memory is how the hands are ranked. The following list shows the ten types of hands possible when playing basic Five-Card Draw or Stud Poker. The hands are listed in order from the highest possible hand to the lowest.
1. Royal Flush – A “Royal” is the A-K-Q-J-10 of the same suit, and it beats all other hands. There are only four such combinations possible, so you can expect a Royal to come up only about once every 10,000 hands.
If two players each have a Royal, it is a tie, and they split the pot. Just for reference, the likelihood of being dealt a Royal on your initial five cards is 0.0002%.
2. Straight Flush – This refers to five cards in sequence, all in the same suit, such as the J-10-9-8-7 of spades or the 8-7-6-5-4 of diamonds. No gaps may occur in the sequence. If two players each have a Straight Flush, the one headed by the highest ranking card wins.
3. Four of a Kind – This hand contains four cards of the same rank, one in each of the four suits, such as Q-Q-Q-Q or 5-5-5-5. The fifth card is called “the kicker” and does not count toward the value of the hand. If two players each have Four of a Kind, the one made up of the four higher ranking card wins.
4. Full House – This hand has three cards of one rank (a “set” or “trips”) and two of cards of another rank (a “pair”), such as K-K-K-7-7 or 9-9-9-2-2. If two players each have a Full House, the one with the higher ranking three cards wins.
5. Flush – This hand is made up of any five cards of the same suit, such as the Q-9-6-5-3 of hearts or K-Q-8-5-2 of clubs. The cards need not be in sequence.
If two players each have a Flush, the one headed by the highest ranking card wins. If those two cards tie, then the next highest ranking card determines the winner. If those cards also tie, then the third ranking card decides, and so on.
6. Straight – This hand is comprised of any five unsuited cards in sequence, such as a hand containing K-Q-J-10-9. If two players each have a Straight, the one headed by the highest ranking card wins. The highest possible straight is the A-K-Q-J-10; the lowest is the 5-4-3-2-A.
7. Three of a Kind – This is a hand containing three cards of the same rank, such as Q-Q-Q or 7-7-7. The other two cards are “kickers” and do not affect the hand. If two players each have Three of a Kind, the one with the higher ranking three cards wins.
8. Two Pair – This hand features two cards of a higher rank and two of a lower rank, such as A-A-7-7 or 9-9-4-4. If two players each have Two Pair, the one with the higher ranking pair wins.
If the higher pairs tie, then the hand with the higher ranking low pair wins. The fifth card, or “kicker,” is used only to settle ties when both hands are otherwise identical.
9. One Pair – This hand has two cards of the same rank and three unrelated cards, such as K-K-7-5-4 or J-10-4-4-3. If two players each have a Pair, the one with the higher ranking paired cards wins. If the pairs are identical, then the hand with the highest ranking “kicker” wins.
10. High Card – This is any five unmatched cards, such as the unsuited Q-9-8-3-2. Roughly one out of every two deals results in such a hand.
If two players each have a high-card hand with no pairs or better, then the one headed by the highest ranking card wins. If those cards are identical, then the second highest card is used to break the tie, and so on.
Hands identical in all respects result in a tie, and there is no winner. In standard Poker, the suit of which the hand is composed never makes any difference. This is true of all types of flushes as well as kickers used in breaking a tie.
“Table talk” is an integral part of the game of Poker. Apart from knowing the names of the various types of hands, players should eventually master the language of Poker, starting with the terms used in basic play.
Many of these words and phrases derive from the game’s “Wild West” heritage. For example, Aces are sometimes called “bullets.” The first player to bet, usually to the dealer’s immediate left, is said to be “under the gun.”
An attempt to draw to an inside straight (such as trying to get a 5 to fill the 8-7-6-4) is called “gut shot” and trying to improve a hand that can’t possibly win is known as “drawing dead.”
Other terms are strictly functional, and many relate to money. The “buck,” for example, is a marker placed on the table to indicate who is dealing. It is sometimes referred to as a “hat” or “button.”
The “bank” is the game’s operator, also known as the “house.” When the house takes a small commission from the pot at a Poker game, the amount taken is called the “rake.”
A “buy-in” is the minimum amount of chips that must be bought or money that must be brought to the table in order to play. A “blind” is a forced ante of a specific amount that must be placed before any cards are dealt, most common in casino Poker games, such as Texas Hold’em and Omaha.
A “limit” or “fixed limit” game refers to one in which the amounts that may be bet are predetermined. For example, in a $5/$10 Limit Game, the betting must be in $5 increments in the in the early rounds and $10 thereafter. “Pot limit” allows a player to wager up to whatever amount is currently in the pot.
A “no limit” game, by contrast, allows the player to bet any amount up to the total number of chips held. “Table stakes” sets a cap on the amount that a player can win or lose on a hand—no more than what was on the table at the beginning of the hand.
There are literally thousands of other terms that have become popular to describe various situations in Poker.
These include “bluff” for a raising on a weak hand as if it were a strong one, “limp” when a player calls a bet rather than raising to see more cards, and “check-raise” or “sandbagging” to entice others to bet first and then raise them when holding a strong hand.
Five-Card Draw and Stud
When starting out in Poker, it is a good idea to begin with Five-Card Draw, the game that launched it all. In this game, five cards are dealt face down to each player who has anted up to receive a hand.
After players look at their hands, there is a betting interval. The “eldest player” to the dealer’s left may either check (no additional wager) or place a bet. If the player checks, then the next player clockwise has the same option.
If any player “opens” by placing the first bet, however, all following players have the opportunity to call (match the bet), raise (increase the bet), or fold (drop out of the hand).
When the betting interval ends and all bets have been “equalized” (i.e., the same amount wagered by each remaining player), the draw takes place.
The dealer gives each player, in turn to the left, the opportunity to discard one or more cards and replace them with undealt ones remaining in the deck. Any player who does not wish to draw cards may signal so by knocking on the table or by saying “no cards” or “standing pat.”
After the draw, a second betting interval takes place, starting with the opening bettor from the first interval either checking or betting. Wagering continues as before until the bets have been equalized.
Then comes the showdown, with all remaining players exposing their hands and the winner claiming the pot. The deal is passed to the left and a new hand begins.
The Stud version of this game is quite similar, except for the betting intervals and the elimination of the draw. It begins with an ante, followed by each player receiving one card face down—the “hole card”—and one face up for all players to see.
At this point, there is a betting interval, with the player showing the highest ranked card face up given the opportunity to start the betting.
If two or more up cards tie for the highest value, then the one that was dealt first indicates the player who has the first opportunity to bet. The betting procedure is the same as for Five-Card Draw.
Once the betting has been equalized, another card is dealt face up to each active player. A betting interval follows. Then another card is dealt face up, followed by betting.
This continues until all remaining players have five cards, four showing face up and a hidden hole card. A showdown follows the final betting interval and the winner collects the pot.
Some variations on basic Five-Card Stud include a forced wager for the highest card showing initially, “passout” with no checks allowed, and “switch,” where the last of the five cards is dealt face down and the player has the opportunity to show the hole card and replace it with the last card before the final betting interval.
Party Poker Variations
One of the things that makes Poker such a great card game is the ability to introduce an almost infinite array of variations. The most popular version of Five-Card Draw, for example, is Jacks or Better, in which the opener must have at least a pair of Jacks to bet.
If no player can open, all cards are collected, a new ante is put up by each player, and the cards are re-dealt until someone has a hand with Jacks or Better.
From this variation, many players enjoy “Jacks or Better, Trips to Win,” which has the same opening requirements but does not permit the pot to be collected on anything lower than three of a kind.
There is also a version called “Progressive Jacks or Better” that requires players to open with Queens or Better if no one has at least a pair of Jacks on the initial hand, then Kings or Better if no one has a pair of Queens, etc.
Then there is a variation called “Jacks Back,” which turns from Jacks or Better to Tens or Better if no one has Jacks, then Nines or Better, etc.
Introducing new types of Poker to a game can add fun and variety to a session. One way to get new games into the mix is commonly known at Poker parties as “Dealer’s Choice,” where each dealer names the game that will be played on his/her deal. Antes can be changed, too, as can limits.
Among the dozens of choices a dealer has are numerous “wild card” games that allow one or more cards in the deck to be substituted for any other card.
These include Joker Poker with a wild Joker added to the deck as the 53rd card, Deuces Wild with all two’s being wild, and One-Eyed Jacks with the Jacks of hearts and spades as the wild cards.
In “Spit in the Ocean,” players receive four cards; one additional communal card is turned face up and all cards of that rank are wild.
Many countries have added a twist of their own to basic Poker. One of these is Mexican Stud, with five cards dealt face down, unseen, and turned over one by one with betting intervals; players may keep any card down that they want.
In Australian Poker or South African Poker, there are no antes, but there are blinds or “straddles” put up by the eldest player and the player next to the left.
In Cincinnati, five cards dealt down to each player are supplemented by five communal cards dealt in the center of the table and turned up one by one with betting intervals between; players form their best Poker hands out of ten cards.
A variation of Cincinnati is “Criss-Cross,” which has the communal cards placed in the form of a cross, and the center card turned up last is a wild card.
“Baseball” is a variation of Seven-Card Stud, with all nines wild and all threes in the hole wild; there are additional exotic rules regarding betting. Pass the Trash, Butcher Boy, Put and Take, and Red and Black are other forms of Poker that keep the game interesting.
Of all the variations of Poker that have become popular at parties, at casinos and online as well, one stands out in a class of its own—Texas Hold’em.
It is based on the game known as Seven-Card Stud and is currently the game of choice for major Poker tournaments worldwide, including the main event of the annual World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas.
Texas Hold’em Poker
Texas Hold’em is a form of Open Poker played with a standard 52-card deck. It features “community cards”—five cards dealt face up in the middle of the table—to be shared by all players.
Each player is also dealt two hole cards, or so-called “pocket cards,” which can be combined with the community cards to make the best five-card Poker hand possible.
In both the casino and online versions of this game, the cards are shuffled and dealt by a non-playing person at the table, who works for the house and is paid a commission from each pot (the “rake”).
However, for the purpose of play, the position of “dealer” is indicated among the players by a button, and this is the last person to receive a card. At the end of the hand, the dealer button passes clockwise to the next player.
The player seated immediately to the dealer’s left is called the “Small Blind” and must put up a wager of a fixed amount, typically half the minimum bet, before any cards are dealt.
The player two seats to the left of the dealer is known as the “Big Blind” and must put up an ante twice as much as the Small Blind’s wager.
Once the antes of the two blinds have been added to the pot, two cards are dealt to each player, face down. After players have had an opportunity to look at these pocket cards, a betting interval occurs, starting with the player to the left of the Big Blind, who can call the Big Blind’s bet, raise it, or fold.
The action then continues around the table clockwise until the bets of the active players have been equalized.
Next, the top card of the deck is discarded, unseen. This is called “burning a card,” and it is done to make sure that that no one accidentally saw the top card. This also helps prevent cheating.
Then, three community cards are dealt face up in the middle of the table. Collectively, these cards are called the “Flop.” Players consider how these cards might be combined with their pocket cards to produce a winning hand.
Another betting interval takes places, beginning with the first active player to the dealer’s left, who has the option to check or bet. The betting continues until the players’ bets are equalized.
Now, another card is burned and a fourth community card, known as “Fourth Street” or the “Turn” card, is dealt face up. Another round of betting follows before one more card is burned and the last community card—“Fifth Street” or the “River” card—is dealt face up.
A final betting interval ensues, the remaining players show their hands, and the winner is declared. In the case of a tie, the tying hands split the pot equally. In the “limit” version of Texas Hold’em, the amounts that can be bet and raised, and the number of re-raises possible during each betting interval, are capped.
In “no limit” Hold’em, players may bet any amount greater than the minimum at any time, up to the total amount of chips they have on the table. Betting all of one’s chips is called “going all in.”
It is equivalent to a “double or nothing” wager, meaning elimination from the table if lost, but the possibility of winning big if successful.
More Poker Variety
The worldwide popularity of Texas Hold’em is such that many new to Poker might think it is the only version played in casinos, tournaments and online. But that is far from the case. Seven-Card Stud is still quite popular, as is Five-Card Draw, especially in Poker Clubs.
Texas Hold’em also has a close cousin that is played at tournaments and is actually preferred by many professional players—“Omaha.”
Although the Poker game known as Omaha, or sometimes “Omaha Hold’em” or “Omaha High,” shares many rules with Texas Hold’em, there are several significant differences. At the start of the game, each player receives four cards face down, not two.
Players use their four pocket cards in combination with the five community cards dealt in the middle of the table to form the best Poker hands they can. However, a player must use exactly two of the hole cards and three of the community cards to form the hand. No other combinations are permitted.
Otherwise, Omaha proceeds in the same manner as Texas Hold’em, with Small and Large Blinds posted before play and betting intervals between each deal of the cards. Cards are burned before the Flop, the Turn and the River. Both Limit and No Limit versions are popular.
Omaha is often played as a high/low split game, too, called “Omaha Hi-Lo” or “Omaha 8.” In this version, the highest hand and the lowest hand divide the pot equally. The high hand follows the normal ranking of hands.
The low hand follows “Lowball Poker” rules, with the unsuited 6-4-3-2-A being the best hand possible and a low of eight-or better required to win.
When playing Omaha Hi-Lo, it is possible for a single player to win both the high and the low hands, either by using two different winning combinations, or by winning the high hand when there is no qualifying low one.
Other popular tournament/club poker games include a version of lowball Seven-Card Stud called “Razz,” a lowball Closed Poker game called “2-7 Triple Draw,” and a multi-game event called “H.O.R.S.E.”
The latter is considered especially challenging, as it includes one round each of Texas Hold’em (H), Omaha (O), Razz (R), Seven-Card Stud (S), and Seven Card Stud Eights or Better (E).
Play Poker Online
Most of the Poker variations that are played in tournaments and land-based casinos are now available online, too.
The Poker rooms that have been devised for the Internet give you the opportunity to test your skills against actual players from elsewhere in the world, and the action is just as lively as it is at real tables.
When you choose a Poker room for your play online, there are a number of factors to take into account. Player traffic is certainly one of them.
You want to choose a site where there are lots of tables and a variety of levels of players. It may also be easier to find soft competition at sites with high numbers of participants.
Of course, the site must feature your favourite games. You will find Texas Hold’em offered just about everywhere, but the best poker sites have Omaha, Seven-Card Stud, and other games.
Look for games available at many different stake levels, too. And there should be frequent tournaments and ring games along with sit-and-go tables.
Most sites will offer you a bonus for joining, another for making your first deposit, and even more for playing certain games or during certain periods. Getting these bonuses is especially useful when you are starting out. The extra funds can pay for your learning curve.
Similarly, look for special promotions after you join. Use them to try out different games. And as you become a regular, be sure to take advantage of the site’s loyalty scheme.
Most online Poker rooms will give you points for each dollar you wager. These points can add up to prizes, cash bonuses and free tournament entries.
In fact, many sites have satellite tournaments that can gain you entry into major live events.
For a small entry fee, you could earn millions, like Chris Moneymaker, who turned $39 into $2.5 million through tournament play, or the 2009 WSOP Champion, Joseph Cada, who started out by playing $10/$20 heads-up games online.
Today’s Poker room software is much more reliable than it once was, but it is still a good idea to play at a site that is known for reliability and smoothly running games. The method of play should be intuitive, easy to understand and difficult to foul up.
Of course, it would be ideal to play in a room where the “rake” is low. Unfortunately, the commission charged by most online operators is pretty much standard.
Just be aware of the rake structure that’s in place for the games that you play. Surprises are best avoided when it comes to collecting your winnings. In that regard, a site with excellent 24/7 customer service is a good one to choose, too.
Old-school Poker players believe that anything short of deliberate cheating should be allowed at the table, but in the card rooms of modern gambling halls and the online environment, certain standards have evolved of which new players need to be aware.
Apart from the actual rules of the games, knowing the following six guidelines will help preclude problems that might otherwise arise in the heat of a game. Most of these are common sense.
1. Seating. Poker rooms do not allow you to simply walk in, sit down and play. You must first sign in with the room manager, and then wait for an opening to be called to a seat.
After you have been seated, changing seats will not be allowed without leaving the game, so be sure you sit where you will feel comfortable playing for several hours (i.e., not next a smoker if you do not smoke).
Even online, where it is possible to join a game whenever a seat is open and sit where you wish, you may only join a game between deals, and you may not move to a different seat without leaving the game.
2. Buy-in. The Poker room host will inform you of the table minimum and a maximum, if applicable, and then ask how much you would like to buy in for. Your chips will be delivered to you at the table after you are seated, or you will purchase them directly from the dealer.
Some casinos allow you to bring chips from other games to the table, but others do not. You will be playing for “table stakes,” which means you can only play with the chips that you have on the table.
Unlike Blackjack, you may not reach into your pocket or purse for more money and purchase additional chips mid-hand.
3. Betting. You need to pay attention to how much is bet and raised by the active players ahead of you. You are responsible for knowing what the bet is when it is your turn. Betting out of turn is poor Poker behaviour.
Always wait until after the player to your right has acted before you declare your own action. If you intend to raise, do so by announcing “raise” when your turn comes.
If you do not indicate the raise verbally, your bet and the raise must be placed at the same time. Going back to take more chips from your stack is called “string betting”; it is not permitted and the raise will not be honoured.
4. Poker Chips. When you bet, call or raise, stack your chips neatly and push them toward the pot in the center of the table. The dealer will check to see that the amount is correct before gathering them into the pot.
Tossing your chips into the pot may be allowed at some Poker parties, but not in a Poker room. It is called “splashing” and is considered very poor Poker behaviour. Also, never remove chips from the table during play.
This is called “ratholing” or “going south,” and it is not permitted in most Poker rooms.
5. Cards. Protect your cards at all times. Never flash your cards at other players or allow them to peek. After you have looked at your hole cards or down cards, place them on the table and put a chip or your “lucky charm” on top of them.
Don’t hold them in your hand. Also, do not bend or crease the cards. And when you fold a hand, do not turn it over to show others what you had. During the showdown part of the game, “the cards speak for themselves.” Do not announce their value. The dealer will declare the winner of the hand.
6. Sportsmanship. Good manners are always in fashion when playing Poker. It is a social game, and chatting at the table is certainly allowed and even encouraged.
However, it is considered poor Poker behaviour to talk about the hand currently in play or to speak in a language other than the primary one used at the table. Also, refrain from displaying your temper, using foul language, or taunting other players.
Gloating or insulting other players will only slow the game and detract from everyone’s enjoyment. When playing online, you can mute a player’s chat function if you don’t want to listen to him/her.
Trust is such an important intangible in online gambling, it cannot be overlooked. Whether you play poker online or offline in a casino, be aware that not everyone follows the rules. Here are some actions to watch out for.
Most forms of cheating are self-evident. These include hiding cards, stealing chips from the pot, shorting the pot (not adding enough chips to cover a bet), rubbernecking to peek at an opponent’s cards, marking cards, or willfully breaking game rules.
Miscalling a hand is not technically against the rules, but it can get a player ejected from the game if done repeatedly.
Other obvious cheats involve using a partner. One tactic is for two players to collude by having one raise to the maximum every round, thereby causing other players to drop out before giving the pot to the other player by folding.
In the practice called “softplay,” partners in a Texas Hold’em game work together, often raising and re-raising pre-Flop, in order to capture the blinds without playing out the hand.
Another form of softplay is to not raise a partner’s blind when holding a strong hand. Any form of partnership play at Poker is considered cheating and can be grounds for expulsion.
The anonymous nature of online play makes the Internet a ripe target for cheats. In two widely publicised cases, Poker sites run by a Canadian company were found guilty of defrauding players.
Between 2005 and 2008, AbsolutePoker.com and UltimateBet.com cheated players out of an estimated $75+ million. A team of poker experts, who had access to the Excapsa software used by the company, were able to “see” the hole cards dealt to their opponents and bet accordingly.
Fortunately, most Poker web site operators are honest, and the applications make breaking the rules quite difficult. For example, most established gambling web sites now allow only one account to be set up per player; that eliminates the possibility of overtaking a table by claiming multiple seats.
It is safe to say that security in online Poker rooms is now stronger than ever, and approaching the watchfulness of actual bricks and mortar establishments.