All About Poker
While there's still some differing opinions on the origin of poker and what early games it may have evolved from, it's generally accepted that the modern version of the game originated in the 18th century in the southern United States, spreading across the Mississippi River area over the following decades. While the rules may have varied slightly, 5 card 'straight up' poker and 5 card stud were definitely played in the 1800's if not earlier, and are very reminiscent of the games we still play today.
Today's most popular varieties of poker didn't come until a little later on, with 7 Card Stud becoming popular on river boats in the early 1800's and Texas Hold'em much later at some time in the early 1900's. While Omaha Hold'em may have been played earlier to a very limited degree, it only came into poker rooms starting in Vegas around in the 1980's!
While there are a variety of other poker variations available including Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Five Card Draw, Badugi and others, we'll try to cover the rules for the more popular aforementioned Texas Hold'em, 7 Card Stud and Omaha here.
Before we get into the particulars of each game, we should go over the concept of betting limits quickly first which apply to each of them (though Stud is usually a fixed-limit game.) There are three different types:
- Limit (Fixed) - These games have a set betting amount designated for the game which players are restricted to. In limit Texas Hold'em for example if a table has blinds of $.50/$1.00, then the max bet pre-flop and for the first round after the flop is $1; and doubles for the turn and river bets for a max bet of $2.00.
- Pot Limit - In pot limit games a player may bet or raise as much as the current total is in the games pot. For example, without any previous raises there may be $4 in the pot from 4 players that called the blind. The first player to raise can only bet a maximum of that $4.
- No Limit - In no limit games a player can bet however much they'd like at any point in the game when it is their turn to act. A player can raise all their chips pre-flop if they'd like.
Note that these limits are for each player when it's their turn to act, and even on a fixed limit table other players are still free to raise and be re-raised. So while you may be limited to a $1 bet initially, another player may also bet an additional $1 on top of that and another two players may raise that as well by another dollar. Limit games are usually capped at 4 four bets per round (sometimes 5,) so the player should always know the maximum amount a call may cost even before other players have acted.
Different betting options are better suited to different styles of play - limit tables for example don't have the huge swings that no limit games do, but that goes for both wins and losses. Pot limit games are somewhat of a happy medium and allow the player to see a lot more flops without investing too much, but can still get pretty expensive depending on how your opponents act. While no limit is probably the most popular Texas Hold'em type, it's probably best for new players to start off with fixed games until they have a good handle on the game.
Regardless of what type of poker you're playing, when it's your turn to act you'll have one of a few options to choose from (depending on what players before you may have done if you're not first to act.)
- Folding - When you no longer wish to participate in a hand, you can 'fold.' Your cards are no longer in play and the remaining players will carry on with the hand. Folding is generally only done when the player doesn't want to call any further bets, but a player can fold at any time even if no bets have been made.
- Checking - If no players have bet before you and you do not wish to make a bet yourself, you can 'check' and remain in the hand. You cannot check if a player has bet before you, in which case you must at least match their bet or fold.
- Calling - When a player has bet before your turn to act and you would like to stay in the hand but not increase the bet, you will 'call' their bet by matching the amount they have put into the pot.
- Raising - When a player has bet before your turn to act and you'd like to stay in the hand and increase the bet, you will 'raise' their bet. Normal poker rules require you raise at least the amount of the bet that has already been made, i.e. you cannot raise an extra $1 on a $5 bet.
- Re-raising - When a player has already raised before your turn to act and you'd like to increase the bet further, you will 're-raise' their bet. Again you must normally re-raise at least the amount of the raise before you. In limit poker games bets and raises are fixed amounts and are usually capped at 4 per round (one bet followed by a maximum of 3 raises/re-raises.)
Ring Games (Cash Games) & Tournaments
Regular cash games are also known as 'ring games' and have no predetermined number of players, set times for play, etc. A player may leave the table and a new player may come in at any time, the table doesn't need to be full and players can continue to buy more chips as long as they have the funds to do so.
Tournaments have set prizes for the winner(s) of the game, and players pay a set amount to participate in the tournament that doesn't necessarily relate to the number of chips they'll receive. The game continues until one player has all the chips. For example, a single table tournament may have 8 players and a $20 entry fee, but each player will receive $1000 worth of chips specifically for the tournament. The winner may receive a $100 prize, second place $40, and the house/poker room takes the remainder as a fee. Tournaments can be divided into one of two categories:
Sit and Go
Sit and go tournaments are usually single table affairs, but not necessarily. Usually found online - the name relates to the fact that once enough players have registered to play the tournament begins (there is no set time for the tournament.) For example you might join a $10 Omaha sit and go tournament at an online poker room, and minutes later the needed total of 8 players will have registered at which point players will be notified that the tournament is about to start (in a minute or two) after which the game begins.
'Big' tournaments like the World Series of Poker and similar affairs are always multi-table tournaments. These games have multiple tables in which players compete against other players at the same table, but once players start getting knocked off (lose all their chips) the total number of tables will decrease and players will be moved elsewhere to occupy empty seats. This continues until there's only a final table remaining and ultimately one winner, though depending on the size of the tournament multiple players will get "into the money spots" still, with second place all the way up to xxxth place getting a piece of the buy ins depending on structure.
Rakes & Tournament Fees
When playing casino games other than poker the house makes it's money with it's statistical advantage, it's you versus them and they have the better odds over time with rare exception. With poker the house doesn't play at all - they merely facilitate the games, so how do they make money?
Casinos and poker rooms make money taking what's called a 'rake' (on ring games) or an entrance fee on tournament buy-ins. Rake amounts vary depending on where you're playing and at what limits, but generally range between 2.5% to 10% (though either end is exceptionally high or low.) Entrance fees for tournaments also vary, but are usually higher than cash games and are in the 5% to 10% range.
The house always 'wins' on poker because they take a percentage of the action and it doesn't matter to them who wins at any given table. In fact, it's most advantageous for the house when as many players remain on the tables as possible - if a player takes everyone else's chips and they all leave the table, there's no rake being generated.
Playing Texas Hold'em
Texas Hold'em is by far the most popular type of poker played these days, vastly outweighing the number of players at other kinds of tables both for ring games and tournaments.
This is a game with shared 'community cards' that can be used by all players at the table. Each player is dealt 2 'hole cards' face down that are specific to their hand, with 5 community cards to follow that all players may use to make their best hand in conjunction with their 2 hole cards. This gives each player a total of 7 cards from which they will make their best 5 card hand.
Players do not need to use both (or even one) of their hole cards if the 5 community cards result in the better hand for them (if the 5 community cards are a Royal Flush for example, then everyone in the hand has a Royal Flush - even if their 2 hole cards have nothing to do with it.)
Each new hand is played out as follows:
- Before the deal, the player to the left of the dealer must pay a 'Small Blind' and the player to their left a 'Big Blind'. A blind is an obligatory bet made before seeing your hand that is normally equal to the tables minimum bet for the big blind, and half that for the small (on a $1.00/$2.00 table they would be $.50 and $1.00 for example.)
- After the blinds have been posted 2 cards will be dealt face down to each player at the table (including those that did not have to pay a 'blind'.) These are called 'Hole Cards.'
- Before any further cards are dealt there is the first round of betting. Betting options vary depending on what kind of table it is (limit, pot limit or no limit) - but players may check, raise or fold when it is their turn to act. Betting starts with the player sitting to the left of the big blind and moves clockwise.
- After the initial betting round the 'flop' will be dealt. The flop consists of the first 3 community cards, which are dealt face up on the middle of the table.
- There is then a second round of betting for all players who are still in the hand.
- A fourth community card (called the 'turn') is dealt face up in the middle of the table.
- There is a third round of betting for all players who remain in the hand.
- A fifth and final community card is dealt face up alongside the other shared cards in the middle of the table. This is called the 'river.'
- There is then the fourth and final round of betting.
If there is more than one player remaining in the game after all bets have been completed, players will show their hole cards to determine who has the best hand. This is called the 'showdown', and the player who last placed a bet shows their cards first. If other players have not beat the shown hand they do not have to shown theirs (referred to as 'mucking' when they don't,) but may still flip their hole cards over if they'd like. The player with the best hand wins the pot, or in the event of a tie it is split accordingly.
Watch the video below for a quick visual overview of how Texas Hold'em is played:
Seven Card Stud
While it's popularity has been dropping lately as Texas Hold'em continues to take the spotlight, 7 Card Stud remains a favorite of many seasoned poker players and still sees a fair amount of play in online and brick & mortar poker rooms.
Unlike Texas or Omaha Hold'em games, in Seven Card Stud there are no community cards, each player has their own unique and individual hand. Players receive a total of 7 cards; 3 face down (their first two and last card) and 4 face up. They will use 5 of these 7 cards to make the best 5 card hand possible once the hand is complete.
Each hand is dealt out as follows:
- Before the cards are dealt every player at the table must ante. The ante amount can vary, but it usually 10% of the big bet amount on the table (i.e. 10¢ and a $0.50/$1.00 table.)
- After all the antes are in, the dealer gives each player two cards face-down and one card face up (one card at a time, rotating clockwise to each player and referred to as 'third street'.)
- After third street there is the first round of betting. Betting starts with the player showing the highest face up card (this initial face up card is known as the 'door' card) and proceeds clockwise.
- After the initial betting round is complete, a fourth card is dealt face up to every player (referred to as 'fourth street'.)
- There is then a second round of betting, initiated by the player with the best hand showing (their 2 face up cards.)
- Another card is dealt, again face up to each player - referred to as 'fifth street.'
- There is then a third round of betting with the bets doubled over previous rounds. Again, best hand showing opens the betting round.
- Once the third betting round is completed another card is dealt face up to each player - referred to as 'sixth street.'
- There is then yet another round of betting before the final card is dealt. Again, best hand showing opens the betting round.
- Each player is then dealt their final card - face down. This is known as the 'Seventh Street' and players who have made it this far will have 3 cards face down and 4 face up to make their best 5 card hand with.
- There is then the fifth and final round of betting started by the player with the best hand showing.
If there is more than one player remaining after the final betting round is complete, players will show their face down cards to expose all their cards and determine who has the best hand. (Players may still 'muck' - see above under Texas Hold'em.)
Remember, despite having seven cards to choose from to make it with - each player still only plays their best five card hand. The player with the best hand wins the pot, or in the event of a tie it is split accordingly.
Watch the following video for a quick overview of how the game is played:
Another popular variation that you'll find at most poker rooms is Omaha Hold'em (often just referred to as Omaha) - a 9-card game that is similar to Texas Hold'em with a few notable differences.
The most notable difference is that each player is dealt 4 hole cards instead of the 2 in Texas Hold'em games. There are still 5 community cards dealt out that can be used by anyone at the table, meaning each player has 9 cards from which to make their best 5 card hand. This of course results in the average winning hand being much higher than in Texas Hold'em; it's much easier to get 3 of a Kind, a Straight or Flush with 9 cards to choose from.
The other more important difference (that many Texas Hold'em players initially have a hard time remembering) is that the player must make their final 5 card hand using 2 of their 4 hole cards - no more, no less, and 3 of the community cards on the table. This is contrary to Texas Hold'em, in which the player doesn't have to use their hole cards at all unless they're advantageous (though they usually will use at least one.)
A hand is dealt out in the following order:
- Before the deal, the player to the left of the dealer must pay a 'Small Blind' and the player to their left a 'Big Blind' (same as with Texas Hold'em.)
- After the blinds have been paid, each player will get 4 cards dealt to them face down, known as their 'Hole Cards.'
- Before any community cards are dealt, there is the first round of betting which starts with the player to the left of the Big Blind and proceeds clockwise.
- After the first round of betting is complete, 3 community cards are dealt face up in the middle of the table, called the 'flop'.
- There is then another round of betting, again started by the next remaining player to the Big Blinds left.
- After the second round of betting is complete, a fourth community card is dealt to the table. This is known as the 'turn.'
- There is then another round of betting, but this time with higher betting limits than the previous rounds. Still initiated by the next remaining player to the Big Blinds left.
- After bets are complete, the last community card is dealt out - called the 'river.'
- There is then the fourth and final round of betting.
If there is more than one player remaining in the game after all bets have been completed, the remaining players will show their hole cards to determine who has the best hand. This is called the 'showdown', and the player who last placed a bet shows their cards first. If other players have not beat the shown hand they do not have to shown theirs (referred to as 'mucking' when they don't,) but may still flip their hole cards over if they'd like. The player with the best hand wins the pot, or in the event of a tie it is split accordingly.
Remember: Players must use 2 of their hole cards along with 3 community cards to make the best 5 card hand. Trying to use 4 community cards or 3 hole cards is a very common mistake new players make.
Watch the video below for a quick presentation on how Omaha Hold'em is played:
Below are the poker hand possibilities that you can get in regular variants of the game (no wildcards.)
This is the best possible hand in poker. A Royal Flush consists of an Ace, King, Queen, Jack and 10 - all of the same suit.
This is the second best hand possible in poker, consisting of five cards in sequential order and of the same suit. For example a 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 of diamonds. Ace can be used as the lowest card in the sequence such as A, 2, 3, 4, 5.
Four of a Kind
This hand is made up of four cards of the same type and a fifth card (whose value is not important.) For example 5, 5, 5, 5, 2.
A hand containing three cards of the same type plus another matched pair. For example J, J, J, 4, 4.
All five cards of the same suit is a 'Flush' regardless of which cards they are. For example a 4, 6, 10, Jack and Queen all of hearts.
A straight is made up of of five cards in sequential order, but not of the same suit. For example a 5 of diamonds, 6 of diamonds, 7 of clubs, 8 of spades and 9 of hearts.
Three of a Kind
This hand is made up of three cards of the same type and two other, mismatched cards. For example a 5, 5, 5, Jack and King.
Two cards of the same type and an additional 2 cards that are of the same type and one mismatched card. For example a 4, 4, Jack, Jack and 7.
A pair is two cards of the same type along with three other mismatched cards. For example an 8, 8, 9, Jack, and Ace.
When a player has none of the above in their hand, their hand is valued by their highest card first, i.e. Ace high.
When two or more players have a hand of the same rank, the player with the highest valued cards within that hand will win the pot. For example, if two players both have 3 of a Kind, the player with the highest 3 of a Kind wins the hand (3 Jacks beats 3 10's, etc.) With Straights, the player with the highest card in their Straight wins (5,6,7,8,9 beats 3,4,5,6,7,) and with Flushes the player with the highest card in their Flush takes the pot (if both players have the same high card it goes to their second highest card and continues down the line.)
At the end of each poker hand, the player remaining with the highest valued hand wins the pot. In the event of a tie, the pot will be split among players with the same hand. Note that on many hands a 'kicker' may play to determine the winner however.
A 'kicker' is a card (or multiple cards) in the players hand that do not contribute to the players hand rank. For example, if you have 3 Kings, a Jack and a 4 - your hand is a '3 of a Kind' due to the Kings with that Jack and 4 remaining but not part of the '3 of a Kind.' That makes those remaining cards your 'kickers.'
If another player also has 3 Kings, the hand is not yet considered a tie - these additional cards are taken into consideration and the player with the highest kicker wins. If you have 3 Kings, a Jack and a 4 and your opponent has 3 Kings, an Ace and a 5, they win the hand because the Ace is valued higher than your Jack (it's a 'tie-breaker' if you will.) If both players had the same 3 of a Kind and the same high card for a kicker, then the second kicker would come into play. If that was also the same only then is the hand an actual tie.
Some hands of course don't have any 'kickers' to play - if both players have the same straight then all 5 cards are already in play for example. If both players have the same 2 pair then there will only be one kicker, whereas if both players have the same single pair they each have three kickers.
As this is a player versus player game with many various approaches and variables to consider, I'm not really going to get into strategy here (I'm not a great poker player to be honest, so I wouldn't be doing my readers any favors if I tried to.)
There are thousands of different opinions on the matter and just as many playing styles and strategy books to match. With that said, there's one very important aspect of poker that we haven't covered yet which is a significant part of strategy; bluffing.
Bluffing is the act of over-representing the value of your hand by making a bet that would otherwise be inappropriate for the cards you actually have. For example, you may have a weak hand like a pair of twos, but by making a large bet convince other players at the table that you have something much better - and in doing so get them to fold thus winning the hand.
When to (and whether you should) bluff is a complicated matter - it depends on the cards showing, your opponents and so many other factors that it takes a lot of practice and understanding to learn. Bluffing is ultimately what makes poker a game of skill - without it the best hand would always win and the game outcomes would basically be random.