How to Play Poker
It's relatively simple to learn the fundamentals of poker, but it can take decades to master the game. Some of the world's best players have gone from complete newcomers to World Series of Poker contenders in just a few short years, however. The learning curve depends on your natural aptitude for the game and the amount of time you can devote to it, but just about anybody can become a decent mid-level player with a reasonable amount of practice and the right guidance.
Getting into poker can be a little overwhelming at first due to the variety of game types and their different rules. It's not as confusing as it first appears, however. There are three main types of games played in tournaments, and they are also the most popular games at any online casino or poker room you visit. No matter which variety of poker you play, there are certain common factors that you only have to learn once.
The only way to find out how far your poker potential will take you is to start playing, and that's what this guide is designed to help you do.
The Player's Guide to Getting Started With Poker
This guide will walk you through the basics of how poker hands work, what to expect when playing at both an online or traditional table, and the different types of games that are most commonly played for real money. You'll also get tips on how to progress as a player, how to manage your bankroll, and the unique lingo you'll need to understand when playing.
How Poker Hands Work
The most fundamental thing you need to memorize about poker is the relative strength of hands. It almost never changes between different types of games.
Poker hands are usually composed of five cards, though seven-card stud is one popular variant that breaks from this tradition. Poker cards are always valued with the 2 as the card of lowest value. After the 10 you have the Jack, Queen, King, and Ace in that order.
As long as “wild cards” are not in play, this is the ranking of poker hands, from highest to lowest:
- Royal or Ace-High Flush: 10-J-Q-K-A of the same suit
- Straight Flush: Five numbers in a sequence of the same suit.
- Four of a Kind (or Quads): Any four cards of the same value, regardless of suit.
- Full House (or Boat): All five cards collectively make two different ranked hands.
- Flush: All cards are of the same suit.
- Straight: Five numbers in sequence, regardless of suit.
- Three of a Kind
- Two Pair
- Single Pair
If no player left at the end has a ranked hand or two or more players have ranked hands of identical value, the player holding the highest-value individual cards wins.
Just about every poker game holds to this hierarchy. Some games may introduce wild cards, in which one card type is declared wild and takes on the value that is most useful to the player's current hand. And if a game uses lowball or “low rules,” the value of cards or hands may be inverted, depending on the type of game.
You should also understand the basic flow of play, which doesn't change much between game varieties. If you're playing online, the game software will handle the dealing of the cards. The order of player action rotates around the table with each new hand, as the last player to act usually has a strategic advantage.
Most online poker games will have “antes” or “blinds,” or a required minimum bet for each hand. It prevents players from just folding at no cost every time they are dealt weak cards.
As the action goes around the table, players can opt to “check”, “call”, “fold” or “raise” based on how they feel about their current hand and how they're reading their opponents. Checking means you opt not to do anything and pass the action to the next player, but this option is not available in most games once betting starts. A call means you are matching the last wager and staying in the game, and a raise ups the mandatory minimum wager for the rest of the players to stay in the game. At any time during one of your turns, you can also opt to fold, which gets you out of the hand minus anything you've already put in the pot.
The Basic Poker Game Categories
The three basic categories for all types of poker are community card, draw, and stud.
Community card games are most commonly seen on TV in professional tournaments. For example, in Texas Hold'em, each player only gets two cards of their own. Only they know the value of these cards. They complete their five-card hand based on the community cards that are dealt to the center of the table over the course of the game.
Stud games are those in which some amount of the player's dealt cards are visible to the whole table. The general pattern is to deal one or two cards face-down, three or four face-up, and then any additional card face-down (though the exact rules vary by game).
Draw games are those in which each player is directly dealt all of the cards for their hand, and they keep them secret from the other players until the end of the hand. Players can opt to swap out some or all of their cards during each betting round.
The Most Popular Poker Variants
Flip on a poker competition on TV, and you'll most likely see no-limit Texas Hold'em being played. This is one of the “big three” in competitive poker, along with Omaha and Seven-Card Stud. In addition to being the dominant games in tournament play, they are also the easiest games to find tables for at any card room or casino.
In Texas Hold ‘Em, players are dealt two hole cards that only they can see. After an initial round of betting, the flop (consisting of three community cards) is introduced. Players engage in another round of betting before a fourth “turn” card is introduced. There is one final round of betting before the final “river” card is dealt. The player's hole cards are combined with the three most favorable community cards to make their hand.
Omaha Hold’em is very similar to its Texas cousin, except that players are initially dealt four hole cards instead of two. The flop, turn and river progression is identical, but the player must make their hand from only two of their hole cards plus three of the community cards. Because players have more possibilities to make a strong hand and pot limits are usually in play, knowing mathematical probability takes precedence over bluffing and reading opponents as a winnable strategy.
Seven-card Stud opens with each player receiving two hole cards that are visible only to them, and one card that is visible to the entire table. The next three rounds of betting introduce one additional face-up card per round. If play is still going, one more face-down card is distributed to each player prior to the showdown.
Other Poker Variants You May See In Card Rooms and Tournaments
The “big three” aren't the extent of all poker offerings, however, and some tournaments like to showcase more exotic varieties to keep everyone on their toes and to keep viewers entertained. Poker players do not have to learn these, but it can be fun and lucrative to branch out into them, especially if they happen to be heavily favored at your preferred site.
Five-card draw is the “classic” version of poker that you'd see a bunch of cowboys playing in a saloon. It is still played fairly frequently today. You can learn the rules and mathematical probability of this version simply by playing video poker, but that won't help you learn how to read your opponents!
Badugi, Badacey and Badeucey are lowball games in which hand rankings are reversed and the emphasis is placed on having as many different suits in your hand as possible.
Razz is a lowball version of Seven Card Stud. Straights and flushes are valuable, but pairs are to be avoided, and the most valuable individual cards are the ace through the five.
Stud 8 is another spinoff of Seven Card Stud. You get seven cards, but the twist is that the pot is split so half is awarded to the best traditional poker hand and the other half is awarded to the best low hand composed of cards with a value of eight or less.
You'll see some tournaments that use a H.O.R.S.E or S.H.O.E format. This means that you'll play some of the above games in sequence. In a H.O.R.S.E tournament you'll start with Hold ‘Em, then move on to Omaha, then Razz, then Seven Card Stud, then Stud Eight. S.H.O.E goes from Seven Card Stud, to Hold ‘Em, to Omaha, and also finishes up with Stud Eight.
Where Should You Start Playing?
The best place to start is with friends who are at a similar skill level, but that isn't always a convenient or reliable option. The next best bet is to pick up a video game, computer game or app that plays your preferred games with computer AI opponents. Even the best AI opponents won't really prepare you to beat a good human player, but these games get you used to the flow of the game and the rules.
Once you're comfortable with all the rules and how the game works, seek out some freeroll or micro-stakes games to start practicing against other people with money on the line. Freerolls are tournaments that don't cost anything to enter and don't require you to wager real money, but often have cash prizes for the top performers. Micro-stakes games have minimum wagers of one or two cents per hand and can be played for extended periods of time while losing very little money.
Progressing as a Poker Player
The very first step in playing poker is learning the rules and getting comfortable with the game, so that you automatically know what is coming next in any given situation.
The next major thing to learn is mathematical probability. Based on the current cards that you and the opponents are holding, what move gives you the best chance to win based on statistics?
If that was all there was to poker, though, you'd just have a bunch of robotic players making the same moves in every situation. Where's the fun in that? So, the next thing to think about is bluffing. Is the opponent trying to fake you out, and should you attempt to fake them out?
The highest-level poker players consider the mathematical odds of each situation and keep track of what their opponents might be holding. They also control their betting patterns over time to give opponents a false read on them while engaging in misdirection to convince opponents they know less than they actually do.
While you can still read situational betting patterns, online poker removes some of that highest-level psychology from the equation, since you can't see or hear anyone else. Those seeking to be a good online player start out “grinding” at a game that favors knowledge of statistical probability over bluffing. Omaha games with limits are the most prominent example. A bedrock of mathematically sound play allows you to beat lower-level players consistently and build a foundation for moving up to high-level psychological play.
The other element to watch for and work on is the natural inclination to “tilt”, or to play with sub-optimal strategy during a bad run caused by frustration or anxiety. Players who experience tilt become overly aggressive in their play. Serious players can usually identify and correct tilt by keeping detailed records of all the hands they play, and noticing when they slide into periods of poor performances following big wins and big losses.
Bankroll Discipline and Management
A poker player's bankroll is the money they have set aside for entering tournaments and sustaining them in cash games. Discipline with and management of the bankroll is another key factor in long-term success.
Management of a bankroll includes keeping proper financial records, detailed records of wins and losses, and setting firm amounts at which you'll leave a game if staying puts your entire bankroll in jeopardy. You also need to recognize what stakes your bankroll currently allows you to play at with an acceptable risk of ruin.
Discipline means accepting your current ability level and not getting in over your head. It also means resisting the temptation to throw caution to the wind and make larger bets than are sensible.
While having a lapse in management and discipline might seem like a minor thing, over time it makes a huge difference in available funds. Players who hope to play professionally absolutely have to learn to manage their bankroll properly and maintain strict discipline at all times.
Learning the Lingo
Poker rooms and games usually expect players to be familiar with a range of specialized terms. You should know at least all of the following before venturing into real money play.
- The Nuts: A very strong hand
- Bad Beat: A situation in which a player with a strong hand manages to lose to a weaker one somehow
- Bounty: An added prize that goes to any player who eliminates another player
- Button: The symbol that indicates the dealer's position at the table
- Calling station: A player who frequently calls and rarely raises
- Cap: The number of raises allowed in each round of betting
- Click raise: A term for the minimum raise in an online game
- Deep stack: When a player has a very large amount of chips proportional to the current stakes
- Donkey: A weak player
- Donk Bet: A weak or seemingly idiotic bet
- Expected Value (EV): A figure expressing the probable value of a hand (or a game over time)
- Fish: A weak but well-funded player, the type sharks look to take advantage of
- Forced bet: A wager required by each hand (such as the ante or blind)
- Freezeout: A type of tournament in which there are no rebuys and the winner must accrue all the chips
- Heads Up: A one-on-one game
- Hero: A player with a weak hand who calls when they suspect a raising opponent is bluffing
- Kicker: A card (or cards) in addition to a ranked hand, possibly used as a tiebreaker
- Rack: 100 chips of the same denomination
- Rake: Percentage of each pot taken by the casino or poker room for their end.
- Rakeback: A percentage bonus given back to players based on the rake
- Rebuy: A quantity of chips purchased after the buy-in, usually during a fixed period near the start of tournaments
- Rounders: Professional players who circulate around different casinos and card rooms looking for favorable high-stakes games
- Runner-runner: When a player hits a winning hand solely due to both the turn and the river
- Rush: An extended winning streak
- Satellite: A type of qualifying tournament that sends winners on to a larger tournament
- Suck out: A situation where a strong starting hand ends up losing to an inferior hand
- Tank: Taking too long to act
- Turbo: A type of tournament in which blinds go up faster than they do in regular play
- Vigorish (Vig): An alternate term for the rake
- Webcam games: A game where players must have a webcam so they can see each other during play
Learning How to Play Poker
If you are a beginner, learn the basics of draw poker and hand values at some free or low-stakes video poker games. You can then progress to playing against AI, at micro-stakes games or freeroll tournaments. If you are serious about becoming a professional, you must keep meticulous records, manage your budget and maintain discipline at the table. By examining your records, you can gradually see the mathematical and psychological aspects of your game improve. Then and only then will you be ready to move onto higher-stakes games and tournaments with bigger buy-ins. Good luck!