Though slots are the most profitable game for casinos, poker is arguably the most popular. After all, you don't see ESPN broadcasting the World Series of Kitty Glitter! Poker is one of the last games of skill that still exists within a casino's walls.
Poker is just as popular online as it is in live casinos, perhaps even more so. Online poker players enjoy many advantages, from the availability of open tables to a more focused style of play. Online casino sign-up and loyalty benefits also tend to be more valuable.
Using a combination of mathematical probability and the ability to read the body language and betting patterns of other players—a skilled poker player can reliably beat players of lesser skill over a long enough series of hands. It's possible to do this online today, and we'll show you how.
Player's Guide to Poker
In this tutorial, you'll learn all about poker, from basic rules to the different types of games and what you can expect when playing online. Though this is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to playing and winning at poker, you'll also find some useful tips for getting started and improving your game.
A Brief History of Poker
When you think of poker's role in history, the first image that probably comes to mind is a saloon in the Old West. But the roots of the game seem to go back ten centuries to similar domino games. Still, the Old West is where recorded draw poker history begins. The first written records of it are from New Orleans in the early 1800s, and many of the varieties that are still popular today were developed during the Civil War.
Today, poker is a fiercely competitive sport that has its field of celebrity names. Figures like Antonio Esfandiari, Daniel Negreanu, and Phil Hellmuth are regular top performers in annual televised competitions like the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker. Top competitors in these tournaments earn millions of dollars, and the biggest names in the sport sometimes make tens of millions between their play and endorsements each year.
The Most Basic Rules of Poker
Each version of poker has its own unique rules, but some factors remain constant between every popular variety.
The largest similarity is the value and hierarchy of hands. The goal of poker is to get the best hand at the end of the play or at least bluff the other players into believing you're holding a better hand than theirs—requiring them to “fold” prematurely. So the first order of business is to learn the order of hands by their value.
These are the relative values of hands in just about any game of poker, in descending order of superiority:
- Royal Flush: The four “face cards” and a ten, all of the same suit (i.e., 10-J-Q-K-A, all hearts)
- Five of a Kind: Though this doesn't apply in most professional poker games, it is usually the second-highest hand in games that feature “wild cards” (i.e., 4-4-4-4-A where aces are wild)
- Straight Flush: Five cards in sequential order of value, and all of the same suit (i.e., 7-8-9-10-J, all clubs)
- Four Of A Kind: Four cards of the same value (i.e., 7-7-7-7)
- Full House: All five cards collectively create two sets of ranked hands (i.e., K-K-9-9-9)
- Flush: Five cards that all have the same suit, regardless of individual value (i.e., 2-6-7-10-K, but all are hearts)
- Straight: Five cards in sequential order of value, regardless of suit (i.e., 2-3-4-5-6, all can be different suits)
- Three of a Kind: Three cards of the same value (i.e., K-K-K-3-4)
- Two Pair: Two separate sets of cards of the same value (i.e., 2-2-K-K-8)
- Single Pair: One set of cards of the same value (i.e., 2-2-K-A-8)
- High Card: If no players at the end of the hand have any of the above-ranked hands, or have identically ranked hands, the player holding the card highest in value (from 2 to Ace) wins.
In addition to the value of hands, the primary flow of play remains the same between games. A dealer distributes cards to players clockwise around the table. Players make an initial minimum wager, then after seeing their cards can opt to “fold” (losing only their mandatory initial wager) or continue to play. On each player's turn, they may “call” (match the current wager amount), “raise” (up the current mandatory wager amount to stay in the game) or “check” (temporarily postpone their decision, and pass to the next player), depending on the current circumstances.
A raise in which a player bets all their remaining chips is called going “all-in,” and forces other players to do the same. If another player has more chips than the person who raises, they merely need to match the “all-in” amount. If they have fewer chips than the player who goes “all-in,” they can continue to play by wagering everything they have left, regardless of value. Players use an “all in” bet to eliminate a player who is barely hanging on, but sometimes that player turns it around with a surprise win and finds themselves right back in the game!
Different Types of Table Poker
There are hundreds of poker variants, but the main varieties you'll want to focus on for competitive casino play are:
- Texas Hold ‘Em
- Omaha Hold ‘Em
- Seven-card Stud
Variants that are also commonly found both in tournaments and on casino floors that you might want to look into include:
- Lowball Poker
- Pai Gow Poker
- Chinese Poker
- High / Low Chicago
- Follow the Queen
- Five-Card Draw
Video poker is a five-card draw game for your device. It's one of the simplest varieties of poker, and the focus is on putting together the best hand possible.
Video poker has a lot of different variants. The “base” game is called Jacks or Better. You will also see Deuces Wild, Bonus Poker, Quads, Aces & Faces, and Ultimate X. All these games use the same basic five-card draw format. The only thing that changes between varieties are the winning hands, the payback amount for winning hands, wild card rules, and the presence of multipliers. Some games also allow you to play anywhere from 20-100 hands at once.
Video poker has a particular in-depth strategy based on the type of game and the pay table. It is a topic that is too lengthy to get into here, but you can use “strategy cards” for each game type to quickly determine what the best play is mathematically in any given situation. It's much easier to use these while playing online, as a traditional casino might take exception to their use. You can even run a video poker “trainer” in a separate window or device to see what the best move is for your current hand!
Even if you're primarily interested in table poker, video poker may well be worth a look. When utilizing proper strategy, expected return on most machines is well above 99%. You will sometimes find “full pay” machines, or such a generous pay table that the theoretical return to the player is 100—101%. When you add in comps and bonus offers, video poker often offers a significant positive expected return to the player. Of course, that's provided you know how to play correctly!
How Do You Get Started With Poker?
If you're entirely new to poker, video poker is a great place to start. It will teach you how to play five-card draw, and will also help you to quickly memorize the ranking of hands used in just about every other game. You can also experiment for free at most online casinos—learning the game without having to make any real money wagers.
Once you understand the basics, you can start thinking about what types of poker you'd like to play. If you want to play the same kinds of games you see on TV; you'll want to learn Texas Hold ‘Em. First, read up on the rules of the game, and maybe watch some videos on Youtube to see how table play works. If you want to practice on your own, there are quite a few video games and apps that allow you to play popular poker variants against computer AI.
Eventually, you'll want to practice playing against other people, however. Look for casinos and poker apps offering “free roll” games and tournaments, in which you don't have to wager real money, but may get a small prize if you finish at or near the top. You'll also want to look at “micro-stakes” or “micro-limit” tables. These tables allow you to play with initial bets of only one or two cents per hand.
Tips for Improving Your Poker Play
The two principal factors in being a good poker player are knowing the best play in any given situation and learning to read your opponents while controlling your body language and patterns of play.
Of course, that's greatly simplifying two very complicated topics. Fortunately, one of them is much simpler with online play. At virtual tables, you don't have to worry about the body language or “tell” factor. There is still some ability to read people's patterns of betting and play; for example, players who play too many of their starting hands in Texas Hold ‘Em. It is a strategy online pros look to take advantage of regularly.
Online play leans more toward the “grinding” approach, however, which means sticking with the best play in any given situation and not worrying about what anyone else at the table is doing.
Grinding is an excellent approach for online play at low-to-medium stakes. Check out some videos or books on the subject, and keep reference materials handy while playing. Internalizing the rules of probability can lead to a successful online poker career. If you decide to make the jump to high-stakes live poker later, the information gained online will provide a sound bedrock from which you can learn the human element of the game.
Are You The Next Poker Star?
Poker is simple to learn, but very difficult to master. It's one of the very few casino games that incorporates skill and also allows players to compete directly against each other. It is also one of the few games where dedicated professionals can make a healthy living. If you are a novice, give video poker a try. Then you can learn table games by playing apps with AI opponents or investigate free roll and low-stakes games against other players online.