How to Play Poker
One of the most widely played games around the world, poker is synonymous with the global gambling scene thanks to its frequent movie appearances and televised tournaments.
It is one of the most adapted games in the industry too, with a number of different styles of play and many variations within each style – some of the variations even have their own variations. Texas Hold’em seems to be the go to game at the moment, but 5 Card Stud was the standard for a long time, especially in the US.
While poker is just as enjoyable online as it is playing in person, its’ defining element which sets it apart from other table games is that it is not solely based on luck. There is a degree of skill applicable to poker, both in being able to read and bluff your opponents, and in being able to quickly work out probabilities.
How to Play Texas Hold’Em
Given that this is the most widely played variation and the game played during the World Series of Poker, our in depth game guide will focus on Texas Hold’em, a Community Card version of the game.
A game of Hold’em can be played between as few as 2 players and as many as 10, and a single deck of cards is used. There are a number of different stages to the game and four rounds of betting in total.
Unless you are playing at a casino, each player takes it in turn to be the dealer for reasons that will become apparent, and the dealer can also play the round they are dealing. The dealer will have a ‘button’ by their place so everyone can keep track of whose turn it is.
Before we go through the various stages of the game, let’s have a look at the winning hands in order from smallest to biggest:
|High Card||Player with the highest single card wins|
|Pair||A single pair of two of the same card value|
|Two Pair||Two pairs of two different card values|
|Three of a Kind||Three of the same card value|
|Straight||Five cards in value order from different suits|
|Flush||Any five cards of the same suit not in order|
|Full House||Three of a kind plus one pair|
|Four of a Kind||All four of the same card value|
|Straight Flush||All five cards in value order and the same suit|
|Royal Flush||Ten, Jack, Queen, King, Ace of the same suit|
Knowing these rankings inside out is key to being able to make quick decisions during each betting round.
Now you know the hand rankings, let's walk through a game.
Before any cards are dealt the player to the left of the dealer button has to pay a compulsory small blind; this is a set chip value. The person to the left of them must then contribute a big blind; this is usually double the value of the small blind and represents the smallest bet allowed in the game.
The blinds only occur at this stage in the game to get the action going and to ensure there is a pot to bet on. There are no blinds later on in the game.
The game then starts with each player being dealt 2 cards, face down, one at a time. These are for the player’s eyes only, no one else must know what cards are held by each player.
Now everyone knows how strong their starting hand is, so it is time for the Pre-Flop.
This is the first round of betting.
Based on the strength of the cards they have been dealt, each player must decide whether they want to fold, call, or raise, starting with the player on the left of the big blind, so the third person to the left of the dealer.
- Fold – Give up and sit out for the rest of that round.
- Call – Match the amount of money being bet which, at this point, is the value of the big blind.
- Raise – Increase the betting amount. This must be at least double the current bet, but it can be more.
If the bet is raised then the action continues around the table giving everyone else the chance to either call or fold, and only when every player has an equal amount of bets on the table does the round of betting end.
Once everyone has made their decision, the committed chips go into the pot and it is time for The Flop.
This is where the community cards come into play.
The dealer will lay 3 cards face up in the middle of the table. These cards must be used in conjunction with the cards in the player’s hands to create the best poker hand. However, there are still more cards to come, so at this point the players only have half of the picture.
Now comes the second round of betting based on this new information. Each player will have an idea of whether it is worth carrying on or not, so once again the person to the left of the dealer makes the first move and each player takes their turn.
There is another option available now though, and that is the option to check. Since there are currently no compulsory bets on the table, the first player to take action can choose to do nothing and see what everyone else does. All other players can also choose to check which would end the round with no further bets, but if one of them decides to raise then all other players must call that bet in order to carry on. Otherwise, they must fold.
Betting continues in the same way as before and after betting has ended the money is added to the pot, and it’s The Turn.
This is when the dealer turns over the fourth community card, which will impact further on the strength of each player’s hand.
It’s simply another round of betting given this new information, and players have the exact same options as before; check, raise, call, or fold.
They should now be moving into position for their final play, assessing what the last card could show and how that would affect things given what they know about the cards already on the table, their own cards, and which players remain in the game.
They will either continue betting with a strong hand, trying to encourage others to put more in the pot; decide that their chances of winning are not high enough to risk more money and fold; or, if they are feeling brave, decide to try and bluff their way through and intimidate all remaining players to fold before the final cards are revealed.
Once the final community card is on the table, The River is complete and the players have all the information they are going to get.
They must now make the strongest hand possible using a combination of their cards and the cards on the table, but there is still one final round of betting to do before the winner is revealed.
At this point, each player knows what their strongest hand is, and they should also be running through what possible cards their opponent could have and if it would beat theirs. With this information they need to decide whether or not to play on, especially if another player is aggressively raising, or decide that it is not worth committing more money based on what they have.
This is where bluffing can really come into its own. A player with a decent hand, say 2 pair, could aggressively raise and make another player with a slightly better hand think they have something much better, forcing them to fold when they would have won.
Once betting is complete, if all bets have been matched the money goes into the pot and the cards are revealed, starting with the player to the left of the dealer.
The winner takes all chips on the table and the dealer button is passed along for the next round.
Different Variations of Poker
Poker comes in many different forms and there are a number of styles of the game out there with slightly different rules, although all based on a couple of core elements and principles.
Some are more popular than others and some are bigger in certain countries than in others. This is often for a handful of reasons, but geography often dictates which version is considered ‘standard’.
This is arguably one of the earliest forms of the game. Each player is dealt a combination of face-up cards as well as face-down cards across different rounds of betting. The most popular of these are ‘7 Card Stud’ and then ‘5 Card Stud’.
This is considerably different from the more well known ‘Texas Hold ‘Em Poker’ due to the fact there are no communal cards, and as a result a player’s place in the betting order can change multiple times in just one hand.
7 Card Stud Poker
7 Card Stud is played following the high only format, which means that the highest hand triumphs, although there is another variation called High Low in which the person with the highest hand splits their winnings with the person with the lowest hand.
There are four different elements to 7 Card Stud Poker and these are known as the setup, the bring, betting rounds, and finally the showdown where the player with the best hand is revealed and ultimately wins.
The game takes place over 5 or 6 rounds, and begins with each player receiving two down cards (holes) and one up card (door). A round of betting follows before another up card is dealt. This continues until the 5th round when the new card is dealt down before the final round of betting, after which each player has to make the best 5 card hand they can from the 7 they are holding.
A maximum of eight players can play this form of poker at one time, meaning there is a possibility that the deck may run out if every player survives right until the end of the game. If this does occur, then instead of dealing each player their own card the dealer will flip over a ‘community card’ which all of the players can use.
5 Card Stud Poker
This is the earliest style of the Stud version of the game of poker, stretching as far back as the American Civil War in the 1860s when troops used to play it to pass the time. It’s essentially a simpler shorter version of 7 Card Stud.
Each player will receive two cards to begin with, one being dealt face up and the other being dealt face down. Then the bring or the first round of betting occurs, it just depends on whether or not a bring in has been agreed.
Following this, each player is dealt another face up card and there is a second round of betting, and this happens one more time until a fifth and final card is dealt to each player before a final round of betting. This fifth card is dealt down, known as being in the hole, so now all remaining players have 2 down (hole) cards and 3 up (door) cards. The player with the best hand wins.
If you have ever heard the phrase “The Ace in the Hole”, this is where it comes from.
This style of poker has gained a considerable amount of popularity in modern times, and is played in numerous poker rooms around the world as a result.
In draw poker, each player is dealt a complete hand which they can then work to improve by drawing new cards and binning cards they don’t like. It is usually played by between two to eight players and is the style most new players are introduced to these days.
A lot depends on your position at the table with draw games, and this is also the style that video poker is built on.
5 Card Draw
Understood to be the simplest and most popular style of ‘Draw Poker’, this variant is a great starting point for beginners who are new to the game, and for many it is their first experience of poker.
This game has two versions; ‘ante’ and ‘blind’ though the formats are essentially the same. The ‘ante’ style is the original and the most popular, and it basically means that every participant is required to part with a bet (an ante) prior to any cards being dealt. This builds the pot.
Adopting the ‘blind’ method means that the player to the left of the dealer parts with a ‘small blind’ and the one to the left of them contributes a ‘big blind’. The value of these is decided before the game, but the big blind is usually double the value of the small blind. This works out fair for all because the dealer moves around the table.
Every player who is participating in the game is dealt five hole cards. Once the ante or blinds have been paid the first round of betting begins.
After this, each player has the option to swap any or all of their cards for new ones from the top of the deck before a final round of betting, after which the cards are turned over and the best hand wins.
Community Card Poker
This kind of poker has two main games that are affiliated with it; ‘Texas Hold ‘Em Poker’ and ‘Omaha Poker’.
Texas Hold’em is understood to be the most commonly played form of poker around the world and is often the official form used in commercial tournaments among professionals of the game. We have explained this version of the game in great detail above so we won’t cover it again here.
The word community refers to the fact that each player makes use of not only their own cards, but also the shared cards which are face up in the centre of the table for anyone to take advantage of.
This style of play gives each player more options and also a little more info on what other players might have in their hand.
This variant of poker also has a large number of fans, though appears to play second fiddle to its more popular cousin, Texas Hold ‘Em.
Omaha is usually only played with high hands taking the pot, however the ‘high-low’ split version is also out there.
Omaha Poker shares a considerable amount of similarities to Texas Hold ‘Em Poker, the structure of the game is exactly the same, though it has a fundamental difference.
In this version of the game, the player is dealt four hole cards instead of two and the key to getting a winning hand is that a player has to use exactly two of them in order to create their best poker hand alongside exactly three cards from the table.
The Glamourising of Poker
Poker has the media to thank for the role it has played in popularising the game over the last 50 years or so. Hollywood in particular has made the game sexy and exciting by associating it with characters like James Bond and Tony Soprano - there are even movies like Rounders which are based entirely on the game of poker.
This appeals to people on many different levels.
Some people like to emulate those characters they have enjoyed watching on the big screen, so poker allows them to buy into a fantasy version of themselves who is similar to their onscreen heroes.
For others, the idea of being smarter than their opponent, or hiding tells or bluffing their way through a dead hand and getting one over on everyone else is the attraction. There is an element of skill to the game after all.
The media attention the game has received has been brilliant marketing for poker, and it now enjoys a reputation for being ‘cool’ – a game for serious people with real bravado.
Poker tournaments have also been televised since the 1970s, although it wasn’t until the early 2000s that it really became widespread, with the World Series of Poker (WSOP) being won in 2003 by amateur player Chris Moneymaker (what a name, right?) and then by another amateur, Greg Raymer in 2004. They took over £5.5 million between them igniting the imaginations of hobbyists worldwide who flooded the game.
This coincided with the availability and rise of online poker, which according to the American Gaming Association went from £58 million in 2000 to a massive £1.4 billion just five years later in 2005.
This has even led to people setting themselves up as poker experts, writing books and articles or releasing videos teaching people strategies to improve their game.
Commercialisation of Poker
The fact that poker can be played professionally and is televised has led to a lot of money being pumped into the game from external sources.
Just like football (or soccer if you’re American and say it wrong), poker has a huge following and many professional players have fans. This means that every player can attract those fans to events and tournaments which venues and poker organisations can charge entry for.
In turn, this has meant that corporations have realised the potential for sponsorship opportunities, and they now pay to have their branding on everything from the players to the tables and even the events themselves. This is also the case for television and internet streams.
Broadcasters around the world could also charge for advertising spots during commercial breaks, so companies could bid for air time to promote their products and services. In short, money is flying in from all angles.
Poker is now in itself a business, and is almost a standalone entity in the world of gambling now, the headline game in a category of one.
Things have even gone the other way, with poker companies signing endorsement deals with high profile celebrities, such as footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and vocal artist, Katy Perry. Big poker organisations use these celebrities to leverage their popularity in order to get higher viewing figures for their events so that they can increase prices to advertisers (or even tickets prices), as well as attracting more people to sign up to their brand and start playing and gambling themselves.
Online Poker v Real World Poker
It is much easier to access online poker than a real world game, simply because there is so much of it available on the internet and with thousands of players waiting to play against you too. However, which version suits you best will be down to personal preference and, to a point, where you skillset lies.
Playing poker in real life or at a physical casino obviously means that you can see the other players which can be a great advantage if you are good at reading people, or a huge disadvantage if people can read you like a book.
A big part of the game involves being able to bluff and recognising when someone else is bluffing, and this aspect can be the deciding factor in some games. If you are particularly skilled at either, you may decide that playing face to face is best for you. If not, playing online can be more effective because you can concentrate on strategy and attempt to read the game rather than the person; however, the drawback is that it can backfire in spectacular fashion.
The downside for those who like real life poker is that games are actually quite rare in casinos, usually held in separate rooms and, depending on the establishment, work on an ‘invite only’ basis. Because of this, poker has become a popular social activity to play in the comfort of your own home with friends for small change, and although betting remains illegal in pub and bars, it is acceptable for them to be part of poker leagues where no cash exchanges hands. Sometimes this can even gain you entry into licensed tournaments with cash prizes.
There is also what some players consider to be a ‘happy medium’, which is ‘Live Dealer Poker’. This is where participants can play online at websites which offer a Live Casino, and players are able to see and hear a real dealer who runs the game via live stream. Players feel more included with the dealer effectively bridging the gap between playing online and playing in person, but you still can’t see the other players.
The World Series of Poker
Poker as we know it would not be seen in quite the same light if it was not for the creation of the ‘World Series of Poker’. Largely responsible for the commercialisation of the game, this is the most famous, competitive, and professional poker tournament in the world, taking place on a yearly basis.
The first ever poker world champion was Jonny Moss, in 1970, with the event hosted by Binion’s Horseshoe. Since then, the tournament has moved on considerably, and in 2003 Harrah’s Casino bought the rights to become the exclusive host for the tournament, which is now held every year at the Rio Hotel and Casino.
This tournament soon expanded outside of Las Vegas and in 2007 the first ever World Series Poker of Europe event was held.
Now consisting of over $100,000,000 in prize money, the World Series of Poker can definitely be thought of as one of the most prestigious events on the planet, and as the event continues to gather momentum and gambling becomes regulated in new regions around the world, it is logical that the event will enter new territories and markets, whether this be Africa or even parts of Southeast Asia.
There are other events held, especially in the UK, which have less of a following but are still popular, with the Redtooth Poker company being popular among semi-professional players, while Pokerstars also attracts a considerable following across Europe.
Historical Background of the Game of Poker
It is thought that the game of poker has roots which stretch back nearly a millennium and spanning a number of countries, with some historians having reason to believe that it was actually influenced by a domino card game which could be derived from China, having been played by a 10th century emperor. Others believe that it can be traced back to a Persian game called ‘As Nas’, which was prevalent around the 16th century.
Poker’s closest ancestor from Europe though is a game called Poque, which along with a number of other games at the time (most notably roulette) became fashionable in France during the 17th century. Poque – and its German brother ‘Pochen’, which was played exactly the same way – was based on a more widely known game which originated in Spain, called Primero, which involved three cards being dealt to each player as well as bluffing.
As a consequence of its popularity and success in France, colonials brought the game to America, where it subsequently became much played in New Orleans, gradually working its way up the Mississippi river.
Interestingly, English-speaking settlers changed the name of the game from Poque to Poker, simultaneously making tweaks to the rules, such as using a 52 card deck.
With the game spreading around the Midwest and becoming particularly popular on riverboats among crews, it was starting to become a fixture in every day life for many people. During the civil war troops from both sides played the game, while Wild West saloons also began to accommodate it during the frontier settlements of the 1870s and 1880s.
In 1871, the newly recognised game of ‘Poker’ was introduced to Europe when, as rumour would lead you to believe, Queen Victoria heard the US delegate to Great Britain talking to members of her royal court about it and asked them to explain the rules.
It wasn’t until several decades later, however, that the game received wider acceptance across Europe and this was mainly because of the influence of American troops in the midst of the First World War.
Future of Poker
Although some versions of poker may start to fade into insignificance (some already have), it is impossible to believe the game as a whole will ever disappear. Being the only gambling game that is widely played outside of the casino (usually Texas Hold ‘Em), its’ survival is guaranteed for the foreseeable future.
One thing we may see start to happen is more casinos coming up with ways to facilitate the game taking more square footage on the casino floor. Despite having a plethora of poker slot machines, even the biggest fans of the game are perhaps more drawn to playing in person, and while DIY games are easy enough to set up they do not equal the experience of playing strangers in a casino.
What is interesting to consider is whether the development and advancements in technology will have any real effect on the game. Virtual Reality may well be one area where we could see changes, with players being able to play wearing headsets which allow them to essentially see their opponents even if they are not in the same room as them, while the development of artificial intelligence and machine learning could conjure up completely new innovations.
This has already begun in some ways, using avatars instead of seeing your actual opponents, but true VR may well be the next step.
While a number of elements have been covered, we understand that there may be some things that you may want clarity on and we have endeavoured to preempt a number of questions and answer them as succinctly and informatively below.
Is it Easy to Win at Poker?
Compared to other table games it can be, but this is based on your skill level and the skill of your opponents. The key point here is that poker contains an element of skill, the player can control the outcome to some degree, whereas all other table games are based on chance.
Winning in the game of poker (particularly Texas Hold ‘Em) is largely down to a player’s ability to bluff and to read the other players at the table. However, for gifted players it is also very possible to quickly calculate the other player’s odds of getting certain hands based on their own cards and those on the table, and formulate their strategy based on this.
For a player who is capable of bluffing and calculating probabilities, this makes for a lethal combination and vastly increases their chances of winning.
Is Poker Fair?
While some cultures may consider bluffing unethical, or even cheating, the game of poker itself is indeed fair. However, in the very early days on the Mississippi steamboats, organised cheating would often occur in order to scam unsuspecting travellers out of their money, and unscrupulous people still exist.
It is always advised to play the game either in an official establishment, on a website which has been licensed by their respective gambling commission, or if you are playing socially then do so with people that you know and trust. Joining unlicensed games with people you don’t know is just asking for trouble.
In every case, though, never bet more than you can afford to lose.
What is the Best Advice for Playing Poker?
If you are a beginner, make sure that you learn and understand the rules of the game including all winning hands first, because the game of poker has more elements to remember than most. Many operator sites allow players to play in practice mode so you can use this to train yourself and learn the game for free.
In terms of actual play tips, well, that’s up to you and your style, but to begin with don’t be afraid to fold if you are unsure, only aggressively play your strong hands, and keep your bets low. It’s also advisable to remember your position at the table (assuming you are playing Texas Hold’em) – later positions give you an advantage. Lastly, bluffing is an art, you don’t need to do it on every hand.
In terms of conduct, if you win, it is advisable to accept this with grace and humility; the fact that you have effectively bluffed people’s money out of them and are then celebrating is basically rubbing it in their faces and could very easily be seen as disrespectful.
Finally, if you feel like you are starting to develop a problem with the game, seek help from an official gambling organisation such as Gamcare who will advise appropriately, or as a first step reach out to someone who you trust.
What Version of Poker Should I Play?
There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer to this, because it is based on personal preference. Every player will have a version that they like better than others for whatever reason, though if you are playing online make sure that the website is licensed whichever version you play.
Ultimately though, just because one style is seen to be more popular than another, that does not mean that you have to follow suit and start playing it. If you are new to the game perhaps try them all on practice mode online and see which one you might prefer to play long term.
You will soon figure out whether your prefer the slower pace of Hold’em or the simplicity of 5 Card Stud, as well as whether you prefer to see the people you are betting against or if you like to hide behind your computer screen.