How to Play Poker: Start to Finish

You've made the plunge: you've joined an online poker site, and you even deposited a starting bankroll. You're ready to play your first hand of online poker. There's only one problem: you have absolutely no idea what you're doing!

That's okay: we've got you covered. In this article, we're going to teach you not only how to find a table and sit in on a game, but exactly how the typical hand of Texas Hold'em works. Run through our example hand, and you'll know exactly what you're doing when you step up to the virtual felt!

Getting into a Game

Table namesThe first step to playing real money poker online, of course, is signing up for an account at an online poker site and depositing funds into your account. We'll assume that you've completed those steps, and are now looking to find the game you want to play.

When you log into the poker room software, you'll be presented with a lobby interface that will grant you access to the wide rage of games played on that site. There will not only be cash games, but also tournaments of various types. There may also be several games available to you in different tabs, such as Texas Hold'em, Omaha, or Seven Card Stud.

For today's example, we'll be playing a hand of Texas Hold'em. But even by using the room's tabs or filters to make that choice, you'll soon realize that you have many other options to choose from as well. For instance, you'll have to pick from several betting styles, with the most common being:

  • No-Limit: a no-limit game is one in which players may wager any amount (above a minimum bet) up to the total cash they have at the table at any time. This is now the most popular form of hold'em.
  • Limit: In limit poker, all bets and raises are restricted to a certain size. This style of play is now quite uncommon in tournament play, but remains reasonably popular in cash games.
  • Pot-Limit: A pot-limit game is one in which players again have the choice of how much to bet, but are limited to increasing bets only up to the current size of the pot (the total amount bet by all players). This style is relatively uncommon in hold'em, but is much more popular in the game of Omaha.

You'll also note that each table has monetary amounts listed next to it. These allow you to know the stakes at which you'll be playing at if you enter that table. At a no-limit or pot-limit table, these numbers represent the size of the blinds, a concept we'll explain a little later. At a limit hold'em table, these numbers tell you the size of the bets. For instance, a $2/$4 limit table means that all bets in the first two rounds of betting are in $2 increments, while the last two rounds of betting feature $4 bets.

Once you've found the type of game you want to play in, and an appropriate stake level, you can click on the table to bring it up (usually in a new window). If there is an open seat, you can join the table by clicking on the appropriate area. You'll then be asked to choose how much money you want to bring to the table, after which you'll be seated and ready to join in the game.

Playing Your First Hand

Playing first handIn our example, you've just sat down at a $1/$2 no-limit hold'em table. At the start of any Texas Hold'em hand, two players are forced to make small bets in order to ensure there's at least some money in the pot to play for. These two bets are known as the blinds, and are made by the two players to the left of the player who has been assigned the "button." The player directly to the left of the button pays the small blind, while the second player pays the big blind. In no-limit games, the stakes dictate the blinds; in this case, the small blind is $1, while the big blind is $2.

At online poker sites, a computer dealer will automatically (and quickly) deal cards to each player. Since we're playing Texas Hold'em, each player will receive two face down cards that only they can see. Since we're playing Texas Hold'em, each player will receive two face down cards that only they can see. You look at your cards and see a good hand:
nine hearts nine clubs

However, it's not yet your turn to bet. You are sitting on the Dealer button, which means you'll be the last to act. Play begins with the player directly to your left. However, on the first round of betting, the first two players have already paid their blinds, so it's the next player to their left who has the first decision. That player has the following choices:

  • Fold: A player can fold their hand, which means they are giving up and will no longer have a chance to win the pot.
  • Call: A player can call the current bet by betting whatever amount is necessary to match the current bet in this case, $2.
  • Raise: A player can raise the current bet to a higher amount. In no-limit games, the raise must be at least the size of the last bet or raise, so the minimum raise in this case would be to $4 the $2 bet, plus another $2.

The first player decides to fold, and the action then moves to the left. Two more players fold, but then the next player calls. The rest of the players fold, and now it is your turn to act!

As it becomes your turn, you'll be presented with buttons that represent your possible options: in this case, to fold, call, or raise. Since this is a no-limit game, the raise button will also have a slider that allows you to choose how much you raise to. In this case, we'll have you click the call button (not necessarily the best play), meaning you put $2 into the pot. The action then moves back to the small blind, who calls by betting an additional $1 (remember, they had to put in $1 at the beginning of the hand). The big blind then has the option to either raise or "check" as he has already paid the $2 which is the current bet. The big blind checks. All of the bets go into the pot, creating a pot of $8. In a real hand, a small percentage of this money would go to the "rake" the money the poker room keeps but for the purposes of making the math simpler in our example, we'll ignore that for now.

Later Rounds and Community Cards

The flopOnce everyone remaining in the hand has called the current bet (or, on later rounds, if nobody chooses to bet), that betting round ends. Alternately, if at any time there is only one player remaining in the hand, they win all of the money in the pot, and the hand is over.

After the first betting round in hold'em, the dealer then spreads three community cards known as "the flop" face up on the center of the table. These cards can be used by all players to help complete their five-card poker hand. In our hand, the community cards are:
nine daimonds six clubs ace hearts

Play once again begins to the left of the button. Until a bet is made, players have the option to check, declining the opportunity to bet. Both the small and big blinds do just that but the other player in the hand bets $5. It is now your turn to act, and you have the chance to either fold, call the bet, or raise the bet.

Looking at your hand, you realize you now have three-of-a-kind, which is a very strong hand. You decide to raise an additional $10, making your total bet $15. Both of the blinds fold, but the other player in the hand calls the additional $10. With those bets, the pot is now $38.

The turnAfter that round of betting concludes, the dealer places a fourth community card the turn on the table. While that means each player now has six cards to use (the four community cards and their two hole cards), remember that hold'em is a five-card game; only your best five-card hand counts, though you can use any combination of your hole cards and the community cards. In our hand, the fourth card is the queen of diamonds, making the board read:
nine daimonds six clubs ace hearts queen diamonds

The other player remaining in the hand acts first, and decides to check to you. You bet $20, which he immediately decides to call. The pot is now $78.

The riverWith that round of betting out of the way, there's only one more community card left to deal: the river. Once that card is revealed, just one round of betting remains. In this case, the river is the ace of spades:
nine daimonds six clubs ace hearts queen diamonds ace spades

Your opponent once again acts first, and checks a final time. You decide to bet $50. The action returns to your opponent, who surprises you by raising to $100! You're scared that you might be beat, but with so much money in the pot and only needing to spend $50 to find out if you've won, you decide to call, putting another $50 in the pot. That makes the final pot size $278.

Since more than one player is still in the hand after the river, we've reached a showdown, where players must reveal their hands to find out who has won the pot. The player with the best hand will win all of the money in the pot; in the case of an exact tie between two or more players, the pot will be split as evenly as possible among the tied winners.

The last player to make a new bet on the river is the first to show their hand: in this case, your opponent, since he made the last raise on the river. Your opponent reveals that he's holding a hand that gives him three aces:
ace diamonds jack diamonds,
If you couldn't beat this hand, you'd have the option of simply folding your hand rather than showing what you held, but that's not a problem here; when you show your nines, you reveal that you have a full house: three 9's and two aces. That beats your opponent's hand, giving you the $278 pot!

You won the pot because your hand outranked that of your opponent. If you're not familiar with the order of poker hands, the following is a very quick guide. The first hand listed is the strongest, with hands becoming progressively weaker as you work your way down the list:

  • Straight Flush: Straight Flush: Five cards of consecutive ranks and of the same suit:
    three hearts four hearts five hearts six hearts seven hearts.
    The best possible straight flush is a royal flush, which consists of A-K-Q-J-T of a single suit.
  • Four of a Kind: Four cards of the same rank, such as four kings.
  • Full House: Three cards of one rank, and two cards of another rank.
  • Flush: Five cards of the same suit.
  • Straight: Five cards of consecutive ranks.
  • Three of a Kind: Three cards of the same rank.
  • Two Pair: Two cards of one rank, and two other cards of another rank.
  • One Pair: Two cards of the same rank.
  • High Card: If a hand contains none of the above combinations, the hand is ranked by its highest card (for instance, a hand with an ace beats a king-high hand).

Pulling It All Together

Poker screenAs you can see, while there's a lot to think about during a hand of Texas Hold'em, it's not a particularly difficult game to play. As the button moves around the table after every hand, the computer dealer will keep track of when it is your turn to pay the blinds and either pay them for you automatically or prompt you to pay them when it is your turn.

In fact, many of the aspects of play are easier to keep track of in online poker than when playing in a live casino, making the game less intimidating. When it is your turn to act, the game interface will tell you what your options are and give you large buttons to click to choose which action you wish to take. When you're ready to stop playing for the day, you can simply close the window, or click the "sit out" button if you think you might want to come back to the table in a few minutes.

Here are a few articles that can really help you to improve your game once you get a good grasp on the basics:

As you play more hands, you'll find that the natural flow of a poker hand becomes second nature. While there are a few unusual situations, most hands you play will follow the same pattern as the one above. If you pay attention to the order of play and how players perform their actions, you'll pick up the nuances of the game even more quickly. You might even find that you'd like to play two or more tables at the same time a possibility offered at most online poker sites.

We hope that this introduction to playing online poker has answered all of your questions and left you ready to play for the first time. Good luck at the tables!


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