how to play poker

Since first gaining popularity at the beginning of the twentieth century, poker has gone from a game for only the rich and elite to a game played, and watched, the world over. Having garnered a reputation as a game of wit, strategy and skill, and thanks to cinematic influence from iconic movie stars such as James Bond, more and more people are giving poker a try (both at traditional casinos and online).

So, how do you play poker? While the concepts that guide poker may be fairly straight forward and the rules easy to understand, there is a lot to be learned about the game in order to truly flourish. That is where we come in.

In this guide, we are going to take you through some of the basic concepts that are present in most modern versions of poker. From recognizing good starting hands to placing your first bet and all the way to winning your first hand - we have you covered and will teach you how to play poker.

How to Play Poker

Poker Variations and
Popular Choices

So, you've decided to try your hand at poker but you haven't played a hand in your life. The first thing you need to decide what kind of poker you wish to play. While there are many variations of poker out there, they can be grouped into four main types with the games in each category following a similar protocol of card-dealing and betting:

  • Straight Poker - the oldest poker family, a complete hand is dealt to each player and players bet in a single round (raising and re-raising is allowed)

  • Stud Poker  - cards are dealt in prearranged combinations of face-down and face-up rounds with a round of betting following each. Popular modern varieties include seven-card stud

  • Draw Poker  - complete hands are dealt face-down to each player. After the first round of betting players may choose to discard cards and be dealt new ones. Five-card draw is the most popular modern variation

  • Community Card Poker  - a variant of stud poker, players are dealt an incomplete hand of face-down cards and a number of face-up community cards are dealt to the center of the table. Players must use these cards, in conjunction with their own player cards, to make a 5-card hand. Texas Hold'em is the most popular form of community poker and one of the easiest kinds of poker to learn.

Offline vs. Online Poker
Offline vs. Online Poker

While playing poker in a traditional, brick-and-mortar betting house may be a dream come true for many, for a lot of poker players online poker is a far easier and more affordable option. Not only can you play poker when, where and in a number of variations on the fly, but online poker also has a number of other benefits such as:

  • - Greater control over betting limits
  • - Faster games means more games can be played
  • - You can play with real money or with free chips
  • - You don't need a “poker-face” to win online
  • - Most applications guide play so you only have to concentrate on your cards (and your opponents)

Online poker is convenient, fast and a great way for beginners to master the basics of poker in a relatively low risk environment. This article has more information on online vs offline poker.

Getting Started with Poker

So you've decided you want to learn how to play poker at a casino but you are not sure you are ready to take the plunge and gamble at a live casino, rather you will learn the ropes on an online version. Texas Hold'em poker is one of the most popular poker variations available and is also one of the easiest to learn. Today we will lead you through a brief tutorial on getting started with Texas Hold'em that will show off a number of concepts present in most forms of poker including:

  • Table limits and betting
  • Identifying a good hand
  • Knowing when to bet and when to fold

Getting into a Game

Whether you're at a brick and mortar casino or your favorite online casino, the first step in finding a poker game is deciding what type and style of poker you will be playing. From standard poker tables to tournaments, there is a range of options for both online and live poker players. When choosing your table (or application) be sure to look at the betting styles on offer. The most common styles include:

No Limit Holdem
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 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 Hold'em
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.

Man and woman playing poker

Once you have chosen the style of poker you want to play you will need to know the stakes at which you'll be playing at. For Texas Hold'em games, 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 are ready to take your place at the table.

Preparing for Your First Online Poker Game
Laptop showing a poker site

The first step to learning how to play poker online for real money, of course, is signing up for an account at an online poker site and depositing funds into your account. Once you have completed these steps you are ready to get started playing.

Similar to live poker, the next step in playing will be choosing what 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 range 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.

Playing Your First Hand

You're finally at a table but you are still not exactly sure what you are meant to be doing. Your goal is to create a hand that is of greater value than the other players at your table. This does not mean you need a Royal Flush every game, only that you have a better hand than the other players. But, what is a good hand?

In poker, you are always looking to make sets of cards based on either their suit or their value or rank e.g. King, Queen, Jack, ten and so on. Good hands will have pairs (like two Aces) or cards of the same suit in a sequential series (i.e. cards that follow each other e.g. nine, eight and seven or Ace, King and Queen).

In 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 dealer (in online poker this person is assigned as the "button.") The player directly to the left of the dealer 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.

Blinds are forced bets made by the first two players to the left of the dealer. Big blind is normally equal to the minimum bet amount and small blind is half of big blind (rounded down).

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. You look at your cards but you are not sure if what you have is a good hand or not. An easy way to check, for beginners, is to take a look at a guide to good starting hands. If you do not have access to one of these guides a simple strategy would be to look for pairs of cards, preferably higher value cards.

Pair of nines

Luckily our starting hand is good:

However, it's not yet your turn to bet. In poker, play begins with the player to the left of the dealer. Called your “position”, when you can bet depends on where you are seated with better positions being further along in the queue as this will allow you more opportunity to see what your opponents have.

Your position is determined by how far you are from the dealer mid-late positions offer the best opportunities.

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, or the pre-flop phase, 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!

Identifying a Winning Hand

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 poker hand

Straight Flush

Five cards of consecutive ranks and of the same suit: The best possible straight flush is a royal flush, which consists of A-K-Q-J-T of the same suit.

Three of a Kind poker hand

Three of a Kind

Three cards of the same rank.

Four of a Kind poker hand

Four of a Kind

Four cards of the same rank, such as four kings.

Two Pair poker hand

Two Pair

Two cards of one rank, and two other cards of another rank.

Full House poker hand

full house

Three cards the same, and a pair of another set of cards.

One Pair poker hand

One Pair

Two cards of the same rank.

Flush poker hand

flush

Five cards of the same suit.

High Card poker hand

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).

Straight poker hand

straight

Five cards of consecutive ranks.

For more guides looking at starting hands be sure to check out:

To Bet or to Fold: Playing the Pre-Flop

As it becomes your turn, you'll be presented with a few possible options: in this case, to fold, call, or raise. Since this is a no-limit game, you can choose to raise (online versions of poker will have a slider that allows you to choose how much you raise to) although, in this case, we'll choose to call (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.

Person dealing poker

What is Pre-flop?

Pre-flop refers to the phase before the flop, after blinds have been posted and players have been dealt their pocket hands but before the dealing of the first three face-up cards to the board (the flop). First bets are played during this phase, which is also called the pre-flop betting round.

The three things you need to take note of in pre-flop are:

  • Equity - how much of the pot your hand is worth (i.e. the better your hand, the bigger your equity)

  • Implied Odds - the theoretical odds you have of winning as the game progresses due to opponents' missteps and more (i.e. what are the potential winnings for that hand versus how much you would need to bet to make next call)

  • Position - Broken into early, middle and late, your position refers to when you are able to place your bets. The later your position, the more information you have about your opponents' hands, the more aggressive you can be in your pre-flop play.

You will need to weigh up all these things before making your first bet in poker.

The best hands to play in poker pre-flop will always be your big pocket pairs (such as Ace-Ace, King-King and Queen-Queen), followed by big-suited connectors (such as suited Ace-King), and finally your big connectors who do not share a suit.

Later Rounds and Community Cards

Once 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.

Poker table showing the flop

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: 9♦ 6♣A♥

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.

Poker table showing flop and turn

After 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: 9♦ 6♣ A♥ Q♦

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.

With 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: 9♦ 6♣ A♥ Q♦ A♠

Poker table showing flop, turn and river

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! With this move 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:

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!

As you can see, you won the pot because your hand outranked that of your opponent, not necessarily because you had the best starting hand. The key to playing successful poker is knowing when to hold tight and when to fold. While this only really comes with experience, we have gathered a few tips to help you through your teething stages so that you can learn how to play poker at a casino easily and regardless of the type of poker you choose to play:

  • Don't play every hand you are dealt yes, it is possible to win with most starting hands however it is also unlikely (especially as a beginner)
  • Don't play above your bankroll the easiest route to problem gambling is biting off more than you can chew
  • Not every game can be won accepting that losses are a part of the learning process is important
  • Don't play for money if you are not in the mood doing well in poker requires concentration so, if you know your emotions will affect how well you make decisions, don't play to win
  • Always pay attention to cards played this will indicate what your next move should be
  • Pick the right game for your skill level we cannot all be poker masters: start small and enjoy the ride

Pulling It All Together

Now that you've seen how a normal game of Texas Hold'em plays out, you can see that, while there's a lot to think about during a hand, it's not a particularly difficult game to play. As play progresses around the table after every hand, the dealer will keep track of when it is your turn to pay the blinds and (in the case of online casinos) either pay them for you automatically or prompt you to pay them when it is your turn.

Though learning how to play poker at a live casino is always an option, many players prefer to take their first steps in learning how to play poker from the comfort of their home PC or mobile device.

Poker cards on a table

Though learning the ins-and-outs of poker may not be exceptionally difficult, 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 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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