Poker is one of the world’s most popular forms of gambling. However, poker isn’t just a single game; there are possibly hundreds of different poker games that are played around the world. It’s a game of skill, luck, and betting, which have combined to make it popular as everything from a casual pastime played around the kitchen table to – in recent years – a televised spectator sport.
History of Poker
The history of poker stretches back hundreds of years, with the exact origins of this family of games being very unclear. Throughout history, there have been numerous card games that have shared some aspects of play with poker, but the combination of these elements and the style of betting that differentiates poker from other games was first seen in the southern United States in the early 1800s. Since then, the game has gone through numerous evolutions to become the modern game loved around the world today.
Why Read this Poker Guide?
Poker is the favored gambling game of many casino patrons for several reasons. First of all, it is a social game that can be played with friends and strangers alike; in fact, many friendships have been made at the poker table. The fact that players are playing against each other, rather than against the house, means that poker is one of the few forms of gambling where the casino has no stake in the outcome of the game.
Poker is also a true game of skill. While other casino games, such as blackjack, are known for their elements of skill, they are generally simple games in which individual
plays or hands do not require much debate; they are either mathematically correct, or not. In poker, hands can be analyzed and debated, strategy can be discussed, and the game is far too complex for definitive rules of “correct” play to be published for every situation a player might encounter.
Combining these factors, poker is perhaps the form of gambling in which a player is best able to make a professional living. Because the player does not need to beat the casino to win, there is no danger of being prevented from playing by the house. Meanwhile, the skills required to play poker mean that better players will consistently beat weaker players in the long run. However, since there is a great deal of luck involved in any individual hand of poker, weaker players always have a fighting chance to come out on top in the short run, which makes the game attractive and fascinating for players of all levels. Today, the top professional poker players have become celebrities, with the most recognizable players becoming famous even outside of the poker world.
Before getting started as a poker player, there are a number of basic rules, terms, and concepts that are necessary to understanding how to play the game. In addition, more advanced concepts can help players understand the basics of poker strategy that permeate throughout all poker games.
Poker is generally played with a full, 52-card deck of cards. However, some games may also use jokers as wild cards; depending on the game rules, these wild cards may count as any card, or may only be used to complete certain hands. The game is generally played with anywhere from 2-10 players, each of whom will be dealt a certain number of cards at the beginning of each hand. In addition, each player may receive more cards during the course of the hand; they may also be able to use community cards, which are cards placed in the middle of the table that count as a part of each player’s hand.
Before the hand begins, some or all players will be forced to place money into the pot (the winnings that will be received by the winner of the hand) in order to seed it and give the players something to fight for. In some cases, all players will have to put a small amount of money, called an ante, into the pot. Other games use blinds, which are payments made by two (some games may use one or another number) players before the hand. The big blind is usually the same size as the betting amount on the first round of betting, while the small blind will be around half of this amount.
Most forms of poker use several rounds of betting in which every player will have a chance to make one or more decisions about how to proceed in the hand. If no bets have yet been made in a round, the players have the following options:
- Bet: A player may make a bet equal to the bet size allowed on that round of betting.
- Check: A player may decide not to bet, and instead pass the option to the next player.
If there have been one or more bets made on a round (including blinds on the first round), players will instead have the following options:
- Raise: A player may increase the betting amount by one more bet over the current bet size.
- Call: A player may match the current bet.
- Fold: A player can decline to match the current bet, thus forfeiting their hand. This ends their involvement in the hand, and they can no longer win the pot.
If a specific bet size is specified for each round of betting, the poker game is known as a limit game. If players are allowed to bet as much money as they like at any time, the game is known as a no limit game. Intermediate options include pot limit, in which a player can bet or raise the previous bet by the amount of money in the pot, and spread limit, in which players may bet or raise any amount between preset limits (such as between $1 and $5).
A player who has bet all of the money they have in play is said to be all-in; such a player can only win an amount equal to their total bet from each other player. Any additional money put into the pot by other players will go into a side pot that can only be won by the players who are not all-in. Games in which players are allowed to draw on money from off the table (and, in many cases, do not allow players to be all-in) are known as open stakes games, while the games described here utilize table stakes.
If at any point during a hand there is only one remaining player (because all other players have folded), the hand immediately ends, and that player wins the pot. If all rounds of betting are complete, and at least two players remain in the hand, the remaining players reveal their hands in what is known as the showdown. At showdown, the player with the highest-ranking poker hand will win the pot (if two or more players tie for the best hand exactly, they will split the pot equally).
Poker Hand Rankings
Poker hands are typically ranked as follows, from best to worst:
A straight flush is any hand that features five cards of sequential ranks (for instance, 3-4-5-6-7 or 8-9-10-J-Q) which are all of the same suit. Straight flushes are
ranked by the highest ranking card in each hand. The best possible straight flush – a 10-J- Q-K-A of the same suit – is known as a Royal Flush.
Four of a Kind
A four of a kind is any hand containing four cards of the same rank, such as four jacks or four sevens. Four of a kinds are ranked based on the rank of the four
alike cards; for instance, four kings would beat four kinds. If two players have the same four of a kind, the player with the higher ranking single card, or kicker, is the winner. A four of a kind is also known as quads.
A full house is made up of any hand that contains three cards of one rank and two cards of a different rank, such as 9-9-9-4-4. Full houses are ranked against each
other based on the rank of the three of a kind in each hand; if two hands each have the same three of a kind, the hand with a higher pair wins. A full house may also be called a full boat, or simply a boat.
A flush is any hand that contains five cards of the same suit. Flushes are ranked against each other based on the rank of the highest card in the flush; if those ranks are the same, the second-highest cards are compared, and so on down to the fifth until one hand differentiates itself. In most games, all suits are equal; if two flushes of different suits contain the same five ranks, they are considered tied.
A straight is any hand that contains five cards of sequential rank, such as 3-4- 5-6-7. Straights are ranked based on the highest ranking card in each straight. It’s worth
noting that in most games, an ace can either be used as a high or low card; 10-J-Q-K-A is the highest straight, while A-2-3-4-5 is the lowest, and is known as a wheel.
Three of a Kind
A three of a kind is any hand that contains three cards of the same rank. Three of a kinds are ranked based on the rank of the three like cards; three aces, for instance, would beat three sixes. If two hands both have a three of a kind of the same rank, the hands can still be ranked by their kickers. A three of a kind can also be known as trips or a set.
A two pair is any hand that contains two separate pairs of cards of the same ranks, such as K-K-7-7-J. Two pair hands are ranked against each other based on the rank
of the higher pair, then (if necessary) the lower pair, and finally the kicker.
One pair describes any hand that contains two cards of the same rank, such as A-A-Q-7-3. One pair hands are ranked based on the rank of the pair, and then, if necessary, the rank of the kickers.
A high card hand is any hand that does not fit into one of the above categories. These hands are ranked against each other based on the rank of the highest
card (with additional cards being ranked against each other if necessary).
Because only the best hand will win money at showdown, much of poker strategy relates to playing strong hands that have the best chance to outrank the hands of the other players. However, because a hand can also win all other players fold, another important component to poker strategy is bluffing, or betting strongly with a weak hand in the hopes of getting players with stronger hands to fold, thus allowing you to win the pot by default.
Another critical component of poker strategy is position. Players who bet after many of the other players at the table on a given betting round have an advantage, as they have already seen how their opponents have acted on that round (and may have the option to close out the round by checking or calling). If one player acts after another, they are said to be in position against that player; the other player is out of position.
Poker can be played in two basic forms: cash games and tournaments.
Poker Cash Games
Cash games are games played for actual cash stakes; any chips used in the course of play represent actual money. This is the most traditional form of poker, and is, essentially, poker in its purest form. Players may bring more money to the table between hands, but generally may not do so in the middle of a hand.
Cash games can be played at a variety of different stakes, from games where pennies are at stake to those which feature pots in the millions of dollars. Stakes are typically defined by the size of bets that are allowed, or (particularly in pot limit and no limit games) the
size of the blinds being used.
In casinos and card rooms, the house makes a profit from the game by taking a predetermined amount of money from each pot. This is known as the rake. The size of rake varies by game and the size of the pot. In some other games (especially no limit
games), the casino may instead use a time charge, which players pay each hour or half- hour they are at the table.
Poker tournaments are a relatively new innovation in the world of poker, having come into popularity in the 1970’s. Today, tournament poker has created many famous players, and is the most popular form of poker shown on television. Poker tournaments differ from cash games in several respects. Most importantly, the chips in these games do not represent real cash, and when a player runs out of chips, they are eliminated from the tournament.
Instead, players in poker tournaments compete for prize money derived from the buy- in collected from each player. In addition, casinos typically charge an entry fee which allows them to make a profit from hosting the event. Prizes are awarded to the players who survive in the tournament for the longest amount of time. Typically, approximately the top 10% of finishers in a tournament will win money, with most of the money reserved for the winner and the other players who finish at the final table.
In exchange for the entry fee, players are each given a certain number of chips. In some tournaments – known as rebuy tournaments – players will have the opportunity to purchase additional chips early in the event, sometimes even if they have already run out of chips once. In order to force the action, the blinds and/or antes will increase after a predetermined amount of time, effectively reducing the size of each player’s chip stack.
Poker tournaments can range from small, relatively informal events held at local casinos to big buy-in events that attract the world’s best players. Some of the most prestigious tournaments include those held on the World Poker Tour, as well as those at the World Series of Poker. The World Series of Poker’s Main Event determines each year’s World Champion, and requires a $10,000 buy-in to participate. The first prize in the Main Event is usually several million dollars. For this and other major tournaments, satellite tournaments are often held that allow players to attempt to win a seat in the main tournament by winning a smaller event.
There are many different forms of poker that are played, though only a few tend to be popular at any given time. However, even many games which aren’t regularly found in casinos are often played in home games, or at large tournaments where many different varieties of poker are contested. Here’s a quick look at some of the most common forms of poker.
Without a doubt, the number one form of poker in the world today is Texas Hold’em (sometimes simply called hold’em). This is the game that is most often played in tournaments, especially in no limit form. In fact, no limit Hold’em is the game played
in nearly every main event of the major poker tournament series’ held around the world, including in the World Series of Poker Main Event.
In Texas Hold’em, each player is dealt a hand of two cards, with the first two players to the left of the dealer posting small and big blinds. After the first round of betting, three community cards – known as the flop – are dealt. Another round of betting commences, after which the fourth community card (the turn) is dealt. Players again get the chance to bet, after which the final community card (the river) is dealt. After a final round of betting, the showdown takes place. Players make their best possible five card hand using any combination of their two cards and the five community cards, with the best hand taking down the pot. The game is commonly played in limit and no limit formats, though pot limit and spread limit are also common.
Omaha or PLO
Omaha shares many features with Texas Hold’em, and is probably the second most popular form of poker at the moment. Pot limit Omaha has become especially popular among high-stakes players.
Omaha Poker is played similarly to Texas Hold’em, with two major differences. In Omaha, players are each dealt four cards at the beginning of the hand. At showdown, players
must create a five card hand by using exactly two of their hole cards, along with exactly three of the community cards.
In addition, Omaha can be played in a “High/Low” (or Hi/Lo) format. In this case, the lowest hand wins half the pot, with the highest hand taking the other half. However, in order to qualify as a low hand, a hand must not contain any cards higher than an 8; if no such hand makes it to showdown, then the high hand will take the entire pot. It is possible for a single player to win both the high and low halves of the pot using different hole cards; this is known as scooping the pot.
Seven Card Stud
While Seven Card Stud is not nearly as popular as it once was, it is still regularly seen in large poker rooms around the world. Unlike with Texas Hold’em and Omaha, there are no community cards in Seven Card Stud; in fact, the entire structure of the game is very different.
A hand of Seven Card Stud begins with each player paying the ante. Each player is then dealt three cards – two face down, following by one face up. The player with the lowest card face up begins the betting. After the first betting round, a fourth card is dealt to each player, face up. At this point (and on all subsequent betting rounds), the player with the best poker hand showing in their face-up cards leads the betting. After this betting round, a fifth card is dealt face up; another betting round then commences, and is followed by the sixth card for each player, also face up.
After the next round of betting, the seventh card is dealt to each remaining player, face down. A final round of betting commences, after which all remaining hands are revealed. Each player uses their cards to make their best five card hand, with the highest ranking hand taking the pot. As with Omaha, Seven Card Stud can also be played using high/low rules.
Five Card Draw
Until the recent explosion of interest in Texas Hold’em, chances are that when most people thought of poker, they were thinking of Five Card Draw. It is a fairly simple form of poker that was often used as the form of the game shown in movies and television programs.
Five Card Draw may be played with or without an ante. Each player is dealt five cards face down, after which a round of betting begins. Betting begins with the player to the dealer’s left. After a round of betting, all remaining players may replace as many of their cards with new cards from the deck. In many casual games, the number of cards a player may replace is limited to three or four (often requiring the player to show an ace to receive four cards).
After all players still in the hand have received their draw cards, a second round of betting begins. After this round is concluded, all remaining players show their hands,
with the highest ranked hand winning the pot.
Five Card Stud
Five Card Stud was once a popular form of the game; in the early years of the World Series of Poker, it was played in a preliminary event. Amazingly, all four Five Card Stud events ever held at the World Series of Poker were won by the same player, Bill Boyd.
Five Card Stud is essentially played in the same manner as Seven Card Stud, but with two fewer cards. Each player begins by being dealt two cards – one face up, one face down. The player with the lowest ranking up card begins the first round of betting.
After the first betting round, players receive their third card, face up. On all remaining betting rounds, the betting begins with the player showing the best hand in their face up cards. After the next betting round, a fourth card is dealt to each player, face up; another betting round follows, and then the fifth and final card is dealt, also face up. The final betting round then commences, followed by a showdown if necessary. However, because there is very little information hidden from players in Five Card Stud, showdowns are far less common than in most other forms of poker.
Razz Poker is a popular low-hand variation of Seven Card Stud. All of the rules are the same as in that game, except that players are attempting to make the worst five card hand possible, and the lowest hand wins the pot. Straights and flushes do not count against a hand in Razz; thus, the best possible hand is A-2-3-4-5.
HORSE and Mixed Games
In some poker games, the specific game being played can change after a predetermined number of hands or length of time. In casual home games, this is often called “dealer’s choice,” where the dealer can determine what game is going to be played each time they deal a hand.
In more serious poker situations, these are known as mixed games. Perhaps the most popular mixed game format is HORSE, which involves a mix of Hold’em, Omaha, Razz, Seven Card Stud, and Seven Card Stud – Eights or Better (also known as Hi/Lo). In fact, this is the format used for the Poker Players Championship at the World Series of Poker, a super high-stakes tournament that is generally thought to be the toughest test of skill at the WSOP.
Other Poker Games
Of course, this list of poker games is by no means definitive. Many rules variations and other games are popular in casino and tournament play, such as Triple Draw Lowball games, Chinese Poker and Badugi; countless games are widely seen in home games, even if they never show up in casinos. Some of the most popular “home game favorites” are listed below:
- Follow the Queen
- Deuces Wild (or other games with wild cards)
While these games are most often seen in home games, they can also be played by serious players looking for an edge against otherwise strong opponents. Because these games tend to be wild and unlike “normal” forms of poker, understanding them well can
give skilled players a huge leg up on those who are new to their intricacies.