But the most appropriate way to start an overview of poker games is with a look at what all poker games have in common.
The Object of the Game of Poker
Your goal in a game of poker is to win the pot—the pile of money in the middle of the table. That pile of money is made up of the bets that the 2 to 10 players at the table have made on their hands. (Most “full” games of poker are made up of 8 or 9 players.)
You can win the pot in one of 2 ways:
You can have the best cards at the showdown. (The cards you hold are your “hand,” and “the showdown” is the end of the hand, when you compare your hand with the other players who are still in the game.)
2. You can convince all the other players at the table your hand is better so that they fold (forfeit their claim to the pot in exchange for not having to put any more money in).
That’s a little deceptive, though, because one of the most important aspects of poker is saving money by folding hands that you’re unlikely to win. Folding is, in fact, more important than bluffing—pretending you have the strongest hand at the table and convincing the other players to fold.
If you thought that the objective was JUST to win pots, you’d play almost every hand you got even if the odds of winning were slim.
The real objective is to walk away from the table showing a profit. You can’t do that unless you choose your battles wisely.
The Tools of the Trade Include Playing Cards and Poker Chips
Most of the poker games you’ll play in use a standard deck of 52 cards. In a lot of home poker games, you’ll also have a joker added to the deck, which is a wild card that brings the total number of cards in play to 53 instead of 52.
The Playing Cards
The cards have 2 qualities each:
The rank is the number or character on the card. A standard deck of cards has 13 ranks, from low to high, as follows:
These are divided into 4 suits:
In most decks, diamonds and hearts are colored red, while clubs and spades are colored black. This can confuse some players, so some decks use additional colors to distinguish the cards further. These are called “4-color decks,” and they use the following colors for each suit:
- Clubs are green
- Diamonds are blue
- Hearts are red
- Spades are black
The 4-color deck was invented by Mike Caro and is usually only used on televised poker events and internet poker.
The combination of the cards’ suits and rankings determine the strength of a player’s hand. The standard ranking of poker hands is as follows, from best possible hand to worst possible hand:
A straight flush is a hand where all the cards have consecutive rankings and are all the same suit.
A 4 of a kind is a hand where 4 of the cards are of the same rank, while the 5th card is of another rank.
A full house consists of 3 cards of one rank and 2 cards of another rank.
A flush consists of 5 cards all the same suit.
A straight consists of 5 cards of consecutive ranks.
A 3 of a kind is a hand with 3 cards of one rank and 2 cards of 2 other ranks.
2 pairs is a hand with 2 cards of one rank, 2 cards of another rank, and a 5th card of a 3rd rank.
A pair is a hand with 2 cards of one rank and 3 cards of 3 other ranks.
If multiple players have the same hand, ties are broken using the highest card in the hand. For example, a straight flush with an ace as the highest card is the best possible hand (“a royal flush”), and it would beat a straight flush where the king was the highest card.
In some games, like lowball and 8-or-better games, the lowest possible hand wins half or all of the pot.
If a deck has a joker in it, then it’s often treated as a “wild card,” especially in home games. In that event, a 5 of a kind is possible and becomes the best possible hand. A wild card can be used as any other card in the deck to create the best possible hand.
In most casino games that use jokers, it’s not exactly wild—instead, it’s a “bug.” It can be used as a low card to complete a low hand in a lowball game. It can also be used to complete a straight or a flush. But it cannot be used to create a pair.
If you’re hosting a home poker game, having a set of Bees is fine, but a nice plastic set of cards like Kems can take the atmosphere of the game up a notch.
The Poker Chips
Most modern poker games are played using real clay poker chips, but you can use almost anything to represent the money being bet in a poker game. I used toothpicks when I played with my mom in grade school. I used actual coins when I played penny ante games in high school.
When you buy into a poker game at a real casino or at an organized home game, you trade cash for the chips before the game. After the game, you can exchange those chips for cash before leaving. The color of the chips represents their value as follows:
- White chips are worth a dollar
- Red chips are worth $5
- Blue chips are worth $10
- Green chips are worth $25
- Black chips are worth $100
- Purple chips are worth $500
If you want to host your own home poker game, you’ll need a set of chips. You can buy high-quality clay poker chips on Amazon without spending a lot of money. You’ll need a set of at least 500 chips, although 1000 chips are probably better. They usually come in a metal carrying case with predetermined colors.
A standard set will usually come with the following chips:
- 150 white chips
- 100 blue chips
- 150 red chips
- 50 green chips
- 50 black chips
Regardless of what kind of playing cards you use, you should definitely use clay chips when you host your home poker games. Even the cheapest clay chips are far superior to plastic poker chips. You should never use plastic poker chips.
The Action at the Poker Table
Regardless of what kind of poker game you’re playing, the game consists of forced bets, the deal, voluntary bets, and a showdown.
The first thing to understand is the concept of a “forced bet.” These take the form of “antes” in many games, although “blinds” are now more common. These are bets that you must make just to get a hand dealt to you in the first place.
An ante is a forced bet you must make every hand if you want to play. Most stud and draw poker games use antes.
A blind, on the other hand, is a forced bet that rotates around the table. You don’t make this bet every hand; it rotates around the table. Most Texas hold’em and Omaha games use blinds.
Without forced bets like antes and blinds, players would have no incentive to play at all. You could just sit there and fold repeatedly until you’re dealt a hand that’s really good. That wouldn’t make for much of a poker game.
Once the forced bets are placed, the cards are dealt. Some games involve getting your entire hand dealt to you at once, but most poker games now deal the cards in stages, with rounds of betting in between.
At any point in any poker game, you’re betting your hand based on how strong or weak you think it is. Or you might be betting based on how likely it is that your opponents will fold.
In either case, if 2 or more players are still in the pot after the final round of betting, you have a showdown. The players show their hands, and the player with the best hand wins the pot.
But there are notable exceptions.
In games like lowball and razz, the lowest possible hand wins the pot. This is a hand like 5432A or 6432A. Pairs and other poker hands don’t count in lowball games.
In other games, like 7 card stud hi-lo, the pot is split between the lowest possible hand and the best possible hand. Omaha 8 is another game played this way. It’s possible to have both the lowest possible hand and the highest possible hand simultaneously, in which case you win the entire pot. (This is called “scooping” the pot.)
Throughout the hand, you’ll have multiple opportunities to bet. Your options are limited to the following:
Betting is the most important part of poker. Without the options above, poker would be a simple game of luck, like war. Betting is done in order, rotating around the table. It’s extremely poor form to bet out of turn, so please wait your turn to bet.
Types of Betting in Types of Poker Games
Bets are placed according to the rules of the specific game you’re playing, but poker games can be divided into categories based on how betting is handled.
- In a limit game, the betting amounts must fit into predetermined limits. The amounts usually double in the later rounds of the game. The limits are expressed in front of the name of the game. For example, in a $5/$10 Texas hold’em game, the bets must be made in increments of $5 during the early rounds and $10 during the later rounds.
- In a spread limit game, the betting amounts must fall into a range of limits. For example, if you’re playing in a $5 – $20 spread limit game, you can bet any amount between $5 and $20 at any time. But if you want to raise, you must raise at least the amount of the previous bet.
- In a pot limit game, the maximum bet and/or raise is the size of the pot. You get to count the amount you’re calling as part of the pot when you’re making a raise, too.
- In a no-limit game, the maximum bet or raise is equal to the amount of chips you have at the table. You can’t bet or raise more money than you have in front of you, though.
You’re playing in a pot limit game with $5 in the pot. You can call the $5 in the pot, making the size of the pot $10, so you can raise $10, making your total bet $15. Anyone acting behind you must at least call the $15 bet, but they can also raise the size of the pot.
The pots in these games can get big fast.
Most games only allow 3 or 4 raises per betting round.
Some Poker Subtleties You Need to Know Related to Game-Play
There are a few other things you need to know to play poker without looking like a schmuck.
Dealers – If you’re playing in a home game, it’s customary for the dealer position to rotate around the table. This is also true in public in free poker tournaments. At casinos, professional dealers will be dealing the cards. They’ll switch out every half-hour or so.
Protecting Your Cards – You’re responsible for making sure your cards don’t get “mucked” by accident. Cards go into the muck when you’ve folded, but if the dealer makes a mistake and puts your cards in the muck by mistake, it’s your fault for not protecting them.
The easiest way to protect your hand is by using an object of some kind. Greg Raymer uses a fossil; that’s how he got the nickname “Fossilman.”
The Rake – When you’re playing in a casino, they take a percentage (usually 5%) of each pot to pay for the game. This is what pays the dealers, but it also pays for the floorspace where they offer the games. If they didn’t charge a rake, the casino would just use the space to host more slot machine games.
Keep in mind that the rake is what makes poker a negative expectation game for the average player. With no rake, the average player would break even over time.
Not only do you have to be better than the average player at the table, but you also have to be a degree enough better to make up for the 5% rake on every hand.
Side Pots – Once you’ve bet all the chips or money you have in front of you, you’re “all-in.” The other players might have chips left, and they can continue to bet, call, and raise. When they do, their additional bets go into a side pot. They’ll compete for the pot you’re all-in on with you, but you won’t have any claim to the side pot. Only the players who put money into that pot get to play for the money in it.
Splashing the Pot – Don’t throw your chips into the pot. It can make it hard to see if you’ve really put the right number of chips in the pot. Just slide your chips in front of your hand and announce your decision “call” or “raise” aloud.
String Raising – I learned this one the hard way. You must decide to call or raise before taking action. You can’t put the money in to call and then raise immediately afterward. This is called a string raise, and it’s forbidden because some players will watch their opponents’ reactions to their calls and decide accordingly.
Call or raise, but announce one and stick with it.
Table Stakes – Almost all card games require you to play with the money in front of you. You can’t buy additional chips while you’re involved in a hand. You can buy more chips between hands, though.
Taking Turns – I mentioned this earlier, but it’s extremely disruptive and un-sporting to act out of turn. You’re giving too many players too much information about your hand, interfering with the natural role that position plays in the game.
Wait until it’s your turn to act, then act.
Timeout – You can call for a timeout and freeze all the action if you’re confused about what’s happening. Just announce in a clear, loud voice, “Time!” Then ask whatever questions you need to clarify what’s going on.
Tipping – It’s customary to tip the dealer a dollar or 2 when you’ve won a hand. If the dealer’s rude, and some of them are, feel free to refrain from tipping.
That’s a broad overview of how to play poker games. It includes most of the aspects of game-play that are common from one variant to another.
The details for each variant have to do with how many cards are dealt when and how the betting rounds work. For example, in 5-card draw, you’re dealt 5 cards face down, there’s a betting round, and then you can discard and replace some cards. That’s followed by another betting round.
In 5-card stud, though, you only get 1 card face down. The rest are dealt face up. You get 2 cards, there’s a round of betting, and then you get additional cards one at a time with a round of betting between each card dealt.
In Texas hold’em and Omaha, you get hole cards, which are dealt to you, and community cards, which are shared by the other players at the table.
The number of variations is almost limitless, but you need to understand the basics in this post to be able to play any of them.