There’s more to playing poker than knowing that a flush beats a straight. Yeah, you need to understand the ranking of hands to play, but that’s just the beginning of poker wisdom. In fact, it barely scratches the surface.
I do know that poker is played in 1 of the following 4 formats, though—regardless of whether you’re playing at home or in the casino. Once you understand how these formats work, you can start experimenting with creating your own variations of these games.
You’re probably already familiar with at least one of these formats:
1- Stud Poker
A stud poker game is one where you get one or more facedown cards followed by multiple face-up cards. The last card is usually dealt face-down, too. There’s a round of betting after different sets of cards are dealt. Most stud poker games are played as either 5-card stud or 7-card stud. Here are examples of how both games commonly work:
In a 7-card stud game, everyone starts with 2 face-down cards and one face-up card. There’s a round of betting, then a 4th card, face-up. There’s another round of betting, then a 5th card, also face-up. Then there’s another round of betting and a 6th card, again dealt face-up. There’s another round of betting and a final card, face-down, followed by a final round of betting and a showdown. A showdown, by the way, is when more than one player is left in the pot. The players “show down” their hands to see who wins.
Dealers vary these games in multiple ways. One of the most common ways to vary the game in a home poker game is to include wild cards. Traditionally, the dealer gets to decide which cards are wild. It’s common to make deuces (2s) wild, but the dealer can declare anything wild that he wants. 7-card stud is often played as a hi-lo game, where the high hand must split the final pot with the player who has the low hand.
2- Draw Poker
Draw poker is probably the most basic form of poker that most people are familiar with. Each player gets 5 cards, face-down. There’s a round of betting, then players can discard and replace up to 3 cards in his hand. After the replacement cards are dealt, there’s a final round of betting and a showdown.
Draw poker is one form of poker that doesn’t really have much variation. As with any home poker game, you can include wild cards. One common variation that I’ve seen in home games is a blend of holdem poker and draw poker. Everyone gets 4 cards instead of 5, and there’s a single community card in the center of the table that all the players share.
This variation is common when you have 7 or more players at the table. It limits the number of cards you need to play, which can be a problem when you have that many players discarding and drawing cards.
3- Holdem Poker
Holdem poker is another way of saying “community card” poker. These are poker games where the players have some face-down cards in their hand—their hole cards—and some face-up cards in the middle of the table that all the players share.
The best-known holdem poker games these days are Texas holdem and Omaha, but there are countless variations of holdem poker spread in home poker games. In Texas holdem, everyone gets 2 hole cards, and everyone shares from 5 community cards in the center of the table. In Omaha, everyone gets 4 hole cards; there are still 5 community cards.
In home poker games, you’ll often have 4 hole cards and at least 5 community cards spread out in a specific shape. You’ll often be forced to pay to see the various cards from the board, and which cards you can combine with your hole cards are often defined by the shape of the cards in the center of the table.
These last versions barely qualify as holdem poker, although, strictly speaking, “holdem” poker is all about the community cards. These games can vary quite a bit depending on wild cards, restrictions to how many cards you can use from the “board,” and what betting limits are in place.
4- Guts Poker
Guts poker is a variation that allows the pot to grow exponentially. In its most basic form, it’s played heads-up (with 2 players). They each make an ante and get 2 cards. They can then decide whether they’re in or out.
It’s called “guts” for obvious reasons. The size of the bets after losing grow increasingly large. Guts doesn’t have to be played heads-up, obviously. But with more players, the pot tends to grow larger in size even faster. You won’t see guts games played in casino cardrooms, but they’re common in home games still.
Variations on a Format
The number of ways you can vary any of these games are staggering. To create your own games, you can vary any of the following:
You can mix and match formats. You can play a stud game with a certain number of drawing rounds allowed. Or you can play a stud game that includes 1 or more community cards.
You can play with the betting limits. Most games have standard betting limits where you must ante or pay blinds before getting cards. Then the first round or 2, you have one size bet, with larger bets in the later rounds. But most games can be played in pot limit and no limit formats, too. In a pot limit game, your bets can be no larger than the size of the pot. And in a no limit game, you can bet as many chips as you have in front of you.
You can include wild cards. Depending on which cards the dealer declares wild, hand values can change dramatically. If you make one-eyed jacks wild, it has a different effect on the game than if you make deuces wild. You can even include a joker or 2, which also has a different effect on the texture of the game.
You can play in various hi-lo formats. In most hi-lo games, the lowest qualifying hand gets to win half the pot at the showdown. Usually a hand must have 5 cards ranked 8 or lower to qualify as a low hand. A “wheel,” or an ace to 5 straight, counts as the lowest possible hand, but it also has the possibility of being the best hand. (Straights are strong hands.) In some hi-lo games, you might split the pot with someone who has the lowest card of a suit as one of his or her hole cards. These options can stimulate a lot of action. One common variation of this is “Chicago,” where the player with the highest (or lowest) spade in the hole wins half the pot. In some games, you must have BOTH the best hand AND the highest spade in the hole to win, otherwise the game resets and there’s a new deal.
You can play poker games that don’t use poker rules. I don’t like this option, but it happens. You’ll find people who play “poker” games that use rules from bridge or rummy. Really, your imagination can run wild with this sort of thing. But I don’t think it’s really poker.
You can play an all-low version of a game. Instead of splitting the pot between the high hand and the low hand, you can declare that the hand goes to the person with the best qualifying low hand. Razz is an example of this variation that sometimes gets spread in casino cardrooms. It’s just 5-card stud played ace to 5. There’s no reason you can’t play this version with 5-card draw or Texas holdem or any other format.
You can force players to buy cards. In some draw poker games, you must pay for each card that you discard and replace. This is especially common in games where you get 4 cards and share a community card. This is also reasonably common in some 5-card stud games.
You can force players to give a card to their neighbor. This is another variation that’s common in 5-card stud games. You’re required to choose one of your face-down cards and give it to the player on your left. Since everyone has to do this, it’s fair. You can also force players to pass multiple cards to their neighbors. It’s up to the dealer.
You can change the rules about which cards dealt face-down and which cards are dealt face-up. One common version of this is 7-card stud. Instead of getting 2 cards down and one card face-up, you get 3 face-down cards. You then choose which one you want to expose to the other players.
You can give players the options of ending a game early. I’ve seen games of 7-card stud where, before the last card is dealt, the player with the best hand showing gets to decide whether to continue. If this player wants to, he can call for a re-deal. This is a weird and irritating variation.
You can declare a card that ends the game immediately and makes you re-deal. This is often a queen of spades or clubs. The money stays in the pot, but when the queen of spades shows up, everyone mucks their cards, there’s a new shuffle, and a new deal.
You can change which hands rank for certain things. One common variation of this is to declare a pair of 7s the best possible hand in the game. I’ve only heard about this, but I’d love to play in a game where someone has a royal flush and loses to a pair of 7s.
Wild cards can change based on your preference. I’ve seen games where the wild card changes every time a queen is dealt. The card immediately dealt after the queen becomes the wild card. If another queen is dealt later, there might be a new wild card, and the other card is no longer wild. I’ve also seen games where you get to choose one of the cards in the hole to be wild just for you.
Some cards can trigger an extra card. The most popular variant that uses this kind of rules variation is “baseball.” In baseball, 3s and 9s are wild, but if you get a 4, you also get an extra card. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why these numbers are important to baseball players. There are 3 strikes and 3 outs in every inning, and there are 9 innings. 4 balls results in a walk, which is why you get an extra card.
You can vary the number of cards in a game. Some people might love 7-card stud but be playing at a table where there are too many players to support that game. There’s no reason you can’t play 6-card stud in that situation.
You can make some cards worthless. There’s a community card game called “red and black” in which you get 2 boards of 4 cards each, dealt parallel to each other. One of those boards is declared red, while the other is declared black. When you turn over a card from one of those boards, you turn over the corresponding cards from the other board. If a card doesn’t match the declared color for that board, it’s discarded.
Even within those 4 formats, though, the number of variations are dramatic. They can be practically anything you can think of. I’ve listed the most common rules variations I could think of, but you and your Thursday night card game buddies’ only limits involve your imagination.