If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll have noticed that I’ve been writing a series of ““what is gambling” posts. The point of these posts is to identify what is essential to gambling in general and specific to gambling activities.
This post answers the question, what is poker? What makes a poker game different from a slot machine game or a blackjack game, in other words.
I’ll start by explaining some of the characteristics of a poker game that are most essential to the activity. Then I’ll provide more information about poker games and how they work so that you’ll be able to catch on and play in almost any poker game you’re presented with.
But there’s more to poker than just the cards you use.
The other important aspect of poker is betting. Poker games are played over a series of betting rounds, during which you put money into the pot. Players compete for the money in the pot based on the strength of their poker hands.
In all poker games, you have similar options when it comes to betting. I’ll cover those in the appropriate section below, too.
Most poker games also use the standard ranking of poker hands for determining who wins a pot at the showdown.
1- The Standard Ranking of Poker Hands
Playing cards in a standard deck of cards have 2 main attributes:
- A suit
- A ranking
There are 4 suits and 13 rankings. The suits are clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades.
The 13 rankings are the ace, which is a 1 that also counts as high. Then you have the numbers 2 through 10. Finally, you have a jack, queen, and king in each suit.
When you combine cards into a 5-card hand, those hands can fall into certain categories based on their ranks and suits. These categories are called the standard ranking of poker hands, and most of us learn these rankings as kids:
- Royal flush – This is a straight flush consisting of the 10, jack, queen, king, and ace of the same suit. It’s the best possible hand in poker. Notice that the cards are of consecutive rankings, and they’re also all of the same suit.
- Straight flush – A straight flush is a hand where the cards are in consecutive ranking order and also all the same suit. A royal flush is just the highest possible straight flush you can get, so these are really the same hand.
- 4 of a kind – This is a hand where you have all 4 cards of a specific ranking. The 5th card can be anything. The higher the ranking of the cards in the 4 of a kind, the better.
- Full house – This is a hand where you have 3 cards of one ranking, while the other 2 cards are of another ranking.
- Flush – This is a hand where all 5 cards are of the same suit, but they’re not consecutive.
- Straight – This is a hand where all 5 cards are in consecutive order, ranking-wise, but they’re not of the same suit.
- 3 of a kind – This is a hand where you have 3 cards of the same ranking. The other 2 cards are different.
- 2 pair – This is 2 cards of one ranking, 2 cards of another ranking, and a 5th card of one more ranking.
- A pair – This is 2 cards of one ranking with 3 other cards of different rankings.
- High card – If no one’s hand fits any of these categories, the player with the highest card in his hand wins.
In almost all instances, if there’s a tie, hand-ranking-wise, the higher version of that hand wins.
For example, if I had a straight flush where my highest card were a jack, and you had a straight flush where your highest card were a queen, you’d win—you’d have the higher version of that hand.
Here’s another example:
If you have a pair of kings, and I also have a pair of kings, we would compare the next highest card in our hand to determine the winner. That extra card is often called “the kicker.”
Bets and Betting in Poker
I’ve seen poker writers insist that betting is what defines poker more than cards or card rankings. This is true, too. Without betting, you’d have no game.
One of the most important bets in poker is the “forced bet.” This is either an ante or a blind, and it’s the reason everyone gets involved in hands. If there were no forced bets, players would just fold until they had a great hand.
An ante is a forced bet that every player must make on every hand.
A blind is a forced bet that every player must make when it’s his turn to make it. In most games with blinds, there’s a small blind and a big blind, and whose turn it is to post the blind rotates around the table along with the dealer position.
In both those cases, the stakes of the game determine the size of the forced bet.
Betting is another common betting action. This means you put money into the pot, and if the other players want to contest the pot at the showdown, they must at least call your bet.
Calling a bet just means matching the amount of money that an earlier player wagered on a hand.
You can also raise a bet. This means you’re going to match the size of the bet but increase the size of it. In most poker games, if you’re going to raise, you must raise at least the same amount as the initial bet.
A check-raise is a move that some old-school players find rude, but it’s effective. You check when it’s your turn to act, but when someone behind you bets, you raise the size of your bet when the action comes back to you. In some neighborhood games, checking is not allowed.
Common Poker Tactics
Anyone who’s read anything about poker knows that some tactics are quintessential to the game. This includes bluffing and reading your opponents.
Bluffing is when you make a bet just in hopes of getting your opponents to all fold. If everyone else has folded after you bet, you get to win the pot without exposing your hand to the other players.
Bluffing is most effective when you’re dealing with 1 or 2 opponents. The more opponents who need to fold, the less likely you are to succeed in your bluff.
You have 2 ways to win a semi-bluff:
- 1. You can win the pot when everyone folds.
- 2. You can win the pot when your hand improves to where it’s better than all your opponents’ hands.
Reading the other players is the other quintessential poker skill. Deception is a big part of the game. You want your opponents to fold when they have better cards than you, and you want them to call your bets when you have better cards than they do.
But you don’t know what cards they’re holding, and vice-versa.
Some of this is just guesswork, but some of it is psychology, too. Observing your opponents’ general tendencies is a start when you’re learning to read opponents. Does this guy fold a lot? Does this woman raise with nothing a lot?
How likely is it that he’s bluffing? What cards might he be holding when he’s making that action from that position?
This can and should inform your poker decisions. In fact, it’s so important that David Sklansky calls it the Fundamental Theorem of Poker:
Any time your opponent acts differently from how he would if he could see your cards, you gain. Any time you act differently from how you would act if you could see his cards, you lose.
Different Varieties of Poker Games
Of course, there are lots of different poker games you can play, both at a casino and in a home game. These variations can be categorized, too, according to the rules for how each game is played.
Draw poker is one of the most common forms of poker that new players learn how to play. You start with a hand, then you get to discard and replace cards.
Stud poker is the opposite of draw poker. You get a hand, and that’s the hand you play. The betting rounds take place between the deal of each card.
Community card poker is poker where you share cards with your opponents. You have some cards of your own, too. Texas holdem is the most popular poker game in the United States these days, and it’s the primary example of this kind of poker.
Now I’ll take a closer look at each of these types of poker games:
Draw Poker Games and How They Work
The most common poker game among children and in this category is 5-card draw. It’s as straightforward and as simple a poker game as you could ask for.
Everyone posts an ante, a forced bet, which is usually a small amount.
The dealer gives everyone a 5-card hand. You get to look at your cards, but your opponents don’t.
There’s a round of betting after this.
The players who are still involved in the hand—who haven’t folded—get to discard cards from their hand and get replacements.
Once they have their final hand, there’s a final betting round.
At the showdown—if there is one—the player with the highest ranking poker hand wins the pot.
But in many 5-card draw poker games, you must have at least a pair of jacks before being allowed to bet.
And in some of those games, you need at least 3 of a kind to win. In this variation, there are often no winners. When that happens, the pot stays on the table, everyone antes again, and everyone has a chance to play at the new, bigger pot.
There are more variations of 5-card draw than you can imagine, but my favorite is called “spit in the ocean.” In this version of the game, you get 4 cards, and so do your opponents. You all share a single community card. Other than that, the action works just like it does in regular 5-card draw.
The community card isn’t revealed until after the first betting and drawing round.
Stud Poker Games and How They Work
5-card stud and 7-card stud are the most common stud poker variations. In these versions of the game, you don’t get to discard and draw new cards. And some of your cards are dealt face-up, so you have some information about what your opponents are holding.
Most stud poker games also use an ante system, and you start with one face-down card in either version. In 5-card stud, you get 2 cards, one of which is face up. In 7-card stud, you get an extra face-down card, so you start with 3 cards.
Then there’s a betting round between the exposure of each additional card. You bet, the betting action is resolved, then you get another card.
The last card—the 7th card in 7 card stud, and the 5th card in 5-card stud, is traditionally dealt face down. (We used to call it “down and dirty.”)
There are even more variations of stud poker than there are of draw poker. One of the most common variations is to play high-low. You get to split half the pot if you have the best qualifying low hand.
When playing high-low, you can create 2 hands—one to win the high pot and the other to win the low pot.
High-low is almost always played 8-or-better when playing stud. This means that to qualify for low, a hand must have no cards in it ranked 9 or higher.
To determine which hand qualifies as low, you just list the cards in descending order and treat it as a 5-digit number. So the best possible hand is 5432A. The worst possible qualifying hand is 87654.
If you have 87653 and your opponent has 87652, your opponent wins, because 87652 is lower than 87653.
Straights and flushes don’t count against you when you’re determining the low hand, either.
Other variations of 7-card stud include wild cards, and some have lots of extra rules. My favorite variation of 7-card stud is baseball.
In baseball, 3s and 9s are wild, and 4s get an extra card. (There are 3 strikes before you’re out, and the game has 9 innings before it’s over. 4 balls equates to a walk.)
Community Card Poker Games and How They Work
The most commonly played version of poker in the United States these days is the community card game, of which Texas holdem is overwhelmingly the most popular version.
In a community card game, you get some cards in your hand, but you also have some cards in the middle of the table which serve as cards for your hand and your opponents’ hands.
In Texas holdem, you get 2 cards of your own, dealt face-down. These are your hole cards.
Then 5 cards are dealt face up in the center of the table. The action takes place in rounds:
- 1. You and your opponents get your hole cards and bet based on them.
- 2. The flop is dealt—these are the first 3 cards on the board. Then there’s another round of betting.
- 3. A 4th community card, the turn, is dealt. Then there’s another round of betting.
- 4. A 5th community card, the river is dealt. Then there’s a final round of betting.
When it’s time for the showdown, you make the best 5-card you hand from any combination of the cards in your hand and the cards on the board.
Omaha is similar to Texas holdem, but instead of getting 2 hole cards, you get 4 hole cards. And instead of using any combination of cards in the hole and on the board, you must use 2 cards in the hole and 3 cards from the board.
Omaha is more popular when played high-low, 8-or-better, just like stud 8 or better.
Pineapple poker is a midway point that’s often played in home poker games. You get 3 hole cards, but in most versions, you must discard one of the 3 cards. When you must choose your card to discard determines which version of pineapple you’re playing:
- Pineapple – You discard one of the 3 cards before anything else happens.
- Crazy pineapple – You discard one of the 3 cards after the flop.
- Lazy pineapple – You get to keep all 3 cards until the end of the hand.
Of course, there are all kinds of crazy community card games that get played in home poker games. My father-in-law used to really enjoy these—especially the ones where you had to buy a card.
Another Big Distinction to Make between Poker and Other Games
You’ll find games like Ultimate Holdem and Three Card Poker in casinos all over the world. These aren’t really poker games. They’re casino games that use the trappings of poker games to entice players.
That doesn’t make these bad games.
Video poker has more in common with solitaire than it does poker. Again, it’s just a game that uses poker trappings to attract players to a gambling machine.
Poker might hold a justifiable claim to being America’s real pastime. Apologies to baseball, but it’s true.
The main things that make a poker game what it is are betting, poker hand rankings, and playing against the other players at the table.
If you have an understanding of draw poker, stud poker, and community card poker, the rest is details.
What kind of poker experience do you have, and how might it change in the future after reading this post?