I’ve been working on a series of blog posts I call the “What Is Gambling” series, and I just wrapped up a post about “What Is Poker?” Today’s post is titled “What Is Texas Holdem,” which is probably the most appropriate follow-up to “What Is Poker” you could ask for.

The goal for these posts is to explain the essence of what these activities are and how they work. This post is meant to introduce the novice to the game of Texas holdem and also to explain how the game works so well that even an expert might learn something from it.

At its core, Texas holdem is just a poker game where you share cards with the other players. Each player gets 2 cards face-down (her “hole cards”). You combine your hole cards with the shared cards on the board to create the best possible poker hand.

In Texas holdem, the board (the community cards) consists of 7 face-up card. These aren’t all dealt at once, though—they’re dealt in phases, with betting rounds in between. You get to use any combination of your hole cards with the community cards to create your hand.

This means you can use 2 cards from your hand and 3 cards from the board, 1 card from your hand and 4 cards from the board, or just play 5 cards from the board.

The rest of this post goes into more detail about how to play Texas holdem and how to play it well.

The Blinds and Forced Betting

As I discussed in the post about poker, one of the integral aspects of the game is the betting. Without betting, it ain’t poker.

In all poker games, you have forced bets. These are bets players must make to stay in the game. Withou these forced bets, you wouldn’t have any action. Players would just fold until they got a hand they figured was the nuts.

In most other poker games, these forced bets take the form of antes, which are small bets everyone must place before getting a hand.

By contrast, in Texas holdem, you have blinds, which are rotating forced bets. Most Texas holdem games have a small blind and a big blind, and the small blind is usually half the size of the big blind. And the big blind is usually the size of the small bet in the game.

The players to the left of the dealer place the small blind and the big blind, respectively.

As the dealer position orbits the table, so do the blinds.

Every orbit, you’ll pay the small blind once and the big blind once, and so will all the other players at the table.

For example, if you’re playing in a $4/$8 Texas holdem game, the blinds are usually $2 (for the small blind) and $4 (for the big blind).

The Betting Structure Varies Based on Which Version of Texas Holdem You’re Playing

The order in which you bet doesn’t change based on the version, but the size of your bets does. In limit holdem, you must place bets in increments that are pre-determined.

In the example above, the bets must be made in increments of $4 in the first 2 rounds of the game and in increments of $8 in the final 2 rounds of the game.

But many Texas holdem games are played in pot limit or no limit format. In a pot limit game, the maximum size of your bet is equal to the amount of money in the pot.

In a no limit game, you can bet all the chips in front of you any time it’s your turn to bet.

These might not sound like it, but these differences in betting sizes make the 3 versions of the game so different that you might as well be playing a different game altogether.

At least this is true when you look at limit versus pot limit or limit versus no limit. Pot limit and no limit are similar enough that the strategies are often more or less the same.

This becomes more obvious when you start looking at books about poker strategy. A book about limit holdem reads very differently from a book about no limit strategy.

But most of the advice in a no limit Texas holdem game would apply equally to a pot limit game.

The Deal and Rounds

In a home version of the game, the person with the deck of cards is the dealer. She gets to deal one hand, then the deal moves to the person on her left. This continues around the table without end.

If you’re playing in a casino, a cardroom employee deals the cards for you. You track the location of the dealer position for purposes of who places the blinds by using a plastic disk called a dealer button. (It even has the word “dealer” printed on it.)

I played in a home game Saturday night where they were using the dealer button as well as the deck of cards to track the dealer position. I thought that was silly, but it also meant I was playing with some less sophisticated players, which is usually good for my bankroll.

A hand of Texas holdem plays out over the following rounds:

  • Pre-Flop
  • The Flop
  • The Turn
  • The River

Pre-Flop is the round of betting that takes place after everyone gets their first 2 hole cards. You’re betting on the strength of these cards without the benefit of having seen the flop or any of the community cards.

The Flop is when the dealer flips over the first 3 cards of the community cards. They’re supposed to be flipped over all at the same time, by the way, not one at a time.

Perceptive players might watch your reactions to each cards as they’re flipped over and gain information about your hand if they’re flipped over one at a time.

The Turn is when the dealer flips over the 4th of the 5 community cards.

The River is when the dealer flips over the 5th (and final) card on the board.

Your Betting Options and How They Work Out

In all Texas holdem games, you have minimum bet sizes during the first 2 rounds and minimum bet sizes during the second 2 rounds. This means you can bet the lower amounts during the pre-flop and flop stages, but you must bet the higher amounts after the turn and the river.

In a limit game where the limits are $4/$8, you’d need to bet $4 minimum during the first 2 rounds and $8 minimum during the next 2 rounds. If you want to make a raise, you would need to raise at least that amount, too.

In a pot limit or no limit game, you still must make the minimum bets for those rounds, but you have the option to bet more. If you want to raise, you must raise at least the size of the previous bet.

For example, if someone bets $20, and you want to raise, you must raise by $20 minimum. It doesn’t matter what the blinds or the minimum bets are at that point.

If you want to play in the hand at all pre-flop, you must at least call the big blind. That means you must post a bet the same size as that big blind. You also have the option of raising or folding.

After the flop, you also have the option of checking, which means you’re not folding, but you’re not betting into the pot, either.

How the Game Plays Out Each Hand

During each phase of the game is a round of betting. If everyone but one player folds, that player wins the pot by default. If more than one player is still involved in the hand at the end of the betting, you have a showdown.

During the showdown, you compare your best possible 5-card hand with your opponents’, and the best 5-card hand wins the money in the pot. In the event of a tie, the amount of money in the pot is split between the players who tied.

All the Texas holdem games I’ve ever played in were played “cards speak.” This means that even if you don’t recognize your best possible poker hand, you still get credit for the best possible hand you can make.

You can make a mistake and announce the wrong hand and still win the hand as long as the dealer and/or other players notice and correct you.

Some players win a lot of money at Texas holdem by betting and raising relentlessly against weaker opponents who are too willing to fold. Other players lost a lot of money by checking and calling consistently when they don’t have strong hands.

I’ll have more to say about that in the next few sections, which are all about Texas holdem strategies.

Texas Holdem Strategy Considerations

Most people who’ve been paying attention already know that poker is a game of skill as well as chance. In any extended period of time, the player with more skill will eventually win all the money. That’s because over time, everyone gets the same number of good hands and bad hands.

No one has written a definitive guide to strategy for all kinds of Texas holdem games. It’s not like blackjack; the game hasn’t been “solved.” That’s because, by its nature, Texas holdem is a game of incomplete information.

You don’t know what cards are going to be dealt on the future rounds. You also don’t know what cards your opponents are holding.

There’s only one situation in Texas holdem where the best possible play is a certainty—you should always bet and raise preflop with aces.

But even that is up for debate and nuance. Since pocket aces are the best possible hand in Texas holdem at that point in the game, you should always want to get as much of your money and your opponents’ money in the pot as possible.

But how to do that?

If you’re first to act, you might limp in with aces in the hopes that someone behind you will raise. When the action gets back to you, you can then re-raise. You also need to consider the possibility that everyone will fold. Do you want to bet so much that you don’t get any action?

Which would be the perfect situation?

You don’t know what your opponents are going to do.

And that uncertainty gets even greater when you’re dealing with a hand that’s not as good as a pair of aces in the hole.

Which brings me to the next point I want to make about Texas holdem strategy:

Starting Hand Selection

The best Texas holdem strategy is to play a limited number of hands before the flop and fold the rest. The idea is that you want to get your money into the pot when you have the best of it, and you want to avoid putting money in the pot when you don’t.

David Sklansky suggests that the Fundamental Theorem of Poker is this:

Every time you act in the same way you would if you knew what your opponents’ hidden cards are, you gain. Every time you act in a different than you would if you knew what your opponent was holding, you lose.

The reverse is also true. Every time your opponent acts differently from how he would if he knew what your cards were, you gain. Every time he acts the same as he would if he could see your cards, you lose. This makes poker, among other things, a game of deception.

But it also means that you should bet and raise heavily when you have strong cards, and check or fold when you have weak cards.

If you have strong cards, they’re more likely to be better than your opponents’. If you knew that for a certainty, you would, of course, bet and/or raise.

If you have weak cards, they’re more likely to bet worse than your opponents’. If you knew that for a certainty, you would almost always fold.

It’s the hands in the middle that give you the most trouble.

Types of Starting Hands in Texas Holdem

You don’t have to memorize a chart or table outlining the strength of the various possible Texas holdem hands. You can, instead, think of these starting hands in terms of their categories.

Big pairs are pocket pairs of 10 or higher. These hands usually play well from any position at the table. (I’ll have more to say about position in the next section, so stick around and read all the way through this post.)

You should usually bet and raise with these hands, although as the ranking of the cards in your pair get lower, the more cautious you should be.

Medium and small pairs are pairs of 9s or lower. These hands play well from middle to late position, and they usually play better with more people in the pot.

That’s because you want a lot of money in the pot on the rare occasion that you hit 3 of a kind on the flop.

Suited connectors are cards that are adjacent to each other in ranking and are also of the same suit. You have the potential to make a flush or a straight with these cards. The higher these cards are in ranking, the better.

Most suited connectors where the higher card is 9 or less are speculative at best, but if you have at least one 10 or better, you have a solid speculative hand.

They don’t have to be immediately adjacent, either, although their value drops the further the 2 cards are from each other in rank. For example, 10-J suited is a better starting hand than 8-10 suited.

Big-little suited is a hand with an ace or a king in it and another lower-ranked card of the same suit. This includes AK and AQ, which are both more-or-less monsters when they’re suited.

It also includes hands as speculative as A-2 or A-3 suited, which are speculative in the extreme—you need to hit 2 pair or a solid flush draw on the flop to continue in the hand unless you’re bluffing.

AK and AQ are playable if they’re not suited, too, but big cards lose a lot of value when they’re not suited. AJ is really speculative and needs to hit you flop and later rounds really hard if you want to continue in the hand and win.

Most other hands aren’t really playable. The rule of thumb is that big pairs can sometimes win pots if you can thin the field with your bets and raises, but the other hands, being more speculative, need to hit the flop before you should continue with the hand.

Tight Aggressive Play

Earlier I talked about players who lose a lot of money because they call a lot of bets when they shouldn’t. These players are examples of loose, passive players.

A loose player is one who plays in a lot of hands—she doesn’t fold often enough. A tight player is one who folds a lot and only plays strong hands.

A passive player is one who checks and calls a lot. An aggressive player, on the other hand, is one who bets and raises a lot. Aggressive players tend to do better, because they win money when their opponents fold.

They also win bigger pots when they win, because they’re forcing their opponents to put money in the pot.

The tendencies aren’t exclusive, either. Players can be tight and passive, for example. These players are called rocks. They don’t play a lot of hands, but even when they get cards they like, they’re timid with them.

Players can also be loose and aggressive. Some players in some games succeed well with such an approach. They win so much money from their opponents’ folding in the face of their aggression that they can afford to lose some pots when their hands don’t hit.

Loose, passive players are the best opponents you can hope for. They’ll pay you off repeatedly by putting money into the pot with sub-standard holdings and never put pressure on you to make a hard decision.

Your goal is to be a tight, aggressive player. You won’t play many hands, but when you get cards, you’ll bet and raise with those hands. That’s a winning approach to Texas holdem.

In fact, it’s a winning approach to almost any poker variation.

The Importance of Position

I left the most important aspect of Texas holdem strategy for last—position.

This refers to when you act during the game. The location of the dealer button and the blinds determines your position.

The first player to the left of the big blind makes the first decision pre-flop. After the flop, the first player to the left of the dealer button makes the first decision.

This is early position.

From early position, you need stronger hands to warrant playing. You have less information about your opponents and what they’re planning to do from early position.

On the other hand, if you’re in late position, you have much more information about how many players are in the pot and what the strength of their hands might be.

You can play more hands from late position, because you’ll also get to see what you opponents are going to do when they see the flop and later phases of the hand.


Texas holdem poker is the most popular version of poker played in the United States. If you’ve never played, it can be confusing at first.

You should try some of the free online versions of Texas holdem before playing for any kind of meaningful stakes.

It’s a game of skill, although it might seem to be more of a game of luck in the short run. Most of the strategy involves your levels of aggression, how tight you play, and how well you play from various positions at the table.

What did you learn about the essence of Texas holdem that you didn’t already know from this post?

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