No card game has greater mystique or sex appeal than poker. It conjures images of gangsters sitting in smoke-filled rooms, ready to pull knifes on each other at any hint of cheating, and of desperate punters throwing car or house keys into a pot in one last desperate bid to win a hand.
That’s probably why it’s the most popular card game in the world, with millions of players entering battle every day in an industry that is now worth billions.
Poker provides an entertaining alternative to sports betting and for many, it isn’t just a game. It’s a career or a calling and some of the world’s best professional players are multi-millionaires. But while the rewards are certainly high, the pitfalls are also steep and many a marriage, career or life has been ruined by one flip of a card.
While luck plays a large part, the appeal of poker lies in the fact it is mostly a game of skill and cunning, with strategy and psychology holding the key to striking it rich.
For the novice, poker can seem quite intimidating but the rules aren’t too difficult and it doesn’t take too long to understand how the game works. The most popular version of poker is Texas Hold Em and that’s the game I’ll be looking at in this guide.
The Basics of Texas Hold Em Gameplay
The aim of Texas Hold Em is to create the best five-card hand from the two cards dealt to you and the five community cards that are dealt to the middle of the table. There is a round of betting before the first three community cards are revealed (which is known as the flop) then three more rounds of betting before the player with the winning hand collects the pot.
To make sure that money is in the pot for every round, two players will always stake money before a card is even dealt. One will have to stake the big blind, which is two chips, and the other will stake just one chip, the small blind. The value of blinds will be determined before the game, giving players an idea of how much they are betting with. In some versions of Texas Hold Em, blinds can change during a game, mostly in tournaments.
The small blind is paid by the person to the left of the dealer, with the next person to his left paying the big blind. The dealer moves round to the left after each hand, changing who pays the big and small blinds for the next hand.
Once each player is dealt their two cards, face down so nobody can see them, the pre-flop betting begins. It starts with the player sitting to the left of the big blind, who is known as being Under The Gun. They must decide whether to fold (throw their hand in and sit the round out), call (match the big blind) or raise (add more chips than the big blind).
This continues with play passing to the left and the betting will be determined by what the previous player has done. For example, if the player Under The Gun raises a £10 big blind by a further £10, then the next player must put in £20 to call, while the small blind player will need to put in an extra £15 and the big blind player an extra £10. If any other player raises further then each of the others would need to match this bet to stay in the game. Once this round of betting is completed by the final player, the flop will be dealt.
This is when the first three community cards in the middle of the table are revealed. When combined with the two player cards they will create a poker hand. There is another round of betting at this stage, which follows the same rules as the pre-flop betting. Players will be more inclined to fold or raise at this stage as they will have a better idea if they will have a strong hand or not. But there is still the opportunity to better your hand through the final two community cards.
This is the term given to the round where the fourth community card is revealed. Betting continues in the same manner as the previous two rounds.
The last community card is finally revealed and players get to see what their strongest hand will be. The final round of betting takes place before the cards are revealed and we find out which player has won.
Which hands beat other hands?
The most important thing in poker is to know what the best hands are. There is nothing worse than having what you think is a winning hand and betting accordingly only to find out your opponent can trump you. Here’s a list of hands in order from best to worst.
Royal Flush – Ace, King, Queen, Jack and 10 all in the same suit
Straight Flush – Five cards in a row of the same suit. For example, the 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 of Hearts.
Four of a kind – Four cards of the same value. For example, the number five in Hearts, Clubs, Spades and Diamonds.
Full House – Three of a kind and a pair. For example, the 3 of Diamonds, the 3 of Hearts, the 3 of Clubs plus the 6 of Diamonds and the 6 of Spades.
Flush – Five cards of the same suit. For example, the 4, 8, 9 10 and Queen of Clubs.
Straight – Similar to a straight flush, expect the cards are not in the same suit. For example, the 2 of Clubs, the 3 of Diamonds, the 4 of Hearts, the 5 of Clubs and the six of Spades.
Three of a kind – Three cards of the same number.
Two Pair – Two pairs of cards of the same number. For example, the Jack of Hearts, the Jack of Clubs, the 9 of Diamonds and the 9 of Hearts.
One Pair – Two cards of the same number. For example the ace of Hearts and the ace of Spades
High Card – If nobody has even a pair, the winner will be the player with the highest single card, ranking in order from Ace, King, Queen and Jack down to 1.
General Advice & Tips
Make sure you open an account with a licensed and regulated operator. Poker is the ultimate game of skill and psychology and depends far less on chance than other forms of gambling. So it’s essential to get some practice in on sites that don’t use real money first. There are hundreds of virtual poker apps and sites that let you play just for fun.
Once you feel comfortable with all the elements of the game and have an idea of when you should be raising, folding or bluffing then have a look around to see which sites are offering the best bonuses and sign-up offers for new customers. It could be worth signing up for a few and taking advantage of all their offers then deciding which site you want to stick with for most of your gaming. But remember to check the fine print of any welcome offer or bonus. They generally have what is called a wagering requirement and these can be quite high. This is the amount of money you will need to bet in order to release your bonus winnings into your main cash balance. For example, if you have a welcome bonus of £100 with a wagering requirement of 25, you would only be able to access the bonus once you have a bet a total of £2,500.
Some sites offer chat sections where you can talk with your fellow players but I’d caution against using them. This could be used by some players to wind you up or look for tells so it’s best to keep quiet if you want to fleece them of their cash. The final piece of advice is to watch the film Rounders with Edward Norton and Matt Damon. If that doesn’t put you in the mood for a game of poker then nothing will.