How To Play Poker | Here's All You Need to Know to Start Playing Poker

How to Play Poker

Poker is one of the most popular card games in the world. It is certainly the most famous, and that is largely due to the increased number of poker tournaments that have been televised in recent decades. Of course, the fact that the game has also featured in countless television shows and movies has also played a big role in the high profile of the game.

Whenever poker is mentioned in general terms, most people think of Texas Hold’em. However, there are many different variants of poker, and each has its own distinct rules. In this article, we will explain how to play poker in broad strokes.

We’ll discuss where to play poker and how online poker games can be even more beneficial to players than their land-based cousins. You’ll learn all about poker hands and how they are ranked. We’ll also talk about the various poker variants and game formats that you’re likely to come across. All of that, as well as a big section on how to win at poker, is right here, so settle in and let’s get started.

Where to Play Poker

Before we talk about how to play poker, let's mention where to play it. Technically speaking, poker can be played anywhere, as long as you have a standard deck of 52 playing cards and some poker chips to help you keep track of who's winning and who isn't. Of course, playing poker for cash is a different matter. That is something that can only be done in a properly licensed poker room. These exist in many states, but not all. Be sure to refer to our state pages for an overview of the law in your particular location.

Poker can also be played at online poker rooms in the states that allow those to operate. Playing poker online is a lot more convenient because you don't have to travel anywhere. Simply log into your poker room account on your computer, tablet, or in some cases, even your smartphone. Online poker games also progress at a faster pace than those at land-based poker rooms, so you'll play more hands per hour. That means faster skill development and, hopefully, more profit for every hour you sit at the virtual tables.

If you're looking for an online poker room to play at, take a look at our online poker rooms page for details of all the main operators. Or, simply visit one or two of our recommended poker operators below.

How to Play Poker: The Mechanics

We said earlier that all you need to play poker is a deck of cards and some poker chips. That is certainly the case for casual games. But when you come to play for real money in a poker room, things are a lot more professional.

In a poker room, games are played at purpose-built tables which can normally seat up to ten players. A dealer is present at each table to deal the cards and generally run the game. This allows players to focus on making the best decisions possible.

Each hand of poker is started by a different player. In many games, a button is passed from player to player in a clockwise direction between hands and the player to the left of the button is the one who begins. The button also indicates the player who needs to post the big blind. We will talk more about that later in this article. 

When you play poker online, all of the components just discussed will be represented graphically on the screen of whatever device you are using. The only exception is the dealer, who is replaced by poker room software that deals cards and runs the game automatically. A top-down view of the table will occupy most of the screen, and the names of all participating players will be shown in their own 'seat' positions. A virtual button will pass from player to player so that you can keep track of positions and when you will need to post blinds.

How to Play Poker: Hand Rankings

While different variants of poker have different rules, the hands that can be made in most five-card poker games are largely the same. It is therefore important to learn all of these hands so that you have a basic understanding of how they compare in terms of strength. Here, then, are the various five-card poker hands that can be made, ranked from strongest to weakest. Note that when discussing poker hands, the letters A, K, Q, and J stand for Ace, King, Queen, and Jack, respectively.

Royal Flush

The rarest and most valuable of all poker hands is the Royal Flush. The five cards in this hand must be 10-J-Q-K-A in the same suit of clubs, spades, diamonds, or hearts.

Straight Flush

Five cards of the same suit that also have sequential values is a hand known as a Straight Flush. The highest card in the hand determines its value. A hand of 5-6-7-8-9 is therefore worth more than 4-5-6-7-8. The best Straight Flush that can be made is a 'King high'. That's because an 'Ace high' Straight Flush is a Royal Flush.

Four of a Kind

In this hand, four of the cards have the same value, and so the hand is named Four of a Kind. The higher the value of the four matched cards, the better. A hand of 6-5-5-5-5 would therefore beat A-4-4-4-4.

Full House

A Full House is a pair of two equally valued cards and a set of three other equally valued cards. The value of the three matching cards determines its strength. Q-Q-Q-J-J (Queens full of Jacks) would therefore beat 10-10-10-J-J (Tens full of Jacks).

Flush

A Flush is a hand of any five cards, all of which have the same suit. The higher the most valuable card in the hand, the better. 2-4-6-7-Q (Queen high) would therefore beat 2-4-5-10-J (Jack high).

Straight

A Straight is a hand of five cards with sequential values, but of different suits. As with the Flush, the highest card in the hand determines its strength. 

Three of a Kind

A hand with three cards of the same value and two other unmatched cards is a Three of a Kind. The value of the three matching cards determines its value. A hand of 8-8-8-2-3 would therefore beat 6-6-6-A-K.

Two Pairs

When you have two matching cards of one value and two other cards of another value, you have Two Pairs. The value of the highest pair determines its strength. 8-8-7-7-6 would therefore beat 7-7-6-6-5.

Pair

If you have just two cards of the same value, you have a Pair. The value of the pair determines its strength. 5-5-A-Q-K would therefore beat 2-2-A-Q-K.

High Card

When you have none of the hands detailed previously, its strength will be determined by the value of its highest card. A hand of Q-4-5-6-7 would therefore beat J-4-5-6-7.

How to Play Poker: Typical Elements

Different poker variants have different rules, as we will discuss shortly. However, most games still have the same essential elements in one form or another. We will therefore now explain how a typical poker game is played by highlighting the key components that tend to be involved. Those are:

  • Blinds
  • Hole Cards
  • Betting Rounds
  • Community Cards
  • Showdown

Blinds

The first thing that happens in most games is that a Big Blind and a Small Blind are posted by the two players to the left of the button. The Big Blind is a sum of money equal to a minimum bet. It is payable whether or not the player wants to play his hand. The Small Blind is half the minimum bet. 

These blinds are something that every player must post when the button reaches them. They should be viewed as the cost of spending time at the table. Blinds help to discourage players from simply sitting there and waiting for the best possible hole cards to be dealt to them. The blinds also get the pot started so that subsequent players have something to follow.

Hole Cards

Hole cards are ones that are dealt to each player. In most games, they are only known to the player themselves. Trying to guess or deduce what your opponents have is one of the things that makes poker so interesting.

These cards will determine your chances of winning a hand. For that reason, the hole cards are dealt before the first round of betting takes place.

Betting Rounds

Most poker games have a number of betting rounds. The player sitting to the left of the Big Blind will be the first to act in a betting round. Betting then continues in a clockwise direction until all players have had the chance to act. The three main options that a player will have in any given betting round are as follows:

Raise: This means to bet more than the player before you. All players after you will have to match your bet, or raise it further (re-raise) to stay in the hand.

Call: This means to bet the same as the player before you in order to stay in the hand. If you call and someone in a later position raises, you will also have to call that higher amount (or re-raise) to stay in the hand.

Fold: This means to withdraw your participation from the hand. It costs nothing to fold, but you will have no chance of winning. You will also lose any money that you put into the pot previously.

Community Cards

Community cards are those that are dealt in the middle of the poker table. They can be used by any player, either with or without their unique hole cards, to make the best hand possible.

The community cards are usually dealt in rounds, with a round of betting taking place in between each. For example, in the game of Texas Hold'em, the community cards are dealt in three stages. Those are known as the Flop, the Turn, and the River. A round of betting takes place before the Flop, after the Flop, after the Turn, and after the River.

Showdown

Because players can fold their hands in any betting round, not every hand of poker will progress all the way to the showdown. If so many players fold their hands that only one remains, he or she wins the pot by default and the hand will end right there and then. 

Assuming that doesn't happen, the showdown takes place after the final round of betting whenever there are two or more players still involved. At this stage, the hole cards of those players will be revealed and the one with the strongest hand will win the pot. If two or more players have equally strong hands, the pot will be divided between them accordingly.

Common Poker Variants

Having discussed how to play poker in broad strokes, we can now summarise the main points of some of the variations you are most likely to come across. There are many more than we will mention here, but the big five are as follows:

Texas Hold'em

The most popular poker game on the planet, Texas Hold'em is a five-card poker variant. Players receive two hole cards and up to five community cards are dealt in the middle of the table. Those community cards are dealt in three stages, known as the Flop, the Turn, and the River. Betting rounds take place before the Flop, after the Flop, after the Turn, and after the River.

Omaha

Omaha poker is similar to Texas Hold'em. The similarities include Omaha having the same betting rounds and community cards, and the aim of making the best possible five-card poker hand. However, there are a couple of key differences. The first big difference is that four hole cards are dealt to each player, rather than just two. The other big difference is that the five-card hand which is played must comprise exactly two of the hole cards and three of the community cards.

Stud Poker

Stud poker can refer to any one of several variants. These include Six Card Stud, Seven Card Stud, Hi-Lo Stud, and Razz. These games also require players to make the best hand from hole cards and community cards. However, the order of play isn't always dictated by position. Also, the 'best' hand may differ from variant to variant. For example, in the game of Razz, the 'best' hand is the one with the lowest value, not the highest.

H.O.R.S.E.

H.O.R.S.E. is a poker game in which five different variants are played, in turn. Those games are Texas Hold'em, Omaha, Razz, Seven Card Stud, and Seven Card Stud Hi-Lo (Eight or Better). The first letters of the words Hold, Omaha, Razz, Stud, and Eight are the ones used to form the H.O.R.S.E. acronym. When all five of those variants have been played (typically at the rate of one round of the table per variant) the cycle begins again with another hand of Texas Hold'em.

Draw Poker

Draw poker games include any variant that deals a full hand to each hand before betting begins. Subsequent stages then involve discarding cards that you don't want and drawing new ones to replace them. Five Card Draw is the best-known variant, but others include California Lowball and Badugi.

No Limit, Pot Limit, and Fixed Limit

Another thing that you will notice when exploring the poker games that you can play online is the reference to No Limit, Pot Limit, and Fixed Limit. These refer to limits on how much a player can bet at any particular point, as follows:

No Limit (N/L) means that there is no upper limit on how much a player can bet. In these games, a player can bet as much as he has available. This is why a player in No Limit Texas Hold'em can go 'all in' and bet the entirety of their chip stack on a particular hand.

Pot Limit (P/L) means that a player can bet whatever he likes between the minimum bet and the current value of the pot. As the pot grows throughout the hand, so does the maximum amount that can be bet.

Fixed Limit (F/L) means that the bets that can be made by players have a fixed value. That fixed value can change from betting round to betting round but will be clearly stated by the rules of the game being played.

How to Win at Poker

One question that's asked even more often than how to play poker is how to win at poker. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question. The most reliable way of giving yourself the best chance of winning is to learn as much as you can about the game and develop your skills by getting as much poker-playing experience as you can.

That said, there are five areas that you would do well to focus on if you want to make progress swiftly and effectively. Those areas concern strategy, odds, position, your poker face, and psychology.

Poker Strategy

First, you need to start playing poker strategically. This means having a serious game plan rather than relying on a hunch, instinct, or the feeling of the moment. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss strategy in detail. The good news is that there are plenty of books on the subject. Our advice is to obtain one or two that focus on the variant that you are most interested in playing. Those books will then tell you which starting hands to play and how to approach the betting rounds. And all from a variant-specific perspective.

Poker Odds

Poker is a game of skill as well as luck. Being able to make the right decision at the right time will be key to your success at the tables. In order to make those kinds of decisions, you will need to be able to calculate your odds of improving a hand and winning a pot. Again, this is information that you will find in countless books about poker. Take a look at one that discusses the variant you intend to play most often.

Poker Position

It has been said, especially in relation to a game like Texas Hold'em, that position is everything. That simply means that your position should always be taken into consideration when playing any given hand. For example, being in an early position at a Texas Hold'em table when limited information is available is quite different than being in a late position and having the benefit of knowing how your opponents have played. 

Because position can be so important, you should study the role that it plays in the type of game that you want to master. If position is key in your chosen variant, then study it and learn to play it well.

Poker Face

Technical skill is important in poker, but so is the ability to conceal, underplay or exaggerate the strength of your hand. In some variants - with Texas Hold'em being a good example - you can often win pots simply by acting as if your hand is unbeatable. This is, of course, most often referred to as bluffing. Similarly, you could underplay a very strong hand in order to try and get more money in the pot before you win it. 

While having a literally unreadable 'poker face' far less essential when playing online than it is when playing in a land-based setting, it is still important to learn how to present yourself effectively through your betting. You should therefore study this aspect of the game just as seriously as the others already mentioned.

Poker Psychology

The fifth area that you should study is poker psychology. As you'd expect, this is the mental side of the game, and it is something that far too many online poker players neglect. The simple truth is that, if you want to become a consistent winner in poker, you will need to develop high levels of self-discipline and self-control. You will need to play rationally rather than emotionally, accept losing hands as being part of the game and resist the urge to chase losses simply by throwing more money on the table. This kind of psychological skill can also be studied in books, but you will need to make it your own through plenty of real-world experience at the tables.

Poker Game Formats

Poker games are played in various formats and you will have access to all of them at online poker rooms. Each format has its own distinguishing features, so let's look at the main ones that you are most likely to come across:

Cash Games

Cash games are ones that allow you to simply turn up and start playing for real money. There are cash tables for a wide range of staking levels, so you can choose one that best suits your experience and the size of your bankroll. The chips used in cash games have real monetary value, and so your available chip stack will be limited by the funds you have in your account. 

You can play at a cash table for however long you want, and you can also leave the game at any time. Of course, your opponents can do the same, so if you lose money to a particular player there's no guarantee that he'll stick around long enough for you to win it back. 

Multi-Table Tournaments

Multi-Table Tournaments, or MTTs, are poker games in which a group of players battle it out for supremacy. There can be dozens, hundreds or even thousands of players involved, and so multiple tables are needed to accommodate them. This is no problem when playing online, as you will be seated and automatically moved from table to table as the number of remaining players decreases.

Each player pays an entry fee which contributes to a prize pool. The winner of the tournament wins the largest slice of that pool, but prizes will also be paid to runners-up. In some cases, just getting to the final table can be hugely profitable, so you don't necessarily have to win tournaments for them to be worth your while.

These tournaments will take place at a stated time, so you need to make sure you will be able to participate before registering. Also be aware that the more players there are, the longer an MTT can take to play out. Be prepared to play for several hours or even over a couple of days in larger tournaments.

Sit and Go Tournaments

Sit and Go Tournaments aren't scheduled like MTTs, and they involve far fewer players, so you can just show up, pay your entry fee and take a seat. When the required number of players are seated (this could be as few as six or nine) the tournament will begin.

With fewer players involved, your chance of winning will be greater than in an MTT. Of course, the prize pool will also be a lot smaller, too. But what makes this format particularly good is that it often takes just an hour or even less for a Sit and Go tournament to play out. This means it's a format that can be enjoyed even if your schedule wouldn't allow you to take part in an MTT.

Freeroll Tournaments

A Freeroll Tournament is an MTT that doesn't cost anything to enter. Prizes in these tournaments tend to be quite modest, and sometimes only the winner or a top handful of finishers will receive a prize. That apart, freerolls can give you some useful MTT experience without risk. Just bear in mind that many participants will play far more recklessly in a freeroll than they might in a regular tournament just because they have nothing to lose.

Heads-Up Games

These are games involving just two players, and they could have a cash game or Sit and Go format. Whatever the case, you will find that heads-up games are quite different from others for the simple reason that you can't afford to be quite so selective about the hands you play. If you were, you'd lose a lot of money in wasted blinds.

How to Play Poker FAQ

What is poker?
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Poker is a card game that involves making certain hands from personal hole cards and community cards. There are many different poker variants, including Texas Hold’em, Omaha, and Seven Card Stud.

Is online poker legal in the United States?
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Yes, online poker is legal in the United States on an individual state level, although unfortunately not federally.

What is the most popular poker game?
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The most popular poker game in the world is Texas Hold’em.

How easy is it to learn to play poker?
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Poker is generally an easy game to learn. However, it will take time and effort to develop your skills to the point where you are able to win consistently.

Where to play poker online?
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You can play poker online at any online poker room that has been authorized and licensed to operate in your state. See our online poker sites page for more information on this topic.

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