How to Play Texas Hold'em: The Set Up
When playing Texas Hold'em at a land-based casino, the game is played at a physical table. A table can normally accommodate up to ten players. The table is covered in a felt cloth that is normally green, blue, or red in color. A separate seat is set aside for the dealer of the game.
The game is played with a standard deck of 52 playing cards. It is the dealer's job to shuffle the cards and deal them to players. He also oversees the betting in the game. A round disk, known as the button, is used to determine who pays the 'big blind' in a given hand. We will discuss that in more detail later.
Most of the above will also apply to a Texas Hold'em game that is played at an online poker room. The biggest difference here is that there is no human dealer. Instead, cards are shuffled and dealt by the poker room software. Hands are also assessed by the software so that the right player wins the pot. Another difference is that there are no actual seats. However, seat positions are marked and you will automatically be assigned a seat when you join a game.
You should note that when playing online, your hole cards will be shown on your screen. However, no other player will be able to see them. Similarly, you will not be able to see the hole cards of other players. The only cards that can be seen by all players are the community cards in the middle of the table.
How to Play Texas Hold'em: Hand Rankings
Before we move on to discuss how the game itself is played, we should first discuss Texas Hold'em hand rankings. We have said that the aim of the game is to make the best five-card hand possible from the two hole cards and the five community cards. So we now need to explain how the various hands are ranked. For purposes of discussion, the following abbreviations are used:
- A = Ace
- K = King
- Q = Queen
- J = Jack
With that in mind, the hands that can be played in Texas Hold'em, from highest to lowest (best to worst) are as follows:
The Royal Flush comprises 10-J-Q-K-A, all of the same suit. It is the best possible hand in Texas Hold'em, and also one of the rarest. Your chances of making this hand are just 1 in 649,739. Consequently, you will only come across it a few times in your poker-playing career.
A Straight Flush is five cards of the same suit that are also sequentially numbered. The highest value card in the hand is used to specify the Straight Flush that has been made. For example, a hand comprising 4-5-6-7-8 of hearts might be referred to as a Straight Flush, 8 High.
Four of a Kind
A Four of a Kind is a hand in which four cards have the same rank. For example, A-Q-Q-Q-Q is a Four of a Kind of Queens. Similarly, 3-6-6-6-6 is a Four of a Kind of sixes. The higher the value of the Four of a Kind, the better.
The Full House comprises two cards of one rank and three cards of a different rank. For example, 8-8-8-K-K is a Full House of eights full of Kings. While J-J-J-2-2 is a Full House of Jacks full of twos.
This hand comprises five cards of the same suit. The cards don't need to be of any particular rank. However, the highest value card in the hand determines its strength. A 4-6-7-9-K of hearts is therefore worth more than a 4-6-7-8-Q of hearts.
A Straight is five cards that are sequentially ranked, but they do not have to be of the same suit. For example, 3-4-5-6-7 with those cards being of two or more suits. If they were all of the same suit then this hand would of course be a Straight Flush.
Three of a Kind
This is a hand where three of the five cards have the same rank. For example, A-A-A-3-4 is a Three of a Kind of Aces. Similarly, 3-3-3-A-4 is a Three of a Kind of threes.
Here the hand comprises two cards of one rank and two cards of another rank. For example, A-A-K-K-3 is a Two Pair of Aces and Kings. 4-4-5-6-6 is a Two Pair of fours and sixes. The higher the value of the top pair, the better.
This hand contains just one pair of cards of the same rank. The higher the value of that pair, the better. K-K-2-3-4 would therefore be worth more than Q-Q-2-3-4.
This is the lowest-ranked hand of all. It is the one that you will make if you don't have any of the others we have mentioned. As the name of the hand suggests, it is valued according to its highest card. The hand 3-5-6-8-K would therefore beat 3-5-6-8-10.
It is a good idea to memorize each of these hand definitions so that you can see what is possible from the hole cards you are dealt and the community cards on the table. If you don't know the hands that it is possible to make, you aren't likely to make good decisions. That being the case, memorize them or at least have the hand rankings written down somewhere for reference as you play.
How the Game is Played
Now that you know about hand rankings, we can discuss how to play Texas Hold'em in more detail. A typical hand of poker can be viewed as having six distinct stages, although it can end sooner if enough players fold, as you'll soon see. Those six stages are:
- Paying the Blinds
- Pre-Flop and Betting
- Flop and Betting
- Turn and Betting
- River and Betting
Paying the Blinds
We mentioned earlier that a button is used to determine who pays the big blind in a given hand. This button moves in a clockwise direction and moves one player at the end of every hand. The player to the left of the button is known as the Small Blind and the player to his left is known as the Big Blind.
The Big Blind automatically has to pay a sum equal to the minimum bet, even if he decides not to participate in a hand. Similarly, the Small Blind has to pay half that sum.
Those blinds ensure that there is always something in the pot when a hand starts, and they also help to keep players active. Because every player will be both the Big Blind and the Small Blind every time the button goes by, it isn't financially feasible to just sit there and wait hours for the best possible hand. Doing that would cost money in 'lost blinds'. The blinds, therefore, encourage players to remain engaged and participate more often in hands.
Pre-Flop and Betting
When the blinds have been paid, two hole cards will be dealt to each player. A round of betting will then take place in a clockwise direction, starting with the player to the left of the Big Blind. Each player will have three options when betting:
- Call: This is where you bet the same amount as the player preceding you, or the same about as the value of the Big Blind if you're the first player to go.
- Raise: This is where you bet more than has previously been bet by players. Other players after you will need to match that bet or raise it even further to stay in the game.
- Fold: This is where you take yourself out of the current hand because you don't think that your cards are worth betting on, or because previous players have raised to the point where it isn't feasible for you to call. It costs nothing to fold.
When play has progressed around the table and the Big Blind has acted, the hand proceeds to the next stage.
Flop and Betting
The dealer will deal three community cards, face-up, in the middle of the table. This is known as the flop. Players look at those cards, together with their own hole cards, and see what their best hand is. They also look at the flop and consider what better hands, if any, their opponents might have. For example, you might have a Straight, but if the flop cards are all of the same suit, another player could well have a Flush, or even better.
Another round of betting takes place after the flop, with players having the choice to raise, call or fold, as previously.
Turn and Betting
A fourth card is dealt face-up by the dealer to the middle of the table. This is the Turn, and it makes even more hands possible. Players assess their hands in the light of this fourth card and see if they have improved. They also consider how the turn card might have improved things for their opponents. Another round of betting then takes place.
River and Betting
A fifth and final community card is dealt. This is known as the River. It could improve your hand or the hands of your opponents. However, some players may have continued playing to this point merely in the hope that they would get lucky. If the river card has brought them the luck they were hoping for, you can expect them to bet more aggressively in the final round of betting that follows. If they haven't been as lucky as they wanted, and they finally accept that they are beaten, they will often fold to a raise. Of course, there are many exceptions, especially if there is someone bluffing at the table.
When the final round of betting has taken place, the game proceeds to the showdown.
The Showdown is where the players who remain in the hand show their cards so that the best hand can win. It is always worth paying attention to the hands shown here and think back to how players have bet throughout the game. This will help you to identify players who were simply waiting to get lucky, as well as those who deliberately underplayed a strong hand in order to keep others in the game for as long as possible.
The player who shows the best hand in the showdown will win the pot. Should two or more players have the same hand (for example, two 8-high straights) the pot is shared between them.
How to Play Texas Hold'em Strategically
Now that you know how to play Texas Hold'em in basic terms, we can discuss how to play Texas Hold'em in a strategic way in order to improve your chances of winning. This is a poker game that is often described as taking 'a minute to learn and a lifetime to master', so you probably can't expect to become a WSOP bracelet winner after just a month or two. What you can do is start getting to grips with some essential strategies that you can work on developing over the long term. We have four areas that we want to touch upon here, as follows:
Starting Hand Selection
Some poker players will play every hand they are dealt, but that isn't an effective way to approach the game. A much better approach is to be selective about the hands you play and to use the strength of your hole cards to determine whether or not you will go any further.
There are entire books written about starting hand selection, and we strongly recommend that you read at least one of them. For now, if you're a complete beginner you might do well to only play a hand when your hole cards are both 10s or higher. If you want to be even more selective, you could elect to only play when you have A-A, A-K, K-K, A-Q, Q-Q, A-J, J-J, or 10-10. This will mean that you fold far more hole cards than you play, but you'll be in a stronger position when you do participate in a hand.
Understand Pot Odds and Odds of Winning
Another thing that you should get to grips with at some point are pot odds and the odds of winning. Pot odds are calculated by dividing a bet that you need to make to remain in the hand by the value of the pot. Your odds of winning will tell you how likely you are to win with your current hand or improve it.
As with starting hands, this is something that you will have to study separately for a full understanding. However, when you have that understanding you will be able to make rational decisions about when to call, raise or fold according to your chances of winning and what the payoff for success would be.
For example, instead of calling a huge bet when you only have a slim chance of winning the pot, you will be able to fold your hand and be confident that you made the right decision. Similarly, if you know that the odds of winning are on your side and the pot odds are also in your favor, you will be able to call even large raises without worrying too much.
While the best hand will always win a game of Texas Hold'em if it gets to the Showdown stage, that doesn't mean that the best hand always wins every hand. A big part of Texas Hold'em is being able to bet as if your hand is stronger than it really is, and thereby encourage your opponents to fold their hands. Another big part of the game is being able to detect when others are bluffing in this way so that you don't fold without genuine reason.
If all but one player folds, the remaining player wins the pot automatically. It is therefore possible for a player to win the pot even before the Flop. He simply needs to bet big enough to scare everyone else into folding. Of course, doing this would only win him a small pot that consists of the blinds, and so this kind of move (often made by an early-position player) is sometimes referred to as 'stealing the blinds'.
Bluffing is a skill that takes time to develop. Bluff too often and when you get caught out nobody at the table will fall for your bluffs again. Don't bluff at all, on the other hand, and you will be quite easy to read, making you more beatable. Also, remember that bluffing and bluff-spotting are both equally important. It's no good learning to bluff well if you can't spot someone bluffing you right back!
Player Psychology and Types
Texas Hold'em is a game that requires various strategic and mathematical skills, but it's also a game of psychology. Success goes most often to those who have the greatest levels of self-discipline and are also able to adapt their approach to the other players at the table. If you can't learn to do the right thing at the right time, you will lose far more hands than you will win.
Many experienced poker players like to categorize their opponents according to several different psychological types. Some of the most common types are as follows:
A player who plays strategically and is in complete control of his emotions. He is selective about the hands he plays, he understands pot odds, he is very good at reading his opponents and he makes the right decision at all times. A Rock is the most dangerous type of player you can come across, and your aim should be to become one yourself.
This is a player who plays almost every hand he is dealt in the hope that he will get lucky and 'catch' a hand on the Flop, Turn or River. Because he seldom has a decent hand unless he gets lucky, he will often simply call bets rather than raise. For this reason, a Fish is also commonly known as a Calling Station.
Fish are great to see at a table because they help to build bigger pots that you can take down with a genuinely decent hand. However, do be aware that Fish do get lucky from time to time, so don't always assume that they have nothing.
Maniacs play according to their emotions and are wildly unpredictable. They tend to play aggressively no matter what hand they have and will take each and every loss they suffer personally. If you can handle the chatter that a Maniac will often produce at the table, he can be a good source of cash. And when he loses it all, he'll often reload and come back for more.
This is a player who tries to bully his way to winning. He doesn't play recklessly, like the Maniac, but he throws his money around to make playing unaffordable (or irrational) for most of his opponents. If you can avoid a Bully, do so. However, a Bully is always someone that you can take down - and often in a big way - with an underplayed strong hand. Let him sense your 'weakness' and move all in to try and scare you off. Then, if you're sure that you have the stronger hand, call the bet and help yourself.
There are other types that you will come across, and you should look into the psychology of poker to learn to identify and respond to those. But also take steps to develop your own psychology. Make it your aim to have as much self-discipline, reasoning ability, and emotional self-control as possible, and your performance at the tables will improve quite naturally as a result.
Texas Hold'em Game Formats
When you visit a poker room - whether land-based or online - you will find that there are several different game formats that you can choose from. Here we will tell you about the four main types so that you know what to expect.
The Cash Game
A cash game is simply a game that allows you to come and go as you please. When you join a cash game you will usually have to wait for the blind to reach you to begin playing, and you can then play as few or as many hands as you want. Other players may also leave the table at any time, and new players arrive. As the name of this format suggests, you bet with chips that have actual cash value. However, many poker rooms have 'fun money' tables that allow you to play for fun only. These can be useful to learn the ropes, but don't spend too long at them because playing for real money can be quite different.
Sit and Go Tournaments
Also known as Sit and Go or SnG tournaments, these are small poker tournaments that begin as soon as a minimum number of players have registered to participate. You will find many Sit and Go tournaments that need only six or nine players, and these are ideal for getting some competitive experience whenever you have an hour or so to spare.
You will need to pay an entry fee to take part in a Sit and Go tournament. Entry fees from all participating players are then combined to create a 'prize pool'. An equal number of poker chips is given to each player, and these have symbolic value only. If you lose all your chips, you're out of the tournament. When one player has all of the chips that were distributed, the tournament ends.
At the end of the tournament, cash prizes are paid to the winner and possibly to one or more runners-up. The percentage of the prize pool that you will win depends on your finishing position and will be outlined in the tournament description.
While many Sit and Go tournaments take place at a single table, Multi-Table Tournaments make use of several. This enables them to accommodate many more participants, and that means scores, hundreds or even thousands. You register for the tournament by paying an entry fee, and then make sure that you are logged into your online poker room at the scheduled time.
You will automatically be seated at a table in the tournament, and you will be moved to different tables as the tournament progresses. Your aim is obviously to try and win the tournament, but a good percentage of participants will receive a share of the prize pool, so simply achieving a better than average finish could be profitable. Make it to the final table and you'll have a shot at beating a handful of other finalists to take down an even bigger prize.
The fourth game format that we'd like to mention is Heads-Up. This is where just two players - you and your opponent - compete head to head. It could either be for chips with real value, as in a cash Heads-Up game, or you could both pay an entry fee and play for the whole prize pool, as in a Sit and Go Heads-Up game.
While you might think that having just one opponent would make Heads-Up poker games easier to win, you'd be wrong. Heads-Up poker feels quite different from a regular poker game, and you'll need to play differently to succeed on a consistent basis. Our advice is to focus on Sit and Go tournaments and get used to playing in a 'heads-up' situation for the winning place. Once you can win Sit and Go games after going one-on-one with an opponent, you can then have a go at playing in lower-stakes Heads-Up games to see how you fare.