How to Play Poker

Poker Basics

Poker is a general term referring to a group of card games that share some similarities. Traditionally, poker is known as a 5 or 7 card game, but today includes versions played with hands ranging from two to seven cards.  Although rules and specific methods of play vary across the gamut of poker games, many poker principles are universally applied – no matter which particular variation of the game is being played.

Most games accommodate between two and ten players – the ideal number varies based on which brand of poker is chosen. A ‘hand’ constitute one round of play, but the word is also used to describe the individual group of cards dealt to each player during the round.  Hand-size is an important distinguishing characteristic between different styles of poker.  Specialty variations use as few as two cards, but the most popular poker games are built around hands that number seven or five cards.

When players are dealt more than five cards during a round of play, the strength of each hand is determined by the best five cards – as chosen by each individual. player.  The objective of every poker variation is to win the accumulated bets that have built-up over the course of the hand.  The ‘pot’ goes to the player with the best five card combination.

Growing the pot involves a series of betting opportunities.  At each wagering juncture, players have the option to bet or ‘fold’.  Folding a hand means the player has decided not to keep pace with ongoing betting, and is choosing instead to surrender his or her cards to the dealer.

To remain eligible to win the pot, a player must ‘call,’ or match, every bet that is made, dollar-for-dollar or chip-for-chip.  For most players, the decision to play or fold is based on calculations that estimate the probability of other players having better cards.

Poker success boils down to playing the hand you are dealt in a sensible way, and betting properly to achieve your goals.  The poker learning curve is short, and advanced strategies are easily undertaken by novice players.  Experience at the tables illuminates trends that good players pair with lady luck, to produce consistent poker wins.

Game Types

Most poker games fall into one of three distinct categories reflecting how each game is actually played.

Community games include a group of shared cards, which each player incorporates into his or her hand.  One of the most popular strains of poker; Texas Hold ‘Em, is a community game.

Stud games are dealt to each individual player; with some cards appearing face-up for all to see, and others face down for only the player to view.  A set number of cards comprises the first round that is dealt to each player, then additional cards are issued by the dealer one at a time – with a betting opportunity between each card.  A popular stud variant is 7-card stud.

Draw poker games involve an additional exchange of cards between the dealer and each player. Players are allowed to give back a designated number of their original cards, and ‘draw’ a corresponding number of new ones.  Players bet on the strength of their original cards, and then place additional wagers on their best five cards following the draw.

What Beats What?


Cards are marked with numbers and characters that designate where each card ranks on a descending scale of strength.  Special roll-players include, Ace (A), King (K), Queen (Q), and Jack (J), which represent the 4 most powerful cards in each suit.  The remaining, numbered cards each rank according to the strength of their numbers, from 10 down to 2.

Poker Hands

The ranking of hands is one universal feature of poker that does not deviate across games. In five-card, seven-card, stud and draw games, players combine their best five cards in sequences that take not only numbers – but suits, into account. The strength of each hand is determined by precise combinations of cards that beat others based on a strict hierarchical arrangement. Poker hands from best to worst:

Royal Flush is the pinnacle of poker prowess.  Comprised of the top five sequential cards of any single suit, i.e. – Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Ten, a Royal Flush beats all other hands.  If two players each have a Royal Flush during the same hand, they split the pot.

Straight Flush is also five like-suited cards in ranked sequence, but they need not be the top five cards in the suit.

Four of a Kind requires a player to possess each card of the same rank, from all four suits.

Full House does not consider suit, but instead requires that three cards of the same rank be combined with two like cards of another rank, to create five cards made up of a pair and a three-of-a-kind.

Flush is any five cards of the same suit.  The strength of a flush increases in proportion to the rankings of the individual cards it contains.

Straight is a five card sequential run that does not consider the suit of the cards it contains.

Three-of-a-Kind requires a hand to contain three similarly ranked cards from any combination of suits.

Two-Pair is comprised of two matching sets of cards drawn from two distinct ranks.

Pairs occur when two cards of the same rank are joined in the same hand.

High Card is the default winner chosen from a group of players who fail to create as much as a single pair during the course of a hand.


Since the game of poker does not rank the individual suits, ties are decided by ‘kickers’ that otherwise would not contribute to the hand.  In other words, if two players end a hand, each with a pair of eights, the player with the highest non-8 card in his or her hand wins.

Poker Betting

Blinds and Antes

Poker wagering begins even before the first cards are dealt.  Opening bets get some ‘skin in the game’ for every player who will receive cards.  Pre-game bets are called ‘antes’ and ‘blinds’.

Antes are commonly used in stud and draw poker games. Before the commencement of each individual hand, every player is required to contribute a pre-designated amount to the pot. In addition to providing a cash base for the pot, an ante serves as each player’s official declaration: “I’m in”.

Blinds are generally employed in community games.  Before each hand, a designated player is responsible for posting the ‘small blind’, while another is tapped for the ‘big blind’ – which is usually double the amount of the small blind.

Betting Options

During the course of each game, poker players are faced with multiple betting opportunities.  Based on the strength of his or her developing hand, each player must decide which course of action to pursue.  One option is to drop out of the hand, and surrender your shot at the pot.


At any point during a hand, a player might come to the conclusion that it is futile to continue pursuing the pot.  Weak cards, or the perceived strength of other players, motivates individuals to ‘fold’.  The gesture surrenders any further chance of winning the pot, and sacrifices any bets that have been made up to that point.

Folding is not failure, it is prudent play that conserves resources for better opportunities down the line.  There is no going back – so the decision should not be taken lightly, but there is no shame in folding a hand when good cards simply aren’t present.


Checking is a passive strategy that lies between folding and placing an actual bet. If a bet has not been placed by the time it is your turn to weigh in, you may choose to continue the trend by offering no specific bet of your own.  ‘Check’ essentially means, “I bet player”. You are still in the game when you check, but the ball is no longer in your court.  Ensuing players may eventually decide to bet, placing you in the hot-seat again, but by checking you have stayed in the game without committing chips.


Once there is a bet on the table, calling is the minimum requirement for remaining in the hand.  You can no longer check, because a bet has been placed, so you must ‘call’ and place the same amount of chips in the pot as the preceding player did.  To ‘see’ a bet is the same as to call it.


While a call matches the previous bet amount, a ‘raise’ exceeds the conditions of a call and places an additional wager on the hand. Once raised, it is up to the other players to call, fold, or add an additional raise to the bet.


Limits are set prior to play, and address how much may be wagered during each round.  Certain games call for particular limits, but the stakes of any poker game are largely flexible.  Maximum raises, antes and opening bet requirements are all part of the designated limits of any given poker game.

Common Beginner’s Mistakes

As you begin to get rolling at the tables, don’t lose site of the fundamentals.  Avoid the pitfalls suffered by novice players who get ahead of themselves.  Consider these tendencies:

Playing Hands Too Long

Recognizing which hands should be played, and which should be folded, leads to long-term poker success – but only when players exercise discipline distinguishing winners from losers.  You sat at the table because you want to play, so it can be difficult to be selective in the hands you pursue.  Believe it or not, novice players should only be playing about 15% of the hands they are dealt.  Save your resources for the good hands, which will come eventually.

Overestimating Hands

New players are quick to over-value certain hands, especially suited cards that have flush potential.  The odds are not with you for making a pre-flop flush, and in some cases your high suited card may be vulnerable anyway.

Relying on the Bluff

There is an exhilarating bonus attached to a successful bluff, but novice players mistakenly see consistent bluffing as a bread and butter strategy. Online games don’t support regular bluffing.  Inconsistent opponents are likely to call your bluff because they don’t know any better, or because they have nothing to lose.


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