In 2003, holdem exploded in popularity as a spectator sport in the United States. This was due to several factors, including the introduction of lipstick cameras that allowed the television audience to see the players' hidden cards. ESPN's coverage of the WSOP featured the unexpected victory of Internet player Chris Moneymaker (his real name), an amateur player who gained admission to the tournament by winning a series of online tournaments. Two additional holdem series debuted in 2003, the "World Poker Tour" (abbreviated WPT) and "Celebrity Poker Showdown". Both of these shows are still currently in production and garner a large and loyal viewership. Holdem is commonly played in the rest of the world as well, but seven-card stud, Omaha hold 'em and other games may be more popular in some places.
Although it can theoretically be played by up to 22 players, it is generally played between 2 and 10 people. It is one of the most positional of all poker variants, since the order of betting is fixed throughout all betting rounds.
RulesThe descriptions below assume that you are familiar with the general game play of poker, and with poker hands. For a general introduction to these topics, see the other pages in the Poker section of the site.
Betting structuresWe make no assumptions about what betting structure is used. In casino play, it is common to use a fixed limit and two blinds. The limit for the first two rounds of betting is called a small bet, while the limit for the third and fourth betting rounds is called a big bet and is generally double the small bet. The small blind is usually equal to half of a small bet, and the big blind is equal to a full small bet. (In some cases, the small blind is some other fraction of a small bet, e.g. $10 is a common small blind when the small bet is $15; this occurs mainly in brick and mortar rooms where higher-denominational chips are used. The double-blind structure described above is relatively recent; until the 1980s, a single-blind structure was most common.)
Occasionally, the fourth bet is larger still (a big river bet), and the big blind is sometimes less than the small bet, in which case it is treated the same way a sub-minimum bring-in is treated in stud poker. Antes may be used instead of or in addition to blinds; this is especially true in tournament play. The game also plays very well at the no-limit level, and many tournaments (including the above mentioned World Series championship event) are played with this structure.
Play of the handPlay begins with each player being dealt two cards face down. These are the player's hole cards. These are the only cards each player will receive individually, and they will only (possibly) be revealed at the showdown, making Texas holdem a closed poker game. The hand begins with a "pre-flop" betting round, beginning with the player to the left of the big blind (or the player to the left of the dealer, if no blinds are used) and continuing clockwise. After the pre-flop betting round, the dealer deals a burn card, followed by three face-up community cards called the flop. The flop is followed by a second betting round. This and all subsequent betting rounds begin with the player to the dealer's left and continue clockwise. After the flop betting round ends, another card is burned, and a single community card called the turn (or fourth street) is dealt, followed by a third betting round. A final burn card is followed by a single community card called the river (or fifth street), followed by a fourth betting round and the showdown, if necessary.
The showdownIf a player bets and all other players fold, then the remaining player is awarded the pot and is not required to show his hole cards. If two or more players remain after the final betting round, a showdown occurs. On the showdown, each player plays the best five-card hand he can make from the seven cards comprising his two hole cards and the board (the five community cards). A player may use both of his own two hole cards, only one, or none at all, to form his final five-card hand. If the five community cards form the player's best hand, then the player is said to be playing the board.
If the best hand is shared by more than one player (e.g. if no player is able to beat the board), then the pot is split equally amongst all remaining players. However, it is common for players to have closely-valued, but not identically ranked hands. In particular, kickers are often needed to break ties. Nevertheless, one must be careful in determining the best hand, because often the board nullifies kickers. (See the second example below.) Straights often split the pot, and multiple flushes may occur. In the case of flushes, the flush is awarded to the player with the highest flush card which completes a flush and beats the board's flush cards. If there is a flush on board, (i.e. if all the board cards are the same suit), then undercards in that suit do not play, and if no one has a card in the flush suit beating the board, then the pot is split. The sole exception to this rule is the case of a straight-flush.
The best possible hand given the five community cards is referred to as the nuts. The lowest possible nuts is three queens (this occurs with a 2 3 7 8 Q on the board, with no more than two cards of any one suit).
ExamplesHere's a sample showdown:
4♣ K♠ 4♥ 8♠ 7♠
Alice's best five-card hand is 8♠ 7♠ 6♦ 5♦ 4♥, making an 8-high straight. The best hand Bob can play is 4♣ 4♥ 4♦ A♣ K♠, for three 4's with A and K kickers. Carol can play A♠ K♠ 9♠ 8♠ 7♠ for an A-high flush. Finally, Ted can play K♠ K♥ K♦ 4♣ 4♥, for a full house, which wins.
Here's a sample deal. The players' individual hands will not be revealed until the showdown, to give a better sense of what happens during play. Alice is the dealer. Bob, to Alice's left, posts a small blind of $1, and Carol posts a big blind of $2. Alice deals two hole cards face down to each player, beginning with Bob and ending with herself. Ted must act first because he is the first player after the big blind. He cannot check, since the $2 big blind plays as a bet, so he folds. Alice calls the $2. Bob adds an additional $1 to his $1 small blind to call the $2 total. Carol's blind is "live" (see blind), so she has the option to raise here, but she checks instead, ending the first betting round.
Alice now burns a card and deals the flop of three face-up community cards, 9♣ K♣ 3♥. On this round, as on all subsequent rounds, Bob begins the betting. He checks, Carol opens for $2, and Alice raises another $2, making the total bet now facing Bob $4. He calls. Carol calls, putting in an additional $2. Alice now burns and deals the turn card face up. It is the 5♠. Bob checks, Carol checks, and Alice checks; the turn has been checked around. After burning, Alice deals the final river card, the 9♦, making the final board 9♣ K♣ 3♥ 5♠ 9♦. Bob bets $4, Carol calls, and Alice folds (Alice's holding was A♣ 7♣; she was hoping the river card would be a club to make her a flush). Bob shows his hand of Q♠ 9♥, so the best five-card hand he can make is 9♣ 9♦ 9♥ K♣ Q♠, for three 9's, with K and Q kickers. Carol shows her cards of K♠ J♥, making her final hand K♣ K♠ 9♣ 9♦ J♥ for two pair, K's and 9's, with J kicker. Bob wins the showdown and the pot.
Here's another situation that illustrates the importance of breaking ties with kickers and card ranks, as well as the use of the five-card rule. After the turn, the board and players' hole cards are as follows (though none of the players know another player's hole cards):
|Board (after the turn)
8♠ Q♣ 8♥ 4♣
Starting hand terminology and notationThere are (52 × 51)/2 = 1,326 distinct possible combinations of two hole cards from a standard 52-card deck. However, since suits have no relative value in poker, many of these hands are indistinguishable from the point of view of pre-flop strategy. In fact, ignoring suits, there are precisely 169 distinct possible starting hands in holdem. [http://www.math.sfu.ca/~alspach/art3.pdf]
As an example, although J♥ J♣ and J♦ J♠ are distinct combinations of hole cards, they are indistinguishable as starting hands. Any starting hand comprising two jacks is called pocket jacks and is denoted JJ. Similarly, any starting hand comprised of two aces is called pocket aces and is denoted AA, and any starting hand comprised of two sevens is called pocket sevens and is denoted 77. Each of these starting hands is called a pocket pair.
The starting hands which are not pocket pairs fall into two classes – the suited hands and the unsuited hands. An example of a suited hand is 8♠ 7♠. Any starting hand comprised of an 8 and a 7 of the same suit is called 8-7 suited and is denoted 87s, where "s" is an abbreviation for "suited". An example of an unsuited hands is Q♣ 9♦. Any starting hand comprised of a Q and a 9 of different suits is called queen-nine offsuit and is denoted Q9 (or sometimes Q9o, where "o" is an abbreviation for "offsuit"). Remember, an "s" always denoted a suited starting hand, while the absence of an "s" always denotes an offsuit starting hand.
There is one other matter of notation which should be mentioned. In almost all poker writing, the rank of "10" is abbreviated with the letter "T". The main reason for this is so that all the ranks can be written with a single character stroke. If cards are featured pictorially, "10" is often used rather than "T", but within text, the standard notation for the rank of ten is "T". For example, pocket tens is denoted TT, while ten-nine suited is denoted T9s.
Basic StrategyPoker strategy is highly complex — an aspiring player would be wise to buy a book on poker strategy before playing in a casino. Nevertheless, some of the basic factors that influence good play can easily be explained. One of the most significant considerations is the number of players at the table: in a large game with 8 or 9 other opponents, you need to have a strong hand to win the pot, so you should fold most hands before seeing the flop. In a smaller, "short-handed" game you can afford to play more hands, since you are facing fewer opponents. (In fact, if you fold too often, you will be penalized because you are paying the blinds so often.) Other important factors include:
- The style of play of your opponents: how often they raise, how inclined they are to call, and so on. This falls into two general categories: "tight/loose" and "passive/aggressive". Each player (and each game) can be characterised based on these two dimensions. A tight player plays premium hands, has high standards for calling raises; conversely, a loose player often limps in (calls before the flop without raising) and cold-calls (calling a raise without raising) more often than is correct. A passive player frequently checks and calls or checks and folds after the flop and does not push the betting with an advantage; conversely, an aggressive player often raises for a variety of reasons after the flop with an advantage. In general, tight/aggressive players have developed the best style of play and should be avoided, while loose/passive players have developed a weak style of play and should be attacked when vulnerable.
- Your position in the hand. The player in the "dealer" position (or "button") is always the last player to act in every betting round. (The sole exception to this is the first pre-flop round, in which the big blind has the last "option".) Therefore, that player has the most information about the other players and is in the best position. The earlier the position you are in, the greater your disadvantage. (The sole exception to this rule is with regard to bluffing.) Therefore, you should be inclined to play more hands in late position, and fewer hands in early position.
- Your "table image": how other players at the table perceive your play alters the way they play. If they think are you a tight player, they will be less inclined to call your raises; if they think you are an overly-aggressive player who frequently raises with marginal hands, they will be more inclined to call. Good poker players are able to vary their style in play to take advantage of the present situation and to make their play less predictable.
- High Pocket Pairs: Pairs from Aces (AA) to Tens (TT) are always a good starting hand. They often begin as the best hand and hold up. They also have the opportunity to complete high flushes and straights, and they show a large profit when they "flop a set" (hit a third card of the same rank on the flop, to make three-of-a-kind).
- Middle Pocket Pairs: Without improvement, a middle or small pocket pair is a weak hand in a full game. Its value increases as the number of players decreases. The usual strategy is to try to see the flop cheaply with a hand like this --- if you flop a set, you now have a very strong hand. If you miss the flop, you should usually fold. Since the odds of flopping a set are about 7.5:1 (or 12%), try to avoid calling too many bets pre-flop, since you will be folding most of the time on the flop.
- High Cards: Two suited high cards (Ten or higher) are strong and usually playable, especially in late position. They have the combination of all three attributes of high card value, and high straight and flush possibility. The value of two unsuited high cards is considerably less. Unsuited high cards, unless they are strong hands like AK or KQ, should generally only be played in late position for a single bet. Calling with KT or even AT in early position in a full table is a common beginning error.
- Suited connectors: If your two cards are suited, don't overrate them. Suited connectors, such as 9♥ 8♥, are good drawing hands: they have a chance to make both a straight and a flush. These types of hands play well against many opponents. Also, suited aces and kings play well against many opponents, but require caution because they are easily dominated. However, random suited hands, such as J♣4♣ or 9♠6♠ rarely show a profit.
- Other: If a hand is not listed in one of the above types, it is almost never correct to play it voluntarily. The most common mistake beginning players make is to pay to see the flop too many times with bad hands, which costs them plenty of money over hundreds of hands. Yes, any hand such as 72 (which is the worst possible hand) can get lucky, but much more often than not, these hands will miss the flop and require a fold. Marginal hands are possibly even worse, as they are easily dominated (e.g. A7 against AQ) and will often go all the way to the river paying off the best hand.
After the flop
- Drawing hands, such as 4-card flush or straight draws, are some of the most difficult hands to play. There really is no simple accurate advice. You must always take into account your position, the previous action, the texture of the board, the style of play of your opponents, and the size of the pot.
- If you don't have at least a drawing hand or a pair after the flop, it is almost always correct to fold. The sole exception to this might occur if you find yourself heads-up (2 players) or with 2 opponents and you have an opportunity to bluff. Even in this case, some kind of draw is good, because then you can semi-bluff.
- If the flop goes against your high pairs, and if there is a coordinated board, i.e. possible flush or straight draws, it is often correct to fold, especially if there is heavy betting. Marginal hands with little drawing potential do not play well if there is a lot of action.
- When you hit a flush or straight, be aware of the possibilities of other players having the same type of hand but higher. If there is heavy betting, it is probable that someone else has you dominated.
- If you have a strong hand (e.g. top pair, excellent kicker; 2 pair; or 3 of a kind after the flop), it is often good to try to protect your hand. However, there is no simple accurate advice for how to achieve this. Sometimes, a bet is warranted, while at other times, it is correct to go for a check-raise. A very good hand may even warrant a slowplay. Again, decisions such as these are very complicated and involve taking into account a number of factors, such as the number of remaining players, previous action, your position, and knowledge of players' tendencies.
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