Poker is a family of games; there is no single set of rules. However, all poker games have common features. Most importantly, unlike any other casino game, players bet against each other rather than the dealer. Poker is also a game of skill. Because of these features, it is possible to earn an income playing poker.
The simplest possible poker game (which is never actually played) would work like this:
- Each player makes a bet, called an "ante", prior to seeing any cards. This makes sure that there is at least some money to play for, even if there are no further bets.
- Five cards are now dealt face down to each player.
- In turn, players now decide how much money to wager. When it is a player's turn, he or she may:
- drop out of the hand, forfeiting any money wagered ("fold");
- wager as much money as the previous player ("call"); or
- wager more money than the previous player ("raise").
- Betting finishes when:
- all but one players have folded;
- everyone has had the opportunity to raise the last bet, and no one has done so; or
- an agreed betting limit has been reached.
- If two or more players still remain, there is a "showdown"; players who have folded do not take part. The last player to make a bet shows his or her cards. At this point, players with higher cards may show them and claim the money staked (the "pot"). Players with lower cards may, but need not, show them. In the event of a tie, the pot is split between the players who hold the joint best hand.
In general, players bet more money when they hold good hands. It should also be apparent, however, how it is possible to bluff in poker. If everyone drops out, there is no showdown, so it doesn't matter what cards you have.
You may wonder what happens if a player is raised to the extent that he runs out of money. In the old days, he had to fold, which could be unfair. If several players raised before it was his turn to act, he might be unable to contest a good hand. Nowadays we play "table stakes". This means that you can only be called on to bet the money that is on the table in front of you. If a bet would take more than that, you bet what you can, and are then said to be "all in". At this point the game continues without you. You cannot win money bet in rounds after you went all in; only the players who have enough chips to keep up with the betting can do that.
This rule has a flip side. You are not allowed to add money to the table during a hand, in other words you don't have the option to avoid going all in by taking money out of your wallet. (The scenes on films where people bet their jewellery and other items of value are not representative of modern poker!)
In order to work out who has won, you need to know how hands are ranked in poker. It will take a while to remember the list. If you start out playing online, you can keep the list beside you while you learn to play. The table ranks hands from best to worst.
|Name of Hand||Cards Held|
|Royal Flush||A straight flush containing an ace.|
|Straight Flush||A hand which is a straight and a flush.|
|Four of a Kind ("Quads")||Four cards the same, for example four tens.|
|Full House||Three cards of one rank, and two of another, for example three tens and two nines.|
|Flush||Five cards of the same suit.|
|Straight||Five cards in sequence, for example 2,3,4,5,6.|
|Three of a Kind ("Trips")||Three cards the same, for example three tens.|
|Two Pair||Two cards of one rank, and two of another, for example two tens and two nines.|
|Pair||Two cards the same, for example two tens.|
|High Card||Any other combination of five cards.|
If two players' hands fall into the same category, for example two straights, there are further rules for deciding which hand wins:
- Two royal flushes always tie.
- The straight flush and the straight are ranked by the highest card, for example 5,6,7,8,9 beats 3,4,5,6,7.
- Quads, trips and pairs are ranked first by the value of the cards which are the same, then by the remaining cards from highest to lowest. For example 9,9,9,9,2 beats 8,8,8,8,10; 9,9,9,9,5 beats 9,9,9,9,2 and so on.
- Full houses are ranked first by the group of three cards, then by the group of two. For example 5,5,5,2,2 beats 4,4,4,9,9 and 4,4,4,9,9 beats 4,4,4,8,8.
- Flushes and high card hands are ranked by the highest card, then the next highest, and so on. For example the 2,5,7,8,9 flush beats the 3,5,6,7,8 flush; the 3,5,6,7,8 flush beats the 2,5,6,7,8 flush.
This may seem like a lot to remember! However, first of all notice that the royal flush is just the highest possible straight flush. As a result, you can ignore the royal flush without changing the hand rankings. Then, notice that the order of the hands is determined by how likely they are to come up. You are much less likely to get quads than trips, for example, so quads are worth more. The hard one to remember is that a flush beats a straight; it is difficult to imagine how likely each hand is. In fact there are about twice as many possible straights as flushes.
Finally, note that suits are not ranked in poker. A flush of clubs is worth exactly the same as a flush of spades, and so on.
More Poker Rules
All the basic concepts of poker have now been covered. Each variant of poker alters these basics in different ways to create a complete game. The hand rankings are always the same but other poker games generally have several rounds of betting. To win a round in these games, either everyone must drop out, or you must stay in the game until the last betting round. There will only be a showdown at the end of the last round.
Between each betting round, additional cards are dealt. Over time, therefore, you get more information about the shape your final hand will take. For example, in Hold 'em, you start off with only two cards. Two cards do not make a poker hand but they do give you a clue as to the kind of poker hand you can expect. In the next round, three cards are dealt. In the next two rounds, one card is dealt. At the end, you make the best possible five card hand from the seven cards you now have available.
The cards in a poker game can be dealt in three ways. They can be dealt to you, face down. In this case, only you will know what the cards are. They can be dealt to you, face up. Now everyone can see what the cards are, but they only form part of your hand. Community cards are dealt face up in the middle of the table, and are shared by everyone. Of course there would be no point in a poker game where all the cards were face up, but most games do have some cards showing.
If you are playing at a physical table rather than online, it is usual to "burn" a card before dealing. That is to say, the top card from the deck is placed in the discards rather than being dealt to a player. This has no influence on the game, it is simply to make cheating more difficult.
Starting to Play
First of all, you should read the rules for a real poker game; the simplified game described here is not actually played. I suggest starting with Texas Hold 'em. This is the most common form of poker, and is probably the easiest to learn.
As well as games for real money, most online poker rooms offer the chance to play for "pretend money". This is to help people learn the games, and if you have never played before it is well worth starting out this way. At the same time, it is not possible to practice your strategy on the pretend money tables. People play differently when they are not losing anything of value!
Once you have mastered the rules and played a few pretend money games, it is worth reading a bit about poker strategy. You are sure to lose money when you first play, but you will lose much less if you pick up some tips before you start.
Finally you need somewhere to play. If you don't have an online poker account anywhere, you could try Pacific Poker, who offer both real money and pretend money games: