Poker has been around for centuries, but the stellar rise of online poker in the past couple of decades has undoubtedly contributed to poker becoming one of, if not the most popular card game around the world.
Fancy poker rooms at casinos, global tournaments with prize pools reaching into the millions of dollars, the vying and bluffing, the glamour of poker; it’s no wonder that this ultimate game of skill attracts so many people to try their luck and hone their card playing skills.
Despite the game having virtually countless iterations, learning how to play poker shouldn't be difficult. But picking up poker basics is merely scratching the surface. To master the game, you will need more than a handy poker tutorial. It takes years of practice and hundreds of betting rounds to become a pro.
This is not meant to discourage you. It goes simply to show the intricacy of the game, the twists and turns you will encounter at every corner of a poker hand. To ease your way into the world of poker, we compiled this how to play poker step by step guide as a quick course in starting your poker journey.
What Is Poker and How Is It Played?
Poker is a card game played by two or more people who bet on the value of their hands, or card combinations, with the winner taking the pool of money made from those bets.
Although it has numerous variants, all poker games have similar betting principles in common, and the way bets are placed in poker sets this game apart from other card games. In addition, virtually all of them are equally popular among famous poker players!
Although the question of when was poker invented has no precise answer, most scholars agree that the game as we know it originated in the early or mid-18th century North America, taking cues from older card games, such as French poquet and an even older Renaissance game of primero.
By the turn of the 19th century, it spread up the Mississippi River, with its popularity steadily rising virtually to this day.
Let’s jump on some basic rules of poker by analysing gameplay to see how the action unfolds in an average poker game.
In this section, we will try to answer the question of How do you play poker, by giving an overview of the game, the objective and how to achieve it, before diving deeper into each separate round.
So, how does poker work?
In Texas Hold'em, the most popular poker variant, the objective is to use your private, hole cards, the two face-down cards you are initially dealt by the dealer, and combine them with the community cards dealt face-up on the table to form the strongest hand of 5 cards.
These face-up, community cards, are dealt in stages as follows:
- The flop: the first three cards laid out after the first betting round
- The turn: the fourth community card, put out after the second betting round
- The river: the fifth and final card laid out following the third round of bets
The objective is, of course, to win money and you can do this in two ways:
- Have the best five-card poker hand using the available community cards and the two cards in your hand (you can choose to use both, one, or none of the cards you were dealt), or
- Make your opponents believe that your hand is the strongest
This is precisely what sets poker apart from other card games and it’s the first thing to learn when getting a grasp of how to play poker.
To win, players don't necessarily have to have the best hand. Bluffing, or making other players believe that you have a winning hand, is the essential feature of poker and can lead other players to fold even when they have stronger hands.
In case all but one player folds, the remaining player will win the entire pot without having to show their cards. (Of course, this is never the case with high-stakes games yielding the biggest poker wins, but it can happen in less formal settings.)
If two or more players make it to the showdown, once the last community card is dealt and all betting rounds are completed, the winner is determined by the highest-ranking five-card poker hand.
How Many People Can Play Poker?
Traditionally, poker is considered a game for 2 to 7 players where the more, the merrier rule applies, with 6 or 7 being the ideal number. However, more than seven people can play certain poker variants, and even some of the biggest tournaments place up to eleven players in the early stages. For instance, you can also try poker with a bigger crowd by playing poker online with friends and see how it goes!
To answer the question of how many people can play poker, we’ll present three most common formats in which poker is played:
This format employs the whole poker table, meaning that the maximum number of players is ten - nine and a dealer.
This is the most common format for Texas Hold 'em, for example. However, some full-ring games will limit the number of players to nine. Note that a full ring does not necessarily have to involve nine or ten players; it only refers to the highest number of players that can participate.
The maximum number of players allowed in a short-handed game is usually six, hence the other name six-max. Just like with a full ring game, a short-handed game can also run even with fewer players at the table.
Finally, a heads-up game refers to a match between two opponents. Heads-up is a popular online format; it is rarely seen in poker rooms, though, simply because of the inefficient use of poker tables.
Learn to Play Poker: Basic Rules for Beginners
Now let's get down to business! We compiled a short poker tutorial that will help you learn how to play poker in no time. Of course, these are poker basics that are pretty simple to understand; mastering the poker game, however, is a whole different thing and requires tons of practice and hundreds of rounds of experience.
We suggest you use our beginners guide on how to play poker which lays out the rules of poker that are common to all variants.
Any type of poker is centred around common poker-hand rankings which serve to decide the winning hand. In some games, the player is decided by the strongest hand, in others, such as low-ball poker, the player who wins is the one with the weakest hand.
Poker card strength is explained in more detail further down, so keep scrolling through the article for more info.
Bluffing is a fundamental part of poker and without any doubt the most difficult skill to master. Bluffing means conveying the idea of confidence in your hand, usually by betting in a way that suggests your hand is stronger than it actually is with the goal of making your opponents fold before the final round.
Bluffing as an essential part of poker make it much different than other casino games as you can see for yourself in our poker vs blackjack comparison where we break down both games.
The majority of poker games involve some kind of mandatory bet to be placed at the beginning of a hand. These are commonly referred to as the ante or blind. In Texas Hold’em, there are a small blind and a big blind, where the latter usually bets double the amount of the former.
The dealer/the button
The role of the dealer is to determine the order in which forced and any subsequent bets are placed. In casinos, there is always a designated dealer who doesn’t take part in betting. They are licensed professionals who became casino dealers by obtaining licenses for croupiers. That is why casinos use a white round disc that sits in front of a player and is moved one seat to the left as each hand progresses.
The button serves to determine which player at the table is the acting dealer, letting everyone know who is up for a bet first.
When playing poker at home, the player with the button will usually do the dealing, starting from the first player on his or her left and ending with the dealer him/herself.
Now that we covered the basic rules of most poker games, let's see how a standard poker hand unfolds from start to finish.
Before each hand, the two players sitting left to the dealer (the small and the big blind) are required to make forced or blind bets, i.e., the predetermined amount of money that goes into the pot. Commonly, the small blind will put in half of the minimum bet, while the big blind will bet the minimum amount.
Preflop: First betting round
Each player is then dealt two cards (the so-called hole cards) face-down that they must keep to themselves. In betting round one, the first player to act is the person left to the big blind, the position dubbed under the gun. This player has three betting options:
- Call – match the amount of the big blind;
- Raise – increase the bet
- Fold – resign from the game
Once the under the gun player acts, the play takes place clockwise around the table until the last bet is called.
The flop: Second betting round
Once the first preflop betting round is completed, the dealer lays out the first three community cards, the flop, and the second betting round follows. In the second and any other subsequent betting round, the action starts with the first player to the dealer's left or the dealer button.
This is where the fourth betting option is introduced, in addition to the three already available (call, raise, and fold):
- Check – passing the action to the next player
It is important to note that a player can check only if no one placed a bet before them. Betting then continues until the last bet or raise is called; it can also happen that all players choose to check.
The turn: Fourth betting round
Then comes the fourth community card, referred to as the turn, which is dealt face-up. Then another betting round occurs, similar to the previous, with players given the same four options.
The river: Fifth betting round
Once the turn is completed, the fifth community card, dubbed the river, is dealt face-up. This is followed by another betting round similar to the previous two with the same betting options. Upon completing the betting action, the remaining players with hole cards expose their cards to determine the winner.
The remaining players reveal their cards and, assisted by the dealer, determine the winning hand. Whoever has the best combination of five cards wins the pot, according to official poker hand rankings.
If a player bets at any point during a betting round but no opponent chooses to match the bet, the hand will end immediately, and the bettor will win the pot, without the need to show the cards.
This is what makes bluffing possible and what distinguishes poker from other card games. Bluffing is the essential feature of poker, and it is virtually impossible to play it without making other players believe what you want them to.
Backdoor? Counterfeit? Muck? If you're not familiar with these terms and wish to engage in a game of poker, we suggest you check out our post about poker terms to get yourself acquainted with the lingo.
Poker Betting Options
As we said before, the betting principle in poker is what distinguishes poker from other card games. In poker, betting is the key because poker is, in essence, a chip management game.
In the previous section, we laid out the betting intervals in which players bet on their hands or don't if they deem that taking no action is wiser. When studying how to play poker, it is essential that you learn to minimize the losses when dealt a poor hand, that is, to maximize winnings with good hands.
Before the cards are dealt, the basic rules of poker require players to put an initial contribution to the pot, called an ante or blind bet to put the game in motion. If it weren't for blind bets or antes, the game would be rather dull as players could choose not to place bets at all.
In any subsequent betting round, players have the following betting options at their disposal:
In each new betting round, the player who decides to put in new chips is making a bet, with the first bet based on the two cards held by players. Once the first bet is made, the next player can either:
Calling or seeing a bet means matching the previous bet or raise;
Raising means adding more money to the pot. If you decide to raise, the rest of the players will either call your new bet or fold; or
If a player folds, they choose not to match the previous bet which essentially means they are dropping out of the game.
Checking means that you’d like to skip the current round, but remain in the game. However, checking is possible only until the first bet in a round is placed; you can't check if the player before you has put in money.
If a player doesn't have enough chips to call a bet, they can put in all of their remaining chips. Subsequent betting occurs in a side pot, with the all-in player being allowed to win the number of chips in the pool when they went all-in.
Poker Hands: Card Values Explained
If you wish to pick up poker basics, the first thing to learn is poker card strength. Poker hands are combinations of cards - in Texas Hold’em, two hole cards and five community cards - that eventually, but not necessarily, decide the winner of a poker game.
The strength of different hands that you can play is classified by the poker hands rankings, which is an essential tool to get a grasp of how to play poker. At the core of all variants of the game is a standard poker hand ranking system that is crucial to get the hang of if you're serious about winning.
Here, we will rank the ten basic poker hands from the strongest to the weakest.
The royal flush is the highest-ranked hand of all, which features five consecutive cards in the same suit in value order from ace through 10, as in A♦ K♦ Q♦ J♦ 10♦.
A straight flush stands for a combination of five sequential cards of the same suit, like J♠ 10♠ 9♠ 8♠ 7♠.
Four of a kind
Four of a kind or quads stands for a hand containing four cards of one rank in all four suits and a card of another rank, called the kicker, as in 9♥ 9♣ 9♦ 9♠ K♥.
Full house, otherwise known as a full boat or a boat (originally called a full hand), is a hand made up of the same rank cards in three different suits and a pair of the same rank in two different suits, such as A♥ A♣ A♦ 3♠ 3♥. It is ranked first by the rank of the triplet and then the pair.
Flush stands for five cards of the same suit in whatever order. An example is K♣ 10♣ 8♣ 7♣ 5♣.
Five cards in sequence made up of more than one suit. An ace can rank as either high or low, but not both in the same hand, such as 10♥ 9♣ 8♦ 7♠ 6♥. An ace-high straight like A♣ K♣ Q♦ J♠ 10♠ is referred to as a Broadway straight, whereas a five-high straight, like 5♠ 4♦ 3♦ 2♠ A♥, is dubbed a baby straight, bicycle or wheel.
Three of a kind
Three of a kind, aka trips or a set, is a poker hand made up of three cards of the same value in three different suits, such as 7♥ 7♦ 7♣ Q♠ 3♥. The three-of-a-kind hand is completed with the two highest available cards.
This hand stands for two different sets of two cards of matching rank. The highest-ranked remaining card completes the hand. For example, J♥ J♣ 5♦ 5♠ 7♥.
A pair stands for two cards of the same rank in different suits, such as A♥ A♣ K♦ J♠ 7♥. The rest of the hand is formed using the three highest-ranked cards at your disposal. By the way, did you know that different poker hand combinations, and most notably pairs, have their own poker hand nicknames?
This is the lowest-ranked hand. It means that the highest card you were dealt is your best hand as none of the five cards can pair up. In case more than one player ends up with not even a pair, the hands are ranked by the highest card in each hand. An example hand is K♥ 8♣ Q♦ 2♠ 7♥.
Different Types of Poker
There are numerous variants of poker. Dozens, if you wish. Some players will stick to one version, while others choose to play many different versions (sometimes even several at once when playing online!).
Of course, we are not going to list them all here, as it would take too much space. To better grasp different types of poker, we classify them into three main categories according to the way the cards are dealt:
Poker variants in this category are games in which hands dealt to players are hidden from their opponents; to improve their hands, players can replace a certain number of cards. Some of the most popular variants in this category are:
- Five Card Draw
In stud poker games, players are dealt hands that contain both hidden and exposed cards, so they have some idea about what their opponents might have. Examples of stud poker games are:
- Five Card Stud
- Seven Card Stud
Shared card poker
In shared or community card poker, some cards are dealt face up in the centre of the table, called the board, for all players to use them to form a hand, while the rest are dealt face down for the player’s eyes only. The most famous versions of shared card poker are:
- Texas Hold’em
At this point you might ask: So what is the easiest poker game to learn? The truth is, once you learn the poker basics, you will be able to play any poker game. Despite being so varied, all poker games share a number of similarities, so when you get the hang of universal rules of poker, you will know how to play poker in any of the possible versions.
Differences Between Playing Poker Online vs. in a Land-Based Casino
The debate about playing poker online vs. poker in a casino may quickly become heated, especially if you're discussing the issue with stalwarts of traditional, land-based casinos.
Learning how to play poker online doesn’t differ much from learning how to play poker at home; both manners have their upsides and downsides, so we will try to sum up the pros and cons of both online and land-based poker to help guide your choice.
Pros of playing at a land-based casino
- Socializing with other players – land-based casinos are social places that raise the level of excitement and offer a unique experience.
- Handling cards and chips – poker chips constitute an important part of a poker game. Being able to handle cards and chips adds to the excitement, as opposed to betting with virtual chips
- Free drinks – most land-based casinos offer free drinks to their visitors, which is a nice touch, considering the money you're spending there.
- Tells – when playing poker, bluffing is essential. Knowing poker tells makes it much easier to read your opponent's hand in a brick-and-mortar venue and analyse their behaviour to see if they're bluffing.
Cons of playing at a land-based casino
- Expensive – most of us don't live in an area where there are land-based casinos, which means that to visit one, you have to travel there, pay for accommodation, etc.
- Hectic atmosphere – for some, buzzing activity at land-based casinos can be stimulating; others may find it hard to concentrate due to noise.
- Limited game selection – the most popular poker variant, Texas Hold 'em, can be found at any land-based casino around the world. Still, most casinos won't offer other options, which means that you won't be able to try your luck at different poker iterations.
Pros of playing poker online
- Convenience – at casinos online, you can play anytime you like, without the need to travel and you can also learn how to play poker game at your own pace.
- Perfect for newbies – online venues are ideal for new players as they usually offer lower betting limits and free play.
- No distractions – playing poker online from the comfort of your home means that you'll be able to concentrate more on your strategy.
- Keeping track of wins and losses – online casinos let you access your stats with a few clicks so that you always know how much you spent and won.
- Game selection – don't like Texas hold'em? No biggie, you can switch to Omaha Hi/Lo or Seven Card Stud at any point.
- Opponents can't read your hand – this comes in handy, especially if you're a greenhorn, because more experienced players are naturally better at calling your bluff.
Cons of playing poker online
- Lack of actual casino experience – visiting a land-based casino is a unique experience and playing online doesn't anywhere near to hanging out in a flashy poker room.
- You can't tell when other players are bluffing – not giving your bluff away is a good thing, but note that when playing online, you won't be able to tell if your opponents are bluffing either.
All Pokered Out
If we were to sum poker up, we'd have to say the game is so popular that there are even songs about poker!
Other than that, we hope that we managed to help you learn how to play poker and familiarise yourself with this ultimate game of skill. Now all that’s left to do is practice, practice, practice so that you master all of the aspects of poker and engage in some truly thrilling poker hands!
Until then, enjoy our other guides on popular casino games and always remember to play responsibly!