Poker Basics

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Right now is the best time to be a poker player. In fact, new players are entering into the game every day in large numbers. As more people seek opportunities to play poker, more poker rooms and Web sites are opening up. As a result, the coverage of poker on television and the number of books and amount of information made available increases, which in turn bring more players into the game. This cycle continues to feed itself so that the popularity of poker is now at an all-time high.

This article will cover many of the basics of poker -- from rankings of poker hands to the card game's terminology. But to put everything in its proper context, we'll lead off with a quick primer on the history of poker.

Poker Origins

Many people were introduced to poker by seeing it played in the saloons in Western movies, and the poker game played was most often 5-Card Draw. Some people may also have heard stories of riverboat gamblers on the Mississippi River. For these reasons, a lot of people grew up believing poker began in America in the 1900s, and the only poker game ever played was 5-Card Draw. Actually, both assumptions are false.

The actual origin of poker is not known. Some say the Chinese played with cards as early as the tenth century a.d. In another part of the world, archaeologists recovered fragments of cardlike items dating to the twelfth or thirteenth century in Egypt. Of course, we don't know what the Egyptians used these cards for, but it could have been the first form of poker. We do know that in the sixteenth century people in India played a betting game called Ganjifa, which used a deck of 96 cards; and in the seventeenth century the Persians played a five-player card game, which they called As Nas, using 25 cards in five suits.

The current 52-card deck is often credited to European countries. In the fifteenth century, France introduced the current suits of clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades in a game called Poque. It is quite possible that the word "poker" is derived from that word. Others, however, claim that the word "poker" comes from the German card game pochspiel or the German bluffing game pochen, which dates back to the sixteenth century. Also, the British are credited with the introduction of games called "Brag" and "Faro," which were played in many saloons in the Old West.

Eventually, poker migrated to the United States in the late eighteenth century and continued to spread throughout North America. Variations of poque called "draw" and "stud" became popular during the Civil War. These terms are still used today.

Next, we'll move onto the fundamentals of playing the game, specifically the rankings of poker hands.

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Ranking of Poker Hands

Card Abbreviations and Ranks
Here is a list of card abbreviations and their ranks:

A - Ace ("bullet")
K- King ("cowboy")
Q - Queen
J - Jack ("hook")
T - Ten
9 - Nine
8 - Eight
7 - Seven
6 - Six
5 - Five
4 - Four
3 - Three
2 - Two ("deuce" "duck")
AA - Pair of aces
AK - Ace and king ("big slick")
Q9s - Queen and nine, suited

In order to succeed at poker, you must memorize the ranking of hands. All poker players should know, for instance, that a flush beats a straight. Here is the ranking, from the strongest to the weakest hand.

  • Royal Flush: A royal flush is a straight flush with the ace as the highest of five cards. For example: A-K--Q-J-T.

  • Straight Flush: A straight flush is a straight all of the same suit. For example: 9-8-7-6-5. In the case of two straight flushes during one hand, the one containing the highest card is the winner. The pot is split if both players have the same high card. (A "hand" can mean either the cards in a player's hand or a round of play; in this case, "hand" refers to a round of play.)

  • Four of a Kind: Four cards of the same rank. For example: 9--9-9-9. Four of a kind is often referred to as "quads." The highest four of a kind is four aces followed by four kings on down to four twos.

  • Full House: A full house consists of three of a kind and two of a kind. For example: K-K-K-6-6. This would be called "kings full of sixes." If there are two full houses during one hand, the one with the largest three of a kind wins. In Texas Hold'em, it is possible for two players to have the same three of a kind; in those situations the pairs determine the winner. If two players have identical hands, the pot is split.

    A full house consists of three of a kind and two of a kind.
    ©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
    This is an example of a full house.

  • Flush: A flush consists of five cards of the same suit. For example: K-J-9-7-2. In the event of two flushes during one hand, the flush with the highest card wins. If they are the same rank, it goes to the next highest card, and on down to the fifth card if necessary. If the two hands are identical, the pot is split between the winners.

  • Straight: A straight consists of five cards of any suit in order. For example: Q-J-T-9-8. As with the other hands, in the event of two straights, the one that starts with the highest rank wins. Aces can be used as a high card above a king or as a low card below a two to make a straight. You can't, however, use a king, ace, two sequence; and an ace below a two cannot be used as the high card.

  • Three of a kind: Three of the same rank. For example: Q-Q-Q. Three of a kind is often called a "set" or "trips."

  • Two Pairs: Four cards of two ranks. For example: J-J-6-6 This would be called "Jacks up." In the event of two players holding two pairs at the same time, the highest pair wins. If both high pairs are the same rank, then the higher second pair wins. If both high and low pairs are the same, the pot is split.

  • One Pair: Two cards of the same rank. For example: 8-8. If two players have an identical pair, such as two aces, the next highest card in each player's hand is compared to see who wins. This is often called a "kicker" and is frequently necessary in Texas Hold'em. (The kicker will be explained in more detail in the next chapter.)

  • High Card: In the event no player has a hand containing at least one pair, the hand with the highest card is the winner. The rank of cards starting from highest is ace, king, queen, jack, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 if the ace is used as a 1.
Now that you know how hands work, it's time to learn how to bet. In the next section, we will look at poker blinds and antes.

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Poker Blinds and Antes

While there is no rule that states you must play poker for money, most players find even a small wager makes the game more exciting. Naturally, different poker games have different types of bets. Here is a crash course:

Most Hold'em (short for Texas Hold'em) poker games require players to post
blinds (initial bets) before any cards are dealt in order to stimulate the betting (i.e., so that there will be money to win). Usually there are two blinds -- a small blind and a big blind -- in each playing round. The players who post the small and big blinds rotates one place to the left after each hand. At the beginning of the game, the player who posts the small blind is the player sitting to the left of the dealer, and the player who posts the big blind is sitting to the left of the player who posted the small blind. The size of the big and small blinds can vary depending on where you are playing, but the big blind is most generally the minimum bet at the table and the small blind is half of that amount (for instance, if the minimum bet at the table is $10, then the big blind would be $10 and the small blind would be $5). On the first round of betting, the big blind plays last since that player already has a full bet in the pot.

If you are entering an existing Hold'em game, you will probably be required to post the big blind in order to play. If your seat is near the big blind on your right, you will probably want to wait until the big blind is at your
position. If you are already in a Hold'em game and you leave the table and miss the blinds, you will be required to post both blinds in order to resume play, or you can wait until the big blind comes to your position.

In Draw, Stud, and other poker games, antes are required of each player. The ante varies according to the agreement of the players or according to the rules of a casino or poker room. In some cases, such as in a tournament, both antes and blinds may be required.

While there are many variations of classic poker, this article has provided some of the basic tools you need to get started. Now you can sit down at a poker table and ante up.

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