How Poker Works


Poker players take part in the Monte Carlo tournament of the European Poker Tour. See more casino pictures.
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The game of poker is gaining in popularity, with televised poker tournaments, online poker sites, and traditional "poker night" games being played in homes across the country. The old image of poker as a game played in smoky, dimly lit back rooms populated by con men and criminals is fading away.

In this article, we'll learn the basics of poker, how to play some of the more popular forms of poker, examine the strategies that can lead to poker success, and take a look at the shady ways of poker cheaters.

History of Poker

Deck of playing cards
Deck of playing cards

The origins of playing cards and poker are difficult to pin down. There are dozens of theories. Some say playing cards were developed by the Chinese as a variation on dominoes. In Europe, Tarot decks used for fortune telling are an obvious link in the lineage of the playing card. Gaming has been popular in every culture throughout history, so it is likely that different versions of the playing-card deck were developed independently by different cultures at different times.

Early French settlers who came to New Orleans played a card game called poque, which involved bluffing and betting. Persian sailors, at port in New Orleans, taught the French settlers the Persian game called âs, which uses decks of cards comprised of five suits. Most likely, these two games came to be melded together into one, and as travelers spread the game up the Mississippi River, they changed it to suit their own purposes. Con men who plied the riverboats adapted the game, using it to relieve their victims of their "poke," or cash. At some point, this Anglicized version of the word poque became "poker." The first written mention of "poker" was in 1834.

In the 1800s, the game quickly spread to the western frontier. The "wild west" period of American history was a boom time for poker, with a poker table in almost every saloon.

Legendary Las Vegas casino owner Benny Binion decided to host a poker tournament for the best players in the world. In 1970, he held the first ever World Series of Poker. This $10,000 buy-in, no-limit Texas Hold'em game is now televised on ESPN.

Poker Basics

Most poker games use a standard 52-card deck of playing cards. There is no national or international regulating organization for the game of poker; the rules are simply passed down through tradition and experience. Knowing the standard poker rules gives you a good foundation, but there are dozens of house rules that may be in effect, depending on where you play. If you play on Friday nights at your cousin's house, your cousin decides the house rules. If you're playing in a major tournament at a casino, the casino's rules apply. Make sure you know the house rules where you plan to play, and don't be afraid to ask -- before you buy-in. Although the days of poker players getting shot over a big pot are for the most part behind us, it's still a bad idea to violate a house rule at the table.

In most poker games, money is traded in for chips before the game begins. The chips are what the players are actually putting into the pot. At the end of the game, they can trade their chips for money ("cashing out").

In this article, whenever a dollar amount is mentioned in relation to a hand of poker, we're actually talking about chips that represent that amount.

Poker Glossary

  • Ante - Ante is a bet placed by all players before a hand is dealt. It is the "cost" of being able to play in that hand. (hand - see below)
  • Bet - To bet is to put money into the pot. (pot - see below)
  • Blind - Sometimes used instead of an ante, this is a bet placed by the player sitting to the left of the dealer before the hand is dealt.
  • Bluff - Bluffing is when a player bets aggressively even though he has a weak hand, in an attempt to get the other players to fold. (fold - see below)
  • Bug - A bug is a joker, used in some games as a wild card; sometimes it is a limited wild card, in which case the joker acts as an ace. If the joker is the fifth card needed to complete a flush or a straight, it becomes whichever card is needed. (wild card - see below)
  • Buy-in - The buy-in is the amount of money needed to enter a poker game.
  • Call - To call is to place into the pot the amount needed to match the previous bets made for that betting round. For example, if the player to your right bets $10, to stay in that hand you need to "call" his bet by placing $10 in the pot.
  • Check - A check is a bet of nothing. If no bets have been made during the current betting round, the player whose turn it is to bet can bet nothing, and pass the opportunity to bet to the player to her left. If everyone checks all the way around the table, the betting round ends.
  • Fold - To fold is to drop out of the hand because you don't think your cards are good enough to win. When you fold, you don't put any more money into the pot, and you forfeit any chance at winning it. (pot - see below)
  • Hand - A hand is a combination of cards, usually five, that is compared to the other players' hands to see who wins. The word hand is also used to mean a single round of poker.
  • Pot - The pot is the prize for a hand of poker. The pot is made up of the antes or blinds, plus all the bets made during that hand. At the end of the hand, the player with the best hand (or the last player still in the hand, if everyone else folds) wins the pot.
  • Raise - To raise is to increase the amount of the bet for the current betting round, after another player has already placed a bet. For example, the player to your right bets $10. You can call her $10 bet, and then raise it another $10. You would therefore place $20 into the pot. Players to your left would have to call the total bet of $20 to stay in the hand. They could also raise it another $10. In this case, when the bet came around to you again, you'd have to put $10 in the pot to call and stay in the hand.
  • Showdown - The showdown is the end of the hand, when all remaining players show their cards to see who has the best hand.
  • Wild card - A wild card is card whose value is decided by the player holding it.

Rank of Hands

This hand has nothing. If the player were to take this hand all the way to the showdown without folding, the hand would be called "King High."
This hand has nothing. If the player were to take this hand all the way to the showdown without folding, the hand would be called "King High."

Poker hands are ranked based on the odds against drawing them. The rarer a hand, the stronger it is.

Some poker variants use alternate hands, but the rank of hands shown below (and at right) is standard. Hands that are tied in terms of rank are decided based on the highest card in the hand. In other words, a Pair of Kings beats a Pair of Tens, and a Straight 7-8-9-10-J beats a Straight 3-4-5-6-7.

The lowest possible hand is no hand at all -- no pairs, no Straight, nothing. This kind of hand is known by the highest card it contains, so K-7-5-3-2 of different suits would be "King High."

The lowest actual hand is One Pair, made of two cards of the same value and three unrelated cards.

One Pair

Next is Two Pair: two cards of the same value, another two other cards of the same value, and one unrelated card.

If two players have Two Pair, the rank of the highest pair in each hand is the tie-breaker. If that pair is tied, the low pairs are compared. If the hands are still tied, the unmatched card in each hand is compared; high card wins. In the event of completely tied hands, the pot is split.

Three of a Kind beats Two Pair: three cards with the same value and two unrelated cards. This hand is sometimes referred to as a Set or Trips.

Three Eights, also know as a "Set of Eights" or "Trip-eights"

Topping Three of a Kind is a Straight, made of five cards, any suit, in uninterrupted order of value. An Ace can be either the low card or the high card in a Straight, but you can't build a Straight between a King and a Two. In other words, A-2-3-4-5 is a Straight, and so is 10-J-Q-K-A, but Q-K-A-2-3 is not.

5-6-7-8-9 Straight

Just above the Straight is the Flush: five cards of the same suit, with any value.

Flush

Next is the Full House. A Full House is basically three of a kind plus a pair. A Full House made of three Queens and a pair of Sixes would be referred to as "Full-house, Queens over Sixes."

Full House, Queens over Sixes

Four of a kind is a rare hand without wild cards in play. This hand consists of four cards of the same value, plus one unrelated card.

Four of a Kind

The strongest hand in poker is the Straight Flush, which is really a combination of a Straight and a Flush. This hand is made up of five cards of the same suit, in uninterrupted sequence.

Straight Flush

The legendary Royal Flush is the rarest of all poker hands. Technically, it's just a Straight Flush with an Ace as the high card, but because it's an unbeatable hand, poker players usually consider the Royal Flush a hand in its own category. Specifically, a Royal Flush is five cards of the same suit in an uninterrupted sequence that leads up to the Ace: 10-J-Q-K-A.

The elusive Royal Flush, the strongest hand in poker

Rank Reversal: Lowball

Some poker games are lowball games. These games award the pot to the player with the worst hand. In one variation, called California Lowball, Straights and Flushes don't count, so the lowest hand is A-2-3-4-5. A more difficult version, known as Kansas City Lowball, does count Straights and Flushes, and also disallows the Ace from being used as low card. Therefore, the lowest possible Kansas City Lowball hand is 2-3-4-5-7 of differing suits.

Betting

There are different kinds of betting limits in poker. In a no-limit game, usually a very high-stakes game like the World Series of Poker, there are no rules governing the amount that a player can bet or raise.

The most common limits are fixed-limit games. A fixed-limit poker game is identified by two betting amounts and the type of game. For example, an online poker site might host $5-$10 Texas Hold'em tables. That means that for the first few rounds of betting, each bet must be an increment of $5. If someone bets $5, you can only call that bet or raise it another $5. At a certain point (depending on the game), the betting limit doubles; all bets are then made in increments of $10. Most casinos limit the number of raises in a single betting round to three or four.

Some games use a spread limit, like $1-$10. That means a bet can be any value between the limits, but each raise must be at least as much as the previous bet.

Finally, there are pot-limit games. In these games, the betting limit is the amount currently in the pot, including your current call. In other words, if there is $20 in the pot, and the player before you bet $10, you can raise up to $40 ($20 in the pot + $10 bet + $10 call).

A term you might hear often around a poker game is "table stakes." "Table stakes" simply means you can only play with the chips you have on the table. If you tap out (run out of chips), you can't buy more in the middle of a hand, or pull a $20 bill out of your pocket to play with. You have to leave the table at the end of the hand, buy more chips, and then return to the table when a new hand is beginning.

Poker Etiquette

The rules of poker involve more than just the mechanics of play. Poker players are expected to follow certain customs, most of which ensure a fair game.

Play in turn. In most games, betting begins with the player to the left of the dealer, and moves around the table clockwise. Don't place a bet or ask for cards from the dealer until it's your turn.

Don't talk about the hand in play. Even after you've folded, wait until the showdown is over if you feel you must discuss what you had and what you thought the other players had.

Don't be a rabbit. When a hand is over, don't dig through the deck and the hands the other players have folded to see "what you might have had." This slows the game down and is annoying. The exception is if you genuinely think something was done incorrectly during the hand. Then you can call "time," and play will stop until your problem is resolved. This should be done very infrequently, however.

Don't hold your cards below the table. Although the vast majority of poker players do not cheat, it looks suspicious when you hold your cards out of sight. You could be marking them, or switching them with a holdout or a card up your sleeve.

Don't hold your cards where other players can see their faces. You might think it doesn't matter, since you're only hurting yourself. That's not true. If one player can see your cards, she has an advantage over the other players, which hurts them. Keep your hand face down, or held very close to your chest (the origin of the phrase, "playing it close to the vest"), and take a careful peek when you need to look at it.

Don't string raise. When you raise someone's bet, announce your call and your raise at the same time. Then gather the chips and place them in the pot. If you say, "I call that bet," and then pause before finally saying, "...and raise it $20," someone will likely call, "string raise." A lot of poker strategy is based on the other players' reactions to bets and raises. A string raise gives a player an advantage by allowing him to see the other players' reactions before making a raise.

Don't splash. When making a bet, slide your stack of chips in front of you, but not into the pot. Putting them in the pot ("splashing the pot") makes it hard for the dealer and players to know how much you're betting.

Now, let's look at some common poker games and examine the rules, regulations and jargon associated with each.

Common Poker Games: Five-Card Draw & Texas Hold'em

A hand of Texas Hold'em at the flop
A hand of Texas Hold'em at the flop

At most poker tables, the job of dealing will rotate among the players. At a casino, there will be a house dealer, but the dealer's position at the table will still rotate.

The "dealer" for a given hand will hold the dealer button, or buck. When the hand is completed, the button is passed to the player on the left. The expression "passing the buck" doesn't have anything to do with money -- it comes from poker players passing the dealer button around the table.

Five-Card Draw

This game is what many people think of as "standard" poker. However, Five-card Draw isn't played very much any more, especially at casinos.

In Five-card Draw, each player is dealt five cards face down, followed by a betting round. Then, beginning with the player to the dealer's left, each player may discard any number of cards. The dealer will then deal out that same number to that player. While there is technically no limit to the number of cards a player can draw (up to five), poker strategy would dictate that you should fold if you need to draw more than three, or in many cases, more than two.

After every player has drawn, there is another betting round, followed by the showdown.

Texas Hold'em

This is currently the most popular poker game in the United States. Many large poker tournaments, including the World Series of Poker, are Texas Hold'em games.

Texas Hold'em uses two blinds instead of antes to stimulate betting: a large blind and a small blind. The player to the left of the dealer posts the small blind, usually half the amount of the lower betting limit at that table. The player to the left of the small blind posts the large blind, half the amount of the higher betting limit. So at a $10-$20 Texas Hold'em table, the large blind would be $10 and the small blind would be $5.

Each player is dealt two cards face down. These are your hole cards, hence the expression, "an Ace in the hole." This is followed by a betting round.

Three cards are then dealt face up at the center of the table. This three-card deal is known as the flop.

The face-up cards at the center of the table are known as the board, and they are community cards (they can be used by any player at the showdown). Then there is another betting round.

A fourth card is turned face up on the board. This card is known as the turn. There is another betting round.

Finally, the fifth board card, known as the river, is dealt face up. There is a final betting round before the showdown.

This hand of Texas Hold'em has reached the river.

The object is to create the best five-card hand possible using any combination of your two hole cards and the five cards on the board.

Common Poker Games: Seven-Card Stud & Omaha

Here is a hand of seven-card stud after the initial deal, also known as third street.
Here is a hand of seven-card stud after the initial deal, also known as third street.

Seven-Card Stud

This is another popular tournament game. After the ante, each player is dealt two cards in the hole, and one card face up.

The initial deal (see above) is known as "third street." Subsequent face-up deals are known as fourth, fifth, and sixth streets, respectively.

After the initial deal, there is a betting round. In subsequent deals, three more cards are dealt face up to each player, one at a time, with a betting round between each one. Finally, another card is dealt in the hole to each player. This seventh card is known as "the river."

A game of seven-card stud at the river

There is another betting round before the showdown. Players create the best five-card hand out of their seven cards (there is no board, nor community cards, in seven-card stud).

There are also five and six-card versions of this game, but they are less common.

Omaha

This game is usually played as high-low split game. That means that the highest hand and the lowest hand will split the pot. Omaha, or Omaha/8, is actually the abbreviated name for Omaha Hold'em, 8-or-better, High-Low Split. It is superficially similar to Texas Hold'em, except that each player gets four cards in the hole instead of two. There is a flop, a turn, and a river, with betting intervals between each, just like in Texas Hold'em.

However, in Omaha, each player can only use two of her hole cards and three cards on the board to make her hand. To make a low hand, a player must use two unpaired cards of rank 8 or lower from the hole and three unpaired cards of rank 8 or lower from the board.

Poker Variants

There are literally hundreds of other variations of poker games, enough to fill an entire book. They include games like Baseball, Indian Poker, and Chicago (see Poker.com: Poker Games to find rules for hundreds of poker variations). But the player who learns the games described here will be able to play at most casinos and many local poker games.

Poker Strategy

Regardless of the specific game, there are several keys to being a successful poker player.

Be conservative. Poker players, and even entire poker games, can be characterized as either tight or loose. A loose player stays in every hand until the showdown, bets and raises with mediocre hands, and generally loses more money than he makes. A tight player folds most hands before ever making a bet. He doesn't spend money throwing chips into the pot to save earlier bets. He knows a bad hand is a bad hand, and he won't play with it. Poker is a game of patience. Good players know they will lose a little money on many hands, waiting for the right hand to come along.

Know when to be aggressive. It's certainly possible to play too tight. When a good hand comes along, raise, and raise again. That's when a good poker player earns her money.

Know the odds. You don't have to be a mathematician, or even memorize long tables of statistics. Just be observant and consider how many cards of each kind are in a deck.


In a game of Texas Hold'em, if you have three of a kind, this is usually a good hand. But if there are four Diamonds on the board, chances are at least one other player has a Diamond in his hand, and that Flush would easily beat your set. Time to fold.

In a Seven-Card Stud game, imagine that you're holding four Clubs to a Flush. You can bet aggressively on drawing that fifth Club if there aren't any others showing, because that increases the odds that there's another one in the deck. If there are already five Clubs showing in other players' hands, the odds of drawing to that Flush are significantly lower.

Weigh cost against the pot. Sometimes you might have a hand you wouldn't normally play with. If you've stayed in the hand, and you're close to the river, consider how much is in the pot versus how much you have to call to stay in. If it will only cost you $5 to stay in a hand with $250 in the pot, it's worth the risk. You could lose with that hand 40 times, but if you win it once when there's a significant pot, you'll make money. A big pot can make bad odds good.

Have standards. You won't have time to consider odds and ponder all the possible outcomes of a hand at the table. Know the game you're playing, and know what kind of opening hand you should play with. If your opening draw doesn't meet your standards, fold.

Bluff rarely. A bluff works best when no one expects it. They won't expect a bluff from a conservative player, or from one with a reputation for never bluffing. You have to bluff occasionally, though. Otherwise, the other players will know you have a good hand any time you bet aggressively, and they'll fold.

Although poker is game of chance at its core, there are good poker players and there are bad poker players. A bad player will get lucky now and then, and every good player hits stretches of bad luck, but over the long term, a good player will make money at poker. In fact, there are quite a few professional poker players in the world.

Professional Poker

For decades, the professional poker player was a rare breed. They were "road gamblers" with names like Doyle Brunson, "Amarillo Slim" Preston, Johnny Moss, and T.J. Cloutier. They were hardly household names. Many of them made their fortunes in back room games -- and usually lost them again. The only way to get good at poker was through years of experience, and earning that experience was a costly proposition. Many early professional players had fearsome reputations: Some claimed or were known to have committed murder, while some simply maintained an intimidating front to ward off cheats and thieves.

These days, poker is becoming mainstream. The nationally televised World Poker Tour, combined with celebrity poker events and national coverage of the World Series of Poker have added up to a surge in popularity for poker at the pro level. The World Series was once a small event hosted at Binion's Horseshoe in Las Vegas mainly to draw publicity. It featured a few of Benny Binion's friends in a Hold'em duel over a pile of chips. Now, thousands of people show up to watch and participate in the dozens of side tournaments, satellites, and ring games that surround the main competition. Anyone over the age of 21 can buy into the main event with $10,000. Many players have made their way in through satellite tournaments that cost much less to play and offer a seat in the main event as a prize.

With online poker and dozens of poker guides available (including Doyle Brunson's legendary Super System), skilled, talented players are entering tournaments with far more knowledge than their experience would indicate. The 2003 World Series of Poker winner is the perfect example of how poker has changed. With a story straight out of a Hollywood script, Chris Moneymaker (his real name) earned a place in the tournament by entering a $40 online poker tournament. To claim that prize, Moneymaker scraped together the money for a plane ticket and hotel room with the help of his father and a friend. Once there, Moneymaker, who had never played in a tournament that wasn't on the Internet before, found himself at tables with the big names of poker. Despite the intimidating presence of these heavy hitters, Moneymaker kept his cool and caught some lucky breaks on his way to a $2.5 million payoff. By all accounts, Moneymaker, an accountant and a father, displayed great sportsmanship at the tournament, and donated $25,000 of his winnings to cancer research.

Cheating

Whenever there's money involved, there are people willing to cheat. When poker was first played on Mississippi riverboats, it was often referred to simply as, "the cheating game." So it should come as no surprise that cheaters have gone to great lengths over the decades to give themselves an upper hand. Many cheating methods require a confederate, a partner at the table to help you put the plan into action. Usually, the dealer must be involved; considering the surveillance in place at modern casinos, finding a crooked dealer there is increasingly rare. However, at a less formal poker game, where the actual dealer rotates around the table, the two cheaters simply have to wait until one of them has the deal to put the plan into action.

Second Dealing and Bottom Dealing

This cheating method requires a lot of practice to be done effectively. Second dealing is the more useful and common of the two, although dealing from the bottom of the deck is probably more famous.

In second dealing, the dealer appears to deal normally form the top of the deck. In truth, the dealer is sliding a card underneath the top card and dealing that card, while holding on to the top card. The top card might be marked, or the dealer might have slipped it on top with a false shuffle. Either way, the dealer's goal is to get that top card to the cheating partner, who will then use it to win the hand.

Marked Cards

Cards are marked in many ways, but the intent is the same -- to allow a player to identify a card without seeing its face. Sometimes a fingernail or small metal piece is used to make an indentation on the corner of a card during a game. A small piece of charcoal or pencil lead can also be used to put a tiny smudge on a card back. Sometimes, the cards are marked elaborately before the game, with subtle alterations of the pattern on the card back. They might be trimmed and shaved along the sides, so that one card, or one rank of card (the Aces, for example), can be found by the dealer by simply feeling along the edge of the deck.

Shiners

A shiner is something reflective that a player can use to see the face of a card, usually when it's being dealt. Shiners might be found on rings, cigarettes, fingernails, or an ashtray on the table.

Holdouts

A holdout is any device used to secretly bring a card from outside the game into the player's hand. Often, the cheater will pull the card out of the game and into the holdout for later use, to be sure the holdout card matches the rest of the deck being used. These can be placed inside sleeves ("an Ace up your sleeve," and "What have you got up your sleeve?" -- two more expressions for which we can thank the world of poker), under the table, on a chair, or in a player's shirt. Some are elaborate mechanical device; some are simply a pocket where the cheat can store the card using slight of hand.

False Cuts and Shuffles

These are methods by which the dealer appears to randomize the deck through cutting and shuffling, but in reality is manipulating the deck for his own benefit.

Cold-decking

To cold-deck means to secretly slip a stacked deck into the game, replacing the real deck.

Collusion

This form of cheating requires at least two partners and a series of signals. The cheats use their signals to let each other know what they're holding, and use this information to deceptively run up the bets of the other players.

In the next section, we'll look at how to stop a cheat.

Stopping a Cheat

There is one sure way to defeat a cheater most of the time -- cut the deck. Players should be allowed to cut the deck before the deal. If you suspect cheating, feel free to cut before every hand. It is your money, after all. The favored method requires taking two separate packets of cards from the middle of the deck, putting them in a pile together, and placing the rest of the deck on top of that pile. Then, you cut the deck again. If the deck seems especially suspicious, ask for a new deck -- one fresh from the plastic wrapper. This is no guarantee, however, since many marked decks are made at gambling-supply houses and then resealed in the wrappers.

If cheating seems rampant and unchecked, simply leave the game. If you're playing at a place where the house makes money from the poker games (usually via a table fee or a percentage of each pot), let the manager know why you're leaving. When the house tolerates cheating, it loses paying customers.

Cheating is no small matter at a casino. It's almost impossible to get away with, and can result in lengthy jail terms. If you suspect cheating, speak to the floor manager. The surveillance tapes can be reviewed to see if cheating occurred. It's in the best interests of the casinos to run a clean game, so unless the entire casino staff is in on the scam (not likely), speaking to a manager is your best option.

Poker can be a fun pastime with family and friends, and even can be a way to make money. However, poker and other forms of gambling can also be a way to lose tremendous amounts of money. Gambling addiction is a serious problem. Take Kenny Rogers' advice: "Know when to walk away."

For more information on poker, other card games, gambling addiction, and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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