Poker is a popular card game available at all US-friendly online casinos. It requires a considerable amount of skill, and can be played as a cash game or tournament, as you will read further on. Initially played as a recreational game, poker’s popularity ascended at the turn of the millennium. The advent of online gambling is responsible for the huge numbers of poker players worldwide, with online poker revenues running into billions of dollars.
The game is played with a standard deck, and the best combination of five cards wins. The winner gets the pot containing bets by all the players during the hand. This brief guide to playing poker should help you gain a beginner’s overview of the game.
Poker hand rankings
The cards forming a poker hand fall into different categories:
Royal Flush: A ten to ace in the same suit is the best possible combination, and extremely rare, with odds of 1 in 650,000 deals. Example: Ace, King, Queen, Jack and Ten of Diamonds.
Straight Flush: Also a rare hand, a straight flush comprises five cards in a continuous sequence, all from the same suit. Example: Queen, Jack, Ten and Nine of Hearts.
Four of a Kind: Four cards are the same (such as four seven of hearts), along with another different number or face card (“kicker”). Example: 4-of-a-kind tens and a Jack of Spades.
Full House: Three of a kind plus a pair in the same hand. Example: 3-of-a-kind sixes and two eights.
Flush: Five cards in the hand are of the same suit. In case two player have a flush, the individual with the highest card in that suit wins. Example: Jack, Nine, Five and Two of Clubs.
Straight: Five consecutive cards of different suits. If two players have a straight, the higher card forming this hand wins. Example: A-2-3-4-5.
Three of a kind: Three of the same cards, and two unrelated side cards. During a tie, the highest ranking three of a kind wins. Example: Three nines in different suits, one six, one four.
Two pairs: Two cards of one rank, two of another rank, and one of a third rank (“kicker”). If case of a tie, the higher pair wins. Example: Two Queens, two tens and a five.
One pair: Two of any of the same cards forms one pair. Example: A pair of fours, a King, a ten and a three.
High card: If no player can make a combination, then the single highest card is considered. Example: if you have K-J-10-8-6-2, you have a King-Jack high.
How to play online poker
Each player is dealt two cards (“hole cards”), starting with the player to his immediate left and ending at himself. The action begins with the player to the left, who can choose to bet or check (do nothing).
If a bet is placed, the remaining players have three options:
- Call: Match the amount raised
- Fold: Give up the hand and the chips they’ve put in the pot
- Raise: Add more chips to the pot
This continues until all calls have been made or all the chips are collected. This marks the end of the first betting round. The dealer then deals three cards face-up in the center of the table. These are the community cards, also called as shared cards that any player can use. The move is known as the ‘flop’, named for the sound the dealer makes while placing the first three community cards on the table.
All players still in the hand can bet. After that bet is complete, the dealer places a fourth card that anyone can use. This is known as the turn. Once again, players have the chance to check, bet and raise or fold. The dealer then puts a fifth card (“river”) that anyone can use. The same process of betting, checking, raising or folding occurs.
If more than one player remains in the hand after the final betting hand, the cards are exposed and the strongest hand wins the pot.
Blinds are forced bets posted by player to the left of the dealer. Their name comes from the fact that players have to pay before they can take a look at their cards. That said, blinds are relatively small bets. In poker tournaments, the blinds start as very small bets and increase gradually in time increments.
The button is the ‘dealer’ position in the current hand. It is used to track who’s turn it is to post the bets. The button moves clockwise by one position after each hand. It starts with one or two blind bets where players must compulsorily place bets before the cards are dealt. If there are two blinds, the small blind is posted by the player positioned immediately clockwise from the button, while the big blind is placed by the player positioned two places from the button, also in a clockwise motion. As the button is the last position to act, he has the advantage of seeing moves by all other players.
Action begins on the first betting round by the first player to the left of the blinds. During subsequent rounds, action is initiated by the first active player to the left of the button.
- Every player must be assigned a button and fulfil the obligations of the blind.
- The button advances to the next player and blinds are adjusted accordingly.
- The big blind is posted by the player due to assume it. The small blind and dealer button are positioned accordingly. If the small blind or button is placed in front of a missing player’s empty seat, the same player has the privilege of last action on consecutive hands.
- The player who posts the blind can raise the pot when it is his first turn to act.
- In a heads-up blind set-up, the small blind is on the button. Any new player who enters the game can either wait for the big blind or post an amount equaling the big blind and be dealt a hand immediately.
- If the new player lets the button go without posting, he will need to post only the big blind when taking part in the game.
- In between the big blind and the button, no cards are dealt to a new player. The player needs to wait until the button passes.
- When a player posts the big blind, that is his opening bet. He has the option to raise when it is his turn to act.
- A player who does not post any blinds can continue playing by either positing the blinds he’s missed or waiting for the big blind.
- A new player doesn’t have to post a blind until the button has gone around the table, as long as a blind hasn’t yet passed his seat.
Most poker games end with one winner who claims the entire pot. In the event of a tie, the pot is split and divided between the joint winners.
Different poker variants
Texas Hold’em: The most popular variant of poker, Texas Hold’em can be played with an unlimited betting size (No Limit Texas Hold’em), or with fixed limits (Limit/Fixed Texas Hold’em). In the spread limit version of the game, you can bet any amount within an established range in every betting round.
Omaha: Like Texas Hold’em, Omaha uses a three-card flop on the board, and the fourth and fifth board cards. Betting rules are also similar. The difference is that players get four hole cards instead of two at the start of the game. Two hole cards and three board cards make a hand.
Omaha hi-lo is a slightly different version that has a high pot and low pot for every hand. The high hand is any combination of two hole cards and three board cards. The low hand is a combination of two hole cards and three board cards. The best high 5-card poker hand or low card poker hand entitles you to half the pot.
7-Card Stud: This poker variant is played between two to eight players. Each player is dealt seven cards, three face-up and four face-down. The best five-card hand wins the pot. The smaller bet is wagered for the first two betting rounds while the larger bet is used for the last three betting rounds. Unlike Omaha and Hold’em, there are no community cards or blinds. The other difference is that each player contributes an equal amount of money (“antes”) into the pot before the game begins.
Razz: Similar to 7-card Stud, Razz is a low-ball game in which the best hand is the wheel: A, 2, 3, 4 and 5 of any suits. Aces are always low, and straights and flushes don’t count against the player for low. True to the low-ball format, combinations like pairs, three of a kind, and four of a kind are more important.
Five-card Draw: This is the simplest poker variant, and usually the first variation learned by beginner players. Players can discard any of the cards in their starting hand and draw hand. The best five-card high hand wins. Although rarely played at traditional casinos, it is available online for US gamblers, although not as popular as Hold’em or Omaha.
2-7 Triple Draw: Another low-ball format, 2-7 Triple Draw is played between two to six players. Each player is dealt five cards and the goal is to make the lowest possible five-card hand. After each round of betting, players can discard cards from 0 to 5 and replace them with cards from the deck. At the end of the third and final draw, the best 2-7 lowball hand wins the pot. Straights, flushes and pairs count against the player. A straight does not kill the hand but lowers the value.
Badugi: In the action-packed low-ball variant of poker, the lowest four-card hand referred to as ‘Badugi’ wins. If there are no four-card Badugis, the best three-card hand wins the pot.
Cash games vs tournaments
The chips in poker cash games count as actual money, and there is a minimum and maximum buy-in amount. In poker tournaments, players buy-in using the same amount of real money and receive the same amount of chips that have no cash value.
Cash games allow players to leave the table at any time. You cannot leave a tournament game at your convenience. If you leave before you bust or the tournaments ends, you’ll have to forfeit your remaining chips.
In cash games, blinds are fixed and not subject to any increase. As far as tournaments go, blinds rise at a rate of 25-50% over the previous round. To the question ‘should I play cash games or tournaments?’, there are varying opinions. If it’s a matter of time and convenience, including the option to rebuy, cash games are appropriate.
Good logic is always welcome in cash games as it will help you decipher opponents’ hands. Deep stacks also require you to apply a higher level of skill. An average-level tournament does not require expert-level skill. The payouts are big and the excitement is greater than that at cash games.
Online poker strategy
You can’t win every time, but you can improve your game over time and gain an edge over other players.
- Be perfectly familiar with poker rules, positions and hand rankings.
- Start at the lowest limits and work your way up.
- Try different poker variants to determine which one you enjoy most.
- Avoid opening too many hands, be selective and play only your strongest hands.
- Avoid bluffing too much, it is more effective in some circumstances than others.
- The best table position is when you’re on the button.
- Stick to one table when you’re starting out and learn all you can.
- Folding is preferable to calling when you’re unsure.
- Apply a consistent strategy, and break away only if you’ve a clear reason to do so.
- Discipline is critical to throw away poor starting hands and go from strength to strength.