While elements of the game have probably been around for centuries, the game we now call “poker” was elevated to immense popularity during the days of the American Civil War, and has experienced an absolute explosion of popularity within the past few years. More and more people want to learn the game, but many become a little put off by the fact that there are literally hundreds of variations. Fear not! The basic elements that make a game “poker” (and not just some other game involving wagering with a deck of cards) are really very simple. As long as you are familiar with these elements, you can easily jump in on any incarnation of the game with little explanation.
Number of Players
2 – 10 (per 52 card deck)
Standard deck of 52 playing cards with the jokers removed (except in specific variations involving “wild cards”). Cards rank: 2 (lowest), 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K, A (highest, but can be treated as low for a “straight”…see “hand ranks” below). Suits are considered equal in rank.
Players agree upon stakes (i.e. buy-in amount, size of blinds, antes, bet limits, etc….see “wagering” below). Wagers are usually tracked by chips of different colors to denote specific amounts, although real currency can also be used. A dealer is selected by an agreed upon method (typically, the deck is shuffled and fanned facedown on the table. Players then each draw and reveal a card at random. Highest card drawn wins the deal. Other methods include a designated dealer dealing 1 card to each player with the highest card dealt determining who will play “on the button”…see “tournament poker” for explanation of “buttons”).
Play begins with the player immediately to the left of the dealer, and proceeds clockwise. In cases where there are “blinds” or forced bets, play begins with the first player to the left of the dealer who is not already invested in the “pot” (the center of the playing area where all bets are placed).
There are two basic forms of poker: open, and closed. “Closed” poker refers to any type of poker where the cards in a player’s hand are only visible to that player, and no one has any inherent knowledge of the other cards in play (the most common form of closed poker is “5-card draw”). “Open” poker, commonly referred to as “stud” poker, is any type of poker where portions of the cards in play are visible to all players (currently, the most popular form of open poker is “hold ‘em”).
All poker is played by wagering or betting that one is holding the best ranked hand of all the hands in play (or implying the best hand…see “bluffing” below). While many variations allow for a larger pool of cards for players to choose from, all poker hands ultimately consist of exactly 5 cards…no more…no less.
The hand ranks of poker are (from lowest to highest):
High card – The strength of the hand is determined by the highest value card in it (for example, if you are holding: A, 2, 7, 5, 10 with all 4 suits represented, you possess none of the other better hands listed below, and therefore the ace, in this case the highest card, represents your hand strength).
1 Pair – 2 (and only 2) of the cards in your hand are identical in rank (example: 3, 4, 8, 8, J)
2 Pair – A pair of cards sharing the same rank, and a second pair of cards sharing a different rank (example: 10, 10, Q, K, K)
3 of a Kind – 3 cards of equal rank (example: 3, 3, 3, 7, 10)
Straight – All 5 cards are in sequence (example: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Note: for a straight, an ace may be treated as either high or low, but not both simultaneously (example: legal straights include A, 2, 3, 4, 5…and 10, J, Q, K, A. A hand consisting of Q, K, A, 2, 3, is NOT a straight, but merely ace-high).
Flush – All 5 cards share a common suit (example: 5, 8, 10, J, K all in spades). Note: cards in a flush hand do not have to be in sequence (as in rummy).
Full House – 3 cards share a common rank, and 2 cards share a different common rank (example: 5, 5, 5, 10, 10…this would be referred to as “fives full of tens”).
4 of a Kind – 4 cards share a common rank (example: Q, Q, Q, Q, 9).
Straight Flush – All 5 cards are in sequence (straight) and share a common suit (flush). (Example: 7, 8, 9, 10, J, all in hearts).
Royal Flush – The highest possible straight flush (example: 10, J, Q, K, A all in one suit)
When playing with wild cards, it is also possible to get 5 of a Kind (all 5 cards share one rank). This is considered the highest possible hand, ranking above a royal flush.
Poker in all forms is a game about betting. Usually, the first bet takes place just after the cards are dealt at the beginning of a hand and proceeds around the table until every player has either matched the highest bet made, or opted out of the hand. These are the options open to a player when wagering:
Checking – A player may “check” or pass the bet to the next player. This option is only open to a player if there is currently no un-matched bet in the pot.
Betting – A player may wager an amount of chips (or money) determined by the stakes agreed upon before the start of the game (this can be any amount from an agreed upon minimum or maximum bet per hand). This is, effectively, a declaration that the player holds the best hand.
Calling – A player may match the current highest bet made by another player in order to remain in the hand.
Raising – A player may increase the amount of a wager placed by another player. The original bettor and all other players now need to match this new bet in order to stay in the hand.
Folding – A player may choose not to match the current bet, and instead relinquish their cards (as well as any wagers they may have already committed to the pot). They then sit out for the rest of that hand.
For most poker games, an “ante” is required from each player at the start of each hand. This is an agreed upon amount of money, or chips (usually fairly small in denomination) that each player must add to the pot before being dealt any cards. This is to ensure that each player has something invested in the hand before being able to look at their cards and decide if it is worth it to play. It also ensures that the winning player has a pot with at least something in it, should all other players choose to fold their hands.
Another form of forced betting is the concept of “blinds.” Blinds are bets typically used in place of antes (although both may be used simultaneously) as a means to help drive the betting. Blinds are usually bigger than a typical ante would be (determined by the stakes), and they are only put into the pot by a specific number of players. These are usually the two players to the immediate left of the dealer. Blinds are divided into a “big blind” (normally posted by the player seated two seats to the dealer’s left), and a “small blind” (posted by the player directly to the dealer’s left), which is usually half the size of the big blind. The blinds move around the table just as the deal does, so they are posted by someone different each hand.
When blinds are used, the first player to act will always be the one seated directly to the left of the big blind (who must call the amount of the blind, raise it, or fold). The action at the table for the opening round of betting will then ultimately end with the player who posted the big blind. The big blind player must, obviously, call or fold to any raises made (they may also re-raise), but in the event that there are no raises (and at least one person has called), the big blind has the option to either raise the size of his or her own blind, or “check” to continue to the next round of play in the hand. If all other players (including the small blind) fold to the big blind, then that player wins the amount of the small blind (as well as any ante in the pot) without ever having to take any action. On subsequent rounds of play (in the same hand) the first person to act will be the first person to the dealer’s left who is still in the pot, and not necessarily the person to the left of the big blind (who was first to act on the first round of betting)…this is because blinds are only posted on the opening round of betting per each hand.
The object of each individual hand of poker is to win the “pot” (or total amount of all wagers made during the hand). This may be accomplished in two different ways: 1) by all players still involved in the pot at the end of betting revealing (or “showing down”) their cards…at which point the player holding the highest ranking hand wins…or…2) Bluffing.
This is an integral part of all variations of poker. A “bluff” is when one player wagers an amount sufficient enough to suggest that they have a better hand than anyone else still involved in the hand…when it is very likely that they don’t. Since at least some cards are always concealed to other players in any given poker variant, it is unlikely to know with perfect certainty the true strength of another player’s hand. By using the power of betting, a convincing player may bluff (or pretend) that they have a very strong hand to attempt to get the other players to fold. When this tactic is successful, the winning player is not required to reveal their cards to the other players (as those players did not “pay” to see them). The benefit of bluffing is the possibility of winning pots that you might not ordinarily win (based on the relative weakness of your hand). There is also the added bonus of keeping your opponents guessing as to what your hand really contained.