So you’ve seen Casino Royale, and fancy taking on an international terrorist in a high stakes game of Texas Hold’Em? Or do you just want to learn how to hussle your friends out of their hard-earned money? Whatever your motivation is for wanting to learn how to play poker – you can find out the way I learnt to play (and bluff out my friends) by following my three steps to becoming a poker legend. Now I’m not a professional player and I’m not earning millions on the Vegas circuit, but I know enough to teach you the basics. What you do with your newly found skills is up to you.
Once you understand the game, you’ll realise that it’s actually quite simple. The problem comes with the multiple variations of the game. For brevity, we’ll be focusing on the most popular form of poker – Texas Hold’Em.
How To Play Texas Hold Em Poker
Before we jump into learning the hands and how to bet, you need to know what Texas Hold Em is. Each player is dealt 2 cards face down (these cards are known as the ‘pocket cards’). Once these cards are dealt, betting begins based on the pocket cards that each player holds. Once betting is complete, the dealer lays out 3 community cards on the table – this is referred to as ‘the flop’. Your initial hand will consist of the three flop cards plus your two pocket cards. Another round of betting takes place. Are you with me so far?
After betting, the dealer places a fourth card on the table – this is known as ‘the turn’. More betting occurs before the fifth card (referred to as ‘the river’) is placed down. The goal is to create the best possible 5-card hand from the community cards on the table and the pocket cards dealt to the player.
A player may use both of their pocket cards, one pocket card, or neither of their pocket cards to form their hand. If the five community cards form the player’s best hand, that player is said to be ‘playing the board’. The best outcome of playing the board would be to split the pot, since each other player can also use the same 5 cards to make their hand.
With the basics covered we can now look at three steps I used to learn the game – starting with understanding the poker hands.
Step 1 – Understanding the poker hands
There are 10 possible 5-card hands in Texas Hold-em poker which, as mentioned before, can be comprised of a combination of the community cards and each player’s pocket cards.
Four face cards and a 10 of the same suit.
Five consecutive cards of the same suit.
Four of a kind
Three of a kind and a pair.
Five cards from the same suit.
Five consecutive cards of any suit – aces can be high or low.
Three of a kind
Ace, King, Queen, Jack etc.
Step 2 – Learning the basic rules of poker
So now we know what to look for in a winning hand, we can start to look at the rules of the game. The first thing you should do is agree a betting limit with the other players. This keeps the game friendly and avoids that awkward situation where you have to tell your girlfriend that you lost her in a game of poker!
Okay, let’s break down the basic rules of the game as simply as we possibly can:
Before any cards are dealt the players will buy-in (this means bet) the posted amount. There is also a ‘dealer button’ that determines which player is assigned as the dealer during that hand. This is passed around the table throughout the game. The player directly to the left of the dealer button will post a small blind (this bet is usually half the minimum bet of the game) and the player to the left of the small blind will post a big blind (this is always the same size as the minimum bet for the game). For those of you wondering, if you’re playing this at home then the person with the dealer button will deal the cards out – however in a casino there will be a designated dealer who will deal in a manner as if the player were actually dealing themselves. Clear?
Now that the button is sorted and we’ve posted our big/small blinds, we’re ready to deal. Cards are dealt clockwise from the dealers left with each player being dealt one card face down, followed by a second. A round of betting will start with the player seated to the left of the big blind. This player can call the bet amount, fold his hand (this means he is out for this hand and will not bet) or raise the amount higher. The game will now advance to all seated players and they must fold, call, or raise until we reach the big blind for their decision. If no one has raised at this point, the big blind can ‘check’ his own blind wager.
The dealer will now deal the flop. Another round of betting will begin, starting with the player to the left of the dealer. Once all bets are matched (or players fold their hand) the dealer will reveal the ‘turn’ card. Another round of betting will follow until bets are matched and the dealer now deals the ‘river’ card.
The player with the highest hand wins the money in the pot!
So you now know which hands will win and you know how to bet throughout the game. You now need to learn how to bet smart. This is the one that took me longer to achieve, because it’s not as definable as the hands and the betting structure.
Step 3 – Knowing how to make smart poker bets
The cards you’re dealt are ‘luck of the draw’ and logically this means there will be times when you don’t have the best hand – or even a decent hand! In those situations you need to be able to assess your chances of winning and act accordingly. You can win the hand if you make smart bets, but you could also lose a lot of money if you’re too stubborn to fold.
Don’t be afraid to fold your hand. If you’ve got poor cards, then fold. Don’t hope or expect better cards to come along later in the game. I’d rather lose a few small bets than get pulled into a bluffing/betting war when I know my hand isn’t good enough to win. Games which don’t involve money often mean less folding because it doesn’t matter if you lose. This teaches poor habits and can hurt your game when you start playing for money.
Learn to bluff. I’ll cover this in a little more detail later but for now, keeping a ‘poker face’ is essential during your game. You can’t give away any clues as to how good or bad your hand is.
Stay off the booze. If you’re at home with your friends enjoying a poker night, you can ignore this rule. If you’re in the casino though you’ll want to avoid alcohol. Booze makes you lose your inhibitions. Pretty soon you’re sitting at the no-limit table betting your house and your wife on a pair of two’s! Don’t do it.
Keep your composure. Remember that it’s called gambling for a reason. Set yourself a budget and stick to it. When you know how much you can spend on a game, it makes it more enjoyable. If you keep betting with a seemingly bottomless pit of money, you could lose a fortune and it will be stressful and not much fun at all!
So we’ve now covered the three steps that I used to learn how to play poker with a moderate amount of success. There’s only one more thing you’ll need to know before you’re ready to go out and start playing poker. The art of the bluff!
The art of bluffing your poker hand
Poker bluffing is when you bet or raise a bet which leads the other players to believe you have a better hand than you actually do. While some players never bluff, and others bluff way too much – you need to find the balance between the two. My personal style of bluffing is to build up a subtle reputation during the game of someone who doesn’t bluff. I fold when my hands are weak, and raise when I believe I can win the pot. Occasionally, however, I’ll throw in a bluff. I’ll bet when I know my hand is probably not going to be enough to win. More often than not, the other players will recognise this trend and, if I’m betting, they will quite often fold under the assumption that I only bet hands I think will win!
Knowing when to bluff and how to bet against people who you think are bluffing is a difficult skill to master. Without trying to baffle you with numbers, here’s an example of betting against players you think may be bluffing:
The pot contains $90, and your opponent makes a $10 bet. This puts the pot up to $100 and the cost for you to call them is only $10. Even if your opponent only bluffs one in ten hands, you should still call. Why? Probability states that you’d lose a $10 bet 9 times, for a loss of $90. Although you’d only win once in ten hands, that pot would be worth $100. Therefore, after ten hands you’d be up $10. While simplistic in nature, this example shows that a long-term strategy can work well when opponents bluff.
As for you, there are a few ways for you to bluff effectively in order to win more hands:
Stay cool. Don’t show any sign of panic or uncertainty during the game.
Keep still. Avoid movement and gestures, especially when you’re thinking about your hand. Decent poker players will pick up on it if you scratch your ear every time you’re about to bluff.
Lie with your eyes. Your eyes will be the number one giveaway of a bluff if you look like you’re lying. Keep a steely gaze at all times.
Maintain a straight face. Don’t screw it up when you have a bad hand and don’t smile if you’ve got a Royal Flush. You need to be neutral and never give anything away.
That’s it. All that’s left now is for you to buy your own poker table and awesome poker visor and you’re good to go. I
And finally, I suppose I should also mention the obligatory gambling warning here – Never make bets that you can’t afford and never bet anything you don’t own. Keep the bets low until you know what you’re doing and always gamble responsibly.