Poker is quite simply one of the world’s most popular card games. The reason?
Because it offers an intoxicating mix of luck, skill, and bluff to those who take the time to learn how to play. And if you manage to master each of these skills, you’re in with a fighting chance of coming away from the table with your pockets stuffed full of cash.
The good thing is, you don’t need to be a pro to have a good time – whether you’re at home with a few mates playing for loose change or are rocking up to the World Series of Poker (WSOP) main event for the chance to win $10 million – poker is a game that can be enjoyed by pretty much anyone, regardless of skill level or experience.
Still – it’s always nice to win.
But to the uninitiated, the various rules and quirks of the game can be more than a little daunting.
Fear not! Our guide to all things poker will soon have you bluffing, raising, and pushing all into victory.
Types of Poker
OK, so there are tons of different poker variations.
The good news is, the number of commonly played games (that we’ll cover here) isn’t quite so overwhelming, and there’s a single game that has – in recent years at least – grown far, far bigger than all the rest.
First up, let’s discuss the different groups into which the various poker games can be divided:
This type of poker sees each player dealt a certain number of cards (generally 5 or 7), which players then use to form their best possible hand.
Draw poker works the same way as stud poker to begin with, but players are allowed to swap a certain number of their cards in an attempt to improve their starting hand.
Community card poker
Community card poker games are a little different.
Each player is dealt a number of ‘hole’ cards, which only they are able to see.
Throughout the course of several rounds of betting, a number of ‘community’ cards are also dealt, this time face up in the middle of the table and visible to all players.
Players must use their hole cards along with the community cards to make the best possible poker hand.
Texas Hold’em is the big boy of the poker family, now played more than any other version of the game worldwide. But it wasn’t always this way – despite the incredible popularity Texas Hold’em enjoys today, it wasn’t played in Las Vegas casinos until late 1960.
In fact, it was television coverage in the early 2000s that truly sparked the rise of the game, particularly when ‘hole cameras’ meant viewers at home could see each player’s hole cards and therefore gain a new level of insight into high-level strategy, attempted bluffs, and spectacular showdowns.
In Texas Hold’em, each player is dealt 2 hole cards, with 5 community cards revealed across 4 rounds of betting as follows:
Round 1: After each player is dealt their 2 hole cards
Round 2: After ‘the flop’ is dealt (consisting of the first 3 community cards, revealed together)
Round 3: After ‘the turn’ is dealt (consisting of the 4th community card)
Round 4: After ‘the river’ is dealt (consisting of the 5th and final community card)
Players may use any combination of their 2 hole cards and the 5 community cards (including using only the community cards, which is known as ‘playing the board’) to build the best poker hand possible.
Rather than a single game, ‘Omaha’ can actually refer to several different poker variations, including Omaha high, Omaha hi/lo (where the highest and lowest hands each take half the pot) and Omaha/8 (a variation of Omaha hi/lo where the low hand must include an 8 or lower) among others. Much like Texas Hold’em, Omaha variants are community poker games.
Omaha high – perhaps the most popular version of the game – is fairly similar to Texas Hold’em, but there are a few key differences in the rules:
- Each player is dealt 4 hole cards
- At showdown, players must build their hand from exactly 2 of their hole cards, and exactly 3 of the community cards.
- Omaha high is generally (but not always) played ‘pot-limit’, meaning no player may raise by an amount greater than the size of the pot.
Important: when playing Omaha, make sure you know which version is being used, and all the relevant rules that go along with it!
7-card stud sees each player dealt 7 cards – 3 face down, 4 face up. Being a ‘stud’ game, no cards can be swapped, so players must make the best possible hand using any of their 7 cards.
Fun fact: Not so long ago, this poker variant was actually more popular than the all-conquering Texas Hold’em.
In 5-Card Draw, each player is dealt 5 cards. Before any betting takes place, each player may trade in up to 3 of their starting cards in an effort to improve their hand.
Some consider this to be one of the most challenging kinds of poker to play from a psychological standpoint since players are only able to see their own cards and therefore have a relatively small amount of information on which to base their actions compared to other variants of the game.
Important Poker Terms
Ante – this is a forced bet that all players must make each hand in order to stay at the table. Antes are not used in all poker variations. For example, Texas Hold’em does not usually have an ante.
Blinds – these are also forced bets, but unlike the ante, blinds are only (usually) paid by two players per round – the big blind and the small blind. Blinds rotate around the table with each deal, with the small blind generally paid by the player immediately to the left of the dealer, and the player to his left paying the big blind.
Check – if no other bet has been made during a given round of betting you may ‘check’, passing the action to the next player without adding anything to the pot.
Call – A player ‘calls’ to indicate they wish to match another player’s bet.
Raise – A player may ‘raise’ when they wish to increase the current bet.
All in – When a player calls ‘all in’, also known as ‘shoving’, they are betting all of their remaining chips.
Fold/muck – A player ‘folds’ or ‘mucks’ when they are unwilling to match the current table bet. Their cards are given to the dealer, and the player takes no further part in the hand.
Heads-up – ‘Heads-up’ poker is played between just two players.
In case you’re unfamiliar, here are the rankings of the various different poker hands, from the very best – a royal flush – to the very worst – a high card.
Don’t worry if you need to refer to this chart to begin with – you’ll have it memorized in no time at all.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of the most common varieties of poker, it’s time to look at the good stuff – poker strategy.
We’ll focus on Texas Hold’em in this guide since as we’ve seen it’s the most popular version of the game.
There are hundreds of books out there on this subject for a good reason – poker strategy is incredibly complex, varied and involved. Mastering the tips in our guide is just the first step on a long journey!
One of the most important aspects of poker – something that most beginner players don’t even consider – is table position.
The dealer chip, which denotes which player should deal the cards (note: televised poker tournaments like the WSOP have dedicated dealers for each table, but one player is still classed as the dealer each hand), rotates from player to player after each hand concludes. The first player to act during each round of betting (after the flop has been dealt) is the one to the left of the dealer.
But why is this so important?
Simple: in poker, information is king.
The more you know about your opponents’ hands – and perhaps even more importantly their intentions – the better your chances of winning the pot (or avoiding a big loss). Every check, fold, raise or push made by another player acting before you is vital information you can use to make better decisions.
Sense weakness after everyone checked the flop? Go ahead and raise to see if you can buy the pot.
Like your hand but the player acting before you go all-in with what you think must be a monster? You get to fold without having wasted any chips.
Quite simply, table position is everything!
So which table position is the most powerful?
The player who holds the dealer chip (said to be ‘on the button’) has the strongest table position since they will act last in every round of betting (apart from the first) and therefore have access to more information than any other player.
This simple concept should have a huge impact on your play.
The range of hands you consider playing will be much, much smaller if you’re ‘out of position’ (acting early) versus ‘in position’ (acting late).
Here’s a chart giving you an idea of which hands to play in each position. Notice how many more hands are considered ‘playable’ in late position versus early position:
Note: It’s OK – important, even – to break this pattern once in a while; being unpredictable is a vital skill in poker.
As you improve as a poker player, you may feel comfortable further expanding the hands you play, particularly when in position. Don’t take this too far, however – perhaps the most common rookie mistake in poker is to play too many weak hands.
Weak hands have, in general, low expected value (a concept we’ll talk about later in this guide) relative to strong hands, so try to be disciplined in your play, even if you hit a string of trash hands in a row.
Poker is a game of incomplete information – we don’t know what cards our opponents are holding at any given time.
However, just because we don’t know which cards our opponents have doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to figure it out. In fact, if you can work out the ‘range’ of hands your opponent is likely to be holding you’ll have a huge advantage as you progress through each round of betting.
This is the art of determining hand ranges.
Figuring out which cards your opponent has might sound difficult – and against a strong player it can be – but often it’s easier than you’d think.
Things like table position, bet size, and observations made about a given player’s hand history can be huge helpers when trying to accurately guess what your opponent is likely to be holding.
Here’s an example:
Your opponent is out of position, and they’ve been folding almost every hand they’ve been dealt all session before the flop. The few times they’ve gone to a showdown, they’ve been holding very strong hole cards. Based on what you know, you’re up against a very tight player who’s only playing a small range of hands.
Now imagine that player suddenly puts in a big raise out of position. There’s a good chance they have one of very best starting hands out here, perhaps a high pocket pair, or AJ suited+.
See? You’ve just calculated your opponent’s hand range.
Of course, it won’t always be this easy, but the more you practice, the better you’ll get.
Make it a habit to try and pick a range of hands you think your opponents are on (no matter whether you’re involved in the betting), and every showdown you witness you’ll get to see whether you were right.
In time, you’ll find yourself getting close more and more often.
Here’s where things get slightly more complicated. The good news is, once you get the hang of calculating expected value, you’ll have a distinct advantage over players who haven’t mastered this key poker skill.
Expected value takes a long-term approach to assessing the value you can expect to gain from any given situation.
The classic way to understand the concept is by imagining you’re betting on the outcome of a coin flip against another person. If the flip comes down heads, you win £1. If it’s tails, your opponent wins £1.
Expected value is calculated in the following way:
(% chance of winning x amount won) – (% chance of losing x amount lost).
For our coin toss example, we would expect to win 50% of the time, which gives us the following equation:
(0.5 x £1) – (0.5 x £1) = (£0.5) – (£0.5) = £0
The expected value of this bet is £0.
Intuitively this makes sense – with a 50/50 outcome, we’d expect to lose exactly as often as a win, given enough time. Even so, after just one flip, we will either be £1 up or £1 down – this is important to remember!
In poker, we use expected value to help inform our decisions, like whether to call an opponent’s bet or fold our hand.
Let’s look at an example:
We’re heads up against an opponent after the turn, with £80 in the pot. Our opponent is first to act, betting £20.
We have 2 diamonds in the hole, with a further 2 diamonds in the community cards. This is what’s called a drawing hand, as we need to hit a diamond on the river if we’re going to have what we think will be the strongest hand – a flush.
So, should we call the bet?
Let’s use the formula from above to take a look at the expected value on offer.
(% chance of winning x amount won) – (% chance of losing x amount lost).
A flush draw on the river has around a 20% chance to hit (which we calculate by counting the outs), and with £80 in the pot and a further £20 bet from our opponent, we would win £100 if we hit the river:
(0.20 x £100)
If we have a 20% chance of hitting the river, we must have an 80% chance of missing, and since we have to bet £20 to call, that’s what we stand to lose if we call the bet and miss:
(0.80 x £20)
Here’s all of that plugged into the formula:
(0.20 x £100) – (0.80 x £20) = (£20) – (£16) = £4
As you can see, our expected value here is positive. This means that if we called our opponent’s bet in this situation enough times, we would expect to win in the long run to the tune of £4.
We should take this bet!
The important thing to remember here is that we may well lose the hand. In fact, we expect to lose this hand, since chances are we miss the river. But if we made this call enough times, in the long run, we would find ourselves up overall.
Another way of looking at expected value is that you’re determining whether there is enough money in the pot to make it worth your while to call the bet.
The concept of expected value should always be at the forefront of your mind when you’re at the poker table, whether you’re playing online or in a casino. The more positive expected value scenarios you can play, the more consistently you’ll win.
Of course, it can be difficult to make these calculations under pressure, but with a little practice, you’ll find it’s soon second nature.
And remember – you don’t need to be calculating down to the 5th decimal place here. Use estimates and rounding to make the sums simpler – you only need to work out whether you’re in a positive or a negative expected value situation.
The Bottom Line
Some people make the mistake of assuming that poker is a game of a chance. At a glance it’s easy to see why:
Take any given hand and a lucky player can easily beat an experienced pro.
But here’s the thing – a strong player making good decisions will always beat a weaker player given enough time. That’s because the better a player you are, the less you need luck on your side to come away with the chips.
Whether you play online or in a casino, you’ll give yourself a huge advantage over the rest of the field by following the advice laid out in this guide. After all, poker takes just minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master!