How to Play Texas Holdem Poker A Beginner's Guide (aka, Texas Holdem 101) See also how to Play: Baccarat | Blackjack | Craps | Roulette | Slot Machines | Video Poker The New Poker Surge Poker has been around for decades, but its popularity started surging around 2003 as poker contests made their way to TV and poker rooms started popping up on the Internet. Poker is everywhere now, which is why you're here learning about it. Poker has one big thing over other casino games: The skilled player can win. The player always loses against the casino in the long run, because the odds are against the player, but with poker you're not battling the casino, you're battling other players. Your poker opponents have no such built-in mathematical advantage. It's a level playing field. Hold'em is pretty easy to learn, too. I was able to win in a game the very same day I learned how to play. Poker is dynamic. You come up with your strategy while you're playing based on many different variables, one of which is how you think your opponents are going to play their hands. This makes the game a lot more competitive—and exciting. There are a gazillion varieties of poker, but we'll be concentrating on Texas Holdem Poker, since that's the most popular poker variety being played today. The Basics of Texas Holdem The Object. Like all gambling, the objective is to win money. With poker, you're trying to win the other players' money, not the casino's money. The casino makes its money by taking a rake, which is a small percentage of the money the players bet. Betting is done with standard casino-style chips. The Play. Unlike most casino games where you bet, get your cards, and then it's over, with Texas Holdem you get some cards, make a bet, get some more cards, bet again if you like, and continue this process a few more times. You can bail at any point, which is called folding. This saves you from having to keep kicking money in, but it means you forfeit any money you've already bet since you're no longer in the game. If everyone else folds, the last person standing wins. If there's more than one person still in the game at the end, then whoever has the best poker hand wins. (More on that in a minute.) What they win is the pot, which is all the money that all the players have bet that round—minus a rake (typically 5%), which is the commission the casino takes for hosting the game. We'll cover the specifics of betting in a minute, but let's first look at how poker hands are ranked so you can look at different poker hands and see which one's the winner. Poker Hand Rankings Name of Hand Example Royal Flush 10♦ J♦ Q♦ K♦ A♦ Straight Flush 7♦ 8♦ 9♦ 10♦ J♦ Four of a Kind 3♦ 3♠ J♦ 3♣ 3♥ Full House 9♣ 9♥ 4♣ 4♥ 4♦ Flush 9♣ Q♣ 10♣ 4♣ 6♣ Straight 6♣ 7♥ 8♣ 9♦ 10♠ Three of a Kind 5♣ 5♥ 5♠ 9♦ 8♠ Two Pair 4♣ 4♥ 7♣ 7♦ Q♠ Pair 9♣ 9♥ 5♣ 4♦ 3♠ A poker hand consists of five cards. Here are how the hands are ranked, from worst to best. Note that it doesn't matter what order the cards are in. As long as you could rearrange them to be in order (in your head), then it's a winning hand. High Card. Absent any better hand listed below, whoever has the highest card wins. The highest cards, from lowest to highest, is Jack, Queen, King, Ace, which we abbreviate J, Q, K, A. The hand [K 7 5 4 3] beats the hand [Q 7 5 4 3] because king beats queen. If two players have the same high card then the second-highest card wins. So [K J 9 6 5] beats [K 10 9 6 5] because jack beats ten. If two players both have the same high card and second-highest card then you look at the third-highest card, and so on. Pair. A pair is a hand with two cards of the same rank, like [9 9 5 4 3]. A pair beats a high card even if the rank of the pair is lower. For example, [2 2 9 5 4] beats [A K Q J 9]. All those high cards are helpless against a pair of twos. If two players have a pair then the highest pair wins. If two players have the same pair then you look at the highest card outside the pair to see who wins. Two Pair. A hand like [4 4 7 7 Q]. Same disclaimers for breaking ties as for regular pairs. Three of a Kind. This is just what it sounds like, three cards of the same rank, like [5 5 5 9 8]. As with pairs, with multiple players have three of a kind then the highest one wins, and high cards break ties. Straight. A straight is a hand with consecutive ranks, like [6 7 8 9 10]. An ace can also count as 1 to complete a straight where the other cards are 2, 3, 4, and 5, or as a high card to complete a straight where the other cards are 10, J, Q, K. But it can't count as both a low and a high card, e.g., Q K A 2 3. Flush. All the cards are the same suit, like 9♣ Q♣ 10♣ 4♣ 6♣. Full House. A pair and a three of a kind, like 9♣ 9♥ 4♣ 4♥ 4♦. Four of a Kind. Four of the same rank, like 3♦ 3♠ J♦ 3♣ 3♥. Straight flush. A hand that's both a straight and a flush, like 7♦ 8♦ 9♦ 10♦ J♦. Royal flush. A straight flush composed of the highest cards, such as 10♦ J♣ Q♦ K♦ A♦. But of course they don't all have to be in order. Q♦ 10♦ A♦ J♣ K♦ is still a royal flush. The Royal Flush is the jackpot in video poker, and comes around about once out of every 40,000 or so hands -- or a week and a half of full-time play. (Hey, it could be worse: The jackpot on a typical slot machine only hits about one out of every 262,144 spins.) If you need more help then we have a separate poker rankings page with pretty pictures of the cards, to show actual poker hands. The Play At long last, let's see how a round actually works. Posting the Blinds. Two players each make a mandatory small bet before any cards are dealt. This ensures that there's something for everyone to play for if no one decides to bet after that. This responsibility rotates around the table from round to round so that everybody shares the burden of posting the blinds throughout the game. The Deal. Each player gets two cards, face-down. These are called the hole cards. Players place their bets, or fold (bail out). The Flop. Three community cards are dealt face up to the center of the table. Each player can use any or all of these cards along with his/her hole cards to make the best five-card hand. This is done in your head; nobody touches the community cards. The players bet again, or fold. The Turn (aka Fourth Street). A fourth community card is dealt. Hilarity, and more betting, ensues. The River. The fifth and final community card is dealt. Followed by the customary betting. The Showdown. Anyone still in the game (i.e., anyone who hasn't folded) puts their cards down face-up so all the players can see who won. The winner takes the pot, all the money that was bet during that round. Example Hand Let's look at a sample hand to see how it works. We'll ignore betting for now to keep it simple, and just look at the cards we get. Assume we keep betting until the showdown. The dealer deals each player two cards face down, and this is what you get: This is an average-strength hand. The queen is a high card, and that's good, because if you get another queen you have a high pair, and even if you don't then your queen could break a tie, such as if you and another player wind up with a pair of 3's. Also note that both cards are the same suit, so you have the possibility of a flush. Now comes the flop, the three community cards which are dealt to the center of the table and that everyone can use (mentally) to complete their hands. This is a real mixed bag for us. On the plus side there's a 3, so now we can combine our 3 with the flop 3 (mentally) to make a pair of 3's. And the Jack and the King along with our Queen gives us three cards towards a straight, though we'd need both of the next two cards about to be dealt to complete our straight. And since the King is a diamond, we also have three cards towards our flush, although there again we'd need both of the next two cards to be diamonds to complete our flush. And unfortunately two of the flop cards were spades, so anyone holding a pair of spades has four cards to a flush, and is much closer to completing their flush than we are. Now comes the turn. Here are all the community cards after the turn. Another mixed bag. We're now only one card away from completing our straight. But if any of our opponents hold two spades then they've already got a flush, which would beat our straight even if we get it. And even if no one holds two spades, someone's probably got one spade, and they could get another spade when the next and final card is dealt. Also, anyone else with a Queen is in just as good a position to get a straight too, and if they do then our 3-high probably isn't going to win. But that could be moot if we both get whipped by someone with a flush. Many players would fold at this point. But let's assume that we stayed in. Here's the river, the final community card. This is good for us. It wasn't a spade, so the only way someone else has a flush is if both their cards are spades. And, obviously, we completed our straight. After the final round of betting is the showdown where everyone shows their cards so we can see who wins. Here's how it played out:♠♣♦♥ Player 1: [J♦ 3♥]. Best hand: Two Pair [J J 3 3 A]. Player 2: [A♠ A♣]. Best hand: Three of a Kind [A A A K J] You: [Q♦ 3♦] Best hand: Straight [10 J Q K A] We win! Types of Poker Bets Players must match the current bet. There's a basic concept that's easy to understand: Once any player has made a bet, then all the other players have to at least match that bet to stay in the game. If Daryl bets $10, then all the other players have to also kick in at least $10 if they want to stay in. They don't have to stay in, of course. They can fold, which means giving up and removing themselves from the current round. But naturally this means that they have no chance of winning back their money in that round. This is why poker is a battle of wills peppered by strategy and bluffing. During a round the amount bet grows progressively higher, and each player has to decide whether their hand is really strong enough to win the pot if they keep kicking money in -- or whether they can get their opponents to think they have a strong hand so their opponents decide to fold. If all players fold besides you, then you win. Your choices. A player has three main choices when it's her turn to bet: Fold. Bail out of the game. Bet. Make a wager. Check. Pass (neither fold nor bet). Call. Match the current bet. Raise. Exceed the current bet. This is easier to see with an example. Since there is more than one row, read the first row from left to right, then read the second row. Texas Holdem Betting Example, No Raises Aaron Barbara Chris Daryl Ellie Frank Check Check Bet ($10) Fold Call ($10) Fold Call ($10) Folds (Betting is over.) Aaron starts the round with a check, which is a pass. He doesn't put any money in. Barbara also checks. Chris makes a bet of $10. Now everyone has to match that bet if they want to stay in. Daryl folds, removing himself from the game. Elizabeth calls, matching Chris' $10 bet. Frank folds. Play returns to Aaron. Even though Aaron went first, he still has to match Chris' bet if he wants to stay in the game. He calls, matching Chris' bet. Same deal with Barbara. She already went, but has to have $10 on the table like everyone else if she wants to stay in. But she folds, removing herself from the game. Now let's see an example where raising is involved. Betting Round with One Raise Aaron Barbara Chris Daryl Ellie Frank Bet ($10) Call ($10) Call ($10) Raise ($20) Fold Call ($20) Call ($10) Call ($10) (Betting is over.) Aaron starts out with a bet of $10. Barbara and Chris match that with their own $10. Daryl raises by putting in $20. Now Aaron, Barbara, and Chris will have to kick in an additional $10 if they want to remain in the game, while Elizabeth and Frank must put in $20. Elizabeth folds. Frank calls by putting in $20. Play returns to Aaron and then Barbara, who each call by kicking in an additional $10. After a raise has been made, any player can re-raise. Here's an example. Betting Example with Re-Raises Aaron Barbara Chris Daryl Ellie Frank Bet ($10) Raise ($20) Call ($20) Raise ($30) Call ($30) Fold Call ($20) Raise ($20) Call ($20) Call ($10) Call ($10) - Raise ($20) Call ($10) Call ($10) Call ($10) Folds Betting is over Look at each column and add up the total. Each player who hasn't folded is in for $50. After Barbara raises the other players have to match. But Daryl doesn't just match, he re-raises. Now all the other players have to match the $30 that's on the table. That's a full $30 for Elizabeth, or an extra $20 for Aaron, who already has $10 on the table. When it's Barbara's turn she raises again, forcing the other players to either match her raise or fold. Everyone calls, except Aaron, who also raises, forcing the other players to match his raise or fold. Limits and Blinds Limits. Games are either structured, where the amount you bet is fixed, or no limit, where the amount you can bet is unlimited. Beginners should definitely play structured games. They're easier to understand, and much less risky. In a structured game the amount you bet depends on which betting round it is. For example, in a $10/$20 game, the bet is $10 after the deal and the flop, and $20 after the turn and the river. A raise has to be the same amount as a bet. The Blinds. At the beginning of each round (before the cards are dealt), two players must make a mandatory bet. This ensures that there's something to play for. Otherwise everyone could check on every turn and at the end there would be no money to win. Think of the blinds as pre-bets. One player posts (makes) the small blind and the next player posts the big blind. A big blind is equal to the small bet. For example, in a $10/$20 game, the big blind is $10. The small blind is usually half that, in this case $5. Players take turns posting the blinds so that the responsibility hits each player equally. Now that we know about blinds, let's see how it works in a game. Betting Example with Blinds Aaron Barbara Chris Daryl Ellie Frank Posts Small Blind ($5) Posts Big Blind ($10) Fold Call ($10) Call ($10) Fold Call ($5) Check (Betting is over.) As usual, every player who remains in has to have the same amount on the table. After Barbara posted her blind, everyone had to match that $10 or fold. Aaron needed only another $5 to call, since he had credit for posting $5 for the small blind. Note that since the blind players' initial bets were forced, play returns to them so they can raise if they want. Here's an example where they do in fact raise. Betting Example with a Raise from a Blind Position Aaron Barbara Chris Daryl Ellie Frank Posts Small Blind ($5) Posts Big Blind ($10) Fold Call ($10) Call ($10) Fold Call ($5) Raise ($10) - Fold Call ($10) - Call ($10) (Betting is over.) The raise could just as well have been made by Aaron instead of Barbara. Or they both could have raised. A Full Game Now we know enough that we can see how a full game is played. Before we do that there's just one last thing you need to know about, the button. The Button. In casual games each player takes turn dealing. In a casino game a professional dealer deals the cards, and a round disc called a button is placed in front of each player in turn, to show who would be dealing if the players were actually dealing the cards. This is important because this determines who bets first. Play goes clockwise from the button. Every time a new round of betting starts, the leftmost next player starts. The way our players are actually seated at the table, going clockwise we have Frank, Elizabeth, Daryl, Chris, Barbara, and Aaron. So Daryl is to Chris' left, even though Daryl is to the right of Chris in the table. We had to do it that way, because everyone reads left to right, not right to left. It's not our fault that poker is dealt in the opposite direction than most people read. So anyway, Frank has the button, so Aaron, to his left, posts the small blind. And Barbara, to Aaron's left, posts the big blind. Before the Deal... Aaron Barbara Chris Daryl Elizabeth Frank Posts Small Blind ($5) Posts Big Blind ($10) The Deal ($10 limit) Call ($10) Call ($10) Fold Call ($10) Call ($5) Check The Flop ($10 limit) Bet ($10) Daryl starts this round b/c Chris started the last round. - Call ($10) Call ($10) Call ($10) Raise ($20) Call ($10) - Call ($10) Call ($10) Call ($10) The Turn ($20 limit) - Check Frank starts this round b/c Daryl started the last one & Liz is out. Check Check Check Bet $20 - Call ($20) Call ($20) Fold Fold The River ($20 limit) Bet ($20) - - Call ($20) - Fold Then it's the showdown between Players Aaron and Daryl. Whoever has the better hand wins the pot. More Holdem Resources That's the basics. Here are some more resources to continue your study. PokerTips.org. A plethora of articles for beginning, intermediate, and advanced players. Good stuff. Bovada Poker. The best way to learn is to play. At Bovada you can play for free so you don't have to risk your own money while you're still getting the hang of it. When you're ready to graduate to real money play, they have cheap $0.05 / 0.10 limit games that just about anyone can afford. And you can play right in your web browser (including Safari on Macs). The Wizard's tips. There is no more respected authority on gambling strategy than the Wizard of Odds. Check out the Wizard's excellent advice for beginning players. Practice Texas Holdem Online Practice might not make perfect, but it at least makes better. You can practice Holdem with fake money at Bovada. (You can also play with real money if you like, and yes, they have ultra-low stakes games, like 5¢/10¢ games.) I hope this beginner's guide has been useful to you. Good luck!