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How to Play Poker: Mastering the Basic Poker Rules

Jordan C

May 26, 2023

Poker 101 written on a legal pad

Poker is one of the most popular card games in the world, but for new players, it can be a daunting prospect. There’s a lot to learn when playing poker, but you’ll soon find that it’s not as complicated as you think. If you’re completely new to the world of poker and want a guide on how to get started - you’re in the right place. In this article, we’ll give you a comprehensive beginner’s guide to playing poker.

Setting Up Your Game

Before you get started, you need to set up your game - so invite a few friends around, get some snacks, and run through the items below.

The Poker Variant

The first thing that needs to be decided on is the variant of poker you’re going to play. The most popular form of poker is Texas Hold’em, but there are plenty of other variants, such as Omaha, Stud Poker, Razz, 2-7, and many more. It’s best to choose a game that everyone is familiar with, as it creates a more even playing field and makes the game run a lot smoother.

The Format

Once you’ve decided on the variant you’re going to play, you need to decide on the format. There are two main formats of poker - poker tournaments and poker cash games. In a tournament, everyone buys in for a certain amount and is given tournament chips to play with. When a player loses all their chips, they’re eliminated from the tournament and cannot buy back in unless the tournament has a rebuy/re-entry period. The tournament ends when there is only one player remaining, but prizes can be given to as many players as you’d like, as long as everyone agrees before the game starts.

The other poker format is a cash game. In this game, players are given chips equivalent to the amount of money they buy in for. People can buy in for as little or as much as they’d like, and every chip has a direct cash value. The game can last for as long as you’d like, and if players are eliminated, they are free to buy back in.

The Stakes

After you’ve decided what variant and format you’re going to play, you have to agree on the stakes you’re playing for. If you’re playing a tournament, you need to decide how much it will cost to buy in, whether or not you’ll allow players to buy back in, and how many places will be paid a prize. 

Once that’s been decided, you need to decide on the blind levels that will be used for the tournament. We recommend that you start with the big blind being 100x smaller than the starting stack, then doubling every 15-30 minutes, depending on how long you’d like to play for.

For example, If players are given 1000 chips, the blinds should start at 5/10, then 10/20, then 20/40, etc.

If you’re playing a cash game, you need to decide on the blind levels that will be used for the game. Unlike tournaments, the blind levels do not need to increase, although you’re free to increase them at any point as long as everyone at the table agrees. We’d recommend starting the blinds at 1/100th the average stack size. So, if everyone’s buying in for around $100, we’d recommend using $0.50/$1 blinds.

The Deck

To play poker, you’ll need a standard deck of playing cards. Remove the jokers from the deck before the start of play unless your chosen variant requires them. Only one deck of cards is used at a time in poker, and you must thoroughly shuffle the deck before the start of every hand.

The Chips

Understanding Poker ChipsPoker is played with coloured discs, known as chips. This allows players to easily make bets at the table without the need for cash. It’s essential that players have enough chips to bet with, so when dividing up the chips for each of your players, make sure to use several denominations.

For example, if players are starting with 1000 chips, use denominations such as 10, 25, 50, 100, and 200 to allow for plenty of options when betting.

Starting Your Game

Now that you’ve got everything set up, it’s time to start your game!

Picking Seats

If your friends are anything like mine, you’ll likely have an argument over who gets to sit in the best seats. The best way to avoid early game squabbles is to assign each seat a number and let players draw cards to pick their seats. This provides an easy, argument-free way to get everyone in their seats.

Next, if your poker variant includes a dealer button, such as Hold’em and Omaha, you need to decide who’s going to start the game on the button. The dealer button is a valuable position in poker as it allows you to act last on all preflop streets. The players to the left of the button must post the small and big blind, so no one wants to be next to the player on the button.

The best way to decide this is to draw cards again. The player with the highest card gets to start on the button, and the button will rotate around the table as the game is played, moving one seat clockwise after every hand.

Dealing the Cards

How To Play Poker - Dealing the CardsNow that everyone is sat down and ready to play, it’s time to deal the cards. Remember, give the deck a good shuffle before dealing, and it’s good manners to offer the player to your right the option to cut the deck. It’s recommended that a blocking card is placed at the bottom of the deck to prevent anyone from seeing the bottom card as the cards are being dealt.

The dealing starts with the player to the left of the dealer button, called the small blind, and moves clockwise around the table. Each player is given one card at a time, and the deal ends when every player has received the correct number of cards. The number of cards you need to deal depends on the game you’re playing - in Texas Hold’em, each player is dealt two cards; in Omaha, each player is dealt four cards, and so on.

First To Act

Once everyone at the table has received their cards, it’s time to start the action. In most poker games, the first player to act is the player to the left of the big blind, commonly known as the under-the-gun position. However, in games like Stud, they use the player’s “up cards” to determine who makes the first action.

Playing Your Game

The players are ready; the cards have been dealt - now it’s time to start playing.

Player Actions

So, you’re first to act, but you don’t know what to do! What options do you have available? Well, preflop, there are three betting actions a player can take: call, fold, or raise. Let’s take a closer look at them.

  • Fold - When a player folds, they surrender their hand and move their cards into the middle of the table. By folding, they don’t have to match the current bet, but they surrender their chance of winning the hand.

  • Call - When a player calls, they match the current bet. If a player is first to act preflop, that bet is the big blind; otherwise, it’s the size of the last bet made by another player at the table. After a player calls, the action moves to the player on their left.

  • Raise - When a player raises, they increase the size of the current bet. The minimum a player can raise is the size of the last bet or raise; for example, if the big blind is $1, the minimum raise is $2. If you’re facing a raise of $2, the minimum raise is $3, as the bet has been increased by the size of the last raise.

While this covers the preflop betting round, when you move into the postflop betting rounds, a fourth option is available to players, called “check”.

  • Check - When a player checks, they decline to make an aggressive action, and the action moves to the player on their left. A player can only check on a postflop street if a bet has not been made; if a bet has been made, a player cannot check. By checking, the player gets to keep their hand, but they lose their ability to make an aggressive action until it’s their turn again.

Related: Poker Actions: Check, Bet, Call, Raise, and Fold

Betting Rounds

The poker variant you choose to play will dictate the number of betting rounds in your game. Many popular variants like Texas Hold’em and Pot Limit Omaha have four betting rounds, one preflop and three rounds of postflop called the flop, turn, and river. However, some games, such as Stud and Razz, have five betting rounds, and games like 2-7 Single Draw only have two betting rounds.

Showdown

If there is more than one player remaining at the end of the last betting round, the players must show down their hands to determine who wins the pot. You’ll find that experienced players aren’t eager to immediately show their hand, as that can give away vital information to those who are paying attention.

However, while the game would move much faster if everyone just immediately turned their hands over, there is a way to determine who should show first if you reach a standoff. The player who made the last aggressive action on the previous street should show their hand first. For example, if a player makes a bet on the river and gets called, the player who made the bet is obligated to show their hand first. If there is no aggressive action on the river, it’s common for the player to the left of the button to show first.

To claim the pot, you must show all of your hole cards, even the ones you’re not using. For example, if you’ve got an ace in your hand and you win with a pair of aces, you can’t just turn over your ace - you need to show both cards.

The Hand Rankings

How To Play Poker - Understanding Hand RankingsBut how exactly do you determine who wins at showdown? Well, there’s a hand ranking system used by the majority of poker games, where the types of hands are ranked from best to worst. If you’re looking for information on what beats what in poker, we’ve listed the possible poker hands from best to worst.

  1. Royal Flush - The cards A, K, Q, J, and T of the same suit. E.g. AKQJT.

  2. Straight Flush - Five cards in sequence, all of the same suit. E.g. 56789.

  3. Four of a Kind - Four cards of the same rank. E.g. A AAA5.

  4. Full House - Three cards of the same rank with two different cards of the same rank. E.g. K KK66 .

  5. Flush - Five cards of the same suit. E.g. J8642.

  6. Straight - Five cards in sequence, not of the same suit. E.g. 3 4567.

  7. Three of a Kind - Three cards of the same rank. E.g. 999A J.

  8. Two Pair - Two different pairs of cards of the same rank. E.g. JJ995.

  9. One Pair - Two cards of the same rank. E.g. QQ432.

  10. High Card - A hand with no cards of the same rank. E.g. AQT53.

Ending Your Game

All good things have to come to an end, and that includes your poker game. Making sure that the game ends well is one of the keys to having a regular game. If you’re playing a tournament, the game will eventually reach a natural ending, but when you’re playing a cash game, things are a bit different.

“Last 3 Hands”

The best way to end a cash game is to agree with the players at the table to play a “last three hands” or a final round of hands. Ending the game immediately can leave some people with a sour taste - particularly those who are losing. So, by announcing the game will end in a few hands, it gives the people who are losing the chance to win some of their money back.

The most common call at the end of the night is “last three hands,” but you can decide to add more hands if you think there’s a call for it. An alternative way to end is to have a hard and fast cut-off time. Once you reach that time, the game ends, and everyone goes home. This gives people a clear indication of when the game will end, which means they can start ramping up their aggression towards the end of the night if they’re stuck.

Paying Out Players

Aluminium Poker Case with Cash On the TableThe most important thing to do when ending your poker night is to pay out the players correctly. Again, this is easier when hosting a tournament, as the prizes for each position will have been agreed upon before the game starts.

However, in a cash game, everyone at the table will be looking to cash out, so make sure you have plenty of change to ensure that everyone can be paid out in full. It’s always best to settle up in full at the end of the night - owing money from a poker game or having people owe you money is never a fun position to be in.

Summary

So, after reading through this article, you should have a solid understanding of the basics of poker! We’ve been through everything, including setting up the game, all the actions you can make at the table, and what beats what when you get to showdown. If you want to start learning poker strategy, why not check out some of our other articles here at Natural8?