Poker is a great game and gained a huge amount of popularity in the latter half of the 20th Century due to the development of the now widely recognised poker bodies World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour. This allowed the game to open its doors to professionals, causing greater exposure in the media and a heightened interest worldwide.
Now while poker is an intense battle of wits and extremely rewarding to play, it can sometimes be very daunting for a new player to get the grasp of it, due to its terminology, betting structures and array of different value hands. This guide will offer the beginner a crash course in poker, running through all the important basics. It will even list some of the most successful players presently playing the game, which will offer you some insight in who to look for if there are any televised events you wish to watch, alternatively to that, it may serve as inspiration for you to perfect your technique!
For the purposes of this guide, we will be dealing with the Texas Hold ‘em variety of poker, which is the most popular.
Poker is played with a standard deck of 52 cards with the jokers removed. This is your average, no frills deck, which contains the 4 suits (hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs), ranging in value from 2 to ace (ace is high in poker).
In very simplified terms, the aim of the game is to have the best hand at the end of a round. This hand can be made from any combination of the 2 cards in which you are personally dealt and the 5 communal cards which are visible on the table, the best five cards win. More details will be given on this later.
In order for you to stand a chance in poker, you must understand the betting structures – you will not go very far if you do not.
Poker is a game entirely focussed around betting. It is the aspect which makes it so exciting. However, newcomers to the game are often confused by the array of bets which occur within the game. The bets in which the entire game revolves around will be outlined below, with some explanation as to what they are.
Blinds - These are compulsory bets that certain players must make before any cards are dealt. The 2 players to the immediate left of the dealer (it is easy to tell who the dealer is, there will be a chip, known as ‘the button’, in front of them with ‘DEALER’ written on it) are required to place blind bets. The player that is one chair away from the dealer posts a small blind, with the player to the left of them posting a big blind. It is easy to see how much has to be placed for these bets, as games have ‘blind structures’ or ‘limits’ – these will dictate how much you have to stake. A small blind is always half the size of a big blind. Essentially, the purpose of these bets is to encourage other players around the table to bet. It guarantees money is always flowing into the prize pot for any given hand.
Pre-flop - The ‘flop’ is poker jargon for the first 3 communal cards which are dealt on the table. These are the cards which appear in the middle of the poker table, which any player may use to form a hand with. The pre-flop round of betting occurs after players have been dealt their own, personal 2 cards each, which are known as ‘hole cards‘.
Pre-flop bets are usually influenced by how good a player’s hole cards are; if a player has poor cards, then it is likely that will not want to bet on them, so they will fold - that is to exit the hand because they are unwilling to bet any more. At the pre-flop stage, players have three options: to call (to match the amount of the big blind), to raise (to increase the largest bet on the table, meaning this is what players have to now match) or to fold.
Betting follows the same pattern as it does with pre-flop betting as it does for the flop, the turn (the 4th communal card that is dealt, which has its own round of betting) and the river (the 5th card to be dealt, which also has its own round of betting).
In order for play to continue, the highest bet on the table must be matched. If play does not make it to the end of the hand, when players reveal their cards (known as the showdown), because too many players have folded, then the pot is awarded to the player who posted the largest bet. As long as play is to continue, the largest bet posted has to be matched, or beaten.
It is important to note that a hand consists of 5 cards. So, if for example, 2 players have the exact same value hand i.e a pair of 7s, then the hand is decided by the highest card in that hand. For example, in the following scenario, hand 1 is the winning hand, due to having the highest card in the form of an ace:
7, 7, 4, 8, A
7, 7, 3, 2, 5
Positions and chips help to add strategic value to the game. Thanks to the dealer changing every hand, the advantages and disadvantages of certain positions around the table constantly change with each hand. In addition to this, the amount of chips in front of a player (or indicated beside a player with a number in online poker) will tell you how much money is available to that player. It is also important to take this into consideration when you are playing hands, as players with different amount of chips will play the game differently. Players down to their last few chips will probably be frugal and reserved, whereas players with a larger stack of chips may be more inclined to attempt to a more aggressive style of play.
The positions of early, middle and late, in reference to where a player is positioned at a table will now be outlined below and are based on a game in which 9 people are participating.
Early - The players who post blinds, and the player to their immediate left are said to be in the early position. They have the least amount of information available to them, and statistically, have the lowest chance of winning the hand.
Middle - These are the players between those in the early and late positions
Late - These are the remaining three players around the table. They are the dealer and the two players to the immediate right. These players have the most information available to them. They have longer to attempt to figure out the strategies of other players and can analyse the other players’ betting patterns more effectively. Players in the late position are also more prone to make aggressive raises, especially if everyone else around the table calls, this is especially the case in online poker.
Strategy is a key element in poker, with many players having their own unique styles. As the game progresses, lots of information is made available to the player, but it is important to keep the following points in mind at all times:
- Percentage of whole cards turning into a decent hand. Most new players are over eager to enter into hands with poor cards, which in turn costs them chips. If you have been dealt bad cards, then it is best to cut your losses and fold.
- Table position. Take into consideration where you are around the table, as previously discussed. It may enable you to deploy different strategies to increase your chance of winning.
- Passive vs aggressive. There are certain situations where these two very different strategies pay off and it is up to you to determine what kind of player you want to be. Are you going to be the type who eases through many hands, picking up small pots along the way, ready to capitalise on other people’s mistakes? Or is aggressive raising and bullying more your style?
- Analyse player behaviour. This is made a lot more difficult in online poker, but in ‘physical’ poker, be sure to read the reactions and body language of the other players. Many people have subtle ticks which will give away the quality of their hands or their strategies – try to look out for them.
- Bluffing – This is a common occurrence in poker. A bluff is where a player leads opponents to believe they have better cards than they do, either through how they raise, or through their behaviour. Being good at bluffing can be a sure fire way to pick up quick, easy pots, but it is also very risky.
Antonio has received the highest amount of career winnings of all time, taking home over $18 million after winning the ‘Big One for One Drop’ tournament. He has won 3 World Series of Poker bracelets
Phil represents the young generation of poker players. At 34 years of age, he has won 9 World Series of Poker bracelets, has career winnings of nearly $15 million, and is generally regarded as one of the best all-rounders involved in the game today.
Hellmuth has won a record 13 WSOP bracelets and was World Series of Poker champion in 1989. He is a member of the Poker Hall of Fame and has come to be known as one of the most intimidating players of the game, most notably for his notorious outbursts when he loses hands.