How to Play Poker
Poker isn’t just the greatest card game in the world – it might be the greatest game of them all. An estimated 100 million people from all across the globe have learned how to play poker, including 60 million Americans, up from 40 million in 2007. Whether they play poker online at Ignition or live at casinos and home games, they’re continuing a tradition that has lasted over 200 years. Want to join in on the fun? Here’s a complete guide on how to play poker, including rules, strategies, and a look at what makes this game so great.
Why Learn How to Play Poker
People have been playing card games in some form or other since ancient times. Learning how to play poker is a welcome diversion from the daily grind, a way to enjoy yourself while testing your mental skills. It also gives you an opportunity to socialize and network with interesting people. And the health benefits can’t be overlooked; card games, especially poker helps build neural pathways and stave off mental decay, while also lowering your blood pressure.
Then there’s the money. The best poker players in the world make millions of dollars every year and they all had to learn how to play poker at one point. Thousands more are able to make a comfortable living playing poker, and tens of thousands use poker as a source of supplementary income. There’s still an element of luck to poker, but make no mistake: This is a skill game, and in the long run, there’s a pile of money to be made if you can learn how to play poker the right way and improve your skills.
When you’re playing real money poker, you’re playing with a standard deck of 52 playing cards – some home games will include a Joker or two as wild cards. Each card has a suit (Spades ♠, Hearts ♥, Clubs ♣, Diamonds ♦) and a rank (Deuce all the way up to King, with the Ace acting as a high and/or low card). You need at least two people to play poker; tables with two, six or nine players are common. You also need poker chips for betting.
The game itself starts with each player getting dealt a certain number of hole cards; for example, two cards for Texas Hold’em, and four for Omaha and Omaha Hi/Lo. The object of poker is to win as many chips as possible. You can do this by getting your opponents to fold and surrender the chips they’ve already put in play, or by having the highest-ranking poker hand (or lowest for some games) at the end. Standard poker hand rankings apply, with the rare Royal Flush at the top of list: Ace, King, Queen, Jack and Ten of the same suit.
Poker games generally fall into three categories: draw poker, stud poker, and flop poker. For the longest time, the most popular poker game in the world was 5-card draw, but today, it’s the flop games (Texas Hold’em and Omaha, including their variants) that people play the most – and these are the games you can play and learn how to play at Ignition Poker. Flop games begin with a round of betting after the hole cards are dealt, then if at least two players are still in the hand, three community cards (aka the flop) are dealt face-up on the table. Any player can use these cards, in combination with their hidden hole cards, to make the best poker hand possible.
After another round of betting (if necessary), a single turn card is dealt face-up called the turn. If the pot has yet to be claimed after another round of betting, the last river card is dealt, and there’s one final round of betting. At this point, if two or more people are still in the hand, everyone’s hole cards are revealed and the winner is declared; this is known as the showdown. A poker hand can also go to showdown earlier than this if one or more players go all-in by betting their entire stack, and someone else calls.
During a hand of poker, you have a number of plays at your disposal. Depending on the action, you can fold your hand and give up, you can bet a certain number of chips, you can check (essentially a bet of zero chips), you can call your opponent’s bet, or you can raise your opponent’s bet by putting an even larger number of chips in the pot. People take turns making their plays, going clockwise around the table, until the hand is won or the current round of betting is closed and a new round begins.
What are Blinds in Poker?
In order to stimulate action and keep the game moving, two players in every hand of flop poker are forced to put a few chips in the pot before the hole cards are dealt. One player will put in a certain number of chips, and the player to their left will put in twice as many. These forced bets are known as the small blind and the big blind, respectively. Without the blinds, a poker game could easily turn into a stalemate, with players only betting when they have the best possible hand pre-flop, and everyone else folding. Putting the blinds on the table gives people incentive to take more risks and bet more often.
The blinds also help denote each person’s place at the poker table. The players who put out the blinds are simply referred to as the small blind (SB) and the big blind (BB). If there are more than two people at the table, the player to the right of the small blind is known as the button (BU). Continuing counter-clockwise, you have the cut-off (CO), the hijack (HJ), and the lojack (LJ). At a “full ring” table of nine players, the remaining three positions are known as under the gun plus-two (UTG+2), under the gun plus-one (UTG+1), and under the gun (UTG). After each hand, the positions change; the big blind becomes the small blind, the small blind becomes the button, and so on. This ensures that everyone is forced to pay the blinds once per orbit around the table. Once you learn how to play poker you can use this information to your advantage.
The pre-flop action begins with the player sitting to the left of the big blind – that’s under the gun at most tables. But once you get to the flop, the action begins with the small blind, or to the player closest to the SB (moving clockwise) who’s still in the hand. That player will always have to go first post-flop, while the player in or closest to the button will always get to go last. Going first is a disadvantage in poker, so ideally, you want to “be in position” or “have position” on your opponent. That makes the button the most profitable seat at the table – and the small blind the least profitable.
Ignition Poker tournaments are a great way to start learning how to play poker. Tournaments are a relatively new invention, becoming popular over the past 40 years or so. The World Series of Poker helped make tournament poker what it is today, especially when Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 WSOP Main Event on ESPN. Instead of playing for cash, everyone who wants to be in the tournament pays a set buy-in (plus an entry fee), and those buy-ins are gathered into a prize pool. Then the players are assigned their table seats, and they play until they run out of chips and are eliminated. To prevent everyone from stalling, the blinds go up at regular intervals, forcing players to keep accumulating chips to survive. The prize pool is distributed among the players who last the longest, usually around the top 15%, with the biggest prize – sometimes millions of dollars – going to the winner.
Cash poker is where it all began. In this game, the chips represent real money – they’re often called cheques when you play live poker at a casino. To play in a cash game, you have to buy in for a certain amount, usually stated in terms of big blinds; many players choose 100BB as a default, but you’re allowed to buy in for anywhere between the minimum and the maximum. After you buy in, you keep playing for as long as you want, or until you run out of chips, at which point you have the option of buying in again.
What is Texas Hold’em?
When Moneymaker won that historic WSOP Main Event, the game was no-limit Texas Hold’em, and that remains the variant of choice for most poker players today. As the name implies, the game originated in Texas, dating back to the early 1900s. Each player receives two hole cards to start, then community cards are dealt as needed; the highest hand wins at showdown. The “no-limit” betting structure is favored for Texas Hold’em poker, where you can go all-in at any point, but fixed-limit (or simply “limit”) and pot-limit versions are also available for interested players. Limit Hold’em used to be the most popular version of Hold’em before the Moneymaker Era changed the poker landscape.
Poker Strategy Overview
Poker strategy has come a long way over the past 40 years. Doyle Brunson broke the big secret in his 1979 book Super/System, telling the world about the value of aggression. “Power poker” remains the best overall way to learn how to play poker, with an emphasis on betting and raising rather than calling and checking. However, by using game theory and increasingly powerful computers, poker strategists have come up with more specific and efficient ways to beat your opponents.
Learning these more complex strategies can take a while – it’s almost like getting a university degree in poker. But you can get most of the way there by learning which hands to open pre-flop from which positions at the table. A narrow range featuring the strongest hands is recommended from under the gun, with more and more hands added in as you move closer to the big blind. Combining these opening ranges with solid, aggressive post-flop play will keep you one step ahead of most beginners. Focus on making these aggressive plays with big bets and raises when you have position on your opponents, and use a more passive, pot-control approach when you’re out of position.
Bluffing in Poker
Aggressive play works because it often makes your opponents fold the better hand. Betting when you have a big hand is good, but you can deceive your fellow players and make more money by also betting when you don’t have much. One of the hardest things to master when you learn how to play poker but the trick is to figure out how often to bluff in certain positions. In general, it’s best to bluff when you’ve got a hand that can still draw to something good if your opponent doesn’t fold. It could be a draw as weak as a gutshot (when you need one specific rank to complete a straight), or even a backdoor nut-flush draw (e.g. an Ace in your hand and two other cards of the same suit on the flop). More advanced players will bet bigger when they have more possible bluffs in their range, and bet smaller when they’re value-heavy.
Basic Poker Odds
Poker is ultimately a game of probabilities. When you place a bet in poker, it’s like any other investment; you take a risk, expecting to earn a bigger reward. Learning some basic poker odds will help you manage your expectations and make smarter bets. For example, your chances of getting dealt pocket Aces (or any other pocket pair) in Texas Hold’em are once in every 221 hands. And if you do get dealt a pocket pair, your chances of making a set on the flop are about 7.5-to-1.
You can find out more about poker odds, strategy and the latest industry news by consulting the treasure trove of poker articles here at Ignition Poker. The more knowledge you absorb, the better you’ll become at poker; as Mike Sexton always says, poker takes five minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master.