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If you haven’t been under a rock for the past decade, you’ve seen firsthand just how popular poker has become worldwide – not to mention in Australia. From home games to the Aussie Millions, we’re now a nation of poker players. And the game is popular for a good reason: it’s fun, interactive, and rewards skilled players by carefully mixing strategy and luck.
But if you haven’t learned how to play at this point, you might wonder if it’s too late to get in on the fun. Thankfully, poker is simple to learn, even if it can take a lifetime to master. This page explains how to play the most popular version of poker played today: Texas holdem, the same game that’s played in the main events of the World Series of Poker and the Aussie Millions. It also includes a little about how two other games with some popularity – Omaha and seven card stud – are played, so that you can jump into those games as well.
First, we should go over the basics that apply to almost all poker games. Poker is played using a standard deck of 52 cards, usually without jokers (though variants certainly exist that use jokers as well). The object of the game is to either be the last person remaining in the hand (by getting everyone else to fold their hands) or to win at showdown by having the strongest hand of the remaining players. Poker hand rankings work as follows, from strongest to weakest:
Straight Flush: A hand of five cards of the same suit and consecutive ranks, like 8-7-6-5-4 of spades. The best possible straight flush is a royal flush, which consists of A-K-Q-J-T of the same suit.
Four of a Kind: A hand with four cards of the suit rank, such as four aces.
Full House: A hand with three cards of one rank and two cards of another rank (such as three nines and two kings).
Flush: A hand with five cards of the same suit.
Straight: A hand with five cards of consecutive ranks, like J-T-9-8-7.
Three of a Kind: A hand with three cards of the same rank, such as three fives.
Two Pair: A hand with two pairs of cards with the same rank, such as two queens and two eights.
One Pair: A hand with one pair of cards with the same rank, such as two sevens.
High Card: Any hand that doesn’t fit into one of the above categories. These cards are ranked by their highest cards, such as “ace-high.”
A hand of Texas holdem starts with one player being designated as the “dealer,” and receiving the dealer button. In a home game, you’ll probably have this player actually deal the cards; in a casino, the dealer button simply designates who will act last on each round of betting, while a professional casino dealer will actually take care of dealing cards and collecting bets.
The two players to the left of the dealer will have to post bets before the hand even begins. These bets, known as the blinds, are set by the stakes of the game. For instance, in a $1/$2 no-limit hold’em game, the first player will pay the small blind of $1, and the second will play the big blind of $2.
Once the blinds are paid, all players will receive their initial starting hand off two cards face down. The play will start from the left of the dealer, though on the first round, the blinds do not need to act first (as they’ve already made forced bets). Betting proceeds clockwise around the table, with each player being able to choose from the following options:
Fold: A player may fold at any time, giving up their cards and removing themselves from the hand. That player makes no more bets, but cannot win the pot.
Call: A player can call the current bet, putting enough money in the pot to match the current bet size. At the start of the first betting round, the bet size is equal to the big blind.
Raise: A player can raise to increase the size of the current bet. In limit hold’em, each bet and raise will be of a fixed size; in no-limit hold’em, a raise can be for any amount, as long as it is at least the same as the last bet and no more than the amount a player has in front of them at the table.
Once all players have either folded or matched the current bet, the betting round is over. If only one player remains in the hand, they win the pot and the hand ends. If two or more players are remaining, then the dealer will deal out the flop: three community cards placed in the centre of the table that can be used by all players as a part of their hands.
After the flop is dealt, another round of betting begins. One difference now is that until someone chooses to make a bet, players have the option to check, which means they decline to bet. If all players check, the betting round immediately ends. Otherwise, this betting round works just like the one before it, ending either when everyone folds or all remaining players have called the bet.
If at least two players are remaining, the dealer will reveal the turn – a fourth community card – and betting will start again. If two or more players survive that round of betting, a fifth and final community card (the river) will be dealt out, and one last round of betting takes place.
If at the end of this betting round two or more players are still in the hand, the hand proceeds to a showdown. The remaining players show their cards, and the player with the best five-card hand – using any combination of their hole cards and the community cards – wins the pot. In the case of an exact tie, the tied players will split the pot evenly. After the hand, the button moves one seat to the left, the blinds are posted again, and a new hand begins.
While Texas hold’em is the most popular poker game played today, there are a couple of other games also worth knowing.
Omaha is another popular game that’s similar to hold’em, but it has a couple of key differences. The basic game flow is the same, but players start each hand with four hole cards instead of two, and players are required to use exactly two of their hole cards in their final five-card hand.
Another game that was once very popular and retains some fans today is seven card stud. This game works differently from hold’em; each player must ante a small amount of money before each hand, and there are no community cards. Instead, each player will receive two cards face down and one face up before the first betting round. There are then three more betting rounds in which players receive one card face up. Finally, the last betting round comes after players receive their seventh and final card face down. Once again, at showdown, players must use their cards to make the best possible five-card hand.