So you want to learn how to play poker? You want to not just play but also win at poker? This beginners guide will teach you how to play the game and show you how to take your game to the next level and start winning at poker.
Let’s begin the journey!
Basic poker rules
Poker is a card game played with a standard deck of 52 playing cards.
The game involves making a poker hand with the cards dealt to you and, often, cards that are shared by all players (community cards). Players bet chips (equivalent to monetary amounts) based on the quality of their hand and the quality of the hands they think their opponents have. At the end of each poker hand, whoever has the best hand will win all the chips (money) that has been bet up until that point. Often the hand does not reach its conclusion and thus the last person who is still betting (has not folded) will win the hand and all the money that has been bet.
There are many different variants of poker but by far the most played and well known is No-Limit Texas Hold’em – considered the ‘Cadillac of Poker’!
How to play No-Limit Texas Hold’em
No-Limit Texas Hold’em is the most popular poker game, both online and live. If you have ever played poker before, this is the game that you will have likely played. In Hold’em, you and your opponents are each dealt two cards face down and five community cards (cards which can be used by anybody) are dealt across the middle of the table. From those 7 cards, each player attempts to make their best 5-card poker hand.
The cards are dealt in stages: first the two holecards (each player’s secret cards), then, after a round of betting the first three community cards are dealt (the flop). The fourth community card (turn) is then dealt and finally the fifth community card (river) is revealed.
After each stage of dealing, players will have a better understanding of their hand’s potential and the likely potential of their opponents’ holdings. Therefore, betting can occur. Starting with UTG before the flop and the small blind after the flop, players can decide whether to bet or check (not bet anything). If one player has already bet then subsequent players must decide whether to call (match the bet), fold (not put any more bets in the pot) or raise (make an even bigger bet). After all bets and raises have been either called or folded to, the next stage of dealing occurs.
As there is no limit to how much a player can bet and there are four potential betting rounds, there is a great deal of potential for big pots and lots of action in this game. It is therefore very important to know what constitutes a good hand and what can be regarded as a poor hand.
Poker hands & hand rankings
In almost all forms of poker, including No Limit Hold’em, the ranking of hands is as follows (from best to worst):
- Royal Flush (All the same suit and the sequence A-K-Q-J-T)
- Straight Flush (Any 5 card sequence all the same suit, for instance 9-8-7-6-5)
- Four of a Kind (Four cards that are the same value, for instance A-A-A-A)
- Full House (Three of a kind AND a pair, for instance 5-5-5-2-2)
- Flush (Five cards all the same suit)
- Straight (A five card sequence of any suits such as 6-5-4-3-2)
- Three of a kind (Three cards that are the same value such as 5-5-5)
- Two-pair (Two pairs, such as 9-9 AND 5-5)
- Pair (Any pair whether it’s A-A or 2-2)
- High Card (Whatever your highest card is)
The higher the hand in the hand ranking, the more rare it is to receive that hand. You will very often end up with a High Card hand but only once in a blue moon will you hold a Royal Flush. I can count on one hand the amount of times I have had a royal flush over the course of over 10 million hands!
What are blinds and antes?
So, why don’t we only bet when we have a very good hand? To stop this from being possible, to generate action and make the game more interesting, poker games include blinds, antes and in some cases, straddles.
Blinds are mandatory bets that players are forced to make before they are dealt any cards (i.e. they are bets which are made ‘blind’). Not all poker games include blinds but the most common variants (Holdem and Omaha) do.
There are two blinds in Holdem; the small blind (SB) and the big blind (BB). The small blind will always be 50% the value of the big blind, so if the big blind is $10 then the small blind will be $5. Whoever is one seat to the left of the dealer button will be small blind and one seat further to the left is the big blind. After each hand, the dealer button moves one spot to the left and so too do the blinds.
A confusion that many beginners encounter is knowing who the blinds are when there are only two players in a game. In a game with only two players, the dealer is also the small blind while the other player is the big blind.
Antes are a form of blind bet which every player puts into the pot. Antes are commonly present in tournament poker and in some forms of cash game poker. Antes are usually made in addition to blinds and are frequently much smaller (10% to 20% the size of the big blind).
Straddles are being introduced more and more these days to generate even more action. A straddle is typically two times the size of the big blind and is a blind bet made one seat to the left of the big blind. The straddle will now be the last player to act before the flop after the big blind. A straddle can either be mandatory or, in some cases, players will elect to put in a straddle so as they get to act last in the hand.
Therefore, in some games, we can find that there is an ante from every player, a small blind, a big blind and a straddle already in the pot before any cards have been dealt or any betting has occurred. With all this money in the pot, how do we win it? Do we need to hope to make a good hand like a straight flush or can we win it in another manner?
Bluffing in poker
Bluffing in poker is betting despite the fact that your hand is not very good in hopes of getting all your opponents to fold their better hands. In No-Limit Hold’em it is far more likely that you will hold a lower ranked poker hand than one of the better ranked hands. Therefore, if you want to win the money in the pot regularly you are going to need to win when you are holding a less than stellar hand.
How often bluffing occurs depends on what game you are playing in. In beginner, lower stakes games, most players are just trying to make good hands and therefore bluffing is fairly uncommon. As you move up through the stakes to games with more experienced players however, bluffing becomes more of a consideration, and if you are to win in these tougher games, a large amount of bluffing becomes mandatory.
As a beginner you should learn the fundamentals of the game first and as you become more comfortable with the game you should start to look for spots to bluff. Almost all of the top players in the game these days are hyper-aggressive and relentless in terms of bluffing. The adage ‘Fortune favours the bold!’ is as true, if not more so, in poker as in other areas of life.
So, what are the common mistakes that you, as a beginner, are likely to run in to as you are learning the game?
5 common poker mistakes for beginners
- Playing too many starting hands (not folding enough before the first round of betting)
- Playing too passive (not betting enough and taking the initiative in the pots you do play. By being the person betting you always have two ways of winning the pot. Either your opponent folds their hand or you showdown the best hand and win. Conversely, if we are checking and calling a lot then the only way for us to win is if we hit a good hand (something that doesn’t happen as often as we would like)
- Calling too many bets due to curiosity or thinking the opponent is bluffing more than he is (most players are too passive and afraid to bluff so we should lean towards folding a lot)
- Playing dominated hands like KTo, QTo, A3o etc too often (hands which when they hit a pair are often slightly behind our opponents’ hand) and not playing hands which have great potential like 87s, 86s etc enough (these hands have potential to hit massive hands like straights and flushes where we know our hand is usually best)
- Not valuing position enough – on the Button you can play more than two times as many hands as when you are UTG (the first player to act) due to the fact that you have position (on every betting street you will be the last player to make a decision and thus can see everybody else’s actions before you make yours)
Learn how to play poker fast – online
There is no other way you will see as many poker hands as playing online. Playing live has it’s benefits and certainly adds another layer to the game but if you want to improve fast then online is the place to be. In a live game you will see 40 hands an hour if you’re lucky. Online you can easily play over ten times that amount. If you want to learn the game, improve and make more money, online is by far your best option.
Online, dealing is almost instantaneous whereas live you must wait for the cards to be physically dealt. Couple that with the fact that online you are not limited to just one table (you can play as many as you can handle at once) and you can see how the experience gained online far outweighs experience in a live game.
Online also provides an opportunity not afforded in live games – software analysis! Online, you can record every hand you and your opponents play and then analyse your play in-depth using a variety of programs available online. This speeds up your growth as a player immensely and it also means you can gather reads (knowing how your opponent plays) at a much faster rate.
Poker for beginners – how do I start?
So, you’ve found poker and you know you want to get better at it. You want to know what steps you need to take.
Improving at poker has two main facets. The first is, as with most things, practice, practice, practice. The second is to study the game, in a variety of forms. If you only practice, you will stunt your growth and if you only study, you will similarly be holding yourself back.
If you don’t yet have an online poker account at a poker site then now is the perfect time to set one up. This will be the location for your practice. These days, sites often have play money (pretend money) games and real money games at extremely low stakes so you don’t have to worry about losing lots of money while you learn. When signing up at a poker site it is important to make sure you get a good sign-up deal. This is similar to having a loyalty card for a supermarket. The poker site makes money through something called rake (a percentage of the pot taken by the site) and when you sign up to the site you can often get a deal which gives you a discount on how much rake you will pay. This deal can be anything between 5% and 100% rakeback (cashback). Over the course of your time playing on the site this can be very important and can amount to a LOT of money.
Studying can come in a variety of forms and is suited to your level of experience. Initially, it is likely best to engage with the variety of free poker content available all across the internet. Many people create articles, like this one, YouTube videos etc that can give you a rudimentary understanding of the game. This will get you used to the lingo of the poker world and you can begin to understand how the game works.
As you become more involved in the poker world you will want to start analysing your game more and more and this is where you will want to start using database programs (to run filters on your play) and poker calculators (programs which can determine a hand’s chance of winning against a variety of other holdings).
As you develop further, you will find that there are many products and services which can help speed up your growth still further. There are training websites which you can subscribe to and through videos and discussion the resident pros will help you improve. There are in-depth poker calculators which can map out all the different possibilities in one particular poker hand and help you discover the best course of action. At all points in the journey it can be good to enact the services of a poker coach who will personally guide your journey and act as a teacher and mentor while you benefit from their years of experience.
So, what are you waiting for? Follow the steps outlined here, learn the game and soon you too will be not just playing poker but winning at poker!