How to Play Poker

If you’ve heard about people having fun, beer-fueled poker nights and want in on the action – but don’t know how to play – we’re here to help. Learning how to play poker takes some time and dedication. Players must have a thorough understanding of the rules, a grasp of basic strategy, and a determination to get better. We’ve created a simple guide that covers the basics of poker for players of all skill level and by the end of this guide, you’ll have no problem playing in a game of your own.

how to play poker

Learn How to Play (Step-by-Step)

  1. Ante Up

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    All players who are obligated to post money must do so before the hand begins. The number of people will vary from game to game. In Texas Hold’em, the players to the direct left of the dealer button must post the Small Blind and Big Blind.

  2. Shuffle Up and Deal

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    The dealer shuffles the cards and deals them one at a time in a clockwise direction, starting with the player in the Small Blind.

  3. Get The Action Started

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    The first betting round begins after the cards are dealt. In this betting round, you can call, raise, or fold, depending on how strong you think your hand is.

  4. Subsequent Betting Rounds

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    Depending on the game you’re playing, there are varying numbers of betting rounds. For example, Hold’em has three betting rounds after the initial preflop round. After each round, community cards are dealt that players can use to make their hand; three after the preflop betting round, one after the second betting round, and a fifth and final card after the third betting round.

  5. Showdown

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    When the final betting round is complete, if two or more players remain, they must show their hand to see who wins. The player with the best hand according to the game rules is the winner and takes the pot.

Basic Poker Rules

“Poker” isn’t just one universal game; it’s a term that covers a range of different games, all with different rules. It’s important to know which poker variant you’ll play and learn the game’s rules. Below is a list of the top variants with an in-depth look at their rules:

Poker Hand Rankings

Hand rankings are how players determine the winner of the pot if two or more players reach a showdown. Knowing these hand rankings is important; otherwise, you’ll have no idea how strong or weak your hand is.

Rank
Hand Name
Hand Description
Example
Probability
Combinations
1
Royal Flush
A Royal Flush is made out of a 10, Jack, Queen, King, and an Ace, all of the same suit
Royal Flush image
1 in 649,737
4
2
Straight Flush
A Straight Flush is five sequential cards all in the same suit.
straight flush image
1 in 72,193
36
3
Four of a Kind
A Four of a Kind is the same card in each of the four suits.
Four of a kind image
1 in 4,164
624
4
Full House
A Full House is a pair plus three of a kind.
Full house image
1 in 693
3,744
5
Flush
A Flush is five cards in the same suit.
Flush image
1 in 508
5,108
6
Straight
A Straight is five cards in a numerical order, but not all five cards share the same suit.
Straight example image
1 in 253
10,200
7
Three of a Kind
Three of a Kind is three of the same card and two non-paired cards.
Three of a Kind image
1 in 46
54,912
8
Two Pair
Two Pair is two different pairings or sets of the same card.
Two Pair example
1 in 20
123,552
9
One Pair
One Pair is a pairing of the same card.
A single Pair example
1 in 1.36
1,098,240
10
High Card
A High Card refers to a hand with no matching cards.
High card example
1 in 0.99
1,302,540

Poker Table Positions

Each seat at the poker table can be grouped into one of five different positions. Knowing these positions is important because your preflop strategy should change depending on your poker position at the table.

Poker table made of green cloth isolated on white background outlining the poker positions

  • The Button – The best seat at the table. You’re guaranteed to act last on every postflop street, giving you an informational advantage over your opponents. You’re also in a good position to try to steal the blinds if the action folds to you.
  • Late Position – Late position comprises the two seats before the button, often called the Cutoff and the Hijack. From here, you’re in a good position to steal the blinds, and you’re likely to be the last to act postflop.
  • Middle Position – Unsurprisingly, these are seats that are considered to be the middle of the table – not quite early and not quite late. The Lojack and UTG+2 are the two seats that usually make up Middle Position. You should start to play tighter from these seats, and you’re not always going to act last postflop.
  • Early Position – These are the seats that act first preflop. At a nine-handed table, Early Position is made up of UTG (Under the Gun) and UTG+1. You should play tight from these positions because of all the players left to act, and you likely won’t be last to act postflop.
  • Blinds – These positions are the last to act postflop but are at an automatic disadvantage because of the money they have to post. They’re also guaranteed to be out of position postflop, which makes them very tough to play.

Blinds and Antes

The blinds are forced bets in poker and are split into the Small Blind and the Big Blind. The size of the blinds is determined before the game starts and must be posted before the cards are dealt at the start of each hand.

For example, if you want to play a Hold’em cash game, you can decide to play with blinds of $1 and $2 (commonly called a $1/$2 game). This means that the Small Blind will be $1, and the Big Blind will be $2. These are posted by the two players to the left of the button, with the player to the direct left posting the Small Blind and the next player posting the Big Blind.

Antes are forced bets that must be made by everyone at the table before the games begin. They’re often a small fraction of what a Big Blind or a Big Bet would be in the game that’s being played. Antes are often used in poker tournaments to increase the pace of play. In poker tournaments, antes are commonly 1/10th the size of the Big Blind, though they can be as high as 1/6th the size.

For example, if the level has blinds of 200/400 chips, the ante will likely be 40 chips. However, if you’re playing a live tournament where they do not have low denomination chips, they may round the ante up to their closest denomination chip. In this example, this might mean an ante of 50 rather than 40.

The Actions

In the most commonly played poker games, such as Texas Hold’em, there are four betting rounds.

  1. Call

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    Call is the act of matching the size of the last bet or raise that’s been made.

  2. Raise

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    A raise is the act of increasing the size of the current bet or raise.

  3. Fold

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    A fold is the act of surrendering your hand and forfeiting your chance to win the pot.

  4. Check

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    A check is the act of declining to bet while not surrendering your hand. This can only be done postflop, and if no other player has made a bet before you act.

  5. Bet

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    A bet is the act of making a wager in the hand. A bet can only be made if no other player has made a bet before you; if they have, it is called a raise.

Betting Rounds

In the most commonly played poker games, such as Texas Hold’em, there are four betting rounds.

Preflop Icon

Preflop

Preflop is the first betting round. It begins after each player has been dealt their initial two cards. Players can either call to match the big blind, raise to increase the size of the bet, or fold their hand.

The Flop Icon

Flop

Before the flop betting round begins, the first three community cards, called the flop, are dealt face up in the middle of the table. After the flop is dealt, the flop betting round begins with the player to the left of the button. Players can bet or check if no one has made a bet before it’s their turn. If a bet has been made, players can call, raise, or fold.

The Flop
The Turn Icon

Turn

After the flop betting round is over, the fourth community card, called the turn, is dealt face up in the middle of the table. The turn betting round then begins with the player to the left of the button. Players have exactly the same options as the flop betting round.

The River Icon

River

The final betting round is the river. It begins after the fifth and final community card, called the river, is dealt face up in the middle of the table. The action begins with the player to the left of the button. All players have the same options available to them as the flop and turn betting rounds. If two or more players remain after the river betting round is over, the remaining players must turn their cards over, and the player with the best five-card poker hand wins the pot.

Betting Limits

Four different betting limits can be applied in poker games, No Limit, Pot Limit, Spread Limit, and Fixed Limit. Different games are better suited to different betting limits. For example, Hold’em is most commonly played as a No Limit game, whereas Stud is often played as a fixed limit game. While casinos will tell you the betting rules of the game before you play, there are no hard and fast rules on the limits you can use for these games; in fact, games such as Hold’em are popular with multiple different betting limits. So, there’s nothing stopping you and your friends from playing a No Limit Stud game if that’s what you want!

No Limit

There are only two rules to a No Limit poker game. The minimum bet must be equal to that of the Big Blind, and the minimum raise must equal that of the last bet or raise. For example, if you are playing in a $1/$2 game, the minimum you can bet is $2. If you face a bet of $2, you must raise by a minimum of $2, meaning that the minimum you can make it is $4. Apart from that, there is no limit to the amount you can bet or raise – you’re welcome to bet your whole stack at any point!

Pot Limit

In Pot Limit, players must follow an additional rule on top of the minimum bet/raise rules. The maximum a player can bet or raise is the size of the pot. This means that a player cannot go all in unless their stack is equal to or below the size of the current pot. If you’re playing online, the maximum you can bet is already calculated for you, but if you’re playing live, you can ask the dealer to calculate the maximum amount you can make it.

Spread Limit

Spread Limit is a game where players can only bet or raise within a designated range of sizes. The exact range size depends on the casino, though you’ll often see a spread of around $10. For example, in a $2-$12 spread limit game, the minimum you can bet is $2, and the maximum you can bet is $12. These games aren’t particularly common but are still sometimes run in US casinos.

Fixed Limit

In Fixed Limit, the amount you can bet or raise is fixed to the limits of the game. The limits are often split into Big Bets and Small Bets, with Small Bets used in the early betting rounds and Big Bets used on the later streets. For example, in a $4/$8 Limit Hold’em game, the Small Bet of $4 will be used preflop and on the flop, and the Big Bet of $8 will be used on the turn and river. This means that on the flop, any bet or raise must be exactly $4. Someone may bet $4; then another player can raise $4 to $8 total, then another player raises $4 to $12 total, and so on. Fixed Limit games often have a betting cap of 4 bets on each street.

Game Stakes

The game’s stakes refer to the amount of money at risk at any one time during a poker game. Different game types will have different levels of risk as well as different ways of describing the stakes.

Tournaments

Poker tournaments have a set buy-in that you must pay if you’d like to play. Once you have paid your buy-in, you’re given chips to play with that have no cash value. You are awarded prizes depending on where you finish in the tournament, with the top 20-10% of finishers getting prizes. For most tournaments, the maximum you can lose is your buy-in amount, although some tournaments allow re-entries/rebuys as well as add-ons. However, the amount that you risk is always fixed.

Cash Games

In cash games, the stakes are usually described using the blind amounts that are used for that game. For example, you may hear people say they’re playing in a $1/$2 game or a $5/$10 game when describing the size of their game. When using the blind amounts, it’s often assumed that the average buy-in will be around 100 Big Blinds, so a $1/$2 game will have around $200 at stake for each player.

However, the amount you can buy-in for in cash games isn’t limited to 100 Big Blinds. Most casinos will have a minimum buy-in amount of around 40bb and a maximum buy-in amount of 250bb. This means that at a $1/$2 game, you can have as little as $80 or as much as $500 at risk at any one time.

Freerolls

Freerolls are free-to-play online tournaments that give you the chance to win cash prizes without having to pay a tournament buy-in. These are great for beginner players who don’t want to risk their own money while learning the game, as they give you something to play for while you’re learning.

Online vs. Live

While the mechanics of the game are the same, poker is often played very differently live to online. Online poker is much faster-paced than live poker, so you can expect to see a lot more hands per hour. This means that you need to increase your focus, as you don’t get a 5-10 minute break once you’ve folded your hand. The games online are a lot more aggressive preflop than live games, so expect to see a lot more 3betting and 4betting with marginal hands.

Live poker is a lot softer and contains more passive players that will call down with bad hands. Against these players, you want to play a lot of good hands and value bet them a lot to take advantage of the fact they call too often. Bluffing these players won’t be successful very often and isn’t always necessary as part of a winning strategy. Online poker has a lot stronger players who aren’t as passive, so a balanced, aggressive strategy is needed to get the better of these players.

Poker Etiquette

While we’ve covered a lot of the written rules of poker, there are quite a few unwritten rules that players follow to make sure the game runs smoothly and fairly. Look at the list below to ensure you don’t run afoul of these etiquette rules in your game.

Don’t disclose your hand strength

If you folded preflop but would have made a monster hand on the flop, avoid giving any kind of indication that you would have done so. The fact that you would have made a strong hand is information that will affect the decision of the players left in the hand. This means that you should not show another player your hand, tell someone else what you had, or react in any way that would indicate you folded a monster.

When you fold, keep quiet

Once you’re out of the hand, it’s best to stay quiet to allow the other players to concentrate. No one wants to be making decisions for hundreds of dollars while someone loudly explains how they think the new Star Wars sucks to the rest of the table.

Don’t Slowroll

We’ve all seen the Hollywood films where the hero lets the villain think they’ve won before turning over the winning hand. We take great delight in watching their smug grin slowly disappear from their face as they realize they’ve lost. While it’s great for film, it’s not so nice in real life. If you have the winning hand, turn your hand over immediately and don’t deliberately make your opponent think they’ve won; otherwise, you may be asked outside for a little “chat.”

Wait for your turn to act

Every action you make at the poker table should be made when it’s your turn to act. Otherwise, you’re giving the players ahead of you more information than they should be entitled to, which could affect the action. For example, you’ve been dealt 72o and really need to use the bathroom. There’s a player ahead of you taking a long time to make their decision, so you decide to fold out of turn so you can run and use the facilities. Now the player knows they have one less person to get through if they were to bet, which may make them more inclined to make an aggressive action.

Put your big chips in front

Some new players think that hiding their high-valued chips behind their lower-valued chips in order to dupe their opponent into thinking they had less money is a valid strategy. While nothing specifically in the rules forbids this, it’s extremely unethical to do so. The best practice is always to make your chips as visible as possible, particularly high-valued ones, so other players can easily estimate how much you have in front of you

Intermediate Poker Tips

If you’ve been around the block a bit and don’t consider yourself a beginner anymore, that doesn’t mean you don’t have much to learn. The best poker players are constantly learning and improving, and so should you. They say the day you stop learning is the day you become a losing player, so make sure you’re constantly topping up your knowledge! If you’re looking for ways to take your game to the next level, check out these helpful tips.

Think About Hands in Ranges

Beginner players often think about poker hands individually rather than thinking about ranges. They’ll try to put their opponent on a particular hand and then play against it. While this is great if you’re right, you won’t be right anywhere near often enough for it to be an effective strategy, and you’ll often end up making a mistake. The best way to think about a hand of poker is in ranges. There are often many hands that your opponent will play the same way, so it’s important you think about all of them when making your decision.

Use the Semi-Bluff Aggressively

Another mistake beginners make is that they’re too passive with their draws. If they hold a straight or flush draw, they’ll just call their opponent’s bet and hope to hit, rather than take matters into their own hands. One thing you see a lot of good players do is be very aggressive when they have a strong draw. This gives them two ways to win the hand; either they get their opponent to fold, or they make their hand by the river. If you start playing your draws more aggressively by betting more and raising your opponents more often, you’ll find these hands become a lot more profitable.

Consider Your Opponent’s Playing Style

Once you start becoming a good poker player, you realize there’s a world outside your own hand. It’s not enough to just think about how strong your hand is; you need to consider your opponent and how they play. A good understanding of how your opponents play and how it should affect your strategy is a key part of maximally exploiting them. If you have a player at the table who’s constantly bluffing, should you bet your strong hands like you normally would, or should you slowplay and let them bluff into you? Picking up on tactics like this can drastically increase your win rate.

Practice Bankroll Management

When you’ve graduated from being a beginner and start to take the game more seriously, one of the most important things you should do is practice bankroll management. By this point, you should know what games you enjoy playing and what stakes you’re comfortable playing. Once you’ve established this, you should have a poker bankroll that gives you enough buy-ins to be able to play that game without the risk of going broke. Poor bankroll discipline will lead to more deposits and more spent overall. While there’s nothing wrong with redepositing if things go wrong, the aim should be to do it as little as possible.

Advanced Strategy

Now that you’ve reached the end of this article, you should have a good idea of how to play poker. However, all we’ve only covered the rules of the game; if you want to know how to play it well, you should check out our advanced strategy guides to give yourself an edge at the tables.

How To Play Poker FAQs