So you think you are ready to learn how to play poker properly? If so, you have come to the right place, as I set out to teach beginner poker players how to play well within just hours.
This poker guide is made as an introductory course for beginner poker players and those with some experience with the game. If you have been around poker for a while, the concepts introduced here will likely be familiar already.
Nevertheless, it’s always worth brushing up on the basics, and that’s exactly what this guide is made to do.
In this course, I will teach you how to play poker, namely Texas Hold’em, from the ground up. We will start with the most basic concepts like betting and checking and work our way up to the more complex things.
By the time you are done reading, you will understand position, bet sizing, odds and outs, and other concepts critical to success in poker, both live and online.
While simply reading this article won’t teach you everything there is to know by a long shot, it will give you a good foundation to build upon, and that’s really all one can ask for when just starting out.
So without further delay, let’s get straight into the basics and learn how to play poker and win more often in poker games of all shapes and sizes.
How to Play Poker: The Flow of a Poker Hand
Before you can start actually playing Texas Hold’em Poker, you will need to learn the most basic rules. This includes what actions you can take and when it is your turn to act.
A typical Texas Hold’em table will be made up of anywhere between 6 and 10 seats. Players take turns playing, and I am going to explain when everyone’s turn is.
But even before we do that, let’s talk about the objective of the game.
The main objective is to form the best poker hand according to the poker hand rankings or get all other players to fold their cards.
The poker hand starts with each player at the table receiving two cards, face down. These are called the hole cards, and they are the only cards that are “private,” i.e. not shared with other players.
These cards can be combined with the five community cards that are dealt later, which everyone can use. Players must use five of these seven cards to create the best possible poker hand.
There are four rounds of card dealing and betting in Texas Hold’em, so let’s walk through each of them real quick.
- Pre-Flop: Players are dealt two hole cards each. Two players post “blind” bets, which have a predetermined size. Players sitting to the left of the blinds are the first to act, with the “big blind” being the last to act.
- Flop: Three community cards are dealt out in the middle of the table. Everyone can use these cards in combination with their hole cards. The “small blind” player is the first to act, and the button is the last to act.
- Turn: Fourth community card is dealt out on the table for everyone to use. Players take action in the same order as they did on the flop.
- River: The final fifth community card is dealt out on the table. All players can take action again, and the action is over when all bets are settled.
Showdown: The dealer announces showdown. The player who made the last aggressive action shows his hole cards first. If there was no aggressive action on the river, the “small blind” (or the first still active player to the left of the “small blind”) shows first, and the “dealer” shows last.
Now that you know which betting rounds exist, you may also be curious as to the actions you are allowed to take on each betting street.
There are several actions you can take in no-limit Texas Hold’em. The crucial thing to remember is that you can bet as many of your chips as you want since this is a no-limit poker game.
Also, remember that you can only bet what you have on the table.
These are the actions that players can take on each betting street, under the right circumstances:
- Fold: Discard your hole cards, investing no additional money into the pot. You are no longer active in the hand and can’t win or lose any more chips.
- Call: Call the current bet size. Pre-flop, you can simply call the blind bet. After the flop, you can only call if another player has made a bet.
- Bet: Make a bet of your choosing, as high as your entire chip stack. The minimum bet is the size of one “big blind.” Betting all your chips puts you “all in.”
- Raise: If there is already a bet made in front of you, you can choose to increase this bet. This is called raising. Once again, you can raise up to your entire stack, while the minimum raise is double the current bet.
- Check: If there is no bet in front of you, you can announce check or simply tap the table. This means you are taking no action and letting the next player play for free.
In order to win money at poker, one must learn to master each of these plays and their various uses. You will be forced to use each of these options in many hands, and I will explain more about each in the rest of this poker guide.
You should also understand that these plays can all be used to either extract value from your opponent who holds a weaker hand or get him to fold a stronger hand.
First of all, let’s talk about value betting, a concept that pertains to making bets and raises when you have a hand you believe to be the best.
Poker Basics: Value Betting
Value betting is one of the most important concepts in all of poker and especially in lower stakes games in which players don’t like to fold too much.
Any bet or raise made with the intention of getting called by an opponent’s weaker hand is called a value bet.
Value bets are made to get paid by opponents whose hands are inferior to your own, whether these are weaker made hands or drawing hands.
Value betting can start pre-flop if you hold strong hole cards such as a pocket aces, kings, or queens, or another powerful hand such as AK suited.
In these cases, you will want to make raises during the pre-flop betting round, thus increasing the pot and potentially getting all the money in before the flop is even dealt.
On all subsequent rounds, you will want to make bets and raises for value when you believe you have the best hand.
In some cases, your hand will be best without a doubt, and this is called “the nuts.” When holding the nuts or close to it, you should almost always make bets to continue building the pot, only rarely trapping your opponents.
More Poker Basics: Bluffing
If you have ever seen a James Bond movie, surely you know how important bluffing is in poker. However, don’t let poker movies deceive you as bluffing in real life is often quite a bit different to what you see on TV.
Bluffing is an extremely important poker technique and one that must be used in nearly every poker game out there.
Regardless of how bad your opponents may be, they will start folding hands if you show up with powerful hands each and every time.
This is why bluffing must also be a part of your repertoire.
Ideally, you will want to make bluffs and raises on the earlier betting streets when you have a hand that can still improve.
Hands like flush draws, open-ended straight draws, and other drawing hands are ideal bluffing candidates. While they have no value at the time the bet is made, they can improve on later streets into very powerful hands.
The bluff bet is made in order to get your opponent to fold a weak pair or another hand that actually is beating yours in terms of absolute value.
An important thing to note is that you should choose wisely which opponents to bluff and which to avoid bluffing, as not all players will respond the same, and some tend to call way too often.
How to Play Poker: Understanding Odds and Outs
One of the most important poker basics is how to act with drawing hands. There are several main types of real draws that you should be aware of.
These are the flush draw, the open-ended straight draw, and the gutshot straight draw.
All of these are, in fact, four-card poker hands. They are still missing one card in order to make a powerful poker hand, such as a straight or a flush.
When holding these draws, there are several questions to ask yourself. What is the bet size compared to the pot, and am I getting the right odds to call? Will raising now end the hand without needing to make my hand?
To answer some of these questions, you will need to understand the poker odds and outs first. An out, in poker terms, is a card that will help improve your hand.
Here is a quick table explaining how many outs you have with main types of draws and what the odds are of hitting those if you have them on the flop and on the turn:
|Draw Type||Number of Outs||Odds on the Flop||Odds on the Turn|
|Open-ended Straight Draw||8||31.5%||17.4%|
|Gutshot Straight Draw||4||16.5%||8.7%|
|Open-ended Straight Flush Draw||15||54.1%||32.6%|
|Gutshot Straight Flush Draw||12||45%||26.1%|
As you can perhaps extrapolate from the table above, there is an easy way to calculate your odds once you know how many outs you have, without memorizing the table.
Multiplying your number of outs by 4 on the flop or by 2 on the turn will give you an approximate number that comes very close to the actual mathematical odds of making the hand.
Most poker players use this simple formula to figure out where they’re at in a hand without the need to remember exact percentages of making each draw.
At times, you may have more outs than the table indicates, as other cards such as overcards might work to also give you the best hand.
How to Use Odds in Poker
Now that you know how to calculate your poker odds, it’s time to understand how you can use them in the actual game.
The one thing that the odds will tell you is whether it is worth calling certain bets and raises or not. This will depend on the bet size, pot size, and the remaining stack sizes of you and your opponent.
The first thing to look at when deciding if a call is worth making is the pot size.
For example, let’s say we are playing in a $1/2 game, and there is $20 in the pot on the flop. You flop a flush draw with your AhKh, and your opponent bets into you.
We now know that there is $20 in the pot, so the next thing to look at is how big the opponent’s bet is. In this case, let us assume the player bets $10.
We can see in the table above that our odds of making the flush by the river are 35%. If we call the $10 bet, the pot will be $40 in total ($20 + $10 + $10), and this brings us to our decision.
Since we are only putting $10 into the pot for a chance to win $40, we would only need to win the pot 25% of the time. Since we know, we will win the pot 35% of the time, this is an easy call.
Now let us assume our opponent went bigger and bet full pot. He bets $20 into $20, and we call. The pot is now $60, and we have invested $20 to win it.
We are still making a profit straight up since we only need to win the pot 33% of the time.
What’s even more, a strong flush draw with high cards can sometimes also win by hitting a pair if the turn or river brings an Ace or a King.
Finally, we can even win the pot by raising the flop or betting the turn if our opponent checks to us, which means that our AK flush draw is extremely powerful.
Let’s talk about how we can play our draws aggressively to make the best of them even when we don’t make our hand.
Playing Draws Aggressively
The one thing that really changed when people started learning how to play poker at a higher level is that the levels of aggression went up significantly.
Sure, everyone knows that making a raise with a set is a good idea, but what about making a raise when you have nothing? When is it worth it?
The best poker players know that the ideal time to make bets and raises when not holding an actual made hand is when you have a draw.
Draws have the potential to make the nuts or the virtual nuts on later streets, but they can’t win at showdown. For this reason, aggression is often warranted.
Big draws, such as open-ended or gutshot straight flush draws, should almost always be raised on the flop or the turn.
The reason for this is the fact that your opponent might also be bluffing and will have to fold their hand.
What’s even more, they may have an actual hand, but facing aggression, decide to fold it, fearing a set, two pair, etc.
Weaker draws such as flush draws or open-ended straight draws can go either way, depending on the opponent and the situation.
The weakest of draws, such as gutshot straight draws, sometimes warrant a raise as well, as they have such a low chance of improving that calling bets is not always profitable with them.
The important thing to keep in mind is that your fold equity works to your favor and builds upon the actual equity you have in the hand, thus increasing your overall profit.
The Power of Position
Whether we are looking to make our draw by calling, make a raise with our draw to increase fold equity, or trap with a powerful hand, the poker position is one thing that will work in our favor.
What I mean by this is that you should be aware of your relative position at the table, not the actual chair you are sitting in.
The position of each player changes with each hand, and there are several positions you can find yourself in.
To explain this, I will detail all the positions at a six-handed cash game table, a popular format these days:
- Under the Gun: The first position to the left of the blinds. This position is considered one of the worst, and you should play only premium hands from it. Don’t experiment too much from UTG.
- Hijack: The next position at the table, still fairly unfavorable. If you raise, expect to be called or raised by a player who will have position on you.
- Cutoff: Almost the best position if you can get rid of the dealer. Raising from the cutoff with a relatively wide range of hands is a good idea.
- Dealer: The best position at the table, which allows you to always act last on every post-flop street. The best place to play many hands from.
- Small Blind: the worst position at the table. You always have to act first post-flop and have no information on your opponent’s moves.
- Big Blind: While the position is not favorable, the fact you already have money invested into the pot can mean you want to call some raises with marginal hands.
The power of position lies in going last after the flop is dealt out. This may not seem important to beginners, but it is actually quite crucial.
By getting to see how your opponent acts first, you will have many more options. If your opponent checks, you get to dictate if there will be a bet on that street. If they bet, you can make assessments, calculate odds, and decide whether to call, raise, or fold.
In either case, being in position in the hand adds a lot of value to the cards you are holding. You will get to make more money when you have a good hand and lose less when you don’t.
Raising hands from the dealer or cutoff position gives you an opportunity to win the blinds right away, win the pot on the flop with nothing, or win a huge pot by the river when you make strong hands.
How to Play Poker in Tournaments
When learning how to play poker, it’s good to start focusing on tournaments, as this is a format commonly played by many novice players.
There are several main differences between tournaments and cash games you should learn before playing the game.
First of all, poker chips in cash games have monetary value, while those in a tournament are simply used for the competition.
Once the tournament is done, the chips all go back to the casino and prizes are paid based on the buyins at the start.
In a poker tournament, you will pay a fixed buyin fee, and you will receive a number of chips equivalent to that of other players.
Regardless of the buyin, you will always receive thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of chips. These chips will be used to play in the tournament.
Unlike a cash game that has fixed blinds, the blinds in a tournament progress. They will start small compared to the initial stack but will grow as time passes.
Each passing blind level will see players eliminated, stacks grow, and the blinds go up.
In the end, the big blind will be much bigger than one initial stack, depending on how many players played in the tournament.
So how do you approach playing a poker tournament? Here are some very basic tips for the three main stages of a Texas Hold’em MTT.
Early Stage Tournament Play
The early stage of a tournament lasts for several blind levels, depending on the tournament. The main marking of this stage is that all players have a big stack compared to the blinds.
For this reason, the early stage is the time when pots resemble a cash game the most. You will see many players going to the flop and trying to make big hands.
You should stick to a small-ball approach, getting involved with many speculative hands. However, you will also want to take the initiative and be the aggressor when you do have the goods.
By raising with your strong and speculative hands alike, you will give yourself a chance to win many big pots and completely throw your opponents off balance.
Another important thing to avoid in the early stage is getting eliminated with a weak hand. Don’t let people trap you, and don’t overplay medium-strength hands.
The best advice I can give you for most poker tournaments, especially the lower stakes ones, is to go big for value when you have it and fold when you don’t, without bluffing too much in the early stages.
Middle Stage Tournament Play
Once a solid percentage of the players have been eliminated, and the blinds have grown to the point where the average stack is about 40 big blinds, you can consider this the middle stage.
At this point, the money bubble is getting close, and there is some pressure mounting on players who are looking to make the money.
You shouldn’t focus too much on squeezing into the prizes. While this is important, your main goal in a tournament should always be the final table.
For this reason, the middle stage is the time to bring out the aggression. Bluffing with draws, going all-in pre-flop with speculative hands, and abusing the smaller stacks is a good idea.
You will ideally have a big stack that can bully the smaller stacks around you as the money bubble approaches.
If you end up being one of the smaller stacks, you should be looking to double through one of the big stacks which are trying to abuse you, and you should not care if you do get eliminated by a weaker hand.
Again, the point of the tournament is to make one of the top spots, not just barely squeeze into the money with five big blinds.
Late Stage Tournament Play
The late stage usually starts around the money bubble, a little before or a little after it. At this point, the stacks are getting small compared to the blinds, and there is a lot of action happening.
Players will be announcing they are all in left and right, and you should be very careful of stack sizes and your position.
The main thing you want to be doing in the late stages is stealing the blinds and re-stealing the raises. To do this, you will often have to put your whole stack on the line.
Learning some good push-fold charts for late-game tournament play is a great idea, as this will enable you to know when it’s profitable to go all-in and with what hands.
Always remember that shoving your entire stack in seems a lot stronger and scares your opponents a lot more than making a small raise.
Finally, you should also be aware of the fact that some of the other players will also be going all-in with all sorts of hands from later positions, so you will have to call them with some marginal hands like KJ as well.
Going Beyond Poker Basics: The Final Table
The final table is the grand finale of a poker tournament. This is where all the money and the glory are, and this is your ultimate goal when playing a tournament.
If you have made the final table, you will have already ensured a payout, but the top place will usually pay significantly more.
At most final tables, the first few payouts are relatively small compared to the top three. For that reason, early on the final table, you will want to ramp up the aggression.
As the final table gets shorthanded, the implications of the ICM (independent chip model) will begin to kick in, forcing us to play somewhat more conservative.
However, ICM only dictates we should be careful when calling, and it impacts other players, too. This means that as the big stack, we can often abuse the smaller stacks to no end.
By the time things are said and done, you will be walking away with the first-place money and your title, and you will surely remember this poker guide that got you started.
How to Play Poker in Cash Games
As I already indicated earlier, cash games differ from poker tournaments quite a bit. The main difference, of course, is the fact that cash game chips are worth the exact amount that’s printed on them.
Unlike a tournament, there is really no limit to how much a player can win or lose in a cash game. There is usually a table limit, but you can rebuy as many times as you wish.
This is why stacks in cash games often get pretty massive, and some players will be sitting with 500 or more big blinds at a time.
With stacks always being at least 100 big blinds all around, the game will differ from a tournament quite a bit.
Your main objective in a cash game is to win more money than you lose over the course of the session, with every pot counting the same. Since blinds are always the same, the pots won’t get any more (or less) significant as the game progresses.
Here are a few main poker basics I can give you for cash gameplay.
Identify the Weak Players
In both live and online cash games, your main advantage at the table will come from the fact you are playing against some inexperienced and weak players.
If you are sitting at the table and can’t clearly identify which players are bad, you are probably sitting at the wrong table. This is especially the case in live cash games.
When the game is just starting out, try to play tight and look out for what other players are doing. You should quickly realize which of the players are pros or at least good and which ones are bad.
Once you know who the fish and callings stations at the table are, you can begin making a plan to exploit them. If they are folding too much, bet more. If they always call, look to value bet your big hands strongly against them.
Have a Proper Bankroll
One of the main things that get to cash game players is the fact they often don’t have a bankroll big enough for the games they are playing.
Without a proper bankroll, you will not be successful at cash games, regardless of your skill.
It’s hard to say what a good bankroll is, but anything under 20 buyins will certainly not cut it.
You could, of course, get very lucky and win the first 5 sessions you play, but more likely, you will suffer some swings. For that reason, having enough money to back you up is very important.
Even if you don’t end up losing 10 buyins in a row at any point, you will benefit greatly from having a solid bankroll because it will help you remain focused and not get mad when you lose a pot.
Cash games are really games of patience. Tournaments come down to a point where you are simply going all-in with all sorts of hands, but in a cash game, you always have a 100 big blind stack at least.
For this reason, you will need to remain alert and patient at all times. You will have to have a good game plan and stick to it, making almost no exceptions.
A thing that happens a lot to players in poker cash games is that they start playing junk hands if they’re not getting enough good starting hands.
You should make sure you are never playing bad card combinations, even if you are just sitting there for a couple of hours getting trash.
In live games, you may get verbally abused over this at times, but always remember you are there to make money and not to entertain people.
All In: A player is considered to be all in when all of their chips are bet into the pot. This player cannot be folded and will get to show his hand down.
Ante: An additional obligatory bet on top of the blinds. Antes are usually used in poker tournaments to speed up the action.
Bet: An action a player can take when there is no bet in front of them. In No-limit Hold’em, players can bet up to their entire stack at any point in a hand.
Button: The dealer button is used to represent which player is the dealer for the hand. This player will go last on every post-flop betting round.
Big Blind: An obligatory bet posted by the player two positions to the left of the dealer. The big blind is pre-determined and cannot be skipped.
Call: An action a player can make when there is a bet in front of them. The player matches the bet, and if no other players are left, the next card is dealt.
Check: An action a player can make when there is no bet in front of them. The player makes no bet, and the action proceeds to the next player.
Chips: Chips are used to make bets in poker. They can have different denominations, denoting their real money or tournament value.
Community Cards: The five cards dealt out in the middle of the table, the flop, the turn, and the river.
Dealer: Can refer to the actual person dealing the cards or the player sitting in the dealer position, marked by the dealer button.
Flop: The first three community cards are dealt on the flop. A betting round that ensues is called the flop betting round.
Fold: An action a player can make at any time. Even if there is no bet in front of them, the player can fold their cards and get out of the hand.
Full House: A poker hand that consists of three of a kind and one pair. A very powerful poker hand that is usually the winner.
Full Ring: This term is usually used to refer to a 9 or 10-handed poker game. Full ring poker is often played in tournaments, while cash games are often short-handed.
Gutshot: A gutshot straight draw is a drawing poker hand in which the player needs one of four particular cards to make their straight.
Heads Up: The term used to refer to a poker game in which only two players are playing. Heads up poker is very popular online.
High Card: A poker hand that does not contain any pairs or better. If no one holds a pair, the player with the highest card wins.
Hijack: The position at the table before the cutoff and after the under the gun.
Hole Cards: The two cards held by the player, face down. These cards precede any community cards being dealt.
Implied Odds: Refers to the money you stand to win if you make your hand. Think about whether your opponent will call your bets if you make a straight, flush, or another hand.
Kicker: Your highest card that’s not a part of a poker combination. If two players have the same hand, their kicker will decide the winner.
Loose: If a player is playing loose, it means they are playing many hands from many different positions.
Misdeal: If the dealer makes a mistake while dealing the cards that can’t be rectified, the hand will be pronounced a misdeal, and a new hand will be dealt.
No Limit: A no limit poker game is one in which players can bet any amount of chips, no greater than their stack, at any time.
Nuts: The best possible poker hand combination compared to the currently dealt community cards.
Open-ended straight draw: A straight draw that can be completed by a card at both ends. For example, if you hold 67 on a 45K board, any 3 or 8 will complete your straight.
Odds: Poker odds are the mathematical chances of making certain hands. You must always know how to calculate your odds if you want to make correct plays.
Outs: Outs are the cards that will help you improve your poker hand if they are dealt on the upcoming streets.
Overcard: A card higher than the community cards that are dealt out.
Pair: One pair is a poker hand that consists of two cards of the same ranking.
Pocket Cards: Pocket cards or hole cards are the two cards dealt to each player at the start of a poker hand.
Position: Refers to the player’s position at the table relative to the blinds, not his physical position in the room.
Raise: An action a player can make any time there is an existing bet in front of them. Players can make a raise pre-flop as the first player in since blind bets are already in place.
Rake: A percentage of a pot in a cash game that is taken off the table by the house. You should learn more about rake before you start playing seriously.
Semi-bluff: A bluff with a hand that has some equity in the hand and may end up being the best hand by the river, such as a straight draw or a flush draw.
Showdown: The final part of a poker hand. If more than one player is left in the hand, they turn over their hole cards and compare their poker hands.
Small Blind: One of the forced bets in Texas Hold’em poker. The player left of the dealer button posts the small blind.
Straight: A poker hand that consists of five consecutive cards.
Suited: Cards are considered to be suited when they are of the same suit, such as spades or clubs.
Under the Gun (UTG): The first player to act before the flop. This player sits to the left of the big blind.
Value Bet: A bet designed to get opponents to call it with a weaker holding. Value betting is usually done with strong poker hands.