Poker, as you’ll often hear others say, is a simple game to learn, but can take a lifetime to master. Our beginner’s guide to playing casino poker is meant to take new players from completely (or partially) clueless, to novice players who are confident playing poker at the casino or online for real money.
Poker Hand Rankings
The most important thing any player needs to know before even attempting to sit down at an online poker table is to know your poker hand rankings.
Below is an illustrative guide of all the possible hands you can receive when playing poker. For those new to playing poker online, you may either want to bookmark this page or print it out so as you have a quick to hand reference available when you play.
The strongest hand is depicted at the top left by the Royal Flush, with the weakest hand being a high card located at the bottom right of the illustration below.
1. Be Selective with the Hands You Play – When you’re dealt trashy hands, fold like Superman on laundry day! Resist the temptation to toss in a chip ‘just see the flop’. Sometimes you will get lucky, but staying in without decent pocket cards will cost you money in the long run. Bluffing with rags can work at the higher stakes tables, but at the lower limits, people will pay to see you and over time you will lose out.
2. Maximize Your Winnings – When the time comes and you’re holding an unbeatable hand, make sure that you make others pay dearly to see it. Raise as much as you think your opponent will call. If your opponents are playing aggressively, check to feign weakness and when they raise, go for the kill and go all in.
3. Don’t Pick Fights – You don’t have to play for long to work out who the strongest players on the table are. No matter how tempting it is, don’t be drawn into trying to beat them. Basically, do not play poker like it is an arm wrestling contest.
4. If you think you’re beaten, just fold.
If you are unable to beat the other hands, then don’t join them. Fold your cards and save your chips. Chips saved are as important as chips won. In fact, this principle goes double if you’re playing in a tournament whereby chips equal power. In tourneys, it hurts more to have your stack cut in half than it helps to go up by 50%.
5. Try to avoid getting frustrated.
Take it easy, don’t let yourself go on tilt. This may be a cliché piece of poker advice, but it is so important. If you are playing badly, or differently to how you normally play then take a break. If you can crack this, you’ll have the march on 95% of other poker players.
Don’t get emotionally attached to your hand. You must be able to throw down your cards when it’s obvious that you are beaten, no matter how good a hand you started with. A good example is when you have a strong pocket pair, but several others have put in huge raises before you.
Focus on making correct decisions instead of results.
Sometimes you’re going to lose when you started with the best hand. You’re going to lose some huge pots where you were an overwhelming favorite. Try to shake it off. The most thing in poker is making correct plays, regardless of the outcome.
Be patient and wait for others to make mistakes.
One key to poker is to not try to beat the other players, but to let them try to beat you. This is a great thing to remember. A good example was the $2,500 buy-in No Limit Hold’em event at the World Series of Poker. Some 1,056 contestants were whittled down to Denmark’s Lars Bonding and California’s Farzad Bonyandi. Bonding had been dominating the final table, but as the pair went heads-up, Bonyadi tightened up and waited for him to make a mistake. After an hour he did. Bonding pushed all-in on K-3-2 flop holding Q-10. Bonyadi immediately called holding top pair – and ended the game right there.
Observe Your Opponents
Spend some time watching a table before sitting down. Are the others loose or tight players? Have them cased out before you’ve even taken your seat.
Don’t Become Pot Committed
Treat every round of betting as if it were your first. Forget the previous betting rounds and the money you have contributed towards the pot. The aim is to hopefully avoid becoming ‘pot committed’ and throwing good money after bad.
It is better to sacrifice your small early bets then to rope yourself into a betting war with a seasoned pro.
Don’t Always Suspect Bluffs
A bad ( or tilting ) players always thinks his opponent is bluffing. Call your opponent or opponents when you believe your hand is good enough to win, not merely because you expect a bluff.
Don’t Bluff Bad Players
You can’t really bluff somebody who doesn’t know what they are doing – so make it a rule not to try to steal a pot unless you know the player is quite experienced. It might sound like a topsy turvey rule, but it does make sense.
Betting position is important.
Where you sit in relation to your turn to bet has a huge impact on your results. Being forced to be an early bettor in a hand is much less advantageous than being able to bet later in the round. In early position you have to play fairly tightly, even in loose games, since you don’t know how many raises there will be, and you will be out of position for the whole hand. You don’t want to put money into a pot on a so-so hand only to find you have two or three reraises to call.
When it comes to betting, alcohol can your enemy. While beer and cigars tend to go hand in hand with poker nights, alcohol is certainly not recommended if you’re going to play in a casino, especially if the stakes are higher.
Set a goal of winning between 50% – 100% of a single session bankroll. Then set aside your original bankroll plus half your winnings. Now play with the remainder and continue to set aside additional winnings. Discipline is not only a significant part of being a successful poker player but probably the most important element of money management. You must set loss limits and win goals. Example: When losing half your session bankroll you walk, and when doubling your money, consider doing the same.
Spot The Best hand
Whenever you’re involved in a hand, look at the cards on the board and try to work out what the best hand could be. This helps you avoid putting money into a pot until you know where you stand. For example, if the board shows three cards, Ad-Kd-Td, and you hold Qs-Jc for a straight, somebody else could be holding 4d-7d and have you beat with a flush. You can’t be certain that they have the flush, but you have to realize that the hand you hold is not necessarily the best at the table. Taking a moment to look at the board gets you in the habit of guessing your opponent’s hand.
Limit vs No Limit Texas Hold’em
If you’ve seen the movie Rounders, you’ve probably heard the saying that “No Limit Hold’em is the Cadillac of poker”, which is true to an extent. But it’s also a game where a new player can lose a lot of money quickly if they’re not careful. If you’re just starting out and have a limited bankroll, you may want to try the Limit Hold’em tables to start with.
In case you are not familiar with the rules of Limit Hold’em it differs from No Limit in that the amounts you can bet and raise are fixed on each betting round. For example, if you were playing a $10/$20 Limit game, bets and raises on the first two betting rounds would be in units of $10 and on the last two betting rounds in units of $20.
So if a player bet $10 on the flop the most you could raise is $10 and the next raise would be another $10 and so on up to a maximum of 3 or 4 raises depending on the poker room where you are playing.
So here we have the major difference between limit and no-limit play. In limit, you cannot simply push your chips all-in which is why you will hear a lot of no-limit players complaining that they don’t like to play limit because they cannot protect their hand. Although this is true to an extent it doesn’t make limit poker a lesser game, in fact, it can even be said that it might be more skillful.
“Limit poker is more skillful than no limit”. Let me explain. Suppose in a no-limit game you are dealt a pair of queens, raise before the flop and get two callers. No aces or kings appear on the flop, you bet about the size of the pot, your opponents fold and you win the hand right there.
If we look at the same situation in a limit game, say $10/$20, there will be $60 or $70 in the pot and you will only be able to bet $10 making it correct for your opponents to call if they have a drawing hand or even something like bottom pair.
Therefore the situation is often more complicated in limit play. You have to consider whether to bet on the flop or not, is it dangerous to give a free card? Should you try and check raise instead? How much is in the pot, what odds are my opponents getting, how can I extract the most bets out of my opponents when I have the winning hand and so on.
The turn and the river will also be seen much more often in limit play leading to more poker being played and more decisions being made. This is in contrast to no-limit where players are often all-in on the flop or even pre-flop.
So next time you play poker, why not check out the limit games instead of just heading straight for the No Limit section. I think you’ll like the game and the different challenges it brings.
Playing Cash Games
At the casino and online, “cash games” are essentially poker games where you buy-in for as much as you want between the table min/max. You can cash out at any time, or buy-in for more chips if you get low or run out.
Your goal when playing cash games is simply to win the most money possible. Not win the most pots. Not be the last man or woman standing. All you want to do is maximize your odds of winning money.
So our first lesson about cash game play is to select a game that you can beat, look for the bad players and play in their game and avoid players that you think are better than you. You may only be an average player, but if you always play with poor players then you will be a winner in the long term.
Another important factor to consider in cash games is that they are never-ending, unlike a tournament where the blinds keep going up and players get knocked out until there is an eventual winner.
Think of your poker playing life as one long never-ending cash game. It doesn’t matter if you are losing in your session today as the game will continue tomorrow and the next day and so on.
And lastly, I’d like to talk about money management which is absolutely crucial if you are to be a successful cash game player. It doesn’t matter how good you are if you don’t have good money management skills. Indeed several world class players have gone broke because they have no idea of this concept.
The size of your bankroll should dictate the size of game you play in and a good rule of thumb is to never risk more than 5% of your bankroll in any one game. If you are a good player and stick to this rule then you should be able to withstand the short term fluctuations to become a winner in the long term. Although I do recommend setting a loss limit for a particular game I do not recommend setting a win limit. You should play for as long as the game is good and you feel like you are playing your best. Never say to yourself I am going to win $500 then get up. You should only stop when the game becomes bad or you start to feel tired.
Another aspect of money management is how much to buy-in for when you play a game. There are some people who advocate buying in for the minimum as you are risking less, but I am the opposite and like to have the most chips on the table as lots of chips give you a lot of ammunition and power. Your opponents may also be wary of you because of your large stack.
Although most casinos set the minimum buy-in as 10 times the big blind I recommend buying in for 50 big bets in a fixed limit game and 100 big blinds in a pot limit or no limit game. If you cannot afford to do this then maybe you are playing at a limit too high for your bankroll.
Game selection is one of the most important aspects of being a successful poker player and with the explosion of online card rooms it has become even more important.
In a brick-and-mortar casino there may only be one or two games to choose from making game selection irrelevant, but on the internet where there are literally hundreds of games to choose from it becomes very important.
In selecting a game the first thing we must do is decide what type of game we want to play; Hold’em Omaha, Stud? Obviously, you should choose your best game to give you the greatest chance of winning.
The next factor to take into account is what limit to play at. This is where a lot of players make a mistake by playing at too high a limit. Ego also plays a part in this mistake with a lot of players thinking $0.50 / $1.00 or $1.00 / $2.00 is beneath them. Never play at a limit you are uncomfortable with or don’t have enough bankroll for.
A good rule of thumb to follow is to always buy-in for 50 big bets. This ensures you have enough chips to be able to sustain the inevitable swings during the session and have enough chips to play comfortably. If you can’t sit down with 50 big bets then you’re probably playing at too high a limit.
Now we must think about whether to play a short-handed table or a full table. This depends on your style of play. If you are very aggressive and like to play a lot of hands then you’ll probably be better at a short-handed table. If you’re more conservative and only like to play good hands then a full table is for you.
Okay, so you’ve decided you’re going to play $3/$6 Hold’em short-handed. Now go to your favorite poker site and have a look for that game in the lobby. But wait, there are lots of tables of that game. So which one should you choose?
There are usually two columns in the lobby that give you a good indication of which table you should choose. The first is ‘Plrs/Flop’ and tells you what percentage of players are seeing the flop. The higher the percentage the looser the game is, and loose equals good. The other one is ‘Ave Pot’ which tells you the average pot size. Obviously the bigger it is means that players and playing loose and gambling it up. These are the games we want to be in!
Playing in your First Live Poker Tournament
It’s a big step to make the jump from the comfort and anonymity of playing on your computer at home to a real-life casino and poker tournament but hopefully, this section will help you take the next step.
On the internet it’s easy, log into your favorite poker site, go to the tournament lobby click on register and wait for your table to magically open and the tournament to begin. In the real world it’s a little different, so let’s look at how to go about playing your first live tournament.
The first job is to locate the nearest casino or card room to you which hosts poker tournaments. This can be done easily on the internet as most poker portals list directories of places to play.
Then you should find out their tournament schedule and choose a tournament you want to play. Their schedule might be listed online or you might have to ring and find out. You should also find out if they have a membership policy or dress code.
In most casinos in the US you can just turn up and play, but some casinos in the UK and Europe require you to be a member and enforce a dress code. The first thing that will hit you when you walk into the casino is the noise. The constant whirring and buzzing of the slot machines (hopefully not near the poker room) and the clatter of chips being shuffled across the tables.
You will need to be strong-willed to walk past the inviting slot machines and the craps, blackjack and roulette tables. Remember, you came here to play poker against other players like yourself, not gamble against the house, as you will surely lose.
The casino can often seem like a maze and it is sometimes difficult to find the poker room which is usually tucked away somewhere in the corner. Most casinos should have signs for the poker room, but if not, don’t be afraid to ask the staff, they are there to help you.
Once in the poker room, you need to find the person running the tournament and register. Often the poker room will have a registration desk, but if not, look for the person in a suit with a clipboard as they’ll probably be the tournament director, and if not, can surely point you in the right direction.
After registering it is useful to get a copy of the blind structure that will be used for the tournament. Most card rooms print numerous copies of these and leave them out for the players to take. The benefit of knowing the structure in advance is so you can plan your strategy accordingly. For example, if it is a very quick structure (which it often is if the buy-in is low) you may want to play aggressively early on, but if the structure is slower with more time between blind increases you can play more slowly and patiently.
Another good tip is to read the card room rules as these can vary greatly depending on where you play. These are usually posted somewhere on the wall in the card room.
The last thing to do before you start to play is to find out how many prize paying positions there are as it is no good if you are playing to make the final table when only the top three places will get paid.
When the tournament starts you will have to find your seat yourself. Tables will usually be numbered and seat 1 is to the left of the dealer.
If this is your first time playing live, then handling actual cards and chips will be a new experience for you. Always protect your cards so others can not see them and don’t lift them up from the table, instead cup your hands over them and lift up the edges.
Stack your chips neatly so that you always know roughly how much you have. The standard height of a stack is 20 chips so if you have a full stack of $5 chips you know you have $100. And don’t worry if there are players at the table doing fancy chip tricks. It doesn’t mean that they are better players than you, just that they are more experienced playing in real casinos. In fact, you can use this information to your advantage as you know that they do have experience and can play against them accordingly.
Lastly, if you are unsure about anything, just ask the dealer or the tournament director. I’m sure you’ll find them to be very helpful and friendly.
Calculating Odds and Outs
A bit of a math lesson for you this week as we look at calculating your outs and pot odds, but please no calculators! The number of outs you have are the remaining cards in the deck with which you can win the hand. So suppose you have a flush draw on the flop in Texas hold’em you would calculate your chance of hitting your flush on the next card in the following way:
You know 5 cards – the 2 in your hand and the 3 on the flop – leaving 47 unseen cards. You have 2 cards of your flush draw in your hand and another 2 on the flop which leaves 9 cards left in the deck that can make your flush. (There are 13 cards in each suit.) Therefore out of the remaining 47 cards, 9 will make your flush and 36 will not, so the odds are 36 to 9 which equates to 4 to 1 or 20%.
So know you know the odds of making your flush we must look at what odds the pot is offering us to determine if it is correct or not to continue with the hand. Let’s say that there is $100 in the pot and your opponent bets $25. You work out the pot odds in the following way:
After your opponent bets $25 there is $125 in the pot and it’s costing you $25 to call. Therefore you are getting 5 to 1 pot odds for your 4 to 1 flush draw which is a good deal and you should call. However, if your opponent bets $100 instead of $25 into the $100 pot you are now only getting 2 to 1 pot odds for your flush draw which now makes it incorrect to call. To add a further level of thinking, it is sometimes correct to call when not getting the right pot odds because of implied odds.
Implied odds take into account the future money that you could win if you make your hand. Let’s take the same $100 pot and $100 bet from your opponent as above and suppose your opponent has a few hundred remaining. Now if you think you can get your opponent to call say $300 if you hit your card on the next betting round then the implied odds are 5 to 1. However, if your opponent doesn’t have any more chips left then you can’t win any more from him if you make your hand so there are no implied odds.
This has just been a very basic introduction to odds and outs. If you want to learn more about this subject I recommend reading a text by either David Sklansky or Mason Malmuth who are two of the foremost theoretical thinkers about the game today.
Short-handed play is very different from a full table and you must alter your style of play accordingly. Many players do not like short-handed games as they cannot grasp the difference in playing style needed to win at a short-handed table.
Very tight players who only play premium starting hands do well in a full game but if they do not adapt their style they will not be winners in short-handed games. A short-handed game is a lot faster and the blinds come round more often so you have to play more hands and cannot afford to wait for those big pocket pairs.
Okay, so now you know you have to play more hands, but what type of hands should you be playing?
An important concept to grasp is that starting hands change in value in short-handed games. Hands like suited connectors that can be quite profitable in full games go down in value at short-handed tables where most pots are contested by only 2 or 3 players so these hands lose their equity.
Hands that go up in value are hands that can win by themselves without any help from the community cards. Hands like Ace-rag, King-rag and small pairs all go up in value for this reason.
You also need to be very aggressive in short-handed games and don’t be afraid to raise, your opponents certainly will not be. You also should be prepared to call your opponent down to the river as there is a lot more bluffing in short-handed games. Even if there are scary cards on the board, in a short-handed game it is less likely that these cards helped your opponents.
Although short-handed tables are mainly found on the internet, some live card rooms are now spreading these games as well. If you are playing a short-handed game for the first time, be careful as these games are a lot more volatile than full games meaning your wins and losses can be much greater.
The poker glossary below is a useful resource for players to use as a reference when playing poker online or offline. Featuring all the terms you are likely to see in online chat or hear in a land-based environment when playing poker.
- All In – A player who runs out of chips during the course of a hand is said to be “all-in.” He may be entitled only to win that portion of the pot which existed at the time he went all-in (see also Main Pot and Side Pots).
- Betting Limits – The amount a player may bet or raise on any turn is set by the betting limits of the game. For example, a 3-6 table requires bets or raises to be $3 for the first two rounds of betting and $6 for the last two rounds of betting. Likewise, a 4-8 table requires bets or raises to be $4 and $8 for the first two and last two rounds respectively.
- Betting Round – One round of betting. There are four betting rounds in a given hand: before the flop, after the flop, after the turn, and after the river.
- Big Blind – The big blind is made by the player immediately to the left of the small blind and is equal to the minimum bet. For example, the big blind in a 3-6 game is $3, and in a 4-8 game, $4.
- Blinds – The blinds are required bets made by the two people to the left of the dealer button before any cards are dealt, and serve to get money into the pot initially.
- Burn Cards – In a live game, the dealer is required to deal one card off the top of the deck face down into the muck immediately prior to dealing the flop, the turn card, and the river card. These are called “burn cards.”
- Buy-in – When a player first sits down at the table and buys chips, it is called a “buy-in”. The minimum buy-in for True Poker is 10 times the small bet or small blind in Pot/No limit. For example, in a 3-6 game, the minimum buy-in is $30. After a player has bought his initial chips and wishes to buy more, he can then purchase any quantity of chips provided it is $10 or greater. However, if a player goes all-in and runs out of chips, they must purchase a full minimum buy-in amount.
- Call – Once a bet has been made in a given round if a player matches the bet (i.e. does not raise or fold), it is a “call.”
- Check – If there has not been a bet made in a given hand, a player can “check,” which means he is not betting and is letting his turn pass without increasing the amount in the pot.
- Chips – Circular color-coded discs used for betting, chips are available in denominations of $1, $3, $5, $25, $100, $500.
- Fold- If a player elects to fold, he withdraws from the hand and forfeits all bets he has placed up to that point in the hand. Typically a player will fold when he does not want to call a bet in order to stay in the hand.
- Hand – One complete game beginning with the posting of the blinds and concluding with one or more players winning the pot.
- Main Pot and Side Pots – If a player runs out of chips in the course of a hand, (i.e. he goes “all-in”) the pot is split into a “main pot”, which is the pot that existed up to the point any players went all in, and a “side pot”, which is that portion of the pot to which the all-in player does not participate, and cannot win.
- Muck – “The Muck” is all discarded cards lying face down in front of the dealer, consisting of all folded cards and all “burn cards.” To “muck” your cards means to fold your hand without showing.
- Pot – The total number of chips that are bet in a given round and any prior rounds. Once betting in a round is complete, the total chips bet are moved into a pile near the center of the table.
- Raise – Once a bet has been made in a given round, any subsequent increases to the amount bet is called a raise. If the bet is increased after it has been raised, this is called a re-raise.
- Rake – The house charges a commission — the “rake” — as a percentage of the total pot won at the end of most hands. This represents the only source of revenue for the house since all winnings go to the players. The rake amount is never more than $3 and is determined by the number of players at the table and the amount in the total pot.
- Small Blind – The small blind is made by the player immediately to the left of the dealer button and is equal to half of the minimum bet, rounded down to the nearest dollar. For example, the small blind in a 3-6 game is $1, and in a 4-8 game, $2.
- Split Pot – If two or more players have the same hand at the showdown, the pot is split equally between them. If the pot cannot be split equally, the odd dollar is paid to the player next in line for the Blinds.
- Table Stakes – A convention of poker, followed in most card rooms, which dictates that a player can only play with those chips he has at the beginning of the hand. In other words, a player is not allowed to buy more chips during the course of a hand nor may they remove chips from the table during or between hands, unless they exit the game. (A player similarly may not exit and quickly return without fewer chips.)
Best Poker Books for Beginners
Students who go to school or college to learn various subjects do so, in part, by reading a book on their particular subjects. So why should learning poker be any different?
The answer is it shouldn’t, but yet there are lots of players who have never picked up a poker strategy book in their lives. They convince themselves that they are good players who don’t need any help because they know it all. While this may be true in a few instances of very talented individuals, for the most part, it is plain stupid.
Okay, so you think you know more than the author of the latest poker book? Maybe, but it doesn’t hurt to read it anyway to see what someone else thinks about the game. You can then compare with your own knowledge and thought process and make a more informed conclusion.
The key to getting the most out of poker books is to evaluate what the author is saying and how it relates to your playing style and experience. Don’t just do something because the author says so, think about why he’s saying it and then decide if it will help your game or not.
At the end of the day, there is no real right or wrong in poker. Poker is a game of infinite complexity and there are many different ways to play. But by reading these books it will help you think about the game and by thinking and analyzing you will become a better player.
The following books have been written by some of the best players and foremost thinkers in the game today. You might want to think about picking some of them up:
- Ace on the River – Barry Greenstein
- The Championship Series – T.J. Cloutier and Tom McEvoy
- Harrington on Hold’em Series – Dan Harrington
- Hold’em Poker for Advanced Players – David Sklansky
- Making the Final Table – Erick Lindgren
- Poker Essays Series – Mason Malmuth
- Super System 2 – Doyle Brunson
- The Theory of Poker – David Sklansky
- Tournament Poker – Tom McEvoy