In 2002, Chris Moneymaker (yes, that’s his real name) was an accountant and amateur poker player in Tennessee. He played online quite a bit, and occasionally in casinos, but mostly ended up in debt. By the end of May 2003, he had won the World Series of Poker — and the $2.5 million main prize. Moneymaker beat the best players in the world, and amazingly, it was the first live tournament he had ever been in. And it all started with an online game that had a $39 entrance fee.
After that, as you can imagine, the popularity of Texas Hold’Em poker skyrocketed. All of a sudden men and women around the world were trying to figure out how to play the game that was at one time reserved for outlaws and back-alley hucksters. Weekly or monthly house games popped up as folks honed their poker skills in hopes of hitting it big someday.
The tide of amateur players hoping for a big payday ebbed a bit after 2007 or so, but the game of poker retained a newfound respect. Groups of friends and coworkers realized that a casual night of cards could be both fun and competitive, and Texas Hold’Em became the de facto game of choice for guys’ nights and bachelor parties.
It was with that sentiment that I hosted a poker game at my house for a friend’s bachelor party. I had no idea what I was doing, but I had a poker table and some chips, and figured it would be a good time. It ended up being so much fun that I now host a monthly game at my house with 7-10 regular guys, and it’s always a big hit. (Look for a piece on how to start your own poker night later this year.)
At the beginning, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. Even though I was host, I had to lean on others to know the rules and etiquette of the game, let alone strategies for actually winning. Even though my buddies didn’t really care, it was embarrassing to have to be reminded as to which hands won and the protocol that keeps the game moving along. Now that we’re 6 months in, though, I’ve largely got the hang of things.
When guys who haven’t played much poker drop in on our group these days, they often start out like I did — a little nervous and a little lost. Besides just losing money, these newbies often interrupt the flow of the game, and have to be coached along. That’s okay by us, but it’s definitely more fun for everyone involved when each player has a good understanding of the game and is able to compete.
If you find yourself in the position of playing your first games of Texas Hold’Em, you’re probably not looking to win big and move on to the World Series of Poker. You just want to be able to hold your own and not look like a total newb. The information below will help you get there and be able to confidently play with your buddies, and even win a few hands. We’ll cover basic terms, table etiquette, and general strategic tips to keep in mind. Let’s dig in!
Note: Although there are many varieties of poker, this article focuses just on Texas Hold’Em, as it’s far and away the most popular version these days.
1. Know the Rules of the Games
Honestly, the game play itself isn’t all that complicated compared to betting strategies, knowing your table position, etc. (more on those later). That said, you should know how Texas Hold’Em works before you get yourself into a game. Rather than doing so at length here, I encourage you to check out this good intro on the rules and game play. You can also watch this short video which visually walks you through a hand:
2. Get Familiar With the Hand Rankings
One of the things new players struggle with the most is knowing which hand of cards wins. Between pairs and straights and flushes, it can get a little confusing. Reference the chart below to familiarize yourself with how the hands rank. In many cases, a pair or two pairs will take the pot. In my house games, I’m not sure we’ve ever seen better than a full house; the hands above that are extremely rare.
3. Know the Vocabulary
Even when engaged in a casual game, it’s important to know the vocabulary of poker. Below is a short glossary of terms that I’ve found to be most common when playing:
Blinds: A forced bet, generally put in by the two players to the left of the dealer, before any cards are dealt. The “small blind,” to the immediate left of the dealer, is half the minimum betting amount. The “big blind,” two to the left of the dealer, is the full amount of the minimum bet. For instance, if your game has a minimum bet of $10, the small blind is $5 and the big blind is $10.
Button: A poker chip that indicates the dealer position at the table. This rotates to the left each hand. When a player or two are out of the game, they’ll often take over the actual dealing, but the button must continue rotating one to the left amongst active players. This determines who acts first, and plays a large role strategically, as we’ll see later.
Call: Making a bet equal to the last bet or raise. It’s a matching bet. Say the fella just before you raises to $20, you’d say “I call,” and throw in a $20 chip.
Check: To not bet. It basically means you’re “checking” to see what other players are doing. You can only check if no bets have been made. If a bet has been made, you must either call or raise.
Community Cards: This isn’t a term that’s used often, but this is what the five cards on the table are called that are “available” for each player’s hand. These five cards come in three actions: the flop, the turn, and the river.
Flop: The first three community cards, all of which are flipped at the same time after the dealer has burned one card.
Fold: To forfeit your cards and any bets you’ve previously made.
Hole Cards: The first two cards dealt to each player. Also called your “pocket” cards.
Kicker: An unpaired card that’s used to determine the better hand in cases where one or more players has the same pair, three of a kind, or two pairs. The higher card — or kicker — wins the pot. For instance, if two players have an ace in their hand and there’s an ace on the table to make a pair, whoever has the higher card in their hand has the kicker and wins.
Pot: All the money that has been bet in a hand of poker.
Raise: Simply increasing the current bet.
River: The fifth and final community card, turned after the dealer has burned one card.
Suited: When your two hole cards are of the same suit. “I had 9-10 suited.”
Turn: The fourth community card, turned after the dealer has burned one card.
4. Be Mindful of Table Etiquette
While knowing the terms and how to actually play are certainly important, simple table etiquette is something to keep in mind as well. It will help keep the game moving at a decent clip (games can get rather slow without these “rules”), and will ensure that you aren’t outed as a newbie for the taking!
Pay attention. While chit-chatting is fine, don’t make a habit of launching into loud stories where everyone has to stop and pay attention. Also, watch for who’s betting first after the hole cards have been dealt. People often mistakenly think it’s the person to the left of the dealer, but the blinds cover the first two’s initial bet, meaning it’s the third person to the left of the dealer who actually acts first. After the first round of betting, it then goes back to the person immediately to the dealer’s left (if they haven’t folded of course, in which case it’s the first person to the left of the dealer who’s still in the game). Also be sure that you’re acting in turn; you don’t want to accidentally fold or make a bet before everyone prior to you has acted. By giving your actions away, you’re letting other players know your plans, which can change what they were going to do. It may seem like an obvious tip, but everyone (including myself) seems to still do it every once in a while at my monthly poker nights.
Leave your cards on the table and in sight. I’ve been a violator of this rule many a time. The point is two-fold: 1) It helps the dealer know if you’re still in the game. If you’re hiding your cards in your lap, you might get passed over when it comes to betting, which messes up the flow of the game for everyone. 2) It ensures you’re playing on the up-and-up and aren’t partaking in any funny business and trying to cheat. The standard protocol is to leave your cards on the table with a chip on them to indicate that you’re still in that hand.
It’s okay to sit out a hand if needed. If you need to go to the bathroom, refresh your drink, or grab a snack, don’t do so while you’re still playing a hand. It’s also courteous to say you’re going to sit the next one out if you need a longer break for a phone call or something else. Just make sure you don’t miss more than a couple hands, else it becomes unfair for you to not be putting money into the game.
5. Know Some Basic Poker Strategy
Don’t play every hand (unless you want to). Any poker book you read that was written by a pro will say to only ever play the very best of hands. Poker is a game of patience, they write, so unless you are dealt a high pair (aces, kings, queens, jacks, tens) or high suited cards (ace-king of the same suit, queen-jack of the same suit, etc.), you should just fold before ever seeing the flop. This surely makes for a winning formula when you’re trying hard to make money, but it’s awfully boring when playing for fun.
Many players, in casual settings, will play almost every hand they see — that is, they rarely fold before the flop. Include me in that group. Frankly, it’s just more fun to play that way. Part of the excitement of poker is that every hand truly can win, even if the odds are stacked against you. You can last quite a while (and even win the evening) by initially playing every hand, and then playing conservatively after the flop. Honestly, I’m in it more for the fun than the jackpot, and even with this “strategy,” I’ve won two of our six poker nights.
If you’re playing for fun, but still really want to win, fold the hands that offer the lowest odds of victory — usually this means you have unsuited low cards. Even a face card paired with a low card isn’t a very good play, as your kicker won’t get you anywhere, even if you end up with a high pair. For more on which hands to play, I suggest reading Phil Hellmuth’s book, Play Poker Like the Pros; just keep in mind that he’s ultra-conservative and playing to make money. Your best bet is to know what the pros do, and find your own balance of fun and winning strategy.
Betting tips. Betting in poker can be one of the hardest parts to figure out. How much do you bet initially? When should you call versus raise? When should you just check versus making a bet? Throwing chips in and knowing how to do so is the most complex part of the game. Ultimately, if you think you have a winning hand, you want to bet just enough to keep as many people in the game as possible. If you bet too high, everyone folds, and you don’t win as much as you could have. And you obviously don’t want to bet too low — then you aren’t getting enough reward for your winning hand. Finding that balance is the key to betting in poker.
That said, there’s no way I can give an adequate summary of betting strategy, so I’ll just give a few tips to get you started. (Hellmuth’s book is a good resource for more in-depth betting strategy.)
First of all, bluffing doesn’t work nearly as well as you might think. In most cases the guy with the best hand really does win. This is especially true in casual games; when there isn’t much money on the line and guys just want to have fun, they’ll often call the outrageous bet you just made that you hoped would get everyone else to fold. Bluff rarely.
Second, you always want to use the size of the pot as your gauge for how much to bet. Most players will make small, minimum bets, but you should rarely, if ever, bet an amount that’s less than half the size of the pot. The standard, for amateur players, is to bet between three-quarters and the full amount of the pot. Now, if you’re playing casually, you obviously want to somewhat cater to what your table is doing, but don’t be afraid to make higher bets than what your gut might be saying.
Third, your table position is incredibly important, and should help shape your strategy for each hand. Because of that, it merits its own point…
Always be aware of your table position. Table position is one of the most undervalued strategic tools for beginner poker players, as where you are seated in relation to the dealer will, in many cases, determine how you play the whole hand. The first few positions to the left of the dealer are the worst to be in, and you should rarely make bets, unless you’re calling. You simply don’t know what the rest of the table is doing in terms of betting or checking, so to jump out of the gate with a bet, when someone after you could have a much better hand, is strategically unwise. In those first few spots, just sit back and observe what the rest of the table does before you throw money in.
If you’re the dealer, or one of the last couple spots before the dealer, you’re in the best position to control the hand. You will have seen what everyone else has done, and can make a far more informed decision about betting. If it’s been checks all around the table, it’s likely that nobody has a great hand. If someone bets, the size of their bet can help you gauge its strength. If players call that bet, you can observe how long their decision took and gain even more advantage. Having all this information puts you a leg up in each round of betting.
As for middle positions, they’re just that. Not as weak as early positions, not as advantageous as late positions. Play accordingly — bet if you have a good hand, but know that you’re not as informed about the table when doing so.
Always try to guess what other players have. At first glance it seems like this would be very difficult to do. But after you play a few hands, you come to realize that you can narrow down people’s possible hands fairly easily. For instance, let’s say that everyone around the table checks after seeing a flop that’s A-2-6. If the turn is another 2, and one of the players makes a large bet, you can surmise that there’s a good chance he has a 2 in his hand, giving him three of a kind.
As you go around the table and watch the other players, try to guess what their hand might be when they make a bet. Put yourself in their position — which type of hand would you bet with in that scenario? From that point of view, you can make some pretty informed guesses about what people are holding. With those educated guesses, you’re better able to play smart hands on a regular basis.
Never be afraid to fold. A common mistake among beginner poker players is to take the stance that they’ve already put a bunch of chips in the pot, and might as well play it out and throw in however much it requires. They’ll assume that folding is losing. Unlike in many other games, bowing out of a hand is many times the correct and best move to make. You’re saving your chips for another hand, and staying alive a bit longer. If you think you’re losing a hand, and are waiting for a single card to make it or break it, you should fold. If you’ve put in a lot of chips, but you think your opponent has a better hand, you should fold rather than go all in or call an outrageous bet. Never be afraid to fold.
6. Practice Online
When I tell people I’ve been practicing poker online, I often get a scoff and a look like, “You’re one of those guys?” But I can honestly say, without a doubt, it’s made me a better player. A few years ago the government cracked down on pay sites, so nowadays almost anything you play online is free. These free games allow you to play low stakes or high stakes with your fake money (you’re given a boatload of free chips to start with), and over time you’ll come to learn which types of hands win, you’ll be able to make educated guesses about what other players have, you’ll realize the importance of table position, etc. While you won’t learn much about betting strategy — it’s awfully hard to do so when players are working with fake money — you’ll gain insight into most other parts of the game. You’re playing other people after all, not just a computer that’s making pre-programmed decisions.
Heed these tips, and you’ll no longer be the “fish” — the guy at the table who gets taken advantage of because he’s so green. You won’t win every hand or every game, but you’ll be sure to have fun, and more likely than not end up in the top half of players.
What tips do you have for not looking like a newb when you’re playing poker and for ensuring a good combination of fun and winning?