For ages, people have been playing poker around kitchen tables, in dorm rooms, and in army barracks worldwide. But the rise of modern-day, big-time poker can actually be pinpointed to an exact year: 2003. That’s when the aptly-named Chris Moneymaker, a 27-year-old accountant and amateur poker player, beat a field of 838 players to win poker’s premiere tournament, the World Series of Poker Main Event. When people saw both how much money could be won, and how it was possible for an amateur to beat a bunch of pros, they started coming to the poker rooms—both in person and online—in droves. Just to give you an idea of how big the “Moneymaker effect” was, the next year’s Main Event more than tripled in size, to 2,576 players!
If you want your piece of the hundreds of millions at stake every day, you’ll have to learn the basics first. There is a wide variety of poker games, but we’ll focus on the one Moneymaker popularized, the one that occupies the vast majority of Las Vegas poker tables—No Limit Texas Hold’em.
The first thing you have to know is your goal:
To either make everyone “fold” (throw away their cards) so you can rake in the pot, or to have the best hand in a “showdown” (when two or more players show their hands to see whose is best) so you can rake in the pot. Either way, you want that pot!
Which naturally leads to the second thing you have to know: Which hands beat what other hands, otherwise known as “hand rankings.” This is something you’ll just have to memorize by studying charts like the one pictured in this section.
Once you have that down, let’s talk about the physical setup of a poker table.
There is a professional dealer, usually surrounded by 9 or 10 players. They take turns having the position of “dealer,” who is the last to act in any round of betting, and thus has a major advantage. This is kept track of with a “dealer button.” After each hand, the button moves one position clockwise.
The dealer button is also important because of the two positions moving clockwise from it. The first is the “small blind” and the second is the “big blind.” Blinds are bets that players are forced to make before the cards are even dealt. Why, you ask? This is to encourage action, so that people can’t just sit around waiting for aces. The blinds move in lockstep with the dealer button.
The blinds are different depending on the location, but we’ll assume we’re playing at the Aria where the cheapest blinds are $1 and $3. When you’re ready to play with the big boys, you can move up to $2 and $5 blinds.
Now, before we talk about how betting works, you need to know how the game plays out.
Each player gets two cards face down. There will be a round of betting based solely on these two “hole” cards. After that, the dealer will put three cards face up in the middle of the table. This is called “the flop.” Another round of betting occurs. Then comes a fourth card face up—“the turn.” Another round of betting. Then the fifth and final card is turned up. It’s famous name is “the river.” After that is yet another round of betting. By the end, unless you’ve folded like most people, you have your two hole cards, and five “community” cards, so called because every player can use them to make the best five-card hand they can make. You can use both of your hole cards and three of the community cards, one of your hole cards and four community cards, or sometimes your best hand uses all five of the community cards, such as when they’re all hearts, making a flush. This is called “playing the board.”
Now we can talk about how the betting works.
Of course, this is the real heart of the game. The basic rule is that the betting starts with the first player to the left of the dealer who’s still in the hand. If there are no bets in front of you, you can “check” (also make no bet), “bet” (put any amount of money in the pot, up to your whole stack—that’s what makes this “no limit”), or fold. Once there’s a bet out there, you can fold, “call” (just match the bet), or “raise” (increase the bet).
We’ve said nothing about strategy,
which is obviously crucial, but hundreds of books have been written on this and it’s rather impossible to cull down to a few pages.
One good place to start is learning which hole cards you should play and which you should fold. “Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,” as Kenny Rogers famously sang. The premium hole cards that you’ll usually want to play are Ace-Ace, King-King, Queen-Queen, and Ace-King. But there are other promising hands. Any pair has the potential to become three of a kind after the flop, and even turn into a full house by the end of the hand. And pros love to play “suited connectors.” These are cards like 7-9 of diamonds, or Jack-Queen of clubs, which have the potential to become “monsters” after the flop by turning into straights or flushes, or at least heading that way.