Learn to Play Poker: Getting Started

Poker Hand

Poker Hand

There are few pursuits as grand as poker. Whether you’re playing in a friend’s kitchen, on a laptop in an airport, or in a grand card room in Las Vegas, this game of chance and skill has proven to be one of the most popular pastimes in the world. Everyone from athletes to actors, kings to cobblers, and the unsure to the overconfident has an equal stake at the poker table. Yet while anyone can sit down at the table and play, it takes a lifetime to master. As such, there’s no time to learn to play poker quite like the present, and this guide can help you get your feet wet in the poker world.

Poker at a Glance

At its most basic level, poker is a round-based game in which players vie against each other to have the best combination of cards at the end of play. Before each round of play ends, however, players will be asked to make or call bets to represent the strength of their cards, with the player holding the best combination of cards (known as a hand) winning all of the money wagered up to that point. Though the concept behind poker is very simple, there is a lot of nuance to the game that helps make it into the exciting pursuit it is today. Here are a few concepts to understand before you toss your chips in the pot:

Know Your Card Strength

The strength of each player’s cards is typically derived from a weighted structure based on the numerical ranks wherein 2 is the lowest value card while an Ace is the highest. Though some poker varieties vary in their end goals, most of the popular forms will require players to make the strongest hand from a combination of five cards. Different combinations present different values, though most follow a similar strength ranking, beginning with high cards at the low end, followed by (in ascending order of strength) a pair (two matched cards), two pair, three of a kind, a straight (five cards in sequential order of any suit), a flush (five cards of the same suit), a full house (a pair and three of a kind), four of a kind, and finally a straight flush (five cards in sequential order of the same suit).

The player on the right has the winning hand.

The player on the right has the winning hand.

A hand’s strength is still governed by the highest card, so should both players have a similar hand, the one with the higher card will win. If two players have a straight, for example, with one having 2 3 4 5 6 and the other 3 4 5 6 7 – the player holding the straight to the 7 would win.

Know How to Bet

While the end goal is clearly to have the best hand at the table, this is not the only way to win. Indeed, most successful players know that one of the best ways to win is simply by betting. Ostensibly, a player will place a bet – or increase an existing bet (a process known as raising) – because they are confident that their cards represent the winning hand on the table. Yet it’s important to remember that if a player bets, but none of his opponents opt to match the wager, the bettor will win the hand without ever having to show his cards. It’s common practice for players to ‘bluff,’ or represent a bigger hand by betting big with the intention of chasing more meager players out of the hand. Though you may be nervous to try this strategy at first, it will become an important part of your game as you progress in skill – and one of the more thrilling feats to pull off on a poker table!

Betting is particularly important in tiered poker games like Texas Hold ‘em and Seven-Card Stud, as there are multiple rounds of betting for each hand that is played. Each round of betting is accompanied by the reveal of a new community card, creating an infinite number of possibilities for hand strength and strategic betting – adding yet another level of thrills to this already intense game.


Know Your Opponents

As important as it is to know your cards, it’s equally essential to understand the different types of players that you will be facing. Many professionals like to start their game slowly to hang back and watch how their tablemates bet. By sitting back and observing their opponents, these players gain a new layer of knowledge that will help inform their decisions over the course of the game. Say a player has been betting big at the beginning of each hand, for example. An informed player knows that an aggressive opponent will likely bet his/her hand at the beginning of play, and can use that information to decide whether it is worth it to put any money into the pot or best to wait for better cards. Similarly, when a player seems to fold without putting any money in for every hand, it could be a sign that they are waiting for a strong hand to play. As such, one can assume that bets coming from these players represent a strong hand, and should bet according to that information.

Experienced players may also pick up on behaviors known as ‘tells.’ Tells are small, often involuntary movements and behaviors that tend to accompany discomfort with a person. These can be as overt as a trembling hand or as minute as a flicker of a pupil, but each little twinge can provide a small bit of information that can tell seasoned pros all they need to know about a player’s hand.

Know Your Limits

Poker is an engrossing game that can easily be played for hours on end. That being said, there’s a reason Kenny Rogers said “know when to Hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk away and know when to run.” Time flies when you’re having fun, and it’s always best to quit while you’re ahead, so it’s important that players know when it’s time to hang up their hats and end their game. This is an issue that will change from player to player, so would-be card sharks will want to stay conscious of their finances, mental state and physical conditioning whenever they hit the table.