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How to Play Texas Hold’em

How to Play Texas Hold’em

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Texas Hold’em is one of the most popular versions of poker being played right now. Before you begin learning the strategies and tactics that make winning Hold’em so much fun, you need to know the absolute basics: how the cards are dealt, how the betting works, and a little bit more besides.

Ranking the Hands

Five might be the most important number in poker, if only because five cards make a complete poker hand. This is true no matter how many cards you’re dealt, whether seven, as in seven-card-stud, or just two, as in Hold’em.

This leads us to our next topic: the ranking of the different possible hands. Not coincidentally, they’re ranked by how often they occur. Hard-to-get hands are top dog, while everyday mongrels command little respect. For example, if you deal out five-card hands to yourself from a shuffled deck, you’ll average getting a pair every other hand. By contrast, three-of-a-kind will come along just once every 34 hands.

You’ll see that in Hold’em poker, a Ten is abbreviated not as 10, but as T. More obviously, an Ace is abbreviated as A, a King as K, and so on for the face cards. Cards from 9 down are simply referred to by number.

NameExamples
Royal flushAKQJT (all of the same suit)
Straight flush87654 (all of the same suit)
Four of a kind7777 5
Full house333 KK
FlushJ9542 (all of the same suit)
StraightJT987
Three of a kind888 A K
Two pair77 66 Q
One pairJJ A 9 3
No pairK T 9 8 7

Here are some fine points on determining the best hand:

Dealing the Cards

To start with, each player is dealt two cards face down. These cards are known as hole cards, and in Hold’em, they’re the only cards that are yours alone. A round of betting follows. Next, the dealer burns the top card in the deck—that is, he discards it sight-unseen, face down on the table. Now he deals three cards face up in the center of the table. This is the flop. These three cards are community cards, meaning everyone can use them. There’s another round of betting.

The dealer now deals a fourth face-up card, called the turn. Again, it’s a shared card that all players can use, and again, it’s followed by a round of betting. A fifth and final card is dealt face-up, called the river. There’s one last round of betting. If more than one player is left in the hand, there’s a showdown: the players flip over their hole cards to see who has the best hand. The five cards in the middle are collectively called the board. Each player gets to combine one, both, or none of his hole cards with any of the cards from the board to create his best five-card poker hand.

Betting Structures

Let’s turn our attention to the essence of poker—betting. The first thing to know is how much you can bet. The answer isn’t “how thick is your wallet?” but “what’s the betting structure?” There are four basic structures:

Betting Blind

All forms of poker require some money go into the pot before any cards are dealt. Otherwise there’d be nothing to play for and everyone would sit tight until they got perfect cards.

Games such as seven-card stud or five-card draw seed the pot by requiring each player to contribute a fraction of a bet, called an ante. Hold’em is also played this way in some home games.

Casinos or clubs, however, use a different method for Hold’em: two players are required to contribute blind bets (or “blinds”) to the pot. In a limit game, the player who is the big blind must contribute a bet equal to the limit, while the little blind must contribute either ⅓, ½, or ⅔ of a bet.

Obviously it’s a handicap to have to put money into the pot without seeing your cards first. To ensure everyone takes their turn, a plastic disc that looks a little like a white hockey puck is moved clockwise around the table, one position with each deal. This disk is called the dealer button. The player who has the button is called either the button, or the dealer, regardless of the fact that there’s a professional dealer doing the actual handing out of cards.

The little blind sits to the immediate left of the dealer button, and the big blind sits two seats to the left. This way everyone pays his or her dues as big and little blind, and everyone gets a chance to be dealer.

Putting Cards and Betting Together

You’re just about ready to play some sample hands. But first, let’s look at how the cards, the blinds, and the betting work together.

Before the Flop

Before any cards are dealt, the big and little blinds put forward their blind bets. It’s proper etiquette to place these chips in front of you, rather than toss them directly into the pot. The dealer will gather them up after the betting is done for the round.

Now the dealer gives everyone his or her hole cards. These are yours alone to look at, and it actually matters how you go about this. To avoid flashing a card, seasoned Hold’em players never pick the hole cards up off the table. Instead, bring your two cards neatly together, still face down, then cup your hands over them and use a thumb to peel up the ends nearest you—just enough so that you and only you can see what you’ve got.

Betting begins with the player seated to the immediate left of the big blind, or under the gun. This player can call the blind bet by placing chips to match in front of him, or fold, in which case he surrenders his cards by pushing them face down toward the dealer. If he likes his hand, however, he can also raise. For example, in a $3/$6 structured-limit game, he could raise the big blind’s $3 bet by another $3, making the total bet $6.

The betting continues clockwise. Each player in turn chooses to call, fold, or raise. In most games, the number of raises is limited to three or four per betting round. The exception is when only two players are involved, in which case casinos and clubs usually permit an unlimited number of raises.

When the action gets around to the little blind, she, too, must call, fold, or raise. In any case, she has already paid a fraction of a bet, so it’s cheaper for her to call than for the other players. If she folds, she forfeits her blind.

The big blind is last to act before the flop. He’s got the same options as the players before him, with one difference: because he’s already put in a full bet, he can simply check, indicating he’s taking no further action, if no one has raised and he himself doesn’t want to raise. He does this either by saying “check” or by rapping the table.

On the Flop

After the three common cards of the flop are dealt, betting starts again. This time, whoever is immediately to the left of the dealer leads off. If the little blind called the bet before the flop, this will be her. Because in this round no one has bet yet, she has the option of checking, meaning she takes no action or betting.

The betting action keeps moving to the left. If the first player checked, the next player has the same options of either checking or betting. But if the first player bet, the next player must now either call that bet, fold, or raise.

The action continues around the table, until either everyone has checked, or someone has opened the betting and gotten at least one caller (or possibly a raiser). If everyone checks, then everyone remains in and gets to see the turn card. But if someone bets, only those players who call that bet (or raise it) get to see the turn card. Otherwise they must fold. If no one calls, the bettor wins the pot automatically.

Of course, after someone puts in the first bet, all other players are free to not merely call but raise, with additional raises possible after that, until the maximum of three or four has been reached. Once again, there must be at least one caller of a raise or reraise for the action to proceed to the next stage. If not, the raiser or reraiser wins the pot right there.

On the Turn and River

Betting on the turn and the river is just like betting on the flop. In each case, the first remaining player to the left of the dealer button is first to act. On the river, if more than one player is left in the hand after the betting is over, the players flip over their hands. This is called the showdown. The dealer pushes the pot to the winner, or if there’s a tie, he splits the pot accordingly. The button is moved one position to the left, the dealer shuffles the cards, and it starts all over again.

Nuts, Nuts, Nuts

Judging the relative strength of your hand versus the best possible hand is an acquired skill. We recommend you get a deck of cards and start dealing five-card boards: flop, turn, and river. Skip the hole cards for now.

For each board, figure out the best possible hand, the second best, and so on. The best hand is called the nuts. A good Hold’em player can recognize the nuts, second nuts, and third nuts in a glance. Don’t stop practicing until you can do the same. It’s cheaper to learn this way than in an actual game!

There you have it—the basic skills to play Texas Hold’em! For more practice, see our Quick Guide, Texas Hold’em Basics: Practice Games. Now, deal the cards and have some fun!

From The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Texas Hold’em, Second Edition, by Randy Burgess and Carl Baldassarre