Poker rules – what you need to get started

Poker is a game that’s easy to learn but harder to master. Like golf, anyone can pick up how to play by learning the basics. But shooting a decent round of golf takes time. Once you’ve understood the basic poker rules, you’ll be confident enough to join the tables and concentrate on improving your game. And what better way than playing free poker, so you don’t risk a cent while you learn?

Here’s your complete guide to poker game rules and how to navigate your early sessions.

How to win a hand of poker

Every game of poker is broken down into hands. Think of a hand as a round of gameplay that you win by betting and forcing everyone else to fold (throw away their cards) or by having the best-ranked five-card poker hand at the end. We talk about the Texas Hold’em poker hand rankings here, from royal flush down to high card only.

Winning one hand of poker won’t win you the whole game. To do that in a poker tournament, you must keep playing poker hands until one person is left with all the chips.

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Poker Seating and the Blinds

Before explaining in detail how the poker rules work, we need to examine the table, the seating, the dealer and something called the blinds. Don’t worry if this sounds a little odd – it’s easy to pick up, especially when you start practising.

You’ll be seated at a poker table made up usually of nine or six players. You might see this described as full ring or six-handed. When you play live poker with your friends, one of you must be the dealer, dishing out the cards and calling the action.

In online poker, the software deals cards and runs the game for all the players. However, they take turns to have the dealer button, which has strategic advantages. The button moves one place to the left after every hand.

Also, at the start of each hand, the player sitting to the left of the dealer is known as the small blind, while the player in the next left seat is the big blind. The small and big blinds are mandatory bets these two players must make at the start of the hand before the cards are dealt. Why is this necessary? Because it means there are always some chips to try and win before each hand begins.

This line-up of the dealer, small blind and big blind shifts one place to the left, or clockwise, after every hand. If you’re the big blind one hand, you’ll be the small blind the next and the dealer after that.

The size of the blinds reflects the stakes you’re playing in a cash game or the increasing levels you play in a tournament.

Let’s see how a normal hand of poker works using these rules of poker.

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How a Typical Hand of Poker Plays Out

Pre-flop Play

To begin with, the button moves to the dealer and the small and big blinds put in their mandatory bets. Then, each player at the table is dealt their “hole cards” face-down by the dealer. Only you can see your cards. On the strength of these hole cards, there is the first round of betting, starting with the player to the left of the big blind. Based on the potential of his starting cards, he can choose to call, which will be the same amount as the big blind, raise, by at least doubling the existing bet, or fold, which means mucking his cards and sitting out the rest of the hand.

The action then moves clockwise around the table, with each player, in turn, choosing to call the existing bet, raise by at least double the previous bet or folding. For the players in the blinds, they can fold if there has been a raise, or call the difference. If other players have only called the big blind, then the big blind player can check, which means they are not raising or folding (why fold when it costs you no more to stay in the hand?).

The action continues clockwise until all players who wish to remain in the hand have called the maximum bet.

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The Flop

Once that is done, and the players’ chips are pushed to the middle of the table to make the current “pot”, the dealer (or software) then puts out the first three community cards, known as the flop, face-up in the middle of the table. All remaining players use these community cards, combined with their own two cards, to try and make the best poker hand.

Based on the strength of their existing hand, or the potential to make a hand later, there is more betting, starting with the first player to the left of the dealer. He can choose to check (bet nothing) or bet any figure he likes, so long as it’s at least the size of the big blind. The action then moves around the table clockwise. All players can check if no bet is made, but if one player makes a bet, the others must fold, call the bet or raise.

This continues until either everyone folds to a bet, and the aggressor wins the hand, or until at least two players remain in the hand. In which case, we move to the turn. The poker rules should start making sense already.

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The Turn Card

Now we move to the turn, where the dealer or software places one more card face-up next to the flop cards. This turn card will be good, bad or indifferent news to the remaining players, who must now go through another round of betting just like they did on the flop, based on the presumed strength of their hand they have made or hope to make.

If two or more players are still standing, then we move to the final round.

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The River Card

The dealer puts out the last card face up in the middle of the table, known as the river card. There are now five community cards in the middle. Remaining players must now assess the strength of their poker hand made up of a five-card combination of their own two cards and the five community cards.

Based on their assessment, there is a final round of betting. A player with a strong hand may bet big, but equally a player who does not have a strong hand may elect to bluff by representing one. In this case, they will bet big in the hope of forcing all opponents to fold. If this happens, they get to win the pot without having to show their hand.

You may have spotted one big strategy consideration already: the player with the dealer button gets to “act” last, meaning they see what everyone else is doing before they must make a decision. As you improve your game, you’ll understand this gives the dealer an advantage since he can put pressure on others.

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The Showdown

When more than one player remains after the final river betting round, there is a showdown, when those players turn over their own two cards to reveal who has the best hand. According to the best poker hands, the winner scoops the pot.

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Poker Rules: Different Betting Formats

The most common form of poker format is “no limit”, like No-Limit Texas Hold’em, the game you’re most likely to see on TV.

No limit means there is no limit to the number of chips you can bet at any time. You can raise by as much as you like, even your whole stack of chips – this is known as going “all in”. No limit prompts action because pots can get large rapidly and encourage players to remain in the hand.

Less common is “pot limit”, where every bet is capped by the number of chips in the pot plus the total of all previous bets in the current betting round. Thankfully the software tells you instantly what you must bet to stay in! In pot limit, pots tend to build slowly at first but, like no limit, have the capacity to get large quickly.

There is also “fixed limit”, which is rarely played in the modern game. This means every bet or raise is capped by the size of the big blind.

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So, How do you Win a Poker Game?

In poker tournaments, as players lose all their chips, they are knocked out of the game. This continues until just one player is left and declared the winner. In multi-table tournaments, the number of tables is whittled down as players leave their table to join gaps opening up in others.

This plays down to a final table, which continues down to “heads-up” between the last two players and then on to a winner.

A sit and go tournament is usually played with one starting table, down to a winner.

To ensure a tournament does not last forever, players face increasing levels. At a set time, say every five minutes, the level goes up, and the size of the small and big blind increases. This means it costs more to play every hand and your stack size, or the number of chips you hold, is increasingly at risk. As the blinds get ever higher, those players with fewer chips are at risk of busting and need to make a move, going all-in hoping to double up.

According to poker rules, the other major format is a ring game, also known as a cash game. Here the blind levels remain consistent and relate to the maximum number of chips a player can sit down with. In a 1-2 ring game, for example, the small blind is 1 chip, and the big blind is 2. Typically, you can sit down with up to 200 chips at this table.

Players are free to come and go as they please and can add more chips to their stack if they get low. So long as their account balance can pay for it.

Technically, anyone leaving a ring game with more chips than they started with, is a winner.

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Now Try For Yourself

Now that you understand the basic poker rules, why not try it for yourself? You don’t need to play for real money. At Replay Poker, you can play for free while you learn. Remember, the poker game rules are not as daunting as they first seem.

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