Texas Hold’em is the most popular form of poker in the world and it is the one you are going to encounter most often, so bone up on your basics before you throw down. In this article, I'm going to help you familiarize yourself with the game.
It’s essential that you master Texas Hold’em rules and strategy if you want to integrate yourself into today's hold’em dominated world of poker. Consider Texas Hold’em your ground zero, your alma mater, your big cheese. Above all, consider it your safest bet when it comes to picking the most ecumenical poker variation. Texas Hold’em is the most popular form of poker in the world and it is the one you are going to encounter most often, so bone up on your basics before you throw down.
Think of this as your Julia Roberts circa ‘Pretty Woman’ introduction to table manners. Before you’re even dealt your first hand, you’re going to want to know what to expect when you sit down, be it in a real life game or in an online poker room.
As soon as you take a seat, you’re going to want to take note of your position in relation to the button, or the dealer button. This simply refers to the person who is dealing. Depending on where you are playing, the dealer could be one person, or the position could shift clockwise around the table, as is common in home games.
Once you've scoped out the button, you’re going to want to consider your seat in relation to it. Why? Because the two players located to the left of the button shell out a token bet before the cards are even dealt. These bets are called 'blinds'. The player to the immediate left of the button is referred to as the 'small' blind. Texas Hold’em rules dictate that players in this position post about 1/2 of the full bet. The player located two seats to the left of the button (so, to the immediate left of the small blind), posts a full bet. So, for example, if you are playing a game with $5/$10 stakes, the small blind would be $5 and the big blind would be $10.
While no one wants to ante up without seeing their cards, the existence of the blinds serves a very practical purpose: namely, to get some money in the pot and drive action. If there is nothing at stake, there isn’t much impetus to play, right? To keep it fair, the blind position moves around the table clockwise each time a new hand is dealt, so everyone has to pony up in the 'blind'.
The Pre-Flop Performance
Ok, so you know where you stand (or sit) and the blinds have sweetened the pot. Now we start to see some action as the cards are actually dealt. Each player will get two cards, which are dealt face down. These are your 'hole' cards. Dealing starts with the small blind and wraps up with the button. Since the blinds have already posted bets, the betting begins with the player to the left of the big blind. Being in this position is known as being 'under the gun'. The betting continues clockwise and every player can either call (match the bet), raise (increase the wager) or fold (throw in your cards). If you’re playing by poker room Texas Hold’em rules, the number of raises per round of betting is often capped at 3 or 4. Once the decision falls to the small blind, they can complete their bet by posting the full blind amount, raise or fold. The big blind can also fold or raise, and they can also 'check' (stay in the game without fronting any extra cash). It is STRONGLY recommended that you do this, even if you have a weak hand. You've already paid to be there, so you might as well see the cards. You never know what will turn up! This initial round of betting is known as the 'pre-flop' since the dealer has not yet revealed the community cards.
Finally, the Flop...
The 'flop' - or the first 3 cards dealt face up - gives you a glimpse into the cards you'll be working with to try to make a solid hand. (In addition to your hole cards, of course.) First, the dealer will burn a card, meaning he or she will discard one card in the ‘muck’ (i.e. the pile of unused and/or discarded cards.) All the cards dealt face up are 'community cards' or ‘board cards’, meaning your opponents are using the very same cards to try to make their hands. When following Texas Hold’em rules, the flop also signals the first round of betting where the action falls to the player to the immediate left of the dealer (so the small blind), instead of the person three over clockwise. This rule applies in every subsequent betting round as well.
Here are your options on the flop: In the event no one has bet before you, you can check. Otherwise, you have to call the bet that is made, raise the bet, or fold. REMEMBER: Even if you have a lousy hand, check if you can. There are still two more community cards to come and you never know what the future will hold. In any event, it isn't costing you anything to see it.
Now, if someone raises, all players who are still in the game (whether they checked or called to be there) must either call or raise again.
Your second peek at your fourth community card! The 'turn' refers to the fourth card dealt face up. Again, before the dealer reveals this card, he or she will burn a card. Another round of betting ensues that follows the exact same protocol as the flop.
The 'river' refers to the fifth and final community card and is dealt after the dealer burns another card in the muck. The river is also known as 'fifth street'. If you're still in the game, this is what you've been waiting for. You've got one final round of betting to make the magic happen, or, alternatively, bow out before you get sucked in. Texas Hold’em rules are pretty straight forward, so the format of this last betting round is the same as the previous 3 rounds.
The showdown! Once the final round of bets have been made, any player who is still in the hand will place their cards face up on the table. The winner is determined by assessing who has the best and highest hand by using a combination their hole cards and the five community cards.
And the Kicker
The `kicker` refers to the card that is left over once you've made your hand. In the event one or more players have the same hand as you, the kicker is utilized to determine who wins. Highest kicker = big winner.
Not So Fast...
You could win the whole pot, or you could have to divvy it up between one or more other players. This situation will arise because a player can use one, both or absolutely none of their hole cards to create their best hand, which means that according to Texas Hold’em rules, players can 'play the board', meaning their best hand could actually be the five community cards.
It is also important to remember that a win doesn't always result in a showdown. A player could potentially bet everyone else out of the pot, causing them to fold. Just keep in mind that Texas Hold’em rules dictate that once you muck your cards, you cannot retrieve them, so if you are going to fold, fold with confidence. The only time mucked cards are retrieved are after a hand for verification purposes (e.g. when casinos want to rule out suspected collision) or, in some casinos, a player may be permitted to see cards an opponent called with before mucking (i.e. for curiosity's sake). Again, this can only be requested after a hand, not all casinos allow the practice and in general, it is considered bad form even if it’s not explicitly against the rules.
A few points on mucking:
For the most part, you never have to actually show your hand, so technically, you can muck whenever you wish. In fact, it’s generally a good idea not to show your hand. Every single player at the table will be trying to get a read on you to better their chances or knocking you out of the game. Letting them see your cards gives them valuable information about how you play – and knowing how you play lets them into your head. This is the last thing you want. Your psychological edge is one of the few hidden tricks that you and you alone possess at the tables. Other factors like luck and math apply equally to everyone, so even if you think your hand is worthless, keep its content to yourself. Much like anthropologists and archeologists find the most valuable information about ancient civilizations by studying their landfills, other players can learn just as much about you by what you throw away as what you keep. So, preserve some mystery about your playing style and keep your trash to yourself. However, there is a notable exception to this piece of advice when it comes to showdown – and this exception goes beyond Texas Hold’em rules and extends to all poker variations.
You do not have to show your hand if your opponent called your bet and showed his or her cards before you could reveal yours. In this case, muck away – granted you cannot beat them. You can also opt out of showing your cards if no one calls your last bet and you're the last player in the hand. However, if you think you have the winning hand in a showdown, you HAVE to show your cards. For obvious reasons, you cannot muck your cards claiming to have the winning hand but not show your winning hand. We're sure your integrity and honesty are sterling, but considering the rather large role bluffing can play in poker, your word doesn't buy much. We need to see your cards, so save your offended feelings for Dr. Phil and slap those suckers on the table. Poker demands proof.
Photo Credit: Baptiste Lafontaine | Flickr