Beginners Guide to Texas Hold Em
Texas Hold ‘Em is actually a fairly young variant of poker. The game was first developed in the early 1900s, and only really began to build popularity outside of Texas in the late 1960s — when it was introduced to Las Vegas. Yet thanks in no small part to exposure on television, online and in popular literature, Hold ‘Em is now one of the world’s most popular styles of play.
Perhaps the most significant event pushing the game forward is the World Series of Poker. Since 1972, the Main Event at this annual Vegas series has been its Texas Hold ‘Em tournament — a $10,000 buy-in, no-limit game whose winner is (unofficially) crowned World Champion. But whether you are hoping to compete with the world’s best, or just want to pull in a little extra cash in a more casual setting, all players start in the same place. Let us learn the ropes together.
The game of poker has many variants, but they all center on the same basic concept: constructing hands. The hand is your own set of 5 cards, and your hand will be ranked against those of other players to determine the winner of each round.
In Texas Hold ‘Em specifically, players are each dealt two private cards, and the table holds five “community” cards — cards that every player has access to. To form your hand, you may combine any three of these community cards with the two that you hold.
Here is the full list of hands, ranked from highest value to lowest value. Face cards are abbreviated (A = Ace, K = King, Q = Queen, J = Jack). Aces may be counted as either high or low.
- Royal Flush Example Hand: A♠ K♠ Q♠ J♠ 10♠
- Five cards of the same suit in numerical order, including all face cards.
- Straight Flush Example Hand: 4♥ 5♥ 6♥ 7♥ 8♥
- Five cards of the same suit in numerical order, but not a Royal Flush.
- Four of a Kind Example Hand: J♣ J♦ J♥ J♠ 5♣
- Four cards of the same rank (as well as one side card, or “kicker,” the rank of which is unimportant).
- Full House Example Hand: 10♥ 10♦ 10♣ 5♦ 5♠
- Three cards of the same rank, and two cards of different matching rank.
- Flush Example Hand: K♦ J♦ 8♦ 3♦ 2♦
- Five cards of the same suit, but not in numerical order.
- Straight Example Hand: 5♥ 6♠ 7♣ 8♥ 9♦
- Five cards in numerical order, but not all of the same suit.
- Three of a Kind Example Hand: 4♣ 4♥ 4♠ J♥ 9♦
- Three cards of the same rank, and two side cards.
- Two Pair Example Hand: A♦ A♣ 9♥ 9♦ 2♣
- Two cards of the same rank, two cards of a different matching rank, and one side card.
- One Pair Example Hand: 7♣ 7♦ Q♥ 10♣ 4♥
- Two cards of the same rank, and three side cards.
- No Pairs (High Card) Example Hand: 2♣ 6♣ 7♣ 9♥ A♦
Any hand that does not meet one of the above criteria. In the event of a tie, the highest card in a player’s hand wins. If two players have the same ranked high card, move on to the second-highest card held, and so forth.
Playing & Betting
What would poker be without the chance to win big? While it is possible to play purely for fun, and without any substantial rewards beyond bragging rights, the betting system is an intricate part of the game — whether it is real money or M&M’s that you are wagering.
You can think of a typical hand of poker as consisting of several distinct phases. You might notice that we use the term “flop” to describe the first two. Do not worry; we will be explaining this shortly:
Beforethe flop. Every round of Texas Hold ‘Em starts with a couple of forced bets, called “blinds,” to build up the “pot” — the pool of money on the table. The player to the left of the dealer places the “small blind,” which is usually equal to half of the table’s minimum bet size; the player to this person’s left then places the “big blind,” which is usually equal to the full minimum bet size.
After this, the dealer discards, or “burns,” the top card on the deck, and all players are dealt two cards each. Card burning is an anti-cheating measure and something of a tradition — it prevents players who may have marked the card backs from knowing what will actually be dealt next.
Then, the first round of betting begins. The next player to the left (after the big blind) can either“call” the bet, by placing chips to match the blind; “raise” the bet, by betting more than the call amount; or “fold”, surrendering from the round and pushing his or her cards towards the dealer. This continues until everyone has gone once, with the player who placed the big blind going last. Any raise must be met by at least one call; otherwise, the raising player wins the pot right there and the game ends.
Incidentally, the amount that a player can raise in a single turn depends on the rules that you are using. In a “no-limit” game, as the name suggests, players may bet everything they have at any point — if they so desire. A “pot-limit” game prevents anyone from raising to more than the current amount in the pot. Most non-tournament games will be “structured-limit”, with a set, standardized amount being used for each individual raise.
On the flop. After the initial bets are in, the dealer will burn the top of the deck once more, and will then lay three cards face-up on the table. This is called the “flop.” Now, a new round of betting starts, beginning with person immediately to the left of the dealer (this will be the player who placed the small blind, unless he or she has folded already). This time, players have a lot more information to work with — you may start to see some aggressive raises from confident (or bluffing!) players, while others might choose to fold rather than risk losing any more chips than they have already.
There is one change to the betting system in this round. The first player now has the option of “checking,” in addition to calling, raising or folding. A player who checks does not place any sort of bet, but remains in the game and simply passes their turn to the next player down. It is entirely possible for everyone to check, but once any player places a bet, the option to check is removed.
On the turn. Once everybody has had a chance to act on the flop, another card is burned, and the fourth community card is revealed. This is called the “turn.” Betting starts once more to the dealer’s immediate left, and takes the same form as it did on the flop. It will become increasingly likely that you will see players start to fold — anyone still in after this point is probably feeling fairly good about the strength of their hand (or is just hoping to intimidate the others).
On the river. Getting used to the pattern? It is time to burn a card and reveal the “river” — the fifth, and final, community card. By now, this should all be straightforward. Starting with the active player closest to the dealer’s left, a final round of betting begins. The pot is getting large at this point, and the players are getting hungry. Think you have what it takes to win it all?
The showdown. If more than one player still remains after the river’s betting phase, everyone reveals their hands. This is called the “showdown.” Using any combination of the cards you hold and those on the table, construct the highest-ranked hand that you can. There is no requirement that you use either of your private cards to do so — a bluffing player’s best hand might be sitting right out under everyone’s noses. And do not worry too much if you have not memorized the hand rankings yet. The cards speak for themselves in poker, and the player with the best hand will win even if they do not fully realize what they are holding.
Your First Game
Now that you understand the basics of Texas Hold ‘Em rules, let us walk through a quick practice round. It is best to familiarize yourself with the hand rankings before getting started, but if you have not yet mastered these, you can always reference them on the fly as necessary.
For this round, let us say there are 4 players at the table: players A, B, and C, in addition to yourself. While the dealer may also play along in some casual home games, we will be using casino rules, which means there is a dedicated dealer who does not otherwise participate.
Before the flop
You are sitting to the immediate left of the dealer. To your left is Player A, with Player B to his left, and Player C to her left. Every player is dealt two cards. You hold 4♥ and 10♠.
Because you are the closest to the dealer’s left, it is your turn to place the small blind into the pot. Player A places the big blind, and betting opens with Player B. She chooses to call, placing an amount into the pot that matches the big blind.
Player C calls, and it is your turn to bet. Choosing to play conservatively rather than aggressively, you call as well. Player A does the same, and the flop is dealt with all players still active.
On the flop
The dealer has revealed Q♥ 10♦ 6♠, meaning that your hand now contains a pair of tens (10♠ 10♦). Betting starts with you, and once more you call. Player A raises, perhaps feeling very confident about how her hand is shaping up — or maybe just trying to put some fear into the rest of the table. Whatever the case, it works, and Player B folds. Player C chooses to call, matching the raise amount. Because the amount of the bet has increased, you must make up the difference between your call and the raise in order to stay in the round.
On the turn
The turn is laid out, and the table now shows Q♥ 10♦ 6♠ 4♦. With the turn in play, your best hand is now a two pair: 10♠ 10♦ 4♥ 4♦.It is your turn to bet once more, and you check.
Player A, always the aggressor, raises once more, and Player C chooses to fold, not feeling confident about his chances. With your hand improving, you take the risk and call her bet.
On the river
The last card is revealed and the table shows Q♥ 10♦ 6♠ 4♦ A♣, with only you and Player A left in action. Little has changed in your own hand. You still have two pair, although now your highest card is an Ace rather than a Queen.
What are the chances Player A’s hand is better than yours? Refer back to the hand rankings. Even with the two cards that she holds, she cannot have anything higher than a full house, although this hand would be very possible — it only requires her to hold any diamond card and any other card of a different suit.
Let us continue downward. Because the community cards do not hold three of the same suit, Player A cannot have a flush, although a straight is possible if she holds both a King and a Jack. The only other options that would beat your hand are three of a kind, or a two pair with higher ranked cards.
Never one to back down from a challenge, you check, and Player A does the same. With all players having checked, betting ends and it is time for the showdown.
Player A’s cards are revealed: J♠ 2♣. Looks like she had nothing but a high card, meaning that she was bluffing and you are the victor! The pot is yours.
Well done, future poker pro! Your first round is in the bag. For future reference, here is a cheat sheet of the most important terms you have just learned:
Blinds – forced bets made at the start of a round, by the first two players to the dealer’s left. The small blind is made first, and the big blind is made next.
Burn – to discard the top card off the deck. Only done by the dealer.
Call – to match the previous bet.
Flop – the first three community cards dealt, face-up, by the dealer.
Fold – to surrender from the round.
Pot – the pool of chips/money on the table that players are competing for.
Raise – to bet more than the current minimum, and thereby increase the minimum going forward.
River – the fifth, and final, community card dealt.
Showdown – when the final round of betting is over, and the hands of the remaining players are compared.
Turn – the fourth community card dealt.
Taking the Next Step
“Easy to learn, hard to master.” No game fits this phrase better than poker. You have the basics down, but there is plenty more to learn. And while delving into the most advanced aspects of the game would take far too long for one page, there are a number of Texas Hold ‘Em tips and tactics you should consider.
One way to develop your game further is to practice recognizing the “nuts.” This is a term to describe the best possible hand any active player could have at a given moment, and it gives you a good stick against which to measure your own hand. The best poker players will be able to recognize the nuts, second nuts and third nuts at a quick glance. Revisit the practice game we played above — can you determine the nuts after the flop, turn and river?
At the highest levels of play, mind games become a serious factor as well. It is extremely important to develop a sense for when other players might be bluffing to intimidate those with stronger hands into folding. This is even truer when raise limits are increased (or are removed entirely, as in no-limit games). Like any game based in part on probabilities, there is a significant mathematical component to Texas Hold ‘Em strategy, and studying the stats will help you develop a sense of what other hands might be present.
Finally, whether someone has a stellar hand or a single pair at best, their physical reactions to events in the game can be a dead giveaway. There are countless books and online resources on the subject of body language, and it is just as important to be aware of your own as it is to observe signs in others. Practice your “poker face,” as they say, and you will go far.
Once you are consistently winning more games than not, it might be time to consider tournament play. Texas Hold ‘Em is wildly popular in the tournament circuit, and even smaller-scale events will often have jackpots in the thousands of dollars. The most dedicated players may turn their eyes to the biggest game of all — the Main Event at the World Series of Poker. Could it be you who next takes home the glory (and the millions)? Head on in to Dover Downs and put your newfound abilities to the test. After all, there is no better way to hone your skills than some real-world practice.