Over the past few weeks we’ve covered Baccarat, Craps and Black Jack. This week we focus on Poker—easily the most well-known gambling game today, and a favorite among professionals and amateurs alike. By no means will you be an expert after reading this article, but hopefully you’ll have a better understanding of how to play the game, should you decide to try your luck.
POKER 101—A Game of Deception
Poker is a game every Las Vegas tourist should know how to play. It plays quite easily, but in order to be truly successful, a player must be skilled at bluffing and strategy. The element of bluffing, or to bet or raise with an inferior hand, is what distinguishes poker from any other game. It is possible to win a hand without ever having shown one’s cards, a testament to the power of the bluff. According to wikipedia.org, “The fundamental theorem of poker, introduced by David Sklansky, states that every time you play your hand the way you would if you could see your opponent’s cards, you gain, and every time your opponent plays his cards differently from the way he would play them if he could see your cards, you gain.”
All the many variations of poker have the same rules of game play:
One or more players must make a forced bet to start the game off (called opening the pot), then the cards are dealt, either face-up or face-down depending on the variant being played. Throughout the rounds, player’s hands will change according to the variant’s rules: either by adding additional cards or replacing cards already dealt.
The game is played through a series of bets, and at any time when a player makes a bet, all opponents are required to fold (discard cards and forfeit game), call (match bet or the raise), or raise (increase the size of the bet and forcing all opponents to call). Most casinos have a cap on the amount of raises allowed in a betting round, usually three or four. In each round, each raise must also be at least equal to the previous bet or raise.
All bets are placed in a central pot. If no opponents choose to match a bet, the bettor is awarded the pot. No cards need be shown, and this hand ends, and a new one begins. Or, at the end of the last round, the remaining players must show their hands and the winner is determined. This is called a showdown.
At the showdown, the player with the strongest hand wins. All hands consist of five cards. Card values from high to low are: A (high), K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, A (low, only as part of a low card straight or straight flush). Despite card ranks, all hands are first ranked by category, then by individual card values. Only two hands with the same category are then ranked by card value. For example, two pairs of kings will beat two pairs of 2’s, but two pairs of 2’s will beat one pair of kings. An ace can be played as a 1 as well as an ace, depending on the hand.
Starting from the top, the highest standard hand a player can have is called a royal flush, which is an ace-high sequence of cards, all of the same suit, for example, A? K? Q? J? 10?. A straight flush is simply a sequence of cards in the same suit. The following are all examples: 5? 4? 3? 2? A?; Q? J? 10? 9? 8?. This case, the hand leading with the queen would defeat one with 5, a five-high flush.
Now, in some casinos, the joker is included in the deck and can be a wild card. In this situation, a hand of five aces is the highest ranked hand.
Next, a four of a kind contains four cards of one kind with one random card, such as: 9? 9? 9? 9? J?. With these hands, a higher ranking four of kind beats a lower ranking four of a kind. So, four jacks would beat four 9’s. In a case where the pairs in each opponents hands are equal, the extra unmatched card, or kicker, determines the win. So, four 5’s with a queen would defeat four 5’s with a 3.
A full house consists of three of kind with one pair, such as 3? 3? 3? 6? 6?. Between two full houses, the one with the higher three of a kind wins. If both sets of three are the same in rank, then the higher pair will determine the winner. Full houses are named after the three of kind. The above example would be a “threes full” or “threes full of sixes.”
A flush is a hand based upon suit. Thus, all five cards do not need to be in sequence, but must all have the same suit. Flushes are described by the high card, which also determines the winning hand when two flushes are compared. So, Q? 10? 7? 6? 4? is called a “queen-high flush,” and would defeat J? 10? 7? 3? 2?, a “jack-high flush.”
Next down in rank, a straight features five cards in sequence but not of the same suit, for example, Q? J? 10? 9? 8?. Again, straights are called and ranked by the highest card in each. The previous example is a “queen-high straight” or “straight to the queen,” and would defeat 10? 9? 8? 7? 6?, a “ten-high straight.”
A three of a kind contains three cards of matching rank with two unmatched cards. Again, the higher ranking three defeat the lower ranking three. In the case of matching threes, the highest kicker determines the winner. 2? 2? 2? K? 6? is called “three twos,” or “three twos with a king kicker.”
A two pair hand consists of two pairs of cards of equal rank, with one unmatched card. Between two hands containing two pairs, the higher ranking pair of each is first compared, and the higher pair wins. If both have the same top pair, then the second pair of each is compared. Finally, if both have the same two pairs, then the kicker determines the win. These hands are described by the top pair and the lower pair. For example, 4? 4? 3? 3? K? is a “fours and threes, king kicker.”
One pair is a poker hand such as 4? 4? K? 10? 5?, which contains two cards of the same rank, plus three unmatched cards. If two hands have the same rank of pair, the kickers again determine the win. The hands are called by the pair, so the above example is a “pair of fours.”
The lowest ranked hand in poker is the high-card or no-pair hand, in which no two cards have the same rank, the five cards are not in sequence, and the five cards are not all the same suit. A hand such as K? J? 8? 7? 3? is called a “king high” or “king-jack high,” based on the top or top two cards. The no-pair hand is the worst hand a player can have. Two of these hands are compared by the highest card in each hand to determine the winner.
The above hands and rules apply to all poker variants, including the three most common:
Draw poker, in which the players each receive five cards, all of which are not shown. Each card can be replaced throughout rounds.
Stud poker, in which players receive one card at a time, some being displayed to other players at the table. In stud poker, players are not allowed to discard or replace any cards.
Community card poker, in which players combine individually dealt cards with a number of “community cards” dealt face up and shared by all players. Each player will attempt to make the best five card poker hand using the community cards and their own face down cards. Two or four individual cards may be dealt in the most popular variations, Texas hold ’em and Omaha hold ’em, respectively (wikipedia.org).
After knowledge of the hands and basic rules, one major strategy of poker is bluffing. The basic idea is to keep a straight poker face and to not give away good or bad cards in facial expressions, except when planning to bluff opponents. Ideally, you are pretending that you have a better hand than you actually do, in order to encourage your opponents to fold. A good bluff when needed to win the pot is absolutely critical. A pure bluff, is a bet or raise with an inferior hand that has little or no chance of improving. A player makes this bluff then he believes he can only win if all opponents fold. A semi bluff is made when a player has an inferior hand that may improve later in the game.
In closing, poker is not a simple subject. We touched upon the basics, what a player needs to know to start out at a table, but the strategies and theories surrounding the game cannot be summarized in a brief article. For a more in depth look at poker, click here.