How to play poker
Getting started: learn poker rules and hand-rankings.
Poker is a deep and complex family of games, reflected by the hundreds of books, websites and forums dedicated to the subject.
Note: cards in this poker guide are labelled using the following format:
- A = Ace
- K = King
- Q = Queen
- J = Jack
- T = Ten
- 9-2 = Nine to two
- H = Heart
- D = Diamond
- S = Spade
- C = Club
For instance, Ace of Hearts = AH
Like all great games, poker is simple to learn but can take a lifetime to master. While there are many game types - which differ from the number of cards dealt to different hand rankings, bet size limits and game structures - most follow the same basic theory. Players aim to win chips off other competitors by either making the best hand or by forcing other players to fold better hands (bluffing).
This introductory lesson will show you how poker is played and explain the hand ranking system. The following lessons will gradually introduce odds, terminology and different poker variants in more detail.
By the time you complete our seven-lesson guide, you‘ll be able to play poker more confidently and have a solid foundation for developing your skills.
Rules and gameplay
The rules below apply to most variants of poker. As Texas Hold’em is the most popular form of poker played today, all references will be based around this game.
This is the poker table layout for a game of Full Ring Texas Hold’em. Full ring is the term for a poker table that holds either nine or ten players.
A hand begins when the cards are dealt by the ‘dealer.’ In Texas Hold’em, players receive two, face down ‘hole cards.’ The dealer is signified by the ‘dealer button', which moves clockwise around the poker table to the next player after the end of every hand.
In most poker game types, the player to the left of the dealer posts a ‘small blind’. The player two spaces to the left of the dealer posts a ‘big blind’.
For most poker game types, the small blind is usually half the size of the big blind: e.g. if the small blind is $0.05, the big blind is $0.10.
Before the flop (‘pre-flop’), action begins with the player to the left of the big blind. The player has three options: call (match the amount of the big blind), raise (increase the amount of money in the ‘pot’ by betting) or fold (abandon his hand and wait for the next one).
In the case of Texas Hold’em and other community card variants, a player must place money in the pot to see the flop. If all but one player folds, the hand ends.
The flop consists of three community cards. In Texas Hold’em and other community card variantions, a new round of betting commences after the flop. This time, however, the player to the left of the dealer is the first to act. Players acting after the flop have five options:
- Fold - abandon your hand and place your cards in the ‘muck’, declaring yourself out of the hand.
- Bet - place a bet to increase the size of the pot.
- Raise - raise the bet of the previous player.
- Call - call the bet of the previous player.
- Check - do not place a bet, allowing the next player to act.
The turn and the river
Next comes the ‘turn'. A new round of betting commences, with the same options from the flop available to the player. The final card is the river, followed by one more round of betting. If there is more than one player still left in the hand, there is a ‘showdown’.
A player can win a hand of poker in two ways:
- Every other player folds before showdown.
- They show the best ranking hand at showdown.
Winning hands are determined based on their relative ‘rank’ compared to other hands on the table. Higher ranked hands beat lower ranked ones.
Poker hands typically consist of five cards, although this is not the case in some variants. In Texas Hold’em, a player does not have to use both hole cards to make a hand. They can opt to use both hole cards, one hole card and four community cards, or even all five community cards.
The player with the winning hand will take the pot. In the case of two or more players having the same hand, the pot is split equally between them.
Traditional hand rankings
Hand rankings form the core of all poker games and should be learned before sitting at a poker table or logging into a poker client.
The hand order below is applicable to Texas Hold’em, Omaha, Seven Card Stud and Five Card Draw. You’ll learn more about popular poker variants in the next lesson.
Hands are displayed in order of strongest to weakest. Ace plays as high and low.
Five consecutive cards of the same suit in a sequence is known as a straight flush. A royal flush is the best hand in the game and goes from ten up to the ace.
If both players have straight flushes, the highest sequence wins the pot.
Four of a kind
Four of a kind is four cards of the same value. In the event that two players both have four of a kind, the higher value hand wins. For example, 2222 is the lowest four of a kind you can have, while AAAA is the highest.
Full house is three cards of the same value, and two cards of the same value.
The highest three matching cards win if two or more players hold a full house – 88877 beats 77799. In community card games where players have same three matching cards, the rank of the remaining two matching cards breaks the tie.
Five cards of any rank in the same suit.
The flush containing the highest ranked card wins the hand. An Ace-High flush beats a King-High flush.
Five cards in sequence (any suit).
If two straights are competing for the pot, the hand containing the highest ranking card will win. A 56789 straight beats a 45678 straight.
Three of a kind or Set
Three cards of the same rank. If two or more players have three of a kind (trips) the highest value three of a kind will win the hand. For example 888 will beat 777.
Two pairs of same rank cards. If two or more players have two pairs, the highest value pair will win the hand. For example AA22 will beat KKQQ. The second pair comes into play if the highest ranked pair is identical, i.e. AA77 beats AA66. If both pairs are identical the remaining card - the 'kicker' - is the tie breaker.
Two matched cards of any suit and three side cards.
The highest ranked pair wins. If players have the same pair, the player with the best kicker wins the pot. For example player A has AK and player B has AQ. The board is AJ245. Player A has one pair AAKJ4, while player B has AAQJ4. Player A has a K kicker, which beats player B Q kicker and is awarded the pot.
High card counts when a player fails to make a pair or better. The highest ranking card either in their hand or on the board is what they play at showdown.
Ace to Five Lowball hand rankings
The following hand rankings apply to Hi/Lo games including Omaha Hi/Lo and Stud Hi/Lo, in addition to Razz and ‘low only’ Stud poker.
Note: suits are irrelevant in these hand rankings and aces are always a ‘low’ card when considering a low hand. The value of a hand begins with the top (‘high’) card and then descends through the card ranks.
Five low (‘wheel’)
The 5, 4, 3, 2 and Ace.
Any five unpaired cards with 6 as the high card.
In the event of a tie, the next lowest-ranking card after the 6 wins. Therefore, 6, 5, 4, 3, Ace loses to 6, 4, 3, 2, Ace.
Any five unpaired cards with 7 as the high card.
In the event of a tie, the next lowest-ranking card after the 7 wins.
Any five unpaired cards with 8 as the high card.
In the event of a tie, the next lowest-ranking card after the 8 wins.
Note: this is the weakest hand that still qualifies as ‘low’ in Omaha Hi/Lo and Stud Hi/Lo. In Razz poker the rules are simpler: the lowest hand always wins the pot, irrespective of its value.
Badugi hand rankings
The following hand ranks apply to Badugi poker only – a four card poker game that completely rejects traditional hand rankings.
The basis of Badugi is, in essence, similar to Ace to Five. However, each card must be of a different suit and rank in order for a hand to count.
This means that, if you have multiple cards in the same suit, only one of them counts. The same is true of any matched cards.
Four unpaired cards of different suits.
In the event of a tie, the lowest second card wins, proceeding to the third and fourth is necessary.
Three unpaired cards of different suits, with a fourth card of a matching rank or suit (this card is ignored).
The lowest second card wins if there is a tie.
Two unpaired cards of different suits, with two additional cards of matching ranks or suits.
The lowest second card wins if there is a tie.
The weakest possible hand, consisting of only one playable card. The lowest card is played.
In the event of two, equal one-card hands, the pot is split.
The right poker clients
Now you know the basics, think you’re ready to hit the tables? Try a few practice games at our highest-rated poker clients.