P1: What are the basic rules of poker? What are the hand rankings?

[The following excerpted from rec.gambling.poker newsgroup FAQ]

Most variants of poker satisfy the following definition, but in a home game of course you are free to modify the rules as you see fit.

Poker is a card game in which players bet into a communal pot during the course of a hand, and in which the player holding the best hand at the end of the betting wins the pot. During a given betting round, each remaining player in turn may take one of four actions:

1. check: a bet of zero that does not forfeit interest in the pot

2. bet or raise: a nonzero bet greater than preceding bets that all successive players must match or exceed or else forfeit all interest in the pot

3. call: a nonzero bet equal to a preceding bet that maintains a player's interest in the pot

4. fold: a surrender of interest in the pot in response to another player's bet, accompanied by the loss of one's cards and previous bets

Betting usually proceeds in a circle until each player has either called all bets or folded. Different poker games have various numbers of betting rounds interspersed with the receipt or replacement of cards.

Poker is usually played with a 52-card deck, but a joker or other wild cards may be added. The ace normally plays high, but can sometimes play low, as explained below. At the showdown, those players still remaining compare their hands according to the following rankings:

1. Straight flush: five cards of the same suit in sequence, such as 76543 of hearts. Ranked by the top card, so that AKQJT is the best straight flush, also called a royal flush. The ace can play low to make 5432A, the lowest straight flush.

2. Four of a kind: four cards of the same rank accompanied by a "kicker", like 44442. Ranked by the quads, so that 44442 beats 3333K.

3. Full house: three cards of one rank accompanied by two of another, such as 777JJ. Ranked by the trips, so that 44422 beats 333AA.

4. Flush: five cards of the same suit, such as AJ942 of hearts. Ranked by the top card, and then by the next card, so that AJ942 beats AJ876. Suits are not used to break ties.

5. Straight: five cards in sequence, such as 76543. The ace plays either high or low, making AKQJT and 5432A. "Around the corner" straights like 32AKQ are usually not allowed in casinos.

6. Three of a kind: three cards of the same rank and two kickers of different ranks, such as KKK84. Ranked by the trips, so that KKK84 beats QQQAK, but QQQAK beats QQQA7.

7. Two pair: two cards of one rank, two cards of another rank and a kicker of a third rank, such as KK449. Ranked by the top pair, then the bottom pair and finally the kicker, so that KK449 beats any of QQJJA, KK22Q, and KK445.

8. One pair, two cards of one rank accompanied by three kickers of different ranks, such as AAK53. Ranked by the pair, followed by each kicker in turn, so that AAK53 beats AAK52.

9. High card: any hand that does not qualify as one of the better hands above, such as KJ542 of mixed suits. Ranked by the top card, then the second card and so on, as for flushes. Suits are not used to break ties.

Suits are not used to break ties, nor are cards beyond the fifth; only the best five cards in each hand are used in the comparison. In the case of a tie, the pot is split equally among the winning hands.

Several variations are possible when playing for low. Some games permit the ace to play low and ignore straights and flushes, making 5432A the best possible low, even if it makes a straight flush. Other games just reverse the order used for high hands, making 75432 of mixed suits the best possible low. Still others count straights and flushes against you but let the ace play low, making 6432A best. Note that in most games in which the ace plays low, a pair of aces is lower than a pair of deuces, just as an ace is lower than a deuce.

When a joker is in play, it usually can only be used as an ace or to complete a straight or flush. It cannot be used as a true wild card, for example, as a queen to make QQ43X play as three queens. When playing for low, the joker becomes the lowest rank not already held, so 864AX is played as 8642A, with the joker used as a deuce.

Although true wild cards are rarely seen in a casino, they are a popular way to add excitement to a home game. Wild cards introduce an additional hand, five of a kind, which normally ranks above a straight flush. They can also cause confusion when two players hold the same hand composed of different wild card combinations. The standard rules of poker do not distinguish between such hands, but some players prefer to rank hands using fewer wild cards above less "natural" versions of the same hand.

P3: How is Texas Hold'em played?

Texas Hold'em is a "community card" game, meaning that some cards are dealt face-up in the middle of the table and shared by all the players. Each player has two down cards that are theirs alone, and combines them with the five community cards to make the best possible five-card hand.
Play begins by dealing two cards face down to each player; these are known as "hole cards" or "pocket cards". This is followed by a round of betting. Most Hold'em games get the betting started with one or two "blind bets" to the left of the dealer. These are forced bets which must be made before seeing one's cards. Play proceeds clockwise from the blinds, with each player free to fold, call the blind bet, or raise. Usually the blinds are "live", meaning that they may raise themselves when the action gets back around to them.

Now three cards are dealt face up in the middle of the table; this is called the "flop". A round of betting ensues, with action starting on the first blind, immediately to the dealers left. Another card is dealt face up (the "turn"), followed by another round of betting, again beginning to the dealer's left. Then the final card (the "river") is dealt followed by the final round of betting. In a structured-limit game, the bets on the turn and river are usually double the size of those before and on the flop.

The game is usually played for high only, each player making the best five-card combination to compete for the pot. Players usually use both their hole cards to make their best hand, but this is not required. A player may even choose to "play the board" and use no hole cards at all. Identical five-card hands split the pot; the sixth and seventh cards are not used to break ties.

P4: How is Omaha Hold'em played?

The rules of Omaha are very similar to those of Texas Hold'em. There are only two differences:
1. Each player receives four hole cards, instead of two.
2. One must use *exactly* three community cards and two hole cards to make one's hand.
The second difference is confusing for most beginners. These examples show how it works.

High Hand Examples


Hole Cards

Best High Hand



makes ace-hi straight.



makes ace-hi straight.



makes pair of jacks. No straight possible using 2 hole card



makes AKQ42 "nut" flush.



makes pair of queens. No flush possible using 2 hole cards.



makes TTT88 full house.



makes 888AA full house.



makes trip aces AAA85. No full house possible using 2.



makes full house AAA44

Omaha is usually played high/low, meaning that the highest and lowest hands split the pot. The low hand must "qualify" by being at least an 8-low (the largest card must be 8 or lower). You can use a different two cards to compete for the high and low portions of the pot, and the game is played "cards speak" rather than "declare". Aces can be both low or high, and straights and flushes don't count against you for low. Since everyone must use two hole cards to make a hand, the board must have three cards 8 or lower for a low to be possible. Players often tie for low, and the low half of the pot is divided equally among them. More examples:

Low Hand Examples


Hole Cards

Best High Hand



makes the low hand JT82A which does not qualify as 8-or-better.



makes the "nut low" 8532A.



makes 8543A.



makes T853A, not qualifying.



makes "nut low" 5432A.



makes "nut low" 5432A.



makes 8752A, but the nut low is 5432A with a 3 and 4. On the flop we had the best possible low, but the turn and river "counterfeited" us.

As in all split-pot games, the real goal of playing a hand is to win both halves of the pot, or "scoop". Thus, hands that have a chance to win both ways are far superior to those that can only win one way.

P5: What should I expect the first time I play poker in a casino or cardroom? What etiquette should I follow?

Many people are intimidated on their first visit to a public cardroom. Knowing what to expect and some simple rules of etiquette will help the first-time visitor relax and have a good time.

Any cardroom with more than a few tables will have a sign-up desk or board for the various games being played. Usually someone will be standing here to take your name if a seat is not immediately available. This person can explain what games are offered, the betting limits, special house rules and so on. This is the moment of your first decision: which game and for what stakes?

Choosing a game is fairly easy; you already know which game is most familiar to you. You may be surprised to find that your favorite home games are not spread in public cardrooms. Most will offer one or more of Texas Holdem, Seven-Card Stud, and Omaha Holdem (usually hi/lo split, 8-or-better for low). Sometimes you will find California Lowball (5-card draw for low), Seven-Card Stud hi/lo, or Holdem variations like Pineapple. You will rarely find High Draw (5-card draw for hi), and will never find home game pot-builders like Anaconda, Follow-the-Queen, 7-27 or Guts. Except for the joker in draw poker, cardrooms never use wild cards.

Choosing a betting limit is a bit harder. It is best to start playing at a limit so small that the money is not important to you. After all, with all the excitement of your first time playing poker there is no need to be worried about losing the nest egg to a table full of sharks. Betting limits are typically expressed as $1-$5 or $3-$6, and may be "spread-limit" or "structured-limit". A spread-limit means one can bet or raise any amount between the two numbers (although a raise must be at least as much as a previous bet or raise). For example, in $1-$5 spread-limit, if one person bets $2 the next person is free to call the $2 or raise $2, $3, $4, or $5, but cannot raise just $1. On the next round, everything is reset and the first bettor may bet anything from $1 to $5. In structured-limit like $3-$6 (usually recognizable by a factor of two between betting limits), all betting and raising on early rounds is in units of $3, and on later rounds is in units of $6. One only has a choice of *whether* to bet or raise; the amount is fixed by the limit. One usually doesn't have a choice between spread and structured betting at a given limit. Keep in mind that it is quite easy to win or lose 20 "big bets" (the large number in the limit) in an hour of play. Also, since your mind will be occupied with the mechanics of the game while the regular players consider strategy, you are more likely to lose than win. In other words: choose a low limit.

If the game you want is full, your name will go on a list and the person running the list will call you when a seat opens. Depending on the cardroom, you may have trouble hearing your name called and they may be quick to pass you over, so be alert. Once a seat is available, the list person will vaguely direct you toward it, or toward a floorman who will show you where to sit.

Now is the time for you to take out your money and for the other players to look you over. A good choice for this "buy-in" is ten to twenty big bets, but you must buy-in for at least the table minimum, usually five big bets. Most public poker games are played "table-stakes", which means that you can't reach into your pocket for more money during the play of a hand. It also means that you can't be forced out of a pot because of insufficient funds. If you run out of money during a hand you are still in the pot (the dealer will say you are "all-in"), but further betting is "on the side" for an additional pot you cannot win. Between hands, you are free to buy as many chips as you want, but are not allowed to take any chips off the table unless you are leaving. This final rule gives opponents a chance to win back what they have lost to you. If you bust out, you may buy back in for at least the table minimum or leave.

Once you have told the dealer how much money you are playing, the dealer may sell you chips right away or call over a chip runner to do so. You may want to tell the dealer that you are a first-time player. This is a signal to the dealer to give a little explanation when it is your turn to act, and to the other players to extend you a bit of courtesy when you slow down the game. Everyone will figure it out in a few minutes anyway, so don't be bashful. You may even ask to sit out a few hands just to see how it all works.

There are three ways that pots are seeded with money at the beginning of the hand. The most familiar to the home player is the "ante", where each player tosses a small amount into the pot for the right to be dealt a hand. The second way, often used in conjunction with an ante, is the "forced bring-in". For example, in seven-card stud, after everyone antes and is dealt the first three cards, the player with the lowest upcard may be forced to bet to get things started. The third way, often used in games without upcards like Holdem or Omaha, is a "forced blind bet". This is similar to the bring-in, but is always made by the person immediately after the player with the "button". The "button" is a plastic disk that moves around the table and indicates which player is acting as dealer for the hand (of course, the house dealer does the actual dealing of cards, but does not play). A second or even third blind may follow the first, usually of increasing size. Whichever seed method is used, note that this initial pot, small as it is, is the only reason to play at all.

If the game has blinds, the dealer may now ask you if you want to "post". This means, "do you want to pay extra to see a hand now, in bad position, and then pay the blinds, or are you willing to sit and watch for a few minutes?" Answer "no, I'll wait" and watch the game until the dealer tells you it's time to begin, usually after the blinds pass you.

Finally, it is your turn to get cards and play. Your first impression will probably be how fast the game seems to move. If you are playing stud, several upcards may be "mucked" (folded into the discards) before you even see them; if you are playing Holdem, it may be your turn to act before you have looked at your cards. After a few hands you should settle into the rhythm and be able to keep up. If you ever get confused, just ask the dealer what is going on.

When playing, consider the following elements of poker etiquette:

Acting in Turn

Although you may see others fold or call out of turn, don't do it yourself. It is considered rude because it gives an unfair advantage to the players before you who have yet to act. This is especially important at the showdown when only three players are left. If players after you are acting out of turn while you decide what to do, say "Time!" to make it clear that you have not yet acted.

Handling Cards

You may find it awkward at first to peek at your own cards without exposing them to others. Note that the other players have no formal obligation to alert you to your clumsiness, although some will. Watch how the other players manage it and emulate them. Leave your cards in sight at all times; holding them in your lap or passing them to your kibitzing friend is grounds for killing your hand. Finally, if you intentionally show your cards to another player during the hand, both your hands may be declared dead. Your neighbor might want to see *you* declared dead :) if this happens!

Protecting Cards

In a game with "pocket cards" like Holdem or Omaha, it is your responsibility to "protect your own cards". This confusing phrase really means "put a chip on your cards". If your cards are just sitting out in the open, you are subject to two possible disasters. First, the dealer may scoop them up in a blink because to leave one's cards unprotected is a signal that you are folding. Second, another player's cards may happen to touch yours as they fold, disqualifying your hand and your interest in the pot. Along the same lines, when you turn your cards face up at the showdown, be careful not to lose control of your cards. If one of them falls off the table or lands face-down among the discards your hand will be dead, even if that card is not used to make your hand.

Accidentally Checking

In some fast-paced games, a moment of inaction when it is your turn to act may be interpreted as a check. Usually, a verbal declaration or rapping one's hand on the table is required, but many players are impatient and will assume your pause is a check. If you need more than a second to decide what to do, call "Time!" to stop the action. While you decide, don't tap your fingers nervously; that is a clear check signal and will be considered binding.

String Bets

A "string bet" is a bet that initially looks like a call, but then turns out to be a raise. Once your hand has put some chips out, you may not go back to your stack to get more chips and increase the size of your bet, unless you verbally declared the size of your bet at the beginning. If you always declare "call" or "raise" as you bet, you will be immune to this problem. Note that a verbal declaration in turn is binding, so a verbal string bet is possible and also prohibited. That means you cannot say "I call your $5, and raise you another $5!" Once you have said you call, that's it. The rest of the sentence is irrelevant. You can't raise.

Splashing the Pot

In some home games, it is customary to throw chips directly into the pot. In a public cardroom, this is cause for dirty looks, a reprimand from the dealer, and possibly stopping the game to count down the pot. When you bet, place your chips directly in front of you. The dealer will make sure that you have the right number and sweep them into the pot.

One Chip Rule

In some cardrooms, the chip denominations and game stakes are incommensurate. For example, a $3-$6 game might use $1 and $5 chips, instead of the more sensible $3 chip. The one-chip rule says that using a large-denomination chip is just a call, even though the chip may be big enough to cover a raise. If you don't have exact change, it is best to verbally state your action when throwing that large chip into the pot. For example, suppose you are playing in a $1-$5 spread-limit game, the bet is $2 to you, and you have only $5 chips. Silently tossing a $5 chip out means you call the $2 bet. If you want to raise to $4 or $5, you must say so *before* your chip hits the felt. Whatever your action, the dealer will make any required change at the end of the betting round. Don't make change for yourself out of the pot.

The Showdown

Hands end in one of three ways: one person bets and everyone else folds, one person bets on the final round and at least one person calls, or everybody checks on the final round. If everybody folds to a bet, the bettor need not show the winning cards and will usually toss them to the dealer face down. If somebody calls on the end, the person who bet or raised most recently is *supposed* to immediately show, or "open", their cards. They may delay doing so in a rude attempt to induce another player to show their hand in impatience, and then muck their own hand if it is not a winner. Don't do this yourself. Show your hand immediately if you get called. If you have called a bet, wait for the bettor to show, then show your own hand if it's better. If the final round is checked down, in most cardrooms everyone is supposed to open their hands immediately. Sometimes everyone will wait for someone else to show first, resulting in a time-wasting deadlock. Break the chain and show your cards.

Most cardrooms give every player at the table the right to see all cards that called to a showdown, even if they are mucked as losers. (This helps prevent cheating by team-play.) If you are extremely curious about a certain hand, ask the dealer to show it to you. It is considered impolite to constantly ask to see losing cards. It is even more impolite if you hold the winning cards, and in most cardrooms you will forfeit the pot if the "losing" cards turn out to be better than yours.

As a beginner, you may want to show your hand all the time, since you may have overlooked a winning hand. What you gain from one such pot will far outweigh any loss due to revealing how you played a particular losing hand. "Cards speak" at the showdown, meaning that you need not declare the value of your hand. The dealer will look at your cards and decide if you have a winner.

As a final word of caution, it is best to hold on to your winning cards until the dealer pushes you the pot. If the dealer takes your cards and incorrectly "mucks" them, many cardrooms rule that you have no further right to the pot, even if everyone saw your winning cards.

Raking in the Pot

As you win your first pot, the excitement within you will drive you beyond the realm of rational behavior, and you will immediately lunge to scoop up the precious chips with both arms. Despite the fact that no other player had done this while you watched, despite the fact that you read here not to do it, you WILL do it. Since every dealer has a witty admonition prepared for this moment, maybe it's all for the best. But next time, let the dealer push it to you, ok?

Touching Cards or Chips

Don't. Only touch your own cards and chips. Other players' chips and cards, discards, board cards, the pot and everything else are off-limits. Only the dealer touches the cards and pot.


Dealers make their living from tips. It is customary for the winner of each pot to tip the dealer 50 cents to a dollar, depending on locale and the stakes. Sometimes you will see players tip several dollars for a big pot or an extremely unlikely suckout. Sometimes you will see players stiff the dealer if the pot was tiny or split between two players. This is a personal issue, but imitating the other players is a good start.

Correcting Mistakes

Occasionally the dealer or a player may make a mistake, such as miscalling the winning hand at the showdown. If you are the victim of such a mistake, call it out immediately and do not let the game proceed. If your opponent is the victim, let your conscience be your guide; many see no ethical dilemma in remaining silent. If you are not involved in the pot, you must judge the texture of the game to determine whether to speak up. In general, the higher the stakes, the more likely you should keep your mouth shut.

Taking a Break

You are free to get up to stretch your legs, visit the restroom and so on. Ask the dealer how long you may be away from your seat; 20 or 30 minutes is typical. It is customary to leave your chips sitting on the table; part of the dealer's job is to keep them safe. If you miss your blind(s) while away, you may have to make them up when you return, or you may be asked to sit out a few more hands until they reach you again. If several players are gone from a table, they may all be called back to keep the game going; those who don't return in time forfeit their seats.

Color Change

If you are in the happy situation of having too many chips, you may request a "color change" (except in Atlantic City). You can fill up a rack or two with your excess chips and will receive a few large denomination chips in return. These large chips are still in play, but at least you aren't inconvenienced by a mountain of chips in front of you. Remember the one chip rule when betting with them.


Leave whenever you feel like it. You never have an obligation to stay at the table, even if you've won a fortune. You should definitely leave if you are tired, losing more than you expect, or have other reasons to believe you are not playing your best game. Depending on the cardroom, you can redeem your chips for cash with a chip-runner or floorman or at the cashier's cage.

House Charges

Last but not least is the matter of the house take. Somebody has to maintain the tastefully opulent furnishings and pay the electric bill. The money taken by the house is called the "drop", since it is dropped down a slot in the table at the end of each hand. The house will choose one of three ways to charge you to play.

Time Charge

A simple "time charge" is common in higher limit games and at some small games: seats are rented by the half hour, at rates ranging from $4 to $10 or so, depending on the stakes. This method charges all players equally.


Other cardrooms will "rake" a percentage of the final pot, up to some maximum, before awarding it to the winning player. The usual rake is either 5% or 10%, capped at $3 or $4. If the pot is raked, the dealer will remove chips from the pot as it grows, setting them aside until the hand is over and they are dropped into a slot in the table. This method favors the tight player who enters few pots but wins a large fraction of them.

Button Charge

A simpler method is to collect a fixed amount at the start of each hand; one player, usually the one with the dealer button, pays the entire amount of the drop. Depending on house rules, this "button charge" of $2-$4 may or may not play as a bet. If the chips do play as a bet, this method also favors the tighter players, but not nearly as much as the rake does.

Regardless of the mechanism, a cardroom will try to drop about $80-$120 per hour at a $3-$6 table. The exact amount is most dependent on the local cost of doing business: Nevada is low, California and Atlantic City are high. Since there are 7-10 players at the table, expect to pay somewhere from $7 to $14 per hour just to sit down. Add $2-$4 per hour for dealer tips and you see why most low-limit players are long-run losers.

More information on cardroom play and etiquette can be found in George Percy's "Seven-Card Stud: The Waiting Game" and Lee Jones' "Winning Low-Limit Holdem". Beginning players may also want to watch for special cardroom promotions to draw new players; many offer free lessons followed by a very low-stakes game with other novices. Since everyone is a beginner, much of the tension is relieved