How to Play Poker: A Comprehensive Guide

Updated February 16, 2024
Perhaps more than any other online casino game, understanding the rules and strategy of poker is essential if you are going to be a winner.
How To Poker

Like any online casino game there is an element of luck in poker, as there is no way the order in which the cards are dealt and fall can be controlled. However, there is real skill required to be successful in poker, with regard to:

  • how you play the cards you are dealt;
  • when and how you bet; and
  • how well you play the other players at the table.

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To be able to do this, you need to have a sound grasp of the rules, especially in terms of the ranking of hands, and how the betting works in the particular version of poker you are playing,

How to Play Poker for Beginners – Useful Basics

In simple terms, to win at poker, you either have to have a better hand than the other players(s) at the table or, just as crucially, make the other player(s) think you have a better hand than them, even if you don’t (universally referred to as bluffing).

Aim of Poker 

Although poker is a game where strategy and tactics are essential, it is nevertheless a straightforward game in terms of its aim.

This is either to grow the pot as large as possible when you have the best hand, so that you are able to maximise any win, or to avoid playing hands where your cards are beaten, so that you avoid losing money as far as possible.

Understanding Poker Hands 

No matter which version of online poker you are playing, there is one constant — the ranking of hands, e.g., which hand will beat which hand. This is the first essential for any newcomer to the game to grasp.

The ranking of poker hands is as follows:

  1. Royal Flush (A-K-Q-J-10, all the same suit e.g., A♥-K♥-Q♥-J♥-10♥)
  2. Straight Flush (consecutive cards, all the same suit e.g., 8♣-7♣-6♣-5♣-4♣)
  3. Four-of-a-Kind (four cards of the same value e.g., A-A-A-A)
  4. Full House (three-of-a-kind, plus 1 pair)
  5. Flush (all the same suit e.g., A♣-10♣-8♣-4♣-2♣ )
  6. Straight (consecutive cards, unsuited e.g., 6♣-5♠-4♦-3♣-2♥)
  7. Three-of-a-kind (three cards of the same value such as 5-5-5)
  8. Two-pair (e.g., 10-10 and 3-3)
  9. Pair (any pair)
  10. High card (a hand with none of the above combinations)
Poker hand rankings

How to bet in poker

Betting is an essential part of poker and knowing how to bet tactically so that you are able to maximise your winnings when you have a strong hand (or minimise your losses when stuck with a bad hand) is key to being a good player.

In poker, you bet against the other players on the table, rather than the casino (or the ‘house’), which is the case in most casino games. The casino makes its money by taking a commission from each hand played.

Different games have different rules in terms of the maximum bet allowed at any time (it will usually either be unlimited, or constrained by the current size of the pot), but all poker games work on the principle that at any given time during a hand, you can either bet or fold, i.e., drop out of the hand (at times an option to check will be available — see below).

Different types of bets

Check — In most poker variations, when you are the first to bet in any hand, you will usually have the option to check, which means you choose not to bet at that time, preferring to wait and see what the following players do. Subsequent players can also check, but once a bet has been made by any player, the check option is no longer available, i.e., players following have to either bet or fold.

Call — A call essentially means matching the bet of previous players, enabling you to stay in a hand, e.g., if a bet of £10 is made and you want to stay in the hand without raising, a call be would be a bet of £10.

Raise — A raise is made when you match and then increase the size of the bet, with the aim of a) growing the pot and/or b) eliminating other players from the pot (in order to reduce the competition and increase your chance of winning a hand). Any raise must be at least equivalent to the size of the previous bet, e.g., if a bet of £10 is made and you want to raise, the raise must be at least £10 (at least £20 in total), In some versions of poker, the maximum amount you can raise is the amount of money in the pot, while in others you can raise by any amount (no limit games).

Fold — If you have been participating in a hand but the cards fall so that you no longer think you can win, or the size of a call is more than you want to bet, then you can fold, i.e., throw in your cards and no longer participate in the hand. When you fold, you cards are not revealed to other players on the table so that no-one knows what cards you pass in (or whether you were bluffing!).

Bluffing 

Bluffing is an essential part of poker. The aim is to make other players think you have a stronger hand than you actually have, so that they fold and enable you to win a hand with inferior cards. You are generally able to do this by the way that you bet, in terms of the stages of a hand at which you bet, the amounts you bet, and if/when you raise the bets of other players.

Position

On any poker table, your position during a hand is very important, as it will influence when you receive your cards, when you are required to bet, and ultimately how you play a hand.

The first player to bet changes with every hand, moving around the table clockwise (the first player to receive cards and bet is referred to as being ‘on the button’).
Your position in a hand relative to the player on the button plays a large part in determining your strategy. The later in the hand you are required to bet, the more opportunities you will have had to see how others are playing the hand, giving you a better chance to assess the relative value of your hand in comparison to others.

Pot odds

The odds of your winning a pot can change with every card that is dealt or flopped. This is what makes poker so challenging and intriguing.

You not only have to assess the value of your own hand relative to the communal cards in a game like Texas Hold’em, you also have to constantly re-evaluate how strong other players’ hands are (or appear to be), depending on how they bet in response to the flop, and each subsequent communal card (the ‘turn’ and the ‘river’).

With each new card that is revealed, the odds of your winning or losing a pot can change significantly.

Bankroll management 

Bankroll management in poker is very different to most other casino games for a couple of reasons.

For instance, the size of your stack (the value of the chips you have in front of you) will influence your betting strategy. If you have a larger stack than anyone else, you can use it to intimidate other players so that they don’t participate in hands they might otherwise play; conversely, if your stack is running low, you might be less inclined to participate in more speculative hands where you are not sure of the strength of your cards.

Without thoughtful bankroll management, it can be easy to diminish the size of your stack. Players can be tempted to stay in pots, to bet more money than a hand merits, or stay in a hand too long, and then all of a sudden discover that you have blown a large proportion of your stack on a hand that you never had a realistic chance of winning.

How to play in a poker: beginner’s tip.

When you first start playing online poker, here are a few useful tips to get you started.

  1. In a game like Texas Hold’em, if after the flop you determine that you have the best possible hand (universally known as ‘the nuts’), then don’t be afraid to bet big, as trying to ‘soft play’ (under-representing the value of your hand) can provide opportunities for others to stay in the hand relatively cheaply, and then get a good run of cards so that you end up losing when you shouldn’t have.
  2. Don’t waste money trying to hit impossible hands —for instance, if you have two non-sequenced spades in your hand, and there is only one on the board after the flop, don’t hang around in the hand spending money in the hope of hitting two more spades, when you could get out, cut your losses, and save your money for when you have better cards.
  3. In certain scenarios in poker, you might choose to play the man rather than the ball. In practical terms, this could mean that if you notice a particular player is bluffing on a regular basis, you occasionally stay in a hand with sun optimal cards and when common sense dictates that you fold, because you can’t fully trust how that other player is representing the apparent strength of their hand — put simply, you suspect they could be bluffing!

Poker Glossary

As you will have already gathered from this article. there is quite a bit of specialist terminology associated with poker.

The nuts — the best possible cards at any given stage of a hand.

All in — when you bet your entire stack; if you lose the hand, you are out of the game.

Tilt — a player is deemed to be on tilt when they are betting in a wild, irrational manner.

The flop —the first three communal cards displayed on the table in a game of Texas hold’em.

The turn — the fourth communal card in a game of Texas hold’em.

The river — the fifth and final communal card in a game of Texas hold’em.

[card name] high — a hand where your cards don’t produce a recognised poker hand; also referred to as having nothing.

How to play in a poker: step by step.

The version of the game that is most commonly played in our recommended casinos, and most frequently played at tournaments, is Texas Hold’em. Using a standard 52-card deck, players aim to make the best possible poker hand using at least one of their two face down cards and at least three of the five face up communal cards in the centre of the table. The game is generally played with between 2-10 players, however eight is considered the optimal number.

A hand begins with two players being required to make compulsory ‘blind’ bets e.g., before any cards are dealt. The players required to make these two bets (known and the large and small blind) change with each hand, and are designated by a button that moves around the table clockwise.

Once the blind bets have made, all players receive two cards face down (dealt one at a time). A round of betting then follows. The first player who can bet (‘speak’) is the player to the immediate left of the large blind. This player has two options: they can bet or discard their cards and take no further part in the hand (‘fold’). Proceeding around the table clockwise, the other players can either match the bet that has been made (‘call’), match the bet and then increase it (‘raise’), or fold. Play continues in this fashion until all players have either called or folded.

What follows next is known as the ‘flop’, where the dealer deals three communal cards face up in the centre of the table. A second round of betting now commences. In this and subsequent rounds, the first player to speak has the additional option to ‘check’, which means to make no bet at this stage, so that the option to bet now moves to the next player. Once a bet is made in this round, players have the same option to either call, raise or fold, as before; however, it is not possible to check once a bet has been made in any given round. Any players who checked before a bet was made needs either to call or raise in order to stay in the hand.

After the completion of this betting round, the next face up communal card (‘the turn’) is dealt, followed by a further betting round.

Following this, the final face up communal card (‘the river’) is dealt, followed by a final round of betting conducted on the same lines as before (i.e., the first player to speak has the option to check, etc.). One of two scenarios will evolve from this round of betting: there will only be one player left who has not folded, who automatically wins the pot; or all the bets that have been made have been called, at which time all the remaining players turn over their cards in order to see who can make the best hand. The winner of this ‘showdown’ then takes the pot.

If at any time a player wishes to call a bet, but has insufficient chips in front of the them to match the bet, they can go ‘all in’, i.e., bet all of their remaining chips. If there is further betting after a player has gone all in, a side pot is formed, which they can’t win but other players can play for, as well as playing for the main pot.

Ready to play online poker? 

Now that you have a better idea about how to play poker, why not head over to our online poker page to learn even more about the rules, strategies, and the poker variations that you can find.

You will also find links to our recommended UK online casinos where you can play poker, and read reviews by our poker specialists, as well as comments by regular players, so you can find the UK poker site that best suits you.

Learn how to play popular types of poker and the rules specific to each game.

Although Texas Hold’em is the poker game most commonly played at our recommended UK online casinos and poker sites, you will also find some other poker variations which have their own unique rules, strategies and betting patterns.

Omaha

Omaha is the game that is most similar to Texas Hold’em, in that it features both face down player cards and face up communal cards. However, the main difference is that players receive four cards, of which they are required to use two, along with the three communal cards, to make the best hand.

Other features of the game, like the flop, the turn and the river, are the same, as is the betting.

7-Card Stud

Although less common than Texas Hold’em or Omaha, 7 Card Stud is played at a number of our featured casinos and poker rooms.

There are no communal cards — rather players are dealt a sequence of face up and face down cards (7 in total) from which they must make the best 5 card poker hand. Other major differences are that instead of blind bets, each hand starts with every player contributing an ‘ante’, or set bet, of a pre-determined value, and 7 Card Stud is usually a ‘pot limit’ game, meaning no bet or raise can be bigger than the total amount in the pot at any given time. (Most Texas Hold’em and Omaha games are ‘no limit’, meaning bets and raises can be as large as the players want to make them.)

Draw poker

Draw poker is the form of game most commonly portrayed in movies and TV (especially classic westerns), although it is not a game that is as widely played at online poker sites as Texas Hold’em.

Each hand of draw poker begins with compulsory large and small blind bets, after which each player receives five cards. face down. There are no communal cards in draw poker.

Once the initial five cards have been received by all players, there is a round of betting, beginning with the player to the immediate left of the large blind, in which players can call, raise or fold.

Like 7-Card Stud, Draw poker is usually played as a pot limit game.

When the round of betting has been completed, and starting with the player on the button, each player in turn has the opportunity to discard unwanted cards and draw an equivalent number of replacement cards from the deck, with the aim of improving their hand.

Once all players have drawn their cards, a final round of betting takes place, in which players can call, raise or fold. There will either then be a showdown, at which the remaining players reveal their cards to determine who has the strongest hand; or, if only one player is left, they automatically win the pot and do not have to reveal their cards.

Poker Rules FAQ

How do you play basic poker?

The first step to knowing how to play basic poker is to understand the ranking of the hands (described above). Once you have understood these, you can then use this knowledge to explore the different variations of the game, such as Texas hold’em, Stud poker, Omaha and more.

How do you play poker for the first time? 

Playing poker for the first time can be a little daunting, so it pays to be as prepared as possible. Take your time to assess the value of your hand (both on its own merits and in relation to the flop), and pay attention to how other players are betting, as this will usually indicate the strength (or otherwise) of their hand.

Above all, be patient! Don’t expect to play every hand, and in fact be prepared for long stretches of time where you don’t receive any good cards, and so feel out of it. But don’t be tempted to play poor or even mediocre cards just because you haven’t had any action for a while — that’s the surest way to lose your stack in a hurry.

Is poker an easy game?

Compared to most other card and table games, poker is a difficult game to master. This is because unlike blackjack, for example, where you are playing against the house and a dealer who to draw or stand according to pre-determined rules, in poker you are playing against other players, all of whom can play and bet in completely different ways and have unique styles all their own, making their actions hard to predict.

Is poker mostly luck or skill?

Like any card game, luck plays a big part in poker, but it is nevertheless the game where an individual player’s skill has the most bearing on whether they win or lose.

How to win in poker?

Winning in poker essentially involves being able to accurately assess the relative strength of your cards when compared to the hands of other players, based on the assumptions you make when observing their betting patterns.

However, you also have to know how to bet in order to maximise the returns from any potential winning hand, while at the same time not allowing a player with weaker cards to stay in the hand and pick up an undeserved lucky win on the river card.

What is the goal of poker?

The goal of poker is to make the best possible hand, or alternatively, to make others think you have the best hand. You achieve this by using an effective betting strategy that means you get the best possible value for any winning hand.

Mark Angus Author Whichbingo

Author

MARK ANGUS

Mark Angus is a professional writer and editor currently based in Adelaide and London. Mark writes on a variety of sports betting and gaming topics, most notably football and cricket (he has been a season ticket holder at Fulham for far too many years), as well as horse racing, in particular jumps racing. In addition, Mark produces website content, blogs and articles for a variety of publications, organisations and businesses, and has extensive experience in writing for all forms of online, print and broadcast media.