How to Play Poker for Beginners

Poker is one of the most popular forms of online gambling, but it can be daunting for new players to learn. Its popularity means most online casinos offer a variety of poker games, but it's important to be familiar with the rules before playing.

The information below caters to Texas Hold'em, the most popular poker game. However, much of what's here is applicable to other types of poker, too.

Even those that have played offline poker before will find online poker requires a slightly different skillset. This page contains everything a newcomer needs to get started playing poker online.

Poker Rules

The basics of how to play poker can be summed up as this: construct the best hand you can using your whole cards (which are dealt to you face down so only you can see them), and five community cards (which are shared by all the players at the table).

Before any cards are dealt, the two players to the left of the dealer must pay blind bets to get the pot started. The small blind is paid by the player immediately left of the dealer and the big blind by the next player to the left. Then, it's time for the game to begin:

  • 1

    Players are dealt two cards that only they can look at; they must then choose to:

    1. Bet/Call – Bet the same amount as the big blind to stay in the game.
    2. Check – Pass on betting. If there's action from other players in the betting round though, you will have to decide whether to call, fold or raise.
    3. Raise – Wager more than the big blind; this choice forces other players to bet more money too.
    4. Fold – If you're not happy with your hand, you can give up. This means you can no longer win the pot.
  • 2
    Once initial betting is done, the flop (three face up community cards) is dealt and players can begin to assess whether they have a good hand. This is followed by another round of betting, during which players can check, call, raise or fold.
  • 3
    Next, the turn (a fourth community card) is dealt, and players enter another round of betting.
  • 4
    The river, a fifth and final community card, is now dealt. This is followed by a round of betting that gives players their final chance to try to push their opponents to fold.
  • 5
    Now comes the showdown, during which players who are still in the game compare poker hands and determine who has won the round. If a tie cannot be broken by a kicker, the pot is split between the players with the highest hands.

What Beats What in Poker?

Memorizing the hierarchy of poker hands is essential for playing poker. Ranked from highest to lowest, the chart below will guide you through the different poker hands:

AS KS QS JS 10S

1. Royal Flush:

Ace, King, Queen, Jack and Ten cards, all in the same suit.

9H 8H 7H 6H 5H

2. Straight Flush:

Five cards in a sequential row, all in the same suit.

QS QD QC QH 5S

3. Four of a Kind:

The same card, in each of the four suits.

KS KD 3C 3H 3D

4. Full House:

A pair, and a three of a kind.

AD 10D 7D 6D 2D

5. Flush:

Five cards in the same suit, but not in numerical order.

KS QH JC 10D 9S

6. Straight:

Five cards in numerical order, but not in the same suit.

KH JS 8H 8C 8D

7. Three of a Kind:

The same card in three of the suits, and two non-paired cards.

QS QH JC JH 6S

8. Two Pair:

Two sets of matching cards, and a non-matching or sequential card.

KS KH JC 10H 6S

9. One Pair:

A pair of matching cards, with three non-matching or sequential cards.

AH QC 6H 4S 2D

10. High Card:

The highest-ranking card in a hand with no matching cards, no consecutive order, and at least two different suits.

Poker Terms

  • All In To place all of one's chips into the pot.
  • Blinds Bets that must be placed by the two players to the left of the dealer before any cards are dealt.
  • Bluff To bet in a way that implies your hand is better than it is.
  • Call To match the amount wagered by previous players in order to continue with the hand.
  • Check To pass on betting, provided there's nothing for players to call.
  • Fold Giving up on a hand, either because you think it's too weak to compete or because bets are too high for you.
  • Hand The best combination of your cards and community cards that you can put together.
  • Kicker The high card that determines the winning hand if two players should tie.
  • Limit Refers to the level at which bets, pots and/or raises are fixed.
  • Raise To increase the betting level required by other players to stay in the hand.

Poker Tips for Beginners

Don't get fixated on seeing a poor hand through

Don't get fixated on seeing a poor hand through

It's tempting to single-mindedly pursue a hand you think will be good, but in reality, turns out to be the opposite as a poker game gradually progresses. Sometimes it is better to cut your losses early on, rather than see it to the end of the game and lose more money.

Watch what your opponents are doing

Watch what your opponents are doing

You can still gain insight into your opponents' play style in online poker. Look at aspects like how many hands they play, how big they bet and how long they typically take to place their wagers. Of course, they may mix things up to confuse you as well.

Look for places where you can be the shark

Look for places where you can be the shark

Poker rooms and online venues are full of players hoping they're the best player at the table. Advance too early to tables with high limits (or none at all) and large minimum bets, and you'll find yourself a fish for other more experienced players. Take your time and develop your skills in free poker, before you take on veteran players.

Keep your cool, whatever your hand might be

Keep your cool, whatever your hand might be

Getting a great hand, like a pair of Aces for example, and immediately betting large sums isn't sensible if you've been betting small and hesitantly up until that point. It screams, "I finally have a good hand!" Play at a consistent speed, maybe waiting for the flop, before you increase your bet. This will give the pot a chance to increase, too.

Understand the risks associated with bluffing

Understand the risks associated with bluffing

In the heat of moment going all in on a weak hand might seem exciting. It looks less smart when an opponent matches your bet and reveals a better hand. Bluffing is a powerful technique, but it's one that attracts risk when playing against opponents who don't back down easily.

Intermediate Poker Guide

Once you have a good understanding of the basics of poker, including rules and what constitutes good hands, you're ready to start playing real money poker.

In this section we'll teach you different strategies and play styles to put some pressure on your opponents and improve your chances of leaving the table a winner.

Poker Tips for Online Play

Poker coach Alton Hardin discusses the essential poker skills needed to beat the opposition and start winning games. Build solid poker foundations, and you can progress to practicing strategies and improving your odds.

How to Win at Poker

While luck plays a part in online poker games, strategy and psychology can wholly subvert the outcome of a poker match if the player is not proficient in the basic skills. The skills below will help you build strong strategic and psychological foundations in your poker game, and help you build winning poker hands and potentially beat more advanced players.

Build a Strong Poker Foundation

To become an adept poker player, it is important to have strong foundational knowledge built on the following criteria:

Pre-flop fundamentals

At this stage poker players should begin building their hands as well as judging their opponents. Learn to identify tics in your opponents (as well as your own) and use these to your advantage in a poker game.

Essential poker math

All beginner poker players should know the probability and odds of drawing certain cards, pot odds, or attaining a specific hand. Memorizing this data will help poker players make more informed decisions.

Post-flop fundamentals

Checking opponents' stack sizes, assessing the experience of the other players, and learning how to counter common strategic tricks will all contribute towards good post-flop skills.

Understand Variance in Poker

In a nutshell, variance is the upswings and downswings in poker. While complex mathematics is used to understand variance and related outcomes like win rate, intermediate poker players should understand that variance reflects their overall performance.

More definitively, variance is the difference between individual results in the short term, and the average set of results players expect to see in the long term, based on correct decision-making.

To understand variance, you must know what influences it:

Playing style – Aggressive or passive poker styles will affect wager amounts.

Betting type – Minimum or maximum bets, or no limit games, will affect swings.

Game type – Going from low stakes games to large multi-table tournaments can affect winnings, and consequently variance.

Not understanding and embracing variance can negatively influence a poker player's game and bankroll. With variance, it can be difficult to assess whether you're playing well or not. In fact, negative variance often leads to tilt.

Play +EV Poker

Expected value (EV) is how much a poker player expects to win or lose on average, over the long run, based upon a specific scenario in poker. It is an important mathematical concept every poker player should understand.

Every single situation and scenario in poker has an expected value associated with it, with certain situations being profitable (+EV) and others unprofitable (-EV). Some plays win us money, others will lose money:

Positive Expected Value (+EV)

Positive Expected Value (+EV)

A profitable long-term play.

Negative Expected Value (-EV)

Negative Expected Value (-EV)

An unprofitable long-term play.

Learn Not to Tilt

Tilt refers to the altered mental state players sometimes enter at a poker table. Specifically, it is defined as an angry or frustrated emotional state of mind when playing poker.

While under the stress of tilt, poker players play poorly and make bad decisions they would ordinarily avoid. This can have grave consequences financially, emotionally, and even mentally for regular poker players.

The first step to avoiding tilt is learning to recognize your own emotional and behavioral cues. Do you suddenly feel hot or flustered after several bad hands? Do you find yourself making snap decisions before properly assessing your opponents?

Once you know the cues, the following strategies will help you know how to avoid tilt in poker:

Take a break

Leave the game and wait to return to a balanced mental state.

Understand and embrace variance

Focus on your performance across the game to gain a better perspective.

Don't be results-oriented

Don't define your poker performance by your most recent single session.

How to Play Poker with Chips

Enter any land-based casino, and you'll see players scattering colored chips across the tables. Although you don't need to worry about chips when you're playing free poker games to hone your skills, they're more important when playing for real money.

Poker chips are used instead of cash because they make it as easy to wager $1,000 on a hand as it is to bet $1. Depending on the stakes of the game you're playing, different colored chips are assigned different values. You can then use the relevant combination of chips to place your chosen bet.

The value of chips varies between poker rooms, with games that have low stakes or quirky online poker rooms substituting the following colors for other values. However, the information below gives an idea of what to expect in gambling venues:

$1 chip $1
$5 chip $5
$10 chip $10
$25 chip $25
$100 chip $100
$500 chip $500
$1,000 chip $1,000
$5,000 chip $5,000

Intermediate Poker Strategies

Semi-Bluff

Semi-bluffing relies on betting or raising when there's a possibility that you'll hit your draw (i.e. get the cards you want). It might also push your opponent(s) into folding. This strategy keeps your style of play unpredictable without the same degree of risk associated with a traditional bluff.

Tight/Loose/Aggressive/Passive

Most poker playing styles can be divided into four categories:

Loose

Players who don't need to see much in their hand before they'll get in on a round

Tight

Players who act cautiously and only get involved when they believe they have a good hand

Passive

Players who rarely bet or raise but will call and fold as appropriate

Aggressive

Players who are happy to raise and re-raise regularly

It's worth thinking about which of these categories (e.g. Loose-Aggressive, Tight-Passive) you fit into because it allows you to subvert expectations of opponents who may be trying to pigeonhole you as a certain type of player.

Small Pocket Pairs

Knowing what to do with small pocket pairs might not seem like "intermediate poker strategy guide" material, but a surprising number of otherwise proficient players make errors here. When you're in an early position, small pocket pairs are usually better off folded.

The more players that call without raising, the more comfortable you might feel about playing the hand. You might even pull out a pre-flop win! As soon as you're facing one or more re-raises, however, pursuing a small pocket pair should become much less appealing.

Poker Pairs

Intermediate Poker Terms

  • Action
    This can refer to:
    • A player's turn to act
    • A game with lots of betting
    • Betting or raising
  • Nuts
    The best hand it's possible to have at that point in time.
  • Semi-Bluff
    To bet on a hand that's currently lacking but may improve as more cards are dealt.
  • Tilt
    Used to describe players who are betting recklessly, usually as a result of experiencing bad luck in previous hands.

Advanced Poker Training

As your poker game continues to improve and evolve, you'll likely spend more time and money playing poker. Unfortunately, that means you'll be playing against opponents who are also very confident in their own skills.

The advanced strategies and poker odds below can help you keep your edge and put you in the best possible position to beat other experienced players at your table.

How to Calculate Poker Odds

Poker odds can seem confusing at first glance but they're useful for working out whether it's worth playing a hand through to the end. They enable you to weigh up the probability of securing a certain hand against the sum of money required to match any bets that are on the table.

Like in blackjack, you can find charts and cheat sheets to help you plan your next move. Texas Hold'em is a good game to familiarize yourself with poker odds as you don't need to worry about considering what cards your opponents have.

Let's say that you're playing a hand that contains two clubs.

Imagine that four community cards have already been dealt, in which there are two additional clubs. In order to get a flush, you need one more club. Subtract the number of club cards you know are already in play (i.e. four) from the total number of club cards in the deck (13), which gives a figure of nine.

52 (cards in a deck) – 2 (your clubs) – 4 (community cards already dealt) = 46 unknown cards.

Of those 46 unknown cards, 9 of them will give you a win but 37 of them won't. In this case your odds of victory are 37 to 9, or approximately 4:1. You can now use that information, along with the value of the pot, to determine whether you want to continue betting. For example, if there's a lot of money in the pot and your opponent only raises modestly, then odds of 4:1 could be well worth pursuing.

Blackjack table

Advanced Poker Strategies

Blocker Bets
Blocker Bets

The idea behind a blocker bet is that making a small bet on an average hand rather than checking, will discourage some players from making a big bet of their own. Instead, they'll simply call your bet. Unfortunately, some aggressive players won't take the bait and will raise your bet.

Small Ball Poker
Small Ball Poker

Rather than making big bets on a few choice hands, small ball poker involves playing as many hands as possible (particularly in the early stages of a tournament) while there are poor players around. Doing so allows you to build up your bankroll without the risk of facing off against more experienced players later in the game.

Squeeze Play
Squeeze Play

As the name suggests, the aim here is to squeeze other players out of the pot by raising and re-raising early to suggest to others that you have a great hand. Of course, if your raise isn't big enough then it won't put the fear into your opponent(s) and they may end up calling. The squeeze works best if you've built up a reputation as a tight player.

Know Your Odds
Know Your Odds

We've already talked about odds, but it bears repeating that becoming more familiar with poker odds is key to playing at a high level. Gaining some insight into the cards on the table and the odds of the one(s) you want to appear further in the game will help you win consistently.

Best Practices for Playing Online Poker for Real Money

Check icon
Be Aggressive

Whether you play loose or tight, playing aggressively keeps your opponents on their toes and makes it harder for them to predict when you're bluffing or what you'll do next.

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Keep Your Concentration

Playing poker from the comfort of your own home means you can enjoy a drink, watch TV or chat with family and friends while you play. This is fine if you're comfortable multi-tasking but, for those who are easily distracted, it only takes one mental error to slip up at the tables.

Check icon
Don't Lose Your Head

It's very easy to go on tilt after facing several bad beats, or betting on very unlikely outcomes in a desperate attempt to win your money back. This rarely works out and if other players smell the blood in the water, it could see you suffer further losses.

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Look for the Fish

Wherever you play, and at whatever level you're doing so, there will always be players who are inexperienced or demonstrate poor playing skills. If you can establish that they're not trying to hustle you, these are the players from whom you stand to make some serious gains.

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Alton Hardin

Alton Hardin

Poker Coach. Educator. Author. IT & Business Professional.