Rules of Poker

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When someone asks for the rules of poker, it might be difficult to know what to say. The problem is that there is no single set of rules associated with the game of poker.

Poker is more of an umbrella term for hundreds of different card games (known as poker variants).

Let’s explore some of the similarities and differences between the different brands of poker.

  1. Winning Hands
  2. Betting Actions
  3. Hand Rankings
  4. Betting Structures
  5. Variant categories
  6. Common Variants
  7. Stud Variants

Winning Hands

The way that players win hands is one of the significant similarities in most poker variants.

The steps are as follows.

  1. Chips (or money) is wagered on the outcome of each hand. Wagered chips are placed in the centre of the table (known as the pot).
  2. At the end of the hand (known as showdown), the player with the strongest cards wins the pot.
  3. Say all players fold (give up on the hand) before reaching showdown. The last remaining player wins all the chips without needing to reveal their cards.

Many poker hands don’t reach showdown. All but one of the players in the hand elects to fold (giving up so that they don’t have to wager more chips).

This scenario adds an important dynamic to the game of poker. It’s possible to try and win the pot by forcing our opponents to fold - even with the worst cards. This play is known as bluffing and is an integral part of the game.

Nearly all forms of poker have an element of bluffing. But it plays a bigger role in some poker variants than others.

Betting Actions

The betting is broken down into multiple betting rounds known as streets.

The number of streets depends on the variant - for example:

  • Hold’em - 4 streets
  • Omaha - 4 streets
  • 7 Card Stud - 5 streets
  • 5 Card Draw - 2 streets.

On each street, the action moves around the table in a clockwise direction.

Players have the following options available to them –

  • Check - A player decides not to make any bet, and the action continues clockwise to the next player. This option can only be used if no bets have been made so far on the current betting round.
  • Bet - A player makes the first bet on a betting round. Other players must at least match this bet (by calling) when it is their turn to act. Otherwise, they will have to exit the hand by folding.
  • Call - A player matches an existing bet by placing the appropriate amount of chips into the pot.
  • Fold - A player decides he doesn’t want to call the existing bet and prefers to exit the hand. He gives his cards back to the dealer and forfeits any right to win the current pot.
  • Raise - A player decides to increase the size of the current bet. All remaining players must at least call this bet if they wish to continue with the hand.

Check out this complete poker betting guide.

Determining the Order of Action

Who acts first on each betting round?

It depends on the game variant. In many poker formats, the order of the action is determined by the position of a small disc known as the button. The player to the left of the button acts first on each betting round.

The button moves around the table in a clockwise direction after each hand to ensure that every player gets a chance in every table position.

In other poker variants, such as Seven Card Stud, the concept of a button does not exist. The first-to-act player on each street is determined by the strength of each player’s visible cards (known as upcards).

Hand Rankings

Poker Hand Rankings

In any poker variant, it’s essential to know what beats what and it’s not always the same.

The most common way of ranking hands is the standard high hand rankings system. It’s recommended to check out the hand rankings guide to learn more about this system.

Here is the quick breakdown, from best to worst -

Other games use low hand rankings systems (called lowball games) or a split-pot system. These formats award half of the pot to the best high hand and half of the pot to the best low hand.

  1. Low hand rankings systems can vary. For example, Razz is the lowball version of Seven-Card Stud. In Razz, Aces are always low, and straights/flushes do not count against our hand. The nuts in Razz is A,2,3,4,5, followed by A,2,3,4,6 etc. etc.
  2. 2-7 Triple Draw uses a low hand rankings system, but it is different from Razz. 2-7 Triple Draw essentially uses a system opposite to the standard high hand rankings system in Hold’em. (In other words, the worst Hold’em hand wins). The nuts in 2-7 Triple Draw is 2,3,4,5,7.
  3. Omaha hi/lo and Stud hi/lo are examples of split-pot variants. They use the same high hand rankings system as Hold’em and the same low hand rankings system as Razz.

In the emerging exotic variant Six-Plus Hold’em (played with a stripped) deck, the high hand rankings system may sometimes be different.

A Flush beats a Full House and Three-of-a-Kind beats a Straight. (Although the exact hand rankings can vary depending on the venue.)

Betting Structures

Poker betting structures determine how many chips can be wagered at any given time. It has a huge impact on the flow of the game.

There are three primary betting structures –

  1. Fixed Limit - Bets and raises are always made in fixed increments. There is a limit to how many raises can be made on any given street. Stud games often use this format.
  2. Pot-Limit - Bets and raises must be pot-size or less. There is no limit to how many bets or raises on a given street. Omaha games often use this format.
  3. No-Limit - Bets and raises can be any size, at any time. (Although raises must at least match the size of the previous raise.) Hold’em uses this format - No Limit Hold’em is currently the most popular poker game.

Different variants can appear with different betting structures. For example, Hold’em can still be played in fixed-limit format online. Omaha Hi-Lo can be played in both fixed-limit and pot-limit format, etc.

Variant Categories

There is a huge amount of poker variants. Most of them fall into one of the three main categories below.

  1. Community Card Games - Players are dealt private ‘hole cards’ and use these in conjunction with community cards to make a hand. Hold’em and Omaha fall into this category.
  2. Stud Games - Players are dealt a combination of up-cards (visible to the table) and down-cards (secret). Betting action is determined by the strength of players' upcards. Antes are used instead of the button and blinds system. Seven Card Stud, Stud Hi/Lo and Razz fall into this category.
  3. Draw Games - Players are dealt a full selection of cards on the first betting round. They may then replace any number of these cards by drawing again from the deck. Modern draw games use a button and blinds system like community card games. 5-card Draw and 2-7 Triple Draw fall into this category.

The Most Common Poker Variants

Here is a quick summary of the most common poker variants:

Variant Features
Hold’em Two hole cards + community cards. 4 betting rounds. Usually No Limit structure.
Omaha 4 hole cards + community cards. 4 betting rounds. Usually Pot-Limit structure.
Seven Card Stud 7 cards in total. 4 up cards and three down cards dealt progressively across 5 betting rounds.
Razz Same as Seven Card Stud but with a lowball hand ranking system.
5-Card Draw 5 cards, one draw opportunity, 2 betting rounds. Available in both no limit and fixed limit formats.
2-7 Triple Draw 5 cards, three draw opportunities, 4 betting rounds. Uses a lowball hand ranking system.
Omaha Hi/Lo Split pot version of Omaha. Uses the same lowball rankings as Razz for the low hand.
Stud Hi/Lo Split pot version of Stud. Uses the same lowball rankings as Razz for the low hand.

Stud Variants

Stud games deserve a special mention since there are literally hundreds of ways of playing Stud. Most of them are like regular Stud games with a small change.

We might remember from the movie Rounders that the hero finds himself playing a stud variant known as Chicago.

The rules? High spade in the hole wins half the pot.

The rules are entirely the same as regular Stud apart from Chicago is a type of split-pot game.

At showdown -

  • Half of the pot is awarded to the best high hand.
  • The other half is awarded to the player with the highest spade in the hole.

A good Chicago player's ultimate objective is to win the high pot and have the highest spade in the hole (known as ‘scooping’).

You won’t find most of these Stud variants in a casino. But you may sometimes find in a home game.

Getting Started

It’s unnecessary (or even not recommended) to learn the rules of all poker formats. Most poker players pick one or two poker variants and specialize.

No-Limit Hold’em is often a good place to start. The rules are simple, and reading our cards is straight-forward.

Why not check out the specific rules of No-Limit Hold’em and get started with the most popular poker variant?

Once you are familiar with Hold’em, it’s always possible to branch out to other variants.

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