The way that poker has become a part of mainstream life over the last twenty years or so is remarkable. Once a fairly disreputable pastime, poker is now considered a legitimate sport, with the World Series of Poker and associated tournaments attracting worldwide attention and enormous media coverage, and big winners on the poker tour become international celebrities.
There is no doubt that poker’s new-found ‘respectability’ has both fuelled, and been fuelled by, the enormous popularity of online poker. The game now has a whole new generation of players making their names as poker stars who came to it through online poker, and who have inspired others to try and emulate them. This has led to exponential growth in the numbers playing at online casinos, and the world of online poker looks set to go from strength to strength.
Whether you’re playing poker in your friend’s kitchen, in a land-based casino or online, and no matter which of the many variations of the game you’re playing, there is one thing that is always the same — the ranking of the hands. Understanding this is the first step towards understating how to play online poker.
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 five-card 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 been 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’, when 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; when this occurs, the option to open the betting moves to the next player. Once a bet is made in this round, players have the same option either to 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 need 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, and they automatically win the pot; or all the bets that have been made have been called, at which time all the remaining players left in the hand turn over their cards in order to see who ultimately has the best poker hand. The winner of this ‘showdown’ then takes the pot.
If 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.
Although Texas Hold’em is the king of poker games at most of the sites we recommend, a couple of other varieties of the game have good followings too.
The majority of the casino and poker sites that we list also offer Omaha, a variation of Texas Hold’em. In Omaha, players are also required to make the best possible poker hand using their own cards and the face up communal cards; however, players receive four cards face down instead of two, and are required to use two of these cards along with three of the communal cards.
Apart from this variation, Omaha is played in the same way as Texas Hold’em: blind bets are made to start the hand, and these are followed by a round of betting; the flop consists of three cards and then a round of betting; the turn is next, with further betting; and then this is then followed by the river card and, if necessary, a showdown.
7-Card Stud is another relatively popular game at some of our online casino sites, although it is harder to find than either Texas Hold’em or Omaha. Players are dealt a total of seven cards — 4 face up (known as ‘show’ cards) and 3 face down — with the aim being to make the best possible five-card poker hand. Other differences are that ante bets are used rather than blinds (i.e., all players contribute a set amount to the pot before a hand begins), and the game is usually played as ‘fixed limit’ i.e., there is a set limit as to how large any bet or raise can be (Texas Hold’em and Omaha are usually played as ‘no limit’, so a bet or raise can be as large as you want).
Once players have put in their antes to commence a hand, each is dealt two cards face down (‘hole’ cards), and then one face up card (the ‘window’ card). The player with the lowest value window card begins the betting (the ‘bring’), and the betting then continues clockwise around the table. After an initial bet has been made, players have the option to fold, call or raise.
Once this initial round of betting has been completed, each players is dealt a further face up card. This time, the first player to bet is the one with the highest value card, and they can either check, bet or fold; once a bet has been made, subsequent players can choose either to call, raise or fold.
After this betting round, remaining players are dealt a further card face up, accompanied by another round of betting. This is then repeated, and then once more, so that players’ hands consist of two cards face down and four face up. The seventh and final card is then dealt face down, followed by a final round of betting.
The winner of the pot is the player able to make the best five card poker hand from the seven they’ve been dealt. The two unused cards do no affect which hand is declared the winner.
One or two sites that we list also feature Razz, a version of 7-Card Stud where instead of the best poker hand, it’s the best A to 5 low hand that wins.
Online poker tournaments are a great way of testing your skill and nerve without it costing you a great deal of money. Many tournaments are free or have a relatively low entry fee, and you then play with tournament money (i.e., every player starts off with the same amount) rather than your own cash. A number of our recommended casinos and poker rooms also offer free entry into poker tournaments as part of the Welcome Bonus. Tournaments at online casinos will be either Sit’n’Go or scheduled events.
With a Sit’n’Go tournament, there is no set starting time; instead, players register and as soon as the table is full, the tournament begins. These often have a minimal entry fee, with a relatively small prize, but they are popular because they allow you to enjoy tournament play at a time that suits you.
With a scheduled tournament, both the entry fee and the prizes will be bigger — sometimes the rewards on offer for winners can be huge and even include entry into much bigger tournaments, such as World Series of Poker events.
Online poker’s popularity has led ingenious producers and operators to develop a number of offshoot games that are based on poker, but designed for play in online casinos.
Video poker is the most well-known and popular of these variations, and is the game that is most similar to table poker. It requires a good understanding of strategy and knowledge of how to wager, and some versions of the game offer an extremely low House Edge. Video poker is a variation of 5-Card Draw poker, where players are dealt five cards, and have the opportunity to discard and replace any or all of them once in pursuit of making the best possible poker hand. What’s important to note is that there are more than fifty different types of video poker game, and what may be good play in one is not necessarily so in another, so it’s vital to understand the peculiarities and strategies required for any video poker game you choose to play.
Other poker adaptations include Caribbean Stud poker, which is a variation of 5-Card Stud where you play against the House rather than other players, and Let It Ride — also based on 5-Card Stud — which requires players to make the best possible poker hand from two face down and three communal cards, but which gives you the option to withdraw a third of your bet during the course of the hand.
Another popular game is Pai Gow Poker, which is actually an adaptation of an ancient Chinese domino game rather than a card game, bit which has nevertheless been successfully converted into a form of poker. In Pai Gow, players are dealt seven cards and are required to make five-card and two-card hands that both beat the dealer.