Want to learn how to play poker? There’s some good news: despite what professional poker players might claim, and what many films might indicate, poker rules aren’t nearly as complex as they might appear. Poker is one of the most popular card games in the world, and can be easily picked up by casual players.
We’re here to help you learn how to play poker, so you can start throwing down chips and raising your bets in a jiffy. We’ll be running through the basic poker rules, poker hand rankings, the rounds of a game, and some of its variants. We’ll be focusing primarily on Texas hold’em, the most popular variant of poker in the world, although most of the core rules apply the same to all the forms of poker out there.
Once you know the rules of poker like the back of your hand, check out our guide to the best free card games to start testing out your newfound skills. Also, a word of warning, we recommend learning poker with some friends or on free online games in which no real-world money is involved. Poker is just as fun when no money is at stake.
This is how to play Poker
Poker is a game of bluffing, betting, and building. You’ll be trying to construct specific card combinations (called hands) that outrank your opponents’, while keeping your cards close to your chest and bluffing about the strength of your hand to win the pot at the centre of the table. After several rounds of betting, raising, and card dealing, if you’re the last player left in the game, or have the strongest hand out of every player left, you’ll take all the winnings for yourself.
Poker games are split into a series of rounds, in which a pair of cards are dealt to each player, several more cards are dealt in a pool on the table, and players are given opportunities to raise their bets or bluff their way to victory.
Card strength: These are the poker hand rankings
Before you start playing, however, make sure you have the right number of players. Games of poker generally find their sweet spot at six to eight players, although higher and lower player counts aren’t unheard of.
As well as the players, one person should also be the dealer, responsible for dishing out the cards. In casual circles, players usually take turns dealing, passing a ‘dealer’ token around the table.
Alongside the dealer, two more roles are assigned to the players that force players to bet: ‘small blind’ and ‘big blind’. The player to the left of the dealer is assigned the small blind, and must bet half the usual minimum bet; the player to the left of them is assigned the big blind, and must make the minimum bet. Both blinds are made before cards are dealt. After a full match is played, the dealer, small blind and big blinds rotate clockwise around the table.
- The small blind and big blind are made.
- Each player receives two cards dealt face down. These are called the ‘holecards’.
- First round of betting.
- Flop: the dealer places three cards face up in the middle of n the table.
- These are called the ‘community cards’.
- Second round of betting.
- Fourth Street: The dealer adds a fourth, face-up card to the community cards.
- Third round of betting.
- River: The dealer adds the fifth, and final card to the community.
- Final round of betting.
- Showdown: All remaining players turn over their cards. The player with the highest hand takes the pot.
Poker betting options
In each round of betting, players have several options available to them. You might base your betting decision on how confident you are in your own hand, as well as how confident you are of your opponents’.
- Call – Make a bet equal to the previous bet.
- Raise – Make a bet larger than the previous bet.
- Fold – Withdraw from the match, surrendering your hand and any bets you’ve previously made. You might do this if someone has made a bet that you’re unwilling to match.
- Check – Decline to bet but reserve the right to call or raise later in the round. This option is only available until the first bet in a round has been made.
- All in – Bet all of your remaining chips. This might be done when you don’t have enough to call a bet but still want to play the match, or if you’re very sure of your hand and want to risk it all.
Betting continues until every player has called (meaning every player has matched one another’s bets) or every player has gone all in, pushing all of their chips to the middle of the table (a fairly unlikely scenario).
In many games of poker, particularly those played in casinos, limits are imposed on the size of bets players can legally make. These limits take three main forms:
Fixed limit – Players can only raise by fixed amounts. This prevents huge bets being made to massively increase the pot.
Pot limit – Players may only raise by an amount that’s less than or equal than the total pot. Again, this prevents huge bets, but gives more leeway.
No limit – Players can raise as much as they like.
Poker hand rankings
In the showdown, the final round of the game, all remaining players will compare their hands to determine which of them has won. All players simultaneously reveal their cards, before assessing which of them can create the strongest hand using their holecards and the community cards in the centre of the table.
Poker hands consist of five cards, and are ranked according to their relative strength. These are the poker hand rankings from highest to lowest.
- Royal flush
- Straight flush
- Four of a kind
- Full house
- Three of a kind
- Two pair
- High card
For a more detailed rundown, read our poker hand rankings guide, in which we walk you through what makes up each hand.
Remember, poker is just as much a game of bluffing as it is a game of careful hand building. Even if you hold a weak hand, projecting an air of confidence through the manner in which you present yourself and cast your bets might win you the game. Manipulate your opponents into folding so you won’t even reach the showdown, eliminating them from play before you’re even in a position to reveal your weak hand.
Not all games of poker play the same. While we’ve laid out the basics of Texas hold’em here, there are plenty of other poker variations that introduce subtle rule changes. Here’s some of the more popular variations:
Stud poker – There are several ‘stud’ poker variants (for example, seven-card stud, six-card stud, and razz), in which players are dealt a combination of face-up and face-down cards between betting rounds. This provides more information to the opposing players, and removes all shared community cards.
Game goodies: Check out the best free card games
Draw poker – Also spanning many poker variants (such as five-card draw), in draw poker, players are dealt a complete hand before the first betting round begins. Each player develops their hand in later rounds by drawing replacement cards, trying to curate the highest-ranking hand possible.
Community card poker – The most popular form of poker, this is the category that Texas hold’em falls into. This variant involves a number of face-up cards being dealt in the centre of the table, which every player can use to form their hand. Omaha hold’em also falls into this category. In this game, players are dealt four holecards, instead of two as in Texas hold’em,, and must construct their final poker hand using exactly two of these cards plus three of the five community cards.