How Poker Games Work

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Most people learn about poker games when they’re pretty young – at least they did if they were from my generation.

But this post digs a little deeper into how real money poker games work.

You can use your knowledge of how poker works to win more often, too.

The Basics of Poker

The most important thing about a game that makes it poker is the betting, and the 2nd most important thing is the deck of cards and what you’re doing with it – although you could arguably play poker without cards. (I read an article from Mike Caro once where he argued that point successfully.)

Poker Cards and Chips

In poker, you get a “hand” – some pre-determined number of cards. That collection of cards is ranked according to the standard rankings of hands (usually – but not always).

What do you do with that hand, though?

You decide whether to bet on it, and if you do bet on it, how much are you going to bet on it.

In fact, it’s helpful to know a lot about betting in poker. I’ll cover betting in the next section, and I’ll follow that up with poker hand rankings in the section following.

Then I’ll look at how we put those ideas together into specific poker games.

Betting in Poker

The first thing you need to know about betting in poker is that there’s such a thing as a “forced bet.”

In some games, these forced bets are called “antes.” To play in a game with an ante, you have to put the ante bet into the pot before getting dealt a hand.

In other games, these forced bets are called “blinds.” In those games, the requirement to put money into the pot rotates around the table.

These forced bets exist so that there’s action. If you didn’t have to put any money into the pot once in a while, you’d just fold until you got a premium hand, and everyone else would fold any time you bet.

Poker Chips

The next thing you need to know is that betting happens in a specific order. Don’t indicate what you’re going to do until it’s your turn to act.

Finally, you should know that you have the following betting options available to you:

You can fold. This means that you don’t have to put any money in the pot, but you also don’t have a claim to it regardless of how the hand plays out.

You can check. This means it’s your turn, there’s no action yet, and you don’t want to bet. You’re not folding, but you’re not betting, either. If everyone else checks, you move on to the next roun.

You can bet. This means to put money into the pot. The other players also have to put money in the pot if they want to stay in the hand.

You can call. This means someone bet before you, and you’re willing to put that amount of money in the pot and stay in the hand.

You can raise. This means that you’re going to call the previous bet and increase the size of it for the people acting after you. The original bettor has to decide if he wants to stay in the hand after you raise, too.

Deciding when to take each of these actions is where the skill element of poker comes into play.

The Standard Ranking of Hands

You almost always play poker with a standard 52-card deck. In some home games, you’ll also sometimes include a joker, which acts as a wild card – it can substitute for any card you need to make a stronger hand with.

The cards in the deck have suits and ranks. You have 13 cards in each of 4 suits. The cards are numbered 2 through 9, and there’s also a jack, queen, king, and ace. The suits consist of clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades.

Most poker games use 5 cards to determine how the hand ranks. From best to worst, your poker hands are:

  • 5 of a kind – This is 5 cards of the same rank, like 5 aces or 5 kings. This is only possible in a game with wild cards, for obvious reasons.
  • Straight flush – This is 5 cards of consecutive ranks and also all the same suit. If the cards are all 10 or higher, you have a royal flush.
  • 4 of a kind – 5 cards of the same rank.
  • Full house – 3 cards of one rank and 2 cards of another rank.
  • Flush – 5 cards of the same suit.
  • Straight – 5 cards of consecutive rankings.
  • 3 of a kind – 3 cards of one rank and 2 other cards.
  • 2 pairs – 2 cards of one rank, 2 cards of another rank, a final card of still another rank.
  • A pair – 2 cards of the same rank along with 3 other cards of different ranks.

If you’re going to play poker, you either need to have the hand rankings memorized or have a card with them listed for you.

You can’t possibly maximize your probability of winning in poker unless you understand the hand rankings.

Bluffing and Deception

Poker is also, by its nature, a game of incomplete information. In most games, you’ll know some of the cards your opponents are working with, but you’ll never know all of them.

This means that if you bet and raise with weak cards, your opponents might fold, which means you’ll win money without having to show down a hand. (If everyone folds, you win the pot.)

Poker Bluff

Betting with a hand that has almost no possibility of winning is called bluffing.

You can also bet with a hand that probably isn’t the best hand but has a chance of developing into the best hand.

This is called semi-bluffing.

According to David Sklansky, every time your opponent takes an action different from what he would take if he could see your cards, you gain, and vice versa. (That’s his Fundamental Theorem of Poker, paraphrased.)

Draw Poker Games

The game most people learn first is 5-card draw. Everyone gets 5 cards face-down, there’s a round of betting, then everyone gets to discard cards and replace them. This is followed by another round of betting and a showdown.

Draw poker games usually require you to have a hand of a minimum strength to start betting with.

They also usually require you to make an ante before getting a hand.

Bet sizes are pre-determined, and the ante is almost always much lower than the actual betting limits for the game.

I don’t know of any casino cardrooms that deal this game, but kids still play 5-card draw pretty often. You’ll find it in a lot of home poker games, too.

Stud Poker Games

In a stud poker game, you get some of your cards face-up and some of them face-down. You don’t have a drawing round; you’re stuck with the cards you get.

The cards are dealt in phases, and there’s a round of betting after each phase.

The number of cards in a stud poker game is usually 5 or 7.

Royal Flush

In 5-card stud, you usually start with a face-down card and a face-up card, then a round of betting. The cards continued to get dealt face-up, one at a time, followed by a round of betting, until everyone has 5 cards.

In 7-card stud, you start with 2 face-down cards and one face-up card, then a round of betting after each card is dealt. The best 5-card hand you can make determines whether you win the showdown.

In a lot of 7-card stud games, the pot gets split between the high hand and the best qualifying low hand. In some, the low hand wins the entire pot.

Stud is another game which uses antes rather than blinds.

Community Card Poker Games

If you’ve been paying attention to the zeitgeist, you already know about community card games. Texas holdem is the most well-known, but Omaha is gaining popularity, too.

In a community card game, you get a couple of cards in your hand, but you and your opponents share multiple cards in the center of the table – the board.

In Texas holdem, you get 2 “hole” cards, but in Omaha you get 4.

Community card poker games use blinds, not antes, and there are multiple betting rounds.

You start with hole cards, then a betting round, then the flop – 3 community cards are dealt. Then another betting round follows, and a single community card – the turn – is dealt. The final card is called the river.

There’s a betting round after each of these steps in the deal.

You make the best 5 card you can using your hole cards and the board.

In Texas holdem, you can use any combination of cards from your hand and cards from the board.

In Omaha, you must use 2 – and only 2 – cards from your hole cards, and 3 – and only 3 – cards from the board.

The Rake

Casinos don’t make any money without some kind of potential profit. In poker, they make their money via the rake.

The rake is just a 5% charge they collect from the pot before paying off the winner of a hand.

Otherwise, you’re just competing with the other players at the table.


That’s the basics of how poker games work. There’s a lot more to learn, though – you can read entire books about specific poker games or check out this blog on poker fundamentals.

Poker makes a great lifetime hobby.

Do you understand better how poker works now?