Poker Games 101 (How Poker Works)

Graduation Cap and Poker 101 Text

Poker isn’t just one game – it’s a huge number of games that share certain characteristics. The main characteristic that makes poker what it is has to do with betting on who has the best “hand” – which is pokerspeak for a combination of cards.

Most poker games use a standard deck of 52 cards (53 if you’re playing with a joker).

Variations of poker change with the number of cards dealt face up or down and how many cards are in use during the game. Betting limits and procedures can vary from variation to variation, too. In some games, players share cards with other players, and in other variants, you get to discard and draw new cards to your hand.

The purpose of this post is to give you the 30,000-feet overview of the hobby as a whole so that you can choose a poker game to start with and begin a poker hobby.

The Basics of Poker Bets and Betting

The only thing more important than the playing cards in a poker game is knowing how betting works. Without betting, it isn’t a poker game.

I’ve never played in a poker game that doesn’t use what’s called a “forced bet” to stimulate the action. If you never had to bet until you liked your hand, the game would dry up while you waited to get dealt a monster hand.

And when you did get such a hand, everyone would fold because they’d know what you had.

The forced bet has 2 variations – an ante or a blind.

In games with an ante, everyone at the table must make the ante bet before being dealt a hand. If you don’t “ante up,” you don’t get any cards. The ante is usually minimal compared to the size of the other bets during the other betting rounds, but since you’re putting the ante in on every hand, it adds up.

In games with an ante, only 2 players must bet each hand – the small blind and the big blind. The blinds rotate around the table, so everyone gets a chance to make this forced bet. Blinds are generally larger than antes, but they’re relatively small compared to the size of the bets in the later rounds of the action.

Pile of Poker Chips, Money, and Cards

The betting happens in order, and depending what game you’re playing, is subject to restrictions related to how big or small it can be.

Players have the option to fold, which means they don’t have to put money into the pot, but they also relinquish any claim to the pot at the showdown – the phase after all the betting where the hands are compared to determine the winner of all the bets.

They also have the option to check, which means no one in front of them hasn’t bet. They’re not folding, but they’re not putting money into the pot, either.

Players can bet if no one has bet before them. Once they’ve done so, the other players must call that bet – match it – to stay in the hand.

Finally, players can raise – this means to match the bet and place another bet on top of it. The original bettor must put the additional money into the pot to stay in the hand.

The other players at the table must match the original bet along with the raise.

What Happens in What Order at the Poker Table

Regardless of the poker variant, some aspects of poker remain more or less the same regardless. One of these aspects is what happens in what order at the poker table.

In a casino poker game, the hands are dealt by an employee of the casino – the dealer.

In a home poker game, the players take turns being the dealer. The position rotates around the table after each hand.

Poker players use a white disk called a button to signify who the dealer is on each hand. It rotates around the table clockwise to show who the dealer is. The button goes around the table even in casino poker games, because even though the dealer never changes, who bets first is determined by the player’s relationship to the dealer.

The cards are always dealt one at a time clockwise around the table. If someone deals you 5 cards, then the next guy 5 cards, and so on, he’s doing it wrong.

In a game with blinds, the dealer position determines who must make the blind bets. Also, the player to the right of the dealer traditionally gets to cut the cards after the shuffle – although this isn’t done in a casino cardroom with a professional dealer.

All the bets during the betting action go into the middle of the table and are called the pot. To win the pot, you must convince all the other players at the table to fold or show the best hand at the end of the betting sequence.

In most poker games, there’s a round of betting after more cards are revealed, and the procedure for that is determined by which game you’re playing.

Any time one player bets and no one else is willing to call or raise, the bettor wins the hand without a showdown.

A player with a poor hand who bets as if he has a good hand is “bluffing,” which is considered an essential poker skill by a lot of players.

The hands in poker always consist of 5 cards, even if you have more cards than that in your hand. You take the 5 cards that create the highest-ranked hand that you can.

Hand strength is determined by the rankings and the suits of the cards in a hand. For example, a hand that’s made up of 5 cards all of the same suit is a flush, which beats many hands. A straight is a hand made up of 5 cards in sequence, like 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Draw Poker

Draw poker is the game most of us learn to play as kids. It’s still occasionally popular in home poker games, but it’s rare to find it being spread in a casino.

Each player gets 5 cards, all of which are face-down. There’s a round of betting followed by a drawing round. You get to discard cards and get new cards.

Once you’ve done this, there’s a final round of betting and a showdown.

In most draw poker games, even in a home environment, you don’t share cards with the other players.

Stud Poker

In stud poker games, you get cards face-up and face-down in a configuration based on which stud game you’re playing. After each card gets dealt, there’s a round of betting.

Most stud poker games are of the 7-card stud variety, which means that each player gets 7 cards total. Traditionally, 3 of those cards are face-down, but 4 of them are face-up, so you have some information about the other players’ hands.

5-card stud is also popular.

Stud games use antes rather than blinds, but they often have multiple variations in how you play – especially if you’re playing in a home poker game or a casual environment.

As with draw poker, you don’t share cards with the other players in a stud poker game.

Holdem Poker

Most people hear the words “holdem poker” and think of Texas holdem.

And, indeed, that is the most popular variant of holdem.

But it’s far from the only one.

Holdem poker games are games where you have some cards in your hand, but you also have cards in the middle of the table which you share with the other players at the table. These are called community cards.

Poker Hand Next to Poker Chips

In Texas holdem, the most popular variant, you get 2 cards face-down, and you share 5 cards with the other players at the table. You make your final hand from the best combination of any of those 7 cards – you don’t even have to use your “hole cards.”

In Omaha, you get 4 hole cards with the same 5 community cards, but in this variation, you must use 2 cards from your hand and 3 cards from the community cards.

Pineapple holdem is a variant somewhere between Texas holdem and Omaha, where you get 3 hole cards instead of 2 or 4.

Texas holdem is, of course, the most popular poker variation in the world today.


That probably serves as good an introduction to the game of poker as I could fit into a single blog post. Of course, I could write an entire book about just one poker variation – and many people have done so.

You can find books about Texas holdem, Omaha, stud, and multiple variations of each.

But the best way to learn is to get into a game. I recommend trying some of the free, play-money games available online just to get used to how the game works and what the order of operations is at the table.

Depending where you live, you can also play real money online poker.

And of course, if you are ready and able, nothing beats an exciting game of live poker.