It’s the most popular poker game in the world and the great news it’s easy to learn and start winning
No-limit hold’em is the most popular poker variant in the world, and the one likely to have kept you glued to the screen if you’ve seen the game on TV. Start by getting the basics straight and you’ll soon be ready for the big poker league in no time.
Let’s start at the beginning. No-limit hold’em is a fast-paced, high-octane community-card game and the most popular form of poker played today.
The aim is to make the best five-card hand from any combination of the two private ‘hole’ cards that you are dealt face down, and the five ‘community’ cards dealt face up which everyone uses.
We’ll go through the play of a hand shortly – as well as all four rounds of betting – but first you need to know about the ‘dealer button’ and the ‘blinds’.
The dealer button
Dealing cards and betting always go clockwise. Each hand, one player gets the dealer button – a small object that looks like a hockey puck and, handily, has ‘dealer’ written on it.
The deal and the action start to the left of who has the button, which moves round one player each hand to make everything equal overall. Of course, if you’re playing with your mates or at a casino there’s a real dealer each hand. Online it’s all done for you but the button shows who the nominal dealer would be each hand.
The position of the dealer is important, because it’s the two players sitting to the dealer’s left who post the blinds. The blinds make the game more exciting and are compulsory bets, cunningly introduced to ensure there’s some money to fight for in every pot. Otherwise, the players would probably sit around discussing golf and sports cars until one of them was dealt Aces, and where would be the fun be in that?
If you’re beginning to get the hang of the language of poker, you’ll have figured out that they’re called blinds because you make these bets ‘blind’, in other words without having seen your cards first. The player to the immediate left of the dealer posts the small blind, and the player to their left posts the big blind (which is usually double the small blind).
The size of the blinds are dictated by the stakes of the table or, if you’re in a tournament, how advanced the game is. But more about that later.
The opening deal
This is how a hand starts. Once the blinds have been posted, it’s time for some cards. Moving clockwise round the table from the dealer, each player receives two cards dealt face down that only they get to see. These are also called pocket cards or ‘hole’ cards, and are not revealed to other players.
Then it’s time for some betting. Make sure you’re comfortable with what we’ve covered so far, and re-read the previous section if necessary. It will pay to get the basics straight at this stage.
First round of betting
Because the blinds are in play, betting starts with the player after those who have already placed the small and big blinds. In other words, it’s the third player to the left of the dealer. At this stage, each player is betting on what hands they feel their pocket cards have the potential of creating.
For this round of betting, each player has three choices: to fold (and throw in their hole cards), raise, or call (in other words, match) the last-biggest bet.
Because the players who posted the blinds have effectively opened the betting, the others in the game have to at least call this bet to stay in the hand on this round. This means that ‘checking’ – a term used when there’s no bet to match and you want to stay in the game but don’t want to place a bet – isn’t an option.
The betting goes round the table in a clockwise direction until each player has called, folded or raised. If no-one has raised by the time the betting returns to the person who posted the big blind, this player may check his own blind, fold or raise.
If there has been a raise, the betting is re-opened (players after the raiser can again choose whether to fold, call or raise) and continues until everyone has folded, put equal amounts in to call or gone ‘all-in’ by betting all the chips they have on the table.
The hand is over either when only one player is left with hole cards because all the others have folded, or when more than one player reaches the showdown. In which case, it’s time for the next stage.
When the first round of betting is out of the way, it’s time for the flop. This is where things begin to get interesting.
The flop is a set of three cards dealt face up in the middle of the table all at once, and each player uses these community cards to build a five-card hand.
Then it’s time for another round of betting. But things change a bit this time, because some players will have dropped out, and there are no blinds after the first round. Betting starts with the first player still in the hand sitting on the immediate left of the dealer.
And, because there are no blinds for the players to match, that player is free to check – as are all the others, unless someone bets.
Then betting becomes similar to that before the flop and takes place among all players still in the hand.
If everyone checks, or when you’ve all put equal amounts in, it’s time to move on to…
The turn card
Once the round of betting has finished, it’s time for a fourth card to be dealt face up on the board. This is the turn card and again can be used by all players to construct their best hand, after which betting follows the same pattern as it did on the flop.
Four cards down, one to go. When betting on the turn is complete, it’s now time for the fifth and final community card to be dealt: the card known as the river. Now that all the cards have been dealt, each player can decide what their best five-card hand is.
Now it’s time for the final round of betting. If more than one player is still in the hand after this round, they move on to the showdown.
It’s now time to see who takes the pot. Each player who’s still in declares their hand. The winner is decided using universal hand rankings. You can use any five cards to make your hand and it might be that the five community cards are actually the best, in which case you’re ‘playing the board’. The point is you can use both, one or none of your hole cards to make up your final hand, but your two hole cards are the only differentials between you and your opponents.
If a player wins the pot by forcing everyone else to fold on the river through betting (obviously a smart guy), there’s no showdown and the winner can decide whether to show their cards or not. Most players don’t, as it’s always nice to keep people guessing. But it’s also nice to have the opportunity to show off when you make a massive bluff and win.
You might already have heard the immortal words, ‘I go all-in’.
This means that you can’t be bet out of a hand if you don’t have enough money. Instead, you can simply go ‘all-in’, whereby you bet all the chips you have on the table. You are entitled to see all the community cards and take part in the showdown, at which stage, if you have the winning hand, you can win up to the amount you went all-in for from each player.
Don’t panic if this is all still a bit hazy. As with so many things in life, the secret is in the doing. Spend some time getting used to it and allow the strategy for winning to become clear.
Before you take a tilt at a World Series bracelet, however, it’s worth playing for free on one of the many poker websites offering practice games until you have mastered the basics. Then it’s good to move on to low-stakes games and play towards raising your standard.
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