One of the best ways to get together and have fun is with a gold old-fashioned card game. A fun, house-rules poker night is one of my favorite ways to waste an evening with friends, and really all that is needed is a deck of cards. That being said, there is some etiquette, there are plenty of rules, and of course, you should know the rankings.

The Game

Game Types

The best thing about poker is that there are several ways to play, depending on your personal preference and style. You’ve got the traditional draw games, stud games, and community games (of which Texas Hold ‘Em is a part of). Each type has its many variants and hybrids, which makes for a fun night. In particular, dealer’s choice nights are particularly fun, since you never know what game will be called.

Draw Games

In draw poker players are dealt cards and allowed to draw new cards to replace cards from the original deal. In most draw games, the cards are placed face down and stay face down. Bluffing is more effective and harder to read.

Stud Poker

In stud poker the player gets an initial deal of down cards and then a series of up cards that can be seen by other players. Usually, the last card is dealt down. Many variations exist, and a range of 5 to 8 cards may be dealt (although only the best 5 are played).

Community Poker

Community poker is similar to stud poker, but players receive an initial down deal, followed then by a series of up cards that can be played by all players. The most commonly known version of community poker is Texas Hold’Em. This type of poker game allows for large groups of players, since many of the cards are shared by players.

Getting Started

Getting started requires a little introduction to terminology and how the basics work. We’ll first hit on terminology, then we’ll look at a basic game. For a more formal set of instructions and definitions, see the Robert’s Rules of Poker.

Game Terminology

Action/term Definition
All-inWhen a player is down to his last chips. The player bets all remaining chips and announces “all-in”. Note that house rules may only allow this at certain times.
AnteThe pot builder. This is a pre-set amount that is placed into the pot prior to the deal by all players; usually it is a portion of minimum bet.
BetThe wager, or the chips/money used by a player to bet, call, or raise
BlindA required bet made before any cards are dealt. This is different than the ante, as in a blind game only the blind and big blind must be placed prior to dealing.
Big blindA slightly larger blind, usually double the blind amount.
Burn cardTaking the top card of the deck and putting it in the discard pile prior to dealing the next round (normally done to prevent cheating).
CallTo match the most recent bet made; the player must place the difference between their last bet and the current bet in the pot. Once the player has called, they cannot raise until the round comes to them again.
CheckTo wave the right to initiate betting in the betting round, but still retain the right to act if another player initiates betting. Note that you cannot check after a bet has been placed.
CutDividing the deck into two sections to change the order of the cards. This is customarily done by the person to the right of the dealer prior to the deal.
DowncardA card played facedown in a stud game
FoldThe player removes himself from the current game and tosses the cards facedown. Do NOT show the cards you fold!
HolecardsThe players facedown cards
KickerThe highest unpaired card that helps determine the value of a five-card hand
LowballA draw game where the lowest hand wins
PassDecline to bet; importantly in a pass-and-out game (Jacks or Better for example), a pass must fold.
Pat (or stand-pat)Sticking with the cards you’ve got in a draw game
ProgressivePots that increase in value when no winner is determined at the end of the game, or the pot is rolled into the next game.
RaiseTo increase the amount of a previous wager. Depending on the game and site rules, a limit may be placed on the number and amount of raises.
Rolling ShowdownCards are revealed one at a time by the player until the beat the previous high hand. In other words, if Player A rolls 3, 4, 4, then Player B must roll (one at a time) cards until he can beat Player A’s hand. If Player B cannot beat Player A, a betting round commences, followed by Player C rolling his cards.
Wild CardA card that is declared by the dealer to be equal to either a) any other card in the deck (the card can be anything) or b) is equal to another card (i.e. deuces are also able to be played as 7’s)

Basic Gameplay

While many variations exist, a basic game will have the deal, the ante, the betting round, and the showdown. In general, betting commences clockwise with the person to the left of the dealer and continues until the raise limit is reached or the current bet has been called by all players. At that point, the showdown reveals the winning hand, and the next game is played.

Etiquette Note

If only one person remains at the end of a round (everyone else has folded), that person is not required to reveal his hand! It is extremely bad etiquette, and grounds from immediate removal in professional casinos, to even suggest revealing the cards of that player’s hand!

Game Etiquette

Part of poker is learning the etiquette. There are things you can do, and things that are absolute no-nos. The following is a short list of the don’ts:

Asking the last remaining player to show their hole cards or hand. They don’t have to. Don’t ask.
Betting out of turn. Don’t do it. Betting always progresses sequentially and betting out of order can really mess with other player’s strategies.
Splashing chips into the pot is a no-no and bad form.
Revealing the contents of a live hand before the betting is complete.
Revealing the contents of a folded hand.
Flinging cards.
Not allowing the previous dealer to cut the deck prior to dealing.

To contrast, the following are considered good etiquette:

Wait your turn to fold, check, bet, or raise.
Don’t play with your chips.
When folding, place your cards face down, either in the muck (discard) pile, or in front of you.
Table talk is fine and adds to the game (nothing like flipping a deuce to an otherwise perfect straight flush in 7-card stud and announcing “there’s go’s that straight), but no trash talk.

It goes without saying that folding is permanent. You can’t change your mind.

Hand Rankings

The showdown determines the winner of the round, and the winner is the player with the best five cards (either their own or a combination of theirs and the community cards in some community games). Rankings are as follows, high to low, and they are inclusive of wild card games.

HandCards
Five of a kindFive cards of the same rank (this is only achievable in wild card games)
Royal FlushA-K-Q-J-10 of the same suit
Straight FlushFive consecutively ranked cards of the same suit
Four of a kindFour cards of the same rank
Full HouseThree cards of one rank and two of another. For example: 4-4, 9-9-9 (or 9’s over 4’s)
FlushAny five cards of the same suit
StraightFive consecutively ranked cards of any suit. I.e., 2-3-4-5-6 or 8-9-10-J-Q of mixed suits
Three of a kindThree cards of the same rank
Two pairTwo cards of one rank and two cards of another rank. For example, a hand of 8, 8, 2, 2, J would be expressed as 8’s over 2’s with a Jack kicker
One pairTwo cards of the same rank
High cardThe highest card in the players hand when no other combination is possible.

In the event of ties, or wild card introductions, there are also rules to determine which hand is higher.

Game Variants

Draw Poker Variants

In draw poker players are dealt cards and then given the opportunity to draw and replace a set number of cards in their hand. In these games there are no community cards, and you have no idea what your opponents are holding (with the exception of some passing games).

Rule Note

Unless otherwise specified in the specific game rules, you cannot discard more than 3 cards in a 5-card hand unless you have an Ace. You will have to prove the Ace to receive 4 cards. There are some game variants that specifically allow the exchange of more than 3 cards, but in general you’ll have to hold on to at least 2 cards.

5-card Stud Poker

In 5-card stud poker calculating odds is possible, since you’ll know the community cards. In 5-card stud games cards are dealt in a series of down, then up, then possibly another down, with betting rounds in between.

6-card Stud Poker

The main difference between 5-card and 6-card (or more) poker is that, of course, the player has more than 5 cards at the showdown. In these games, you only play your best 5 cards. Up cards must always be played (unless otherwise stated in the game rules).

7-card Stud Poker

7-card stud poker contains some of the most popular game variations. I personally find 7-card stud variants to be my favorite way to play, since some of these variations can add serious twists and surprises to a game. Variations and game types can be combined (i.e. adding a “Rainout” or “Black Widow” to Baseball where a Queen of Spades turned up kills the game and the hand is re-dealt).

8-card Stud Poker

Community Poker

In community poker, the cards in the center are playable by everyone! If a card is helping you, it’s just as likely it’s also helping someone else! In community poker, players use the best 5 cards to make the best 5-card hand.

Other Games

Tournaments

A fun way to spend a night is with a tournament-style game. The easiest way to do this is with a poker chip set, but a lot of home games will also simply do nickel-dime-quarter poker. There’s no wrong way. Couple of things to consider when working up a tournament.

Blind Determination

Another key item to determine prior to starting a hold’em style tournament is the blind distribution. In general, your chips need to match your blinds, and plan on a set of at least 300 chips for 6 players. In my set, I have chip values of 1, 5, 10, 25, 100, 500, and 1000. The blinds would typically be 1 and 2 to start, and you want the buy-in to be 40-100 times the big blind.

Determine if your blinds are progressive, or in other words, do the blinds increase? Usually, it’s a good idea to have progressive blinds as the high-value chips start accumulating with one or two players. Not progressing the blinds will usually result in very long night.

So, for my chipset, a reasonable blind progression would be 1/2, 2/4, 5/10, 10/20, 20/40, etc. In general, blinds double at each step, and the blind either doubles on a schedule, or after each deal around the table.

Chip Distribution

Chip distribution is the next fun part of the set. How many chips to make it fun, but not boring, and not frustrating. The answer is that it depends on the number of players, then blinds, and personal preference. Typically, plan on 30-40 chips per player. So, using my chip set, I’ve got 1/2 blinds to start, so the buy-in amount to start is ~$200. You can tweak this up as needed, but generally don’t go lower.

You’ll also need to take into account the number of players to figure out if you’ve got enough chips to handle the tournament. So, for 6 players, a 1/2 blind at 100 times the big blind, you’ll need to plan on $1200 in chips in play. Add some cushion for rebuys if allowed.

Some other things to consider:

You want an even chip distribution for players. Having too many low-value chips makes players want to bet blindly, while having too many high-value chips makes players more likely to fold so they can hold onto those chips.
Plan on a set of at least 4 to 5 colors at minimum to allow flexibility.
Plan on “coloring up” later in the game as the low-value chips become obsolete in a progressive blind game.

In general, plan on a 4:3:2:1 distribution. You can tweak this more (4-2-2-1-1, or 5-3-1-1) to increase the number of colors in play, or to increase the number of chips in play. For help, you can use the calculator on this site to help figure out chips in play, number to dole out, and chips remaining.