Poker is not a new game. The modern version we play today appeared around the year 1834 and was first played by various groups of North American settlers.
Since that time, many things have changed, while others have remained the same. The game still requires players to combine cards to get the best hand possible, while also hiding them and placing bets before the game ends. Poker still uses a 52-card deck as well (as was the case in 1834). At the same time though, several variations of the game (like Omaha and Texas Hold’em) have emerged, and the ways in which people play –– now through apps, online, and at major casino hubs –– have changed as well.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about poker, however, is that it has not only remained popular but become more so after nearly two centuries of existence in its modern form.
Today, poker is featured prominently in books and movies, on live broadcasts of high-stakes games and tournaments, and across an impressive variety of games designed for consoles, desktops, and mobile devices. The popularity of the game has also increased recently due to lockdowns that forced people to find new ways to entertain themselves and interact with friends without leaving their homes. At this point, it seems that with each passing year more people are playing the game. However, the competitive nature of poker and the number of different ways to approach it still intimidate some new players. So in this piece, we’ll take an in-depth look at what you need to start playing –– from the basic rules to knowledge of where you can play.
Let’s get started.
Learning the Basics
In poker, players are dealt a few cards (the specific number depending on the variety of the game at hand), and then have to make a bet or fold based on how strong they judge those cards to be. After this, most varieties allow pokers to improve their hands, either by exchanging cards or by taking advantage of community cards that all players can use simultaneously. There is usually at least one subsequent round of betting following the exchange stage, during which players decide whether to stay in (match the latest bet), fold, or raise (adding more money to the latest bet for other players to match). Eventually, after each round of betting and opportunity to improve hands has passed, players who have stayed in reveal their cards –– and the player with the best one collects the pool of money, usually represented by chips.
In order to understand what they’re trying to accomplish within this process, it is essential for beginning poker players to understand the rankings of different poker hands. Understanding what comprises each hand –– for example, that five cards of the same suit are “flush,” and five cards in sequence are a “straight” –– will inform a player as to what to aim for. And understanding how those hands rate against one another will drive decisions regarding whether or not to stay in a hand, raise a bet, and so on.
As explained, poker hands are not revealed until the end of a given round. As a result, it is actually possible to win a game just by making the opponent believe that you have a strong hand when really you do not –– forcing them to fold out of concern for what cards you <em>might</em> be holding. This is known as bluffing, and understanding both how to do it and how to recognize others doing it are key components of the game.
At the same time, it is important to understand the etiquette of bluffing. In most poker circles, direct deception –– telling other players you have better cards than you actually have –– is frowned upon. Some playful banter is okay if opponents want to engage, but bluffing is primarily a strategy played out on the table.
Playing Texas Hold’em
We’ve mentioned that there are many varieties of poker, and frankly, each one could come with its own how-to-play guide. Most of them do operate within the same basic parameters outlined above –– but we do want to take some time to address Texas Hold’em more directly, because it is by far the most popular variety of the game.
In this variation, a player is only dealt two cards. Their hand is completed by a set of common cards gradually revealed by the dealer: three cards first (called “the flop”), then another card (“the turn”), and a final one “the river”). Betting rounds occur in between these reveals, such that players are continually adjusting assessments of the hands they can put together based on the new cards made available. And once everyone remaining has bet following the river, the “showdown” occurs, and players show their cards.
Hold’em has been described as a simple game to learn, but a harder one to master, and most regular players would agree with the line.
Trying Live and Digital Poker
In the past, poker was always played in person at tables, either in homes, bars and lounges, casinos, or somewhere similar. And to be sure, these options still exist, with some of the most high-profile and high-stakes games and tournaments in the world still occurring in major casinos. However, the last 25 years or so have also seen impressive growth in digital options for poker players.
One of the advantages of playing poker through a digital medium is that opponents are unable to read your body language. In in-person poker, factors like your posture, gaze, and facial expressions can betray intentions or emotions that skilled opponents can take advantage of. In online formats, however, the only information players can use to attempt to gain advantages over you is the way you play.
Another important factor to consider is that poker through a digital medium tends to be a much faster game than what you experience in person. Cards are dealt with rapidly, players make decisions quickly, and there are no breaks for the dealer to speak with a player, or for players to speak with one another. On some platforms, there are even sit-n-go modes, which enable players to switch tables as soon as they fold. This makes it easier to find suitable games, but also keeps games running quickly.
We should note also that virtual reality has emerged of late as another version of a digital medium for poker. Games like PokerStars VR now enable players to create representative avatars and enter virtual environments to compete with opponents. For the time being, this is essentially a more immersive version of online or app-based poker. But in time, improved VR tech could make these games more closely resemble the in-person variety (for instance, by bringing expressions and body language back into play).
Choosing a Specific Platform
For those who do choose to play poker digitally, it is important to choose the right platform to play on. There are first and foremost dozens of poker apps –– such as Zynga Poker and WSOP for free play, and 888 Poker and PokerStars for real cash games (which are only legal in certain regions). Most of these apps are at least vaguely similar, though it’s important to identify the subtle differences –– such as how many free chips you get to play with on a just-for-fun app, or what deposit methods are allowed at a real-money platform.
Similarly, there are a lot of platforms available online. Some of the best free-play options exist now through social media (where Zynga is an option again) or PC download (with games like Poker Club and Prominence Poker providing live multiplayer options). But there are also mainstream, real-money poker sites like PokerStars and GGPoker that draw massive player bases and offer all manner of competitive play.
It’s also worth noting that another alternative has emerged in recent years in the form of cryptocurrency-backed poker platforms. As of this writing, these platforms represent a curious new grey area, in that they are thriving and attracting new players –– but are also largely devoid of proper regulation. The safest option is to steer clear of these options, though there is a chance they’ll become more prominent moving forward.
Poker can be an extraordinarily fun pastime. It helps you to learn new skills, socialize, and maybe even win a little money. But despite the ubiquitous nature of the game, there’s still a lot to learn when you’re new. Bear all of the above in mind, and keep on studying your preferred variety and method of playing, and you’ll be in for a smooth experience.