How to Play Poker: Basic Poker Rules for New Players
Poker games come in many different forms, but most of those different forms of poker share many underlying rules. The most popular form of poker, by far, is Texas Hold'em.
Most poker games utilize the standard poker hand ranking system, so it's important to know which hand wins head to head when you turn your cards face up. Betting structures, like no-limit, pot-limit, and fixed-limit, can be applied to many different card games.
Here's a brief overview of some of the basic rules of poker. If you want to brush up on the rules of a specific poker game, click one of the buttons above.
In most poker games, players are tasked with trying to make the best five-card poker hands using standard poker hand rankings.
The following hand rankings apply to most poker variants, aside from the few games that use lowball hand rankings. The best poker hand is a royal flush, the second-strongest hand is a straight flush, and so on down the list, until you get to high card, the lowest hand ranking.
Royal flushes and straight flushes, along with four of a kind, full house, three of a kind, flushes, and straights, often represent the best hand when a showdown commences.
Poker Hand Rankings
Blinds and Antes
The small blind and big blind function as forced bets that form the backbone of the game in many poker variants. Texas Hold'em and Omaha, the two most popular poker games in the world, use the blinds system, and it's important to know exactly how these mandatory bets operate.
In games that use blinds, each hand begins with the big blind placed one position to the direct left of the small blind. Players in these positions must put in predetermined betting amounts before each hand. The small blind is always directly to the left of the dealer button.
For poker cash games, these amounts are generally noted in the listing for the game. For example, a $1/$2 cash game at a live casino means the small blind is $1, and the big blind is $2.
In most poker games, the minimum allowed bet for any round of betting is equal to the big blind amount.
Antes are mandatory bets that are sometimes posted by all players at the table, or by the big blind player in some formats.
For example, a $5/$10 cash game with a $1 ante requires each player at the table to put $1 in the pot before each hand. This is in addition to the blinds, meaning pots in games that use an ante start off bigger than games without an ante.
Limit vs No Limit
The term "no limit" seems simple enough. In any no limit poker game, players can bet all of their chips at any time.
Most no-limit games use a system of blinds and a button, and for more on that system check out Blinds, Antes & The Button.
For example, let's say we're observing a no limit hold'em cash game, played at $1/$2 stakes. In this example game, six players are seated at the table, each with $200 in chips.
The small blind posts $1, and the big blind $2. The cards are dealt, and the player directly to the left of the big blind starts the preflop betting round. In all subsequent rounds, the small blind, or the first player to the left of the small blind, starts as the first bettor.
In a no limit game, this player can bet any amount, up to all of his/her chips. If this player wagers the whole $200, this is known as going all-in.
At any time during a hand, any player can go all-in. Note that the maximum amount for an all-in equals the amount of chips in front of a player when the hand starts.
Many poker games, like stud poker variants, are almost always played with limit betting rules. Any poker game can be played with a limit betting structure, however.
A Limit Texas Hold'em game played at $2/$4 limits generally means the blinds are $1/$2. Limit games are played with a "small bet" and a "big bet", with the big blind usually equal to the small bet.
Many limit games use a structure where the maximum bet/raise is equal to the small bet in the early rounds of betting and increases to the big bet amount in later betting rounds. In each round, the betting is "capped" after three raises, and subsequent players can only call after that.
In any given poker hand, the active player must choose among four different actions:
- Call (matching the amount of the current open bet or raise).
- Raise (increase the amount of the current open bet or raise, which any subsequent players must at least match to stay in).
- Fold (pushing their cards into the middle and surrendering any chance to win the hand).
- Check (pass the action to the next player without betting anything. Checking can only be used when there's no open bet or raise in front of you.
Cash Game Stakes
Go to a poker room and you might see a display with listing like “$1/$2 NL Hold’em” or “$4/$8 Limit Hold’em”.
The “$1/$2 NL Hold’em” listing denotes a No Limit Texas Hold’em game with a $1 small blind and $2 big blind. The “NL” descriptor means this game uses a no-limit betting structure, in which players can bet all of their chips at any time.
The “$4/$8 Limit Hold’em” listing indicates a Texas Hold’em game with a $4 small blind and $8 big blind. This game would be played with limit betting rules, meaning there’s a cap on what a player can bet in each betting round.
For more on betting structures, take a look at the “Limit vs. No Limit vs. Pot Limit tab above.
As a general rule, a standard buy-in for a no-limit cash game is 100 times the big blind. The $1/$2 NL game would feature a standard buy-in of $200.
A 200NL game denotes a $1/$2 No-Limit Hold’em game, with a max buy-in of $200. This notation style always indicates a game where the maximum buy-in is 100 big blinds.
Tournament stakes are determined by how much it costs to buy into the tournament. Any poker game, including Texas Hold'em, Pot Limit Omaha, 7 Card Stud, draw poker games, and others, can be played with a tournament format.
The blinds in a cash game stay the same throughout. Sitting down at a $2/$5 No-Limit Hold'em cash games means the blinds will be $2 and $5 for as long as you sit in that game.
Poker tournaments, however, use a system where the blind amounts increase at regular intervals. In the WSOP Main Event, for example, Level 1 starts with the blinds at 100/200. Each level lasts two hours, and after Level 1 is over, Level 2 is played.
Level 2 adds a big blind ante to the structure and is played at 100/200/200. Level 3 sees the blinds and antes increase to 200/300/300, and the increases continue every time a new level begins.
Tournament poker chips have no cash value, as the buy-in of a given tournament determines how much money goes into the prize pool.
Basic Texas Hold'em Rules
Texas Hold’em stands as the world’s most popular and well-known poker game. The majority of cash games, tournaments, and home poker games around the world are Texas Hold’em games.
Each player in a Texas Hold’em game gets two hole cards, and five community cards are dealt face-up on the board. The object of Texas Hold’em is to make the best five-card poker hand using any combination of hole cards and community cards.
The dealer begins each game by distributing these cards one at a time to each player, starting with the player in the small blind position. Hole cards are kept face down throughout the game, and can only be seen by the player holding them.
After every player has two hole cards, the first of four rounds of betting begins. Texas Hold’em betting rounds are known as preflop, flop, turn, and river.
Once the preflop betting round is complete, the dealer puts three cards face up on the board, and these community cards are known as the flop. After a round of betting from all active players, a fourth card (the turn) is dealt. Another round of betting occurs before the fifth and final card (the river) is dealt. The river is followed by one final round of betting.
After that final round of betting, all remaining players turn their hole cards face up. This part of the hand is called the showdown, and the best hand wins at this according to poker hand rankings.
Want more detailed rules? Learn how to play Texas Hold'em here.
Basic Omaha Poker Rules
Omaha Hold’em (also known as just Omaha) is a game that plays similar to Texas Hold’em, but with a few key differences.
Like Texas Hold’em, the object of Omaha is to make the best possible five-card hand, using a combination of hole cards and five community cards.
In Omaha, however, players are dealt four hole cards and must make a five-card hand using exactly two hole cards and three community cards. This differs from Texas Hold’em, in which players get two hole cards, and can use any combination of hole cards and community cards to make the best five-card hand.
There are two common versions of Omaha that are played around the world, regular Omaha and Omaha Hi-Lo (aka Omaha Eight or Better).
Omaha Hi is usually played with either pot-limit or limit betting rules. For more on the different betting structures in poker, check out our guide to Poker Betting Rules.
Pot Limit Omaha is commonly called “PLO”, and is the second-most popular poker game in the world, behind Texas Hold’em.
Want more detailed rules? Learn how to play Pot Limit Omaha poker here.
Other Poker Rules to Learn
Seven Card Stud
Stud is almost always played with limit betting rules. For more on limit game structures, including references to the "small bet" and "big bet" referenced throughout this article, see our guide to Poker Betting Rules.
Stud is unlike Hold’em and Omaha, where two players to the left of the dealer post blinds. Instead, each player at the table posts an ante, usually worth 5% of the big bet.
The player who receives the lowest ranking door card posts a forced bet called the bring-in which is worth 5 times the ante. If they so choose, this player may also complete the bet, by posting the entire small bet.
In a $5/$10 Seven Card Stud game, players would post $0.50 ante, and the bring-in would be $2.50. If the player chose to complete, they would need to pay $5 (the amount of the small bet).
There are no community cards in stud games. Instead, each player in Seven Card Stud receives seven unique cards. The first dealing street includes two down cards and one face-up card to each of the players. The second round and three more betting rounds commence after that, with each player dealt an additional card in each round.
After all seven cards have been dealt, the players will be left with three cards face down and four cards face up. After the final round, the player's hand that ranks best wins.
Want more detailed rules? Learn how to play 7 Card Stud here.
Razz is is a variant of Stud with almost identical gameplay, but hand rankings are reversed. While Stud follows the conventional high hand poker rankings, Razz follows the A-to-5 lowball hand rankings.
However, there are no high hands in Razz, which means there are no qualifications for low hands. A player can have a Queen low or a pair or worse and still win the hand, so long as their hand is lower than their opponent's at showdown.
Want more detailed rules? Learn how to play Razz here.
Hi-Lo games play with the best high hand winning half of the pot, and the best low hand wining the other half. The low hand must “qualify” with at least five cards below 8 in order to win half of the pot. This game uses the A-to-5 lowball rankings for low hands, meaning straights and flushes do not count against your hand.
It is possible for a player to win both the high and low portions of the pot–known as “scooping”. If there is no qualifying low hand (five cards below 8), the best high hand will scoop the whole pot.
Hi-Lo games are also known as split pot games and/or eight or better. Omaha 8, for example, is an Omaha poker game played with hi-lo rules.
Short Deck Hold'em is an action game very similar to Texas Hold’em, except it's played with a 36-card deck, with all of the 2s through 5s removed. This game is also known as 6 Plus Hold'em.
With the 2s through 5s removed, however, there is a key hand ranking change: a flush beats a full house. Flushes are rarer, with just nine cards of each suit in the deck. So, the flush ranks ahead of the full house in all short-deck variations.
In some rarer versions of Short Deck, there is an additional change: three-of-a-kind beats a straight. Straights are mathematically more common than three-of-a-kind in short deck poker, so three-of-a-kind beats a straight in certain versions. Drawing to a straight is much less appealing with this rule in place, as you are drawing dead if your opponent has a set or trips.
Aces can still be used to make the low and high end of a straight, and so the lowest possible straight is A-6-7-8-9 instead of A-2-3-4-5.
However, the more common version of Short Deck poker ranks straights ahead of three-of-a-kind (even though straights are more common). At the Triton Poker Series, they played with these hand rankings to promote action.
Because these different versions exist, you should always double-check the hand rankings of the game you’re in.
Want more detailed rules? Learn how to play Short Deck poker here.