Texas Hold'em 101

How to Play

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Hold'em Hands. Photo Courtesy (Nevada Casino History)

Many people have watched Texas Hold'em tournaments on television that make the game look easy to play. However, before you race down to the casino and sign up for a high stakes tournament, you need to learn the basics of the game and get some playing experience in low-limit games. The matches you see on television are No Limit Texas Hold’em games. That means that at any time a player may bet all of their chips.

This is a great format for tournaments, but as a beginning player, you will want to first learn to play Limit Texas Hold’em.

Limit games have structured betting rounds, and you are limited to the amount of money you can bet during each round. More precisely, you will want to play Low Limit Texas Hold’em as you learn the game. Some types of low-limit games you will find in the card room have a betting structure of $2/4, $3/6 $4/8. After you gain experience, you can move up the higher limits or No Limit, if you desire. First, here's an explanation of the game.

How to Play

Texas Hold’em is a deceptively simple game to learn but a harder game to master. Each player is dealt two personal cards, and then five community cards are turned up on the board. You make the best five-card hand using any combination of the seven cards. For this example, we will use a low limit structure of $2/4: There are four betting rounds and the first two have a limit of $2 and the last two rounds have a limit of $4.

You must bet or raise only the amount of the limit for that round.

The Start

To start a new hand, two "blind" bets are put up or "posted." The player immediately to the left of the dealer puts up or "posts" the small blind, which is half the minimum bet ($1). The player to the left of the small blind posts the big blind, which is equal to the minimum bet ($2 for this game).

The rest of the players do not put up any money to start the hand. Because the deal rotates around the table, each player will eventually act as the big blind, small blind and dealer.

The Opening

Each player is dealt two cards face down, with the player on the small blind receiving the first card and the player with the dealer button getting the last card. The first betting round begins with the player to the left of the big blind either putting in $2 to "call" the blind bet, putting in $4 to "raise" the big blind or folding his hand. The betting goes around the table in order until it reaches the player who posted the small blind. That player can call the bet by putting in $1, since a dollar blind was already posted. The last person to act is the big blind.

If no one has raised, the dealer will ask if they would like the option. This means the big blind has the option to raise or just "check." By checking, the player does not put in any more money. A rookie mistake sometimes occurs here: Because the blind is a live bet live, the player with the big blind has already put his bet in. I have seen some players throw their cards in not realizing that they are already in the hand. Another rookie mistake is betting or folding your cards when it is not your turn.

The Flop

After the first betting round is completed, three cards are dealt and turned face up in the middle of the table. This is known as the "flop." These are community cards used by all the players. Another betting round begins with the first active player to the left of the dealer button. The bet for this round is again $2.

The Turn

When the betting round after the flop is completed, the dealer turns a fourth card face up in the middle of the table. This is called the "turn." The bet after the turn is now $4 and begins again with the first active player to the left of the dealer.

The River

Following the betting round for the turn, the dealer will turn a fifth and final card face up. This is called the "river," and the final betting round begins, with $4 as the minimum bet.

The Showdown

To determine the winner, the players may use any combination of their two hole cards and the five cards on the "board" (table) to form the highest five-card hand.

In some rare cases, the best hand will be the five cards on board. Don’t count on this happening too often. In that case, the active players will split the pot. A sixth card is never used to break a tie.

Winning Tips: Before the Flop

Position, patience and power are the key to winning in Texas Hold’em. The most important decision you will make is choosing to play a starting hand. The biggest mistake a player makes is playing too many hands. Being aware of your position in relationship to the dealer is important in Texas Hold’em: You need a stronger hand to act from early position, because you have more players acting after you who may raise or re-raise the pot. It is important that you are patient and wait for powerful starting hands to play from the correct position.

The player to the left of the big blind acts first before the flop. He along with the other two players to his left are in early position. The next three players are middle position and the ones after that are in late position. The blinds act last before the flop and first after it. Here are some guidelines for starting hands that are good to play when you are starting out. They are fairly tight but will give you a good foundation to work with until you learn a little more about the game.

Hands to Play in Early Position 

Raise with A-A, K-K and A-Ks from any position (s denotes suited cards). Call with A-K, A-Qs, K-Qs and Q-Q J-J, T-T and fold everything else.

Hands to Play in Middle Position

Call with, 9-9, 8-8, A-Js, A-Ts, Q-Js, A-Q, K-Q.

Hands to Play in Late Position 

Call with A-Xs, K-Ts, Q-Ts, J-Ts, A-J, A-T and small pairs. (Note: X denotes any card.) It takes a stronger hand to call a raise than it does to make with one. If there is a raise before it is your turn to act, you should fold. Why put in two bets with marginal hands?

Note: Many players will play any two suited cards from any position and they will play an ace with any small kicker. These hands are losers in the long run, and you should avoid getting into the habit of playing them.

They are traps that will cost you money.

Understanding the Blinds

Once you post your blind, the money no longer belongs to you. Many players feel they must defend their blinds by calling all raises even with marginal hands. Don’t waste additional money on marginal hands. Also, don’t automatically call with the small blind if you have nothing. Saving a half bet will pay for your next small blind.

Understanding the Flop 

Deciding whether to continue playing after seeing the flop will be your second biggest decision. It can also be one of the most costly decisions if you continue after the flop with an inferior hand.

It is said that the flop defines your hand. That is because after the flop your hand will be 71 percent complete. Where does this figure come from? Assuming you play your hand out to the end, it will consist of seven cards. After the flop, you have seen five cards or 5/7 of the final hand, which is equal to 71 percent. With this much of your hand completed, you should have enough information to determine whether to continue.

Poker Author Shane Smith coined the phrase “Fit or Fold." If the flop does not fit your hand by giving you top pair, or better, or a straight or flush draw, then you should fold if there is a bet in front of you. If you played a small pair from late position and you do not flop a third one to make a set, you should throw the pair away if there is a bet.

Understanding the Turn

If you think you have the best hand after seeing the turn card and are first to act, then go ahead and bet. Many players will try to get fancy and attempt to check raise in this position. If the other players also check, you have lost a bet or two. In low-limit games, the straightforward approach is usually the best, as there are plenty of players who will call you. Make them pay. Why give them a free card if you don’t have to?

If another player raises on the turn and you hold only one pair, you are more than likely beaten and should fold.

If you get to the turn and you hold only two unsuited overcards (two cards higher that any cards on the board) with no flush or straight draws, then you should fold if there is a bet in front of you. Too much money is lost by players who hope to catch a miracle card on the river. The best hand you can make with two unsuited overcards is a pair, which will probably lose anyway.

Understanding the River

If you have been playing properly, you will not see the river card unless you have a strong hand that is a favorite to win or you have a draw to a winning hand. Once the river card is turned over, you know exactly what you have. If you were drawing to a hand, you know whether you were successful or not. Obviously, if you do not make your hand, you will fold.

As with the turn, you should bet your hand if you are first to act. If you bet and the other player folds, they more than likely would have just checked if you had checked in an attempt to check raise.

When you get to the river there are two mistakes that you can make. One is to call a losing bet, which will cost you the price of a bet. The other is to fold your hand, which will cost you all the money in the pot. Obviously folding your hand will be a far more costly mistake then merely calling a bet. If there is a slight chance you may have the winning hand, you should call.

Reading the Board

Your ability to read the board will help make you a winning player, and it is not hard to learn. Since Texas Hold’em is played with community cards turned up for all to see, you can easily determine the best possible hand that can be made from the board cards and two unseen cards. It is extremely important that you learn determine how your hand stacks up against the other possible hands that your opponents may hold.

Two situations should send up a red flag when you see them: If there are three suited cards on the board, someone can make a flush. If a player raises when the third suited card is turned over you should be wary of continuing. If there is a pair on the board, a player can make four of a kind or a full house.

Pay Attention

When you are not involved in a hand you should still pay attention to the game. You can gain valuable information about your opponents simply by observing what hands they play.

Never show your hand if you don’t have to. If you win the pot because everyone else folded you are under no obligation to show your cards. You don’t want to give away any information about yourself if you don’t have to, and players who turn over their cards when they don’t have to are doing just that.

Continuing Education

It is impossible to learn to play expert Hold’em by reading this short article. Learning to play winning Texas Hold’em requires reading and studying. If you read just one book about the game, you will be ahead of about 80 percent of the other payers at the table. Spending the money for a good poker book is a lot cheaper than trying to get your education at the tables in a live game.