Hold ’em is the most popular casino poker game; if you’re going to pick just one game to learn, Hold ’em should probably be it (although if you play exclusively in homes games, 7-Card Stud is probably the most important game). Although the World Series of Poker includes tournaments in many games, THE world champion is the player who wins the $10,000 entry fee, No-Limit Texas Hold ’em Championship at the World Series of Poker.
Basic Strategy and the Importance of Position
In home poker games, the deal rotates from individual player to individual player; each player deals one game from start to finish, and then passes the deck to the player on his left, so the deal moves around the table clockwise. The player to the dealer’s left must act first, and the dealer acts last. Usually it is a big advantage to act last, because you have more information available to you-the other players may all fold, or several may raise. In casino games, a professional dealer is used, and so the casino must do something to make sure that all the players get a chance to play a hand while acting last. If they didn’t, everyone would fight over the right to sit just to the dealer’s right, and no one would want to sit just to the dealer’s left. The game would never start.
Casinos solve this problem representing the dealer position with a small plastic disc that says “dealer” on it. This disc is called “the button.” The player holding the button is considered to be the dealer for that hand, even though the professional dealer actually deals the cards. After each hand is completed, the button is moved one player to the left. As a result, everyone at the table gets an equal chance to “hold the button” and thus hold the advantageous position of going last.
Except in high stakes no-limit games filled with professionals, hold ’em is played with what is called structured betting. That is, the bets are always a specific size. This allows players to choose a game that is appropriate to the amount of money they wish to risk. I will use a “10-20 game” as an example. In a 10-20 game, the bets are always either $10 or $20, depending on whether it is early in the hand or late in the hand (more on this in a moment). You can’t bet $16, or $34, or $2. If you are going to bet, your bet must be $10 or $20. In a 2-4 game, your bets must always be $2 or $4. Beginning hold ’em players should certainly be looking at playing 1-2 or 2-4 games, until they learn more.
How The Cards Are Dealt
In hold ’em, each player is dealt two cards face down. These cards belong to him, and only him. After a round of betting at the $10 level, the dealer turns three cards face up in the middle of the table. These three cards are called “the flop,” and they belong to EVERYONE at the table. They are “community cards.”
So if Player Number One holds a Jack and a King in his hand, and the flop is A-Q-10, Player Number One now holds an ace-high straight (A-K-Q-J-10). If Player Number two is unfortunate enough to hold a good hand like an Ace and a Queen in his hand, Player Number Two is probably going to lose a lot of money, because Player Two has “flopped” an excellent-looking hand: two pair, aces and queens.
After those players who called pre-flop sees the three-card flop, and examines how well the flop does or does not “fit” with the cards they hold individually, there is another round of betting, again at the $10 level. Then the dealer turns a fourth community card up in the middle. This fourth card is usually called “the turn” or sometimes “fourth street.” There is another round of betting, but now it is at the $20 level. When that round is completed, the dealer turns a fifth and final card up in the middle. This card is usually called “the river,” or sometimes “fifth street.” There is now a final round of betting, again at the $20 level.
Completing Your Hand With Zero, One or Two Cards
To make one’s final 5-card hand, each player may use both of the cards in his own hand, just one, or none! When would you use none of the cards in your own hand? Supposed the five cards on the board were the 3-4-5-6-10 of diamonds, for a flush. If you did not have a diamond in your own hand, nothing you had in your hand could improve the board. Even if you had a pair of Tens in your hand, and thus “could” say your hand is three Tens, you would be making a mistake, because the flush available to you is better than your three Tens. In this situation, you are hoping that no one else has a diamond either, and so you would split the pot. If someone else had, for example, the eight of diamonds in his hand, you would lose, because your 10-6-5-4-3 flush would lose to his 10-8-6-5-4 flush. At the table, they would say his “10-8 beat your 10-6.”
So in our hypothetical 10-20 game, you see that there are two rounds of betting at the $10 level, and two rounds at the higher $20 level.
To start our 10-20 game, the player sitting to the left of the button must place $5 in the pot before any cards are dealt, and the player sitting to HIS left must place $10 into the pot before any cards are dealt. These sums are called “the blinds,” because you must put the money in before you “see” any cards. The $5 is called the “small blind” and the $10 is the “big blind.”
Why force players to bet blind? For the same reason players must put an “ante” into the game in 7-Card stud. Unless there is something sitting there to be won, there would be no good reason to ever enter a hand unless you had the absolute best possible cards, and poker would be very boring. By forcing players to put some money in at the start, the players have something to shoot at. Hold ’em thus begins as a battle for the blind money.
Players For a Hypothetical Hand
Now lets fill our hypothetical 10-20 hold ’em game with nine players:
Seat 1 (the button): Andy
Seat 2 (the small blind): Bob
Seat 3 (the big blind): Chuck
Seat 4: Dave
Seat 5: Ed
Seat 6: Frank
Seat 7: Greg
Seat 8: Hal
Seat 9: Iggy
The dealer will now deal two cards, face down, to each player. He deals them one at a time, starting with Bob. These two cards belong only to the player to whom they are dealt, and that player should take care to avoid letting anyone else see them. The cards dealt are:
Andy: King of hearts and Jack of hearts (Kh-Jh) Bob: Four of spades and Six of diamonds (4s-6d) Chuck: Seven and Eight of diamonds (7d-8d) Dave: Seven of clubs and the Seven of spades (7c-7s) Ed: Ten of hearts and Two of clubs (10h-2c) Frank: Nine of diamonds and Four of hearts (9d-4h) Greg: Queen of spades and Two of hearts (Qs-2h) Hal: Ace of spades and Queen of diamonds (As-Qd) Iggy: Jack of clubs and Five of spades (Jc-5s)
Since Bob and Chuck already have blind money in the pot, Dave is the first to act. Dave has three choices. He can CALL, which means he will put $10 into the pot, matching the size of the previous player’s bet. He can RAISE, which means he will put $20 into the pot, matching the $10 that had already been bet with another $10 increase. Or he can FOLD, throwing his hand away. Let’s assume that after looking at his two cards, Dave calls. There is now a total of $25 in the pot.
Ed now must act, facing the same choices that Dave did. Let’s say he folds, as do Frank and Greg. Hal now decides to raise, and puts $20 into the pot.
Now it’s Iggy’s turn. He too can call, fold, or raise, but now the numbers have changed. It will cost Iggy $20 to call or $30 to raise. He decides to fold.
Now Andy, holding the button, must act, and now perhaps you start to see why holding the button is considered a big advantage. Unless Dave is being tricky, Andy now has some pretty useful information at his disposal. He knows
1) That Bob and Chuck had to put their money into the pot without ever looking at their cards. While they MIGHT have good hands, the odds are against it. 2) That Dave probably has a good but not great hand, because he only called, rather than raising. 3) That he will not have to face Ed, Greg, Frank, or Iggy in the hand, because they have all folded. Compare this to what Dave knew when he called the original $10. Dave knew nothing about the strength of these four players’ hands. 4) That Hal probably has a fairly strong hand, because he raised. Again, there was no way that Dave could have known this when he called the $10.
Andy looks at his hand and decides it is pretty good, and decides to call the $20. Now it is Bob’s turn. Bob already has $5 invested in this pot, via the small blind. He too can fold, call or raise, but because he was forced to put the original $5 in, the amounts are a bit different. It will cost him $15 to call, or $25 to raise. He looks at his cards, realizes that both Hal and Andy probably have good hands, and also realizes that he will be in the uncomfortable position of having to act first on each and every betting round of the game. He folds.
Chuck looks at his cards. He faces a decision similar to Bob’s, but not quite identical. Because Chuck was forced to put $10 in before he ever got his cards, it will cost him only $10 more to play on. He also raise, if he wants, but he sees that his hand isn’t very good and decides just to call, and see if the cards to come improve his hand.
Dave, who called early, must now call another $10 (Hal’s raise) if he wants to play. Because someone raised after Dave called the original $10 bet, Dave is also allowed to raise, but decides to call. This completes the pre-flop betting. There is $85 in the pot: $20 each from Chuck, Dave, Hal and Andy, and $5 from Bob. Hal can’t raise again because he was the player who raised originally, and no one raised him.
The Players Remaining After the Pre-Flop Betting
The players now contesting the pot are:
Chuck, in seat 3 (7d-8d)
Dave, in seat 4 (7c-7s)
Hal, in seat 8 (As-Qd)
Andy, in seat 1 (Kh-Jh)
The dealer now deals out the flop: The Ace of diamonds, the Queen of hearts, and the Ten of diamonds (Ad-Qh-10d). Let’s see what this flop did for, or to, everyone.
Chuck, who was in the big blind, has flopped two diamonds to go with the two diamonds he has in his hand. He is said to have a “flush draw,” because he needs one more diamond to make that powerful hand. If one more diamond arrives on the turn or the river, Chuck will be in good shape, but at the moment, he has nothing but possibilities.
Dave, who held the highest hand before the flop with his pair of sevens, is now losing, because there are many high cards on the board, and players tend to call in hold ’em with big cards in their hands. So even without seeing the other players’ cards, Dave is pretty sure he is trailing.
Hal, who held a good hand with two high cards in it before the flop, is thrilled, because he has flopped two pair. Although someone else COULD have a straight, the odds against it are long.
Andy, whose hand was worse than Hal’s before the flop, has improved to a terrific hand, a straight. If there were no more cards to come, Andy would win, but as it is, he must survive two more cards. He does not know that Hal has two pair or that Chuck has a flush draw. At the moment, Andy has the best possible hand, which is usually called “the nuts.” Let’s see how it works out.
Hypothetical Betting After the Flop
Chuck, as the first player to the left of the button still in the game, must act first. He has two options. He can CHECK, meaning “I pass but retain the option to stay in the game if someone else bets,” or he can BET, in this case, $10. Theoretically he could also fold at this point, but even if he thinks his hand is hopeless, he loses nothing checking. He can always fold later. So Chuck looks at his promising but not yet complete hand, and decides to check, hoping that no one else will bet and that he will get a “free” chance to complete his flush.
Dave is pretty sure his pair of sevens is no longer in the lead, and so he checks also, hoping that no one will bet and so that he will get a “free” chance to catch a third seven. This is not an impossible hope. Often flops containing three high cards scare everyone, even those who have made strong hands, and so the weaker hands get a shot to improve without paying for it. That won’t happen here, though.
Hal looks at his very strong hand and decides to bet. He could try to be tricky and check, hoping that indicating weakness he will get other players to call his bets later, but with all the high cards on the board, as well as two diamonds, he is worried that someone else will improve to a better hand, so he bets to try to win the hand right now, or at least to make the players who are drawing “pay for the privilege.” He doesn’t want to give the other players a “free” card.
Andy would like to lick his lips, clap his hands, and laugh, but this is poker and he knows it is important to disguise his hand’s strength. He has “the nuts,” at the moment. He certainly could raise, and many players in his position would raise, but he decides just to call, because his hand is so strong, he wants to lure the other players into a false sense of security, and hopefully to keep them in so he can win bets from them at the higher $20 level.
Chuck, who might have hesitated at calling $20, sees that he has a fairly inexpensive chance to catch a big hand, and calls $10. Dave decides his pair of sevens is hopeless, and folds. There is now $115 in the pot. This completes the betting on the flop.
With the flop betting completed, the dealer deals the turn card, which turns out to be the Six of clubs.
The board now shows Ad-Qh-10d-6c. What has this card done? Let’s review the players’ holdings:
Chuck, in seat 3 (7d-8d)
Hal, in seat 8 (As-Qd)
Andy, in seat 1 (Kh-Jh)
Chuck has not made his flush, although he still can do so on the river, and he has also picked up a chance to make a straight if a Nine hits on the river. He has no idea that the Nine would not help him; although it would give him a straight, Andy already has a bigger straight. So while a Nine on the river might seem like a dream card to Chuck, it would actually be a nightmare.
Hal likes this Six of clubs, because it doesn’t help any of the flush draws that might have been out there, and can’t give anyone a straight either.
Andy is even happier, because his straight is still “the nuts.”
Chuck is still first to act, and he checks, hoping to get a free card. Hal decides it is time to show everyone who is boss, so he bets $20. Andy thinks briefly about calling, just to suck everyone in until the river, but sees the two diamonds on the board and decides the time to act is now. He raises $20, which means that it will now cost Chuck at least $40 to draw to his flush (the $40 he faces immediately, plus the possibility that Hal will re-raise Andy). Chuck, like many poker players, can’t bear to throw away a potential flush, so he calls.
Hal is now a bit worried. His original $20 bet was raised and that raise was called. He probably has the best hand-Andy could be raising with something like Ace-King or, better yet, Ace-Ten, or could even be bluffing-but Andy could also have a straight, three Queens, three Tens, or even three Aces. Nonetheless, Hal decides he wants to find out what is happening now, rather than waiting. He raises again putting $40 into the pot-the $20 Andy raised, and $20 more of his own.
Andy tries to contain his delight. He raises again, knowing he holds the best hand. Perhaps Hal has the same hand as him, but no one can have a better hand, at least not yet.
Chuck is now not happy at all. He knew he was trailing before the betting action started, knew that he held a “drawing hand,” but had hoped to be able to make his draw inexpensively. He has only two consolations. First, the strong betting both Hal and Andy makes it likely (although not a certainty) that neither is drawing at a flush with a hand like Kd-9d; they each probably already have some sort of “made” hand. If one or the other did hold Kd-9d, that would be a disaster for Chuck because even if he made his flush, he would lose to a higher flush. Because it appears that no one else is “drawing,” Chuck can feel fairly sure that if he makes his flush, it will win.
The second consolation is that if Chuck calls, he can’t be raised again, because there is a limit of three raises per round (the limit is four in some casinos, but because most casinos use the three-raise limit rule, we’re using that rule here). If Chuck had known it was going to cost him four big bets (one bet and three raises) when the 4th street betting began, he probably would have dropped out. As it is, he already has two big bets in the pot, which is now quite large. So he calls.
Hal is now fairly sure he does not hold the best hand. He calls, though, because the pot is now quite large, and it only costs him $20 to see the last card. If the last card is an Ace or a Queen, Hal will have a full house. If the last card doesn’t help, Hal can still hope that Andy has been pushing Ace-Ten, and that Chuck has been hoping to make a straight or a flush.
We had $115 in the pot before the 4th street betting frenzy began, and the players have now shoved $80 each in, a total of $240 more for a pot of $355.
Hypothetical Play After the River Card (5th Street)
The dealer deals out the river card: the nine of spades. The board now shows:
The player holdings are:
Chuck, in seat 3 (7d-8d)
Hal, in seat 8 (As-Qd)
Andy, in seat 1 (Kh-Jh)
Chuck gets excited. With a six, nine, and ten on the board, plus the seven and eight in his hand, Chuck has a straight: 6-7-8-9-10. The only way anyone can beat him is if he holds K-J. Chuck forgets how aggressive both other players have been during the hand, and just looks at how good his own hand is. He bets $20. $375 is in the pot.
Hal is now VERY unhappy. Chuck has been sitting there meekly calling all hand long, and now suddenly has come out firing. He couldn’t have 7-8, could he? Probably Chuck has been slow-playing a strong hand like three Tens. And there is still Andy to think about. Does he have A-10, or one of the hands Hal can’t beat, like K-J, 10-10, Q-Q, or A-A? But maybe Andy will be scared Chuck’s bet too. Hal calls the $20. The pot sits at $395.
Andy pauses, stares at the board is if he is trying to see how he can win, while knowing that he cannot possibly lose, only tie. Eventually he realizes that it is hard to act sad believably while raising, and goes ahead and raises, bring the pot to a total of $435.
Chuck is tempted to raise again-after all, he has a straight, doesn’t he? But he remembers how Andy kept raising the last time, and sees how the possible straight with 7-8 does not seem to have scared Andy. So Chuck shows some moderation and calls. Now there’s $455 in the pot.
Hal sighs and throws his hand away. Even though it only costs $20 to call this last bet, and even though the pot is now fairly large, Hal decides that he cannot beat BOTH Andy and Chuck. If Chuck’s bet on the river was a bluff, it didn’t scare Andy. If Andy’s raise on the end was a bluff, it didn’t scare Chuck, at least not much. Against just one player, Hal would probably call. But he is sure his hand can’t beat both of them.
Note that many (perhaps most) players would call in Hal’s position, especially at lower limits, and that calling could easily be the right play. It depends a lot on how much Hal knows about how Andy and Chuck play. If he knows them to be loose players who bluff a lot or who overvalue their hands, calling is certainly correct. If he knows them to be very solid conservative players, folding is probably better. If Hal doesn’t know much about Andy or Chuck, it is probably worth $20 more just to be sure.
Even if it is very likely that Hal will lose, he would be getting excellent odds on his call. He would be risking $20 to win $455. If he has even a one in twenty-two chance of winning, his call is correct. Although it turns out that Hal has made the correct play folding, Aces and Queens-the “top two pair”-is a fairly strong hand. Given how loose most 10-20 games are, I would say Hal’s decision to fold is wrong, unless he really knows Andy and Chuck to be tight, conservative players-and if he does know that, he probably should have slowed down the betting action earlier.
Andy and Chuck now turn their cards over, and Chuck sees that the “lucky” straight he made on the end cost him an extra $40. If the dealer had just turned over some worthless card, Chuck could have thrown his hand away. But instead, Chuck found himself in the worst possible position: second place. He made a straight, and now finds himself much poorer than Ed, Frank, Greg, and Iggy, all of whom just threw their hands away before the flop.
The large pot goes to Andy, who started the hand in the best position (the button), and because of that position was able to call a raise when he didn’t hold the best hand (pre-flop). Chuck, who started the hand in a poor position (holding a drawing hand in the big blind), lost a lot, because the hand he was drawing to wasn’t “the nuts.” Ideally, if you are in a hand you know you are trailing, you would like to be sure you will win if you hit your card. If not, your dream card can turn into a nightmare pretty fast… one of those classic cases of “be careful what you wish for, you might get it!” Welcome to Texas Hold ’em.