Everyone knows by now (surely) that even though poker is a game of chance, it’s also a game of skill. This means that if you go to play poker at the casino for the first time without any knowledge or strategy, you’re probably going to lose a lot of money. You might get lucky and win, but chances are you won’t.
Luckily, the basics of breaking even or winning at poker aren’t as hard as most people might think. In fact, you can probably play better than 50% of the players at the table after just reading a few blog posts and practicing a little bit online. Read a few books and do some serious thinking, and you might even be better than 75% of the players.
But to be a consistently winning player requires a lot of skill and self-discipline. Only 10% of poker players profit consistently, which means 90% of players lose money in the long run.
It’s okay to lose money in the long run playing poker, but it’s a lot more fun to win, even if it’s only occasionally.
The purpose of this post is to give you enough advice about playing poker for the first time in the casino that you have a chance of coming home with some money.
The First Thing You Should Do to Prepare Is Memorize the Standard Ranking of Poker Hands
In most casinos, the name of the game is Texas holdem. But no matter which casino poker game you play, understanding the rankings of the hands is integral to having some fun at the table. Many people know these already, but if you don’t, review them and memorize them.
Understanding how a deck of cards works comes first, too. The cards in a standard 52-card deck each have 2 characteristics:
- A suit
- A rank
There are 4 suits:
And there are 13 ranks:
The ace, by the way, is the highest card in the deck, so it’s almost like having 2 cards instead of one. It can be counted as a 1 or as the top end of a straight. A pair of aces outranks a pair of kings, for example. But it can also complete an A2345 straight.
Poker hands are almost always made up of 5 cards. The suits and rankings of those cards determine the best possible hand it qualifies for. These hands, from best to worst, are:
- Straight Flush – These are 5 cards of consecutive rank that are all the same suit. Some writers list a “royal flush” as the top hand in the rankings, but that’s not entirely accurate. A royal flush is just the best possible straight flush you can have—one with an ace as its high card—10JQKA.
- 4 of a Kind – This is a hand where you have 4 cards of the same rank and a 5th card of another rank.
- Full House – This is a hand where you have 3 cards of one rank and 2 cards of another rank. A full house is the same thing as having a 3 of a kind and a pair in the same hand.
- Flush – This is a hand where you have 5 cards of the same suit. Their rankings don’t matter unless you’re tied with another flush, in which case the highest card determines the winning hand.
- Straight – This is a hand where you have 5 cards of consecutive ranks, like 45678. The suit doesn’t matter, unless all the cards are of the same suit—in which case you have a straight flush.
- 3 of a Kind – This is a hand where you have 3 cards of one rank and 2 other cards of 2 different ranks.
- 2 Pairs – This is a hand where you have 2 cards of one rank, 2 cards of another rank, and another card of yet another rank.
- Pair – This is a hand where you have 2 cards of the same rank and 3 other cards, all of different ranks.
- Nothing – In this case, the highest card in your hand determines its strength.
A couple of rules of thumb apply to ties. The highest card determines the winner in a tie. If you have a straight flush, and so does your opponent, the hand with the highest high card wins the pot.
If 2 players have a 4 of a kind, the person with the higher ranked 4 of a kind wins.
If 2 players have a full house, the person with the higher ranked 3 of a kind wins.
With a flush and a straight, the highest card in the hand determines the winner of a tie.
With a 3 of a kind, the winner is determined by the rank of the cards in the 3 of a kind.
With 2 pairs, the higher ranked pair is compared. If there’s still a tie, the lower ranked pair is compared. If there’s STILL a tie, the kicker (the 5th card) is compared.
With a pair, the ranks of the pair are compared first. If it’s still a tie, it goes by kicker, of which there are 3.
When playing poker in a casino, the usual rule is “cards speak.” In other words, the cards speak for themselves, even if you’re mistaken about the strength of your hand. You don’t have to claim the right best hand to win.
Generalities About How Poker Games Play Out
All poker games follow certain standards for how the game plays out. These have to do with how the cards are dealt and the betting. Who does what when is an important aspect of poker, regardless of which variation you’re playing.
Here’s an example of a poker gameplay procedure you need to be aware of:
When you make a raise, you need to announce it immediately. You don’t say, “I call AND raise.” You don’t put the amount of the bet out there and add to it. You announce, “Raise.” Then you put the chips out there.
Doing otherwise is a big violation of protocol called “string-raising.” The reason it’s a problem is because players will watch their opponents’ reaction and change what they’re doing because of it. That’s a strict no-no.
I bring that up first because it’s one of the first (of many) embarrassing mistakes I’ve made at the poker table.
The dealing of the cards and the betting order are important, and they’re determined by the specific rules of the game. Usually the first person to bet or to get cards is the deciding factor, but after that, the cards are dealt in order clockwise around the table. The betting action also takes place clockwise around the table.
You always act before the player on your left and after the player on your right—unless you’re the first person to act.
In 7 card stud, the player with the highest visible hand bets first. In Texas holdem, the first player to the left of the dealer button acts first.
You should also never just toss your chips at the pot. You move the chips in front of you past the line on the table that puts the money in the pot.
As a matter of etiquette, decide what you’re going to do quickly. Don’t hold up the game and make the other players wait a long time while you make your decision. You don’t have to feel rushed, but it’s not fair to anyone to delay the game just because you’re indecisive.
You should also leave your cards on the table. You can pick them up to look at them, but don’t move them far. The casino wants to avoid even the appearance of possible cheating.
It’s considered extremely rude to talk about what cards you had after you’ve folded. It gives the players who are still in the hand information they shouldn’t have when deciding what to do next.
Finally, consider giving the dealer a tip after winning a big hand. The dealers pool their tips at the end of the shift at most casinos, so don’t stiff the dealer just because she’s been rude. In fact, if a dealer is rude enough that you would consider stiffing him on the tip, consider discussing his behavior with a manager instead.
I once played in a cardroom in Vegas, I forget which one, where I had a surly old Russian dealer. At one point I raised and said, “Carpe diem.”
The surly old Russian told me, “English only at the table, sir.”
I smiled and said, “Sorry. ‘Carpe diem’ means ‘seize the day.”
He replies, still scowling, “I KNOW what it means, sir. You could be signaling another player by talking in a foreign language, though.”
I replied, “Couldn’t saying ‘seize the day’ also be a signal?”
He was angry.
When I related this story to a professional poker playing acquaintance of mine, he said I should have called over the cardroom manager and complained loudly. I think he might have been right, because if a foreign phrase is so commonly used in English that everyone knows what it means, I think it might as well be considered English.
Start by Learning How to Play Texas Holdem
If you’re new to playing poker in the casino, the best game to start with is Texas holdem because that’s where most of the action is. Your goal is to win the pot, either by getting all the other players to fold, or by making the best 5 card hand at the showdown. In Texas holdem, you only get 2 cards for yourself. The other 5 cards in the game are community cards in the center of the table; the other players use those 5 cards to form their hands, too.
One player is the dealer, but this is only for purposes of determining who does what when. He doesn’t actually deal the cards—the casino has a dealer for that. His position is signified by a plastic white disk with the word “dealer” printed on it.
The 2 players to the left of the dealer must place bets called “blinds” before the cards are dealt. These are similar to an ante bet in other kinds of poker, but the difference is that not everyone has to place these bets every hand. The dealer disk rotates around the table clockwise after every hand. So the people who must pay the blinds rotates with that disk.
Everyone gets 2 cards (“the hole cards”) to start. This is followed by a round of betting. The first person to bet is the player to the left of the blinds. He can bet, check, fold, or raise.
After the betting action, the dealer deals 3 cards to the middle of the table (“the flop”). This is followed by another round of betting, but this time, the first player to the left of the dealer bets. This is the order in which the betting takes place for the rest of the game.
After this round of betting, another card is dealt (“the turn”). The betting after this round goes in the same order, but the minimum bet doubles on this round.
The final card is the “river.” It’s followed by one more round of betting, with the same minimum that you had on the turn.
The sizing of the bets is another factor to consider when getting into a Texas holdem game. There are 3 ways in which this works:
- Pot limit
- No limit
In a limit Texas holdem game, the sizes of the bets must be made in specific increments. For example, in a $4/$8 game, the bets and raises must be in units of $4 before and on the flop, and in units of $8 on the turn and on the river.
In a pot limit game, you still have a minimum size bet, but you can also bet or raise any amount up to the amount of money in the pot.
In a no limit game, you also still have a minimum bet size, but you can bet or raise any amount up to the entire stack of chips you have in front of you at the table.
The Basics of Breaking Even at Texas Holdem
The basic strategy for winning at poker is to be selective about which hands you choose to play. Then, when you do play a hand, you play it aggressively. This means betting and raising when you’re involved in a hand.
In Texas holdem, if you master preflop strategy, you can break even. Winning at Texas holdem requires good play in the later rounds, too, but breaking even can happen just by mastering your strategy preflop.
This requires an understanding of the kinds of 2-card hands you can start with:
- Pairs – Preflop, most pairs are playable, but the higher the ranking of the pair, the stronger your hand is by far. In fact, low pairs, like 2s or 3s, are barely playable. The best possible starting hand in Texas holdem is a pair of aces, followed closely by a pair of kings. You should raise with high-ranked pairs preflop (or bet). As your pairs go down in ranking, so do their values, so you might get more cautious and pay attention to how the other players are playing their hands when deciding what to do. With lower-ranked pairs, you’re hoping to hit 3 of a king on the flop.
- Suited Connectors – These are cards that are close in rank and of the same suit. They provide multiple opportunities to win after the flop. For example, if you have an AK of the same suit, you could wind up with a pair of kings and an ace kicker after the flop, or you could wind up with a pair of aces and a king kicker. You also have the potential to land a straight, a flush, or 3 or 4 cards to a draw to a straight or flush.
The rule of thumb with suited connectors is that the higher the ranking is, the stronger the hand is. That’s because the pair potential increases.
Also, suited connectors don’t have to be immediately adjacent to qualify as suited connectors. They can have gaps. The bigger the gaps are, the weaker the hand is. For example, if you have a queen and an 8 of the same suit, you have 3 gaps, but you still have the possibility of making a hand.
- Big Little Suited – If you have an ace or a king along with a much lower-ranked card of the same suit, you have a playable hand, but it’s pretty speculative. The higher the ranking of the lower card, the stronger the hand is preflop. If you catch a couple of suited cards on the flop, you have a flush draw, which means you have the possibility of a semi-bluff.
- Ace King and Ace Queen Offsuit – These hands get their strength from being really high cards that are also connected—you have straight possibilities here.
But just knowing the relative values of the starting hands isn’t enough. You also need to understand what to do with them, and a lot of this is based on your position and the behavior of the other players in the game.
The rule of thumb is that the earlier you act, the stronger your hand must be to be playable. A pair of aces is playable from any position, but a pair of 2s or 3s is an easy fold if you’re first to act. On the other hand, if you’re the last person to act, and if everyone has checked before you, betting and raising with a low pair can be a smart move.
Beginners to Texas holdem often try to bluff too often, especially preflop. My experience with lower stakes holdem in live casinos is that players are all too willing to call anything with any hand. I’ve rarely won a hand without a showdown playing Texas holdem at the Winstar, for example. They call it “no foldem holdem.”
If you are going to try to win a pot with a bluff preflop, be sure you’re only facing one or 2 opponents. Also, pay attention to your opponents’ playing tendencies. If you’re playing with someone you know won’t fold, don’t even try to bluff your way into a pot.
Understanding how to play after the flop is also an important skill, and it’s not as hard as you think, either. Just remember this when deciding how to play your hand on the flop:
Fit or fold.
In other words, the flop should improve your hand or fit well with your hand. Otherwise, you might have to fold. I’ve seen estimates that you should only stay in the hand about 50% of the time.
In a lot of weaker games, having the highest possible pair with a good kicker is all you need to stay in the hand. If you have a smaller pair, you’re really hoping to hit at least 3 of a kind on the flop before staying in. With connected or suited cards, you’re hoping at the least for 4 cards to a flush or straight. In that situation, you’re even better off if you have other possibilities, too—like a small pair along with a 4-card draw to a straight or a flush.
Playing poker in a casino for the first time can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Do a little homework before the big day. Know the standard rankings of poker hands backwards and forward. Pay attention to the order of what happens.
If you get stuck, don’t be afraid to look like a novice and ask the dealer for help with what you’re supposed to do. You can’t ask for strategy advice, but basic procedural questions are fair game.
It helps to read a book or 2 about the game you’re going to be playing. It also helps to have a reasonably big bankroll. Scared money always loses. If you can try some online games to get an idea of how the action goes, that’s probably the best preparation of all.
Once you’ve tried live poker, you’ll probably love it, though. Good luck at the casino.