Rules and Strategies for
Walk into virtually any public cardroorn in America, and you'll find a game of Texas hold'em in progress. Texas hold'em is the single most popular form of poker played today, and because it is, it will be the focus of our study in this newsletter.
Let's start with the basics.
In Texas hold'em, each player gets two cards to start with. There's a round of betting, and then three cards are turned over in the middle of the table. These cards (collectively called the flop) are common cards or community cards; they're part of everybody's hand. Thus, if you start with an ace and a king (A-K) and the flop presents you with another ace, another king and a ten (A-K-T), then your hand so far is two pair, aces and kings, with a ten kicker. Another player who starts with a pair of queens (Q-Q) would only have two queens with an ace kicker at this point, so you would have the best hand. After the flop, there's a second round of betting, and then another common card, called the turn card, is revealed. If the turn card in this case were a queen, your hand would not have improved; you'd still have your two pair and your ten kicker. But your opponent would now have three queens, and you'd be in trouble! After a third round of betting, the fifth community card, the river card, is placed on the board.
There's a fourth and final round of betting, and then those players still left in the pot show down their hands. The best five-card hand out of the seven available between each player's hand and the board is the winner. So if that river card were an ace, your hand would have improved to aces full, a full house comprised of three aces and two kings, just narrowly edging out your opponent, with her three queens and two aces, or queens full.
In most public card rooms, the betting is structured, which means that there are fixed amounts you can bet on any round. The most common structure allows for a certain bet, say $2, on the first two betting rounds, and double that amount ($4 in this example) on the last two rounds. So if you sat down in a game of $5-10 limit hold'em, you'd know to bet (or raise) $5 before and after the flop, and $10 on the turn and the river.
Some casinos offer spread limit betting, such as $1-4-8-8. In this variation, you can bet anything from $1 to $4 before and after the flop, and anything up to $8 on the turn and the river. Obviously you'll want to know the betting limits before you sit down to play, but where will you get this information? You can ask the floor manager, of course, or any of the other cardroom employees, but if you want to gather information on the sly, just look for a little brass plate on the table to the right of where the dealer sits. There you'll find the name of the game being played at that table, the betting limits imposed, and also the structure of the house rake.
The rake is the money that the house takes out of each pot. It's payment, if you will, for all the services that the house provides, including a dealer, cards and chips, tables and chairs, security, and often amenities such as free drinks or food. A typical rake is 5% of the pot up to a certain ceiling, such as $3 per pot. Sometimes the rake is taken out of the pot directly, in other cardrooms, each player in turn posts a collection before the hand begins. There are strategy considerations to be made, depending on whether you're in a rake game or a collection game, but we'll get to those later. For now, all you need to do is watch a hand or two being dealt and notice whether the dealer is collecting the rake before the hand begins or while the hand is underway.
Texas hold'em is known as a button game. That is, there's a round disc, called a dealer button, which moves from player to player, in a clockwise fashion with each hand. Though players don't deal for themselves in public cardrooms, the button represents which player would be the dealer if the deal were advanced from player to player as the game went along. This is important because some players to the left of the button have to post blind bets, or blinds, at the start of each hand.
In most hold'em games, you'll find two blinds. The small blind, to the dealer's immediate left, is usually half the amount of the small bet in a fixed limit game. The big blind, to the immediate left of the small blind, is usually equal to the full amount of the small bet in a fixed limit game. If you were playing $4-8 hold'em, the small blind would post $2 and the big blind would post $4. In the case of a game where half the single bet is not an even amount, the small blind will post either 1/3 or 2/3 of the single bet. In a $15-30 game, then, the small blind would post either $5 or $10, depending on the house rules at that particular casino.
The purpose of the blind bet is to get at least some money into every pot. If there were no blinds, then no player would enter the pot with anything except the very best hands. There would be very little betting; the game would get dull and probably die. With the blind bet, each player takes his turn entering the pot involuntarily. Then the other players, acting after the blinds, can decide whether they want to compete for the blinds' money by contributing bets of their own. The blinds, then, serve to stimulate the action in a button-style poker game.
As you'll soon see, position is very important in Texas hold'em. The longer you have to act, the bigger an advantage you gain, with the players in the blinds holding the most vulnerable position, and the players near or on the button having the biggest positional edge. Even before we get to that, though, you can see that players posting the blinds are entering the pot involuntarily, with hands that are probably no better than average. That's why the button moves with every hand: so that each player takes his or her fair turn at posting the blinds and at being in late position, near or on the button.
To practice Texas holdem, deal yourself a bunch of two-card hands and ask yourself which you think are the strongest hands and why. Also think about why a player in late position has an advantage over a player in early position. Finally, find a hold'em game in a cardroom (or online cardroom) and take note of the start hands players in that game favor. It wont be long before you can take a seat among them.