The Basic Rules of Texas Hold’em Gameplay

Texas Hold’em is known as the Cadillac of poker for a reason. No other variant finds such a perfect balance between all of the various elements of poker. The basic rules of gameplay are really easy to learn and, in fact, a complete beginner can be taught how to play in a matter of minutes.

While the mechanics of the game are straightforward, the strategy needed to win is anything but simple. It takes countless hours of study and practice before one is able to even come close to mastering all the elements necessary to succeed and beat the competition. The great news is that learning is easier than ever in the information age. Even so, before you can learn any kind of poker strategy you must first understand the basic rules of the game. These include:

What is No-Limit Texas Hold’em?

Texas Hold’em is a variant of poker where each player is dealt two “hole cards” that are kept face down for the entirety of the hand until “showdown.” There are four potential rounds of betting known as pre-flop, the flop, the turn, and the river. After the pre-flop betting round comes “postflop,” when second round of betting begins when the three “flop” cards are dealt face up on the table. One more community card is dealt on each of the last two betting rounds, known as the turn and the river. Each player’s two hole cards are used to make the best five-card poker hand. After the last betting round, whoever has the best hand at showdown is deemed the winner of the pot.

A screenshot of a texas hold'em table showing the community cards: flop, turn, and river

Community Cards

Each player matches their hole cards up to the community cards and the best 5-card hand wins. Easy stuff.

How Many Players Does it Take To Play a Game?

A poker table typically consists of between 2 and 9 players. If the game only has two players, it’s known as heads-up. If there is a maximum of 6 players allowed at a table, it’s known as 6-max. If the table has a maximum of 9 players, it’s known as (you guessed it) 9-max. Occasionally, you will encounter a 10-max game in some casino games. The largest single table game online is typically 9-max.

Regardless of the number of players, the gameplay is the same, with the exception of heads-up which has its own set of rules.

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What are the Poker Positions?

There are 6 key poker position names that you need to know. They are:

  • Under-The-Gun (UTG)
  • Hijack (HJ)
  • Cutoff (CO)
  • Button (BTN)
  • Small Blind (SB)
  • Big Blind (BB)

Here are the positions, shown on a 6-max poker table. For 9-max, you would add UTG+1, UTG+2, and UTG+3 between the UTG player and the HJ.

Poker table screenshot with positions shown on a 6-max table

The Small and Big Blinds are always seated directly to the left of the button as shown.

The game of Texas Hold’em revolves around the Button and Blinds. On each successive hand, the button and blinds move once to the left. In the example above, on the very next hand, the Small Blind will become the Button, the Big Blind will become the Small Blind, and UTG will become the BB.

The Button

The Button is also the player who is the acting dealer. All Texas Hold’em games have a physical button that is placed in front of the Dealer before the hand commences. The exception is when you are playing in a live game that has a dedicated dealer. In that case, the actual dealer does not have the button in front of him or her. Of course, online the entire dealing process is automated and the dealer button and blinds move automatically.

The Blinds

There are two players that are required to post a forced bet, or ante, before the hand can begin. Typically, the small blind is exactly one half of the big blind amount. Thus, if you are playing in a game where the big blind is 50 cents, then the small blind would be 25 cents.

The Other Positions

Understanding how the other positions work is not important for a beginner. What matters is that you understand how the relationship between the Button and Blinds operates. Once you start learning strategy and discussing hands with other players, understanding the individual strategies of the other positions will become necessary. For now, what you need to know is how the table is set up and where the blinds sit in relation to the Button.

What Does Out Of Position and In Position Mean?

The terms out of position and in position are terms associated with post-flop play. To be in position means you act last during each betting round. Out of position means you do not act last. Don’t worry about what it means to play in or out of position right now, just make sure you understand what the terms mean.

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How Are the Cards Dealt Before the Flop?

Once the Button and Blinds are established, the dealing begins in a clockwise fashion starting with the player directly to the Button’s left. Thus, the first player to receive a card is the Small Blind, followed by the Big Blind, so on and so forth. The last player to receive a card is always the Dealer.

Screenshot of a 6-max poker table illustrating the clockwise dealing order starting with the Small Blind

The Small Blind always receives the first card.

How Are the Cards Dealt in Heads-Up?

In heads-up matches, the player in the Big Blind receives the first card.

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Hand Rankings

With but a few exceptions, every poker game is a battle to make the best five-card hand. Here is a list of the ranking order of all 10 possible hands that one can hold followed by the best starting hands in Texas Hold’em. Make sure you memorize these hands as playing the game is impossible otherwise.

Best 5-Card Poker Hands Ranked from Highest to Lowest

1.
Royal Flush
  A screenshot showing a Royal Flush with diamondsThe best possible hand in poker. With the highest card being an Ace, all five cards must be in numerical order with identical suits. In poker, all suits are equally ranked.
2.
Straight Flush
 A screenshot showing a straight flush five to nine, all heartsAll five cards must be in numerical order with no gaps in between and all of the same suit. Making a straight flush is so rare that most players can remember every single one in their lifetime.
3.
Four of a Kind
  A screenshot showing four of a kind with four KingsAny four cards of the same rank, with the fifth card being called the “kicker”. Another extremely rare hand to achieve.
4.
Full House
 An illustration showing a Full House, Nines over Aces3 matching card ranks along with 2 matching card ranks. The example shows “Nines full of Aces.” When ranking full houses, the cards that matter are the trips, ie. “Eights full of twos” beats “Sevens full of Aces.”
5.
Flush
 An illustration of a Jack high FlushFive non-consecutive cards of the same suit. The highest card rank determines the strength of the flush. The example shows a Jack-high flush, which would only be beaten by a Queen-high or better flush.
6.
Straight
      A screenshot showing a straight from eight to queenFive cards that are in the sequence. For the purposes of making a straight, Aces can count as either the highest card or the lowest (technically a one). An Ace to five straight is called “The Wheel.”
7.
Three of a Kind
      A screenshot showing three of a kind with three sevensCommonly called “Trips,” three of a kind contains any three cards with the same rank. As with other poker hands, in the event of a tie, the highest ranked trips wins.
8.
Two Pair
      A screenshot showing two-pair Kings and JacksThis hand is self-explanatory and consists of two cards with matching rank alongside another two cards of matching rank. If two players have two pair, the highest ranks win, ie, JJ55 beats both TT99 and JJ44.
9.
One Pair
      A screenshot showing one pair TensA pair is made up of two matching card ranks along with three unrelated side cards.
10.
High Card
      A screenshot showing high card AceA hand that does not meet any of the above criteria. The best high card hand possible is AKQJ9. In the event of a tie, the next highest card is used to break the tie. ie. AJ852 beats AJ843.

Best Starting Hands In Texas Hold’em

Below is a chart of the best 10 starting hands in Hold’em. If you do not understand the description at this time, do not worry. Once you start learning strategy things will become clear. If you are a complete beginner, for now just focus on which hands are the strongest and make sure you grasp the order.

1.
Pocket Aces
 Pocket AcesPocket Aces (AA) are by far the strongest starting hand in Texas hold’em. In fact, on average they are greater than a 4 to 1 favorite against other hands. As with any other pair, you will be dealt pocket Aces about once every 221 hands.
2.
Pocket Kings
 A pair of KingsThe second-best starting hand in Texas Hold’em. For the most part, pocket Kings (KK) plays the same as Aces in that they should never be folded pre-flop except in extremely rare cases.
3.
Pocket Queens
 A Pair of QueensPocket Queens (QQ) is considered a premium hand and should be your third biggest winner as your poker career progresses.
4.
Ace- King Suited
 Ace King SuitedAce-King Suited (AKs) is the best unpaired hand possible in Texas hold’em. When all-in there is really only one hand that you should fear running into; AA. AKs is close to even money against most pairs and will even win 1 in 3 times versus pocket Kings!
5.
Pocket Jacks
 Pocket JacksPocket Jacks (JJ) have a bit of a bad reputation. For some reason, many recreational players just despise this hand. Don’t listen to the hype! JJ is a premium holding and will win you a lot of dough over your poker career.
6.
Pocket Tens
 Pocket TensOver a large sample size, Tens are almost as big a winner for me as Jacks and pretty much equal to Ace-King Offsuit.
7.
Ace-King Offsuit
 Ace King OffsuitThe power of Ace-King Offsuit (AKo) is in that it dominates the other big Ace hands like AQ, AJ, and AT. Also, if it doesn’t make top pair, you are guaranteed to always have overcards to the board. AK will make top pair by the river nearly 50% of the time.
 8.
Ace-Queen Suited
 Ace Queen SuitedAce-Queen Suited (AQs) plays similarly to AK. The major difference is that you generally don’t mind getting AK all-in before the flop whereas AQ tends to be a big loser if you do so with any regularity.
9.
Pocket Nines
 A pair of ninesYou are probably getting the hang of this by now. Pocket nines are one tick below the strength of Tens, as you might expect. Even though 99 is considered by most to be inferior to AQs, I actually always prefer to start with the pair.
10.
Ace-Jack Suited
      Ace Jack SuitedAce-Jack Suited (AJs) is a mid-strength holding in most situations and should be played accordingly. It can still make a strong top pair hand, a straight, and a flush but is vulnerable to being dominated by AK and AQ.

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Poker Actions

When a player does something at the table, it’s known as an “action.” There are six possible poker actions that a player can take. He or she can:

  1. Fold
    What folding means is that you have decided not to continue playing the current hand. To fold, slide your cards into the middle of the table (face down) and sit back and relax. Online players just have to click the fold button. Once you fold, you cannot win the current hand.
  2. Check
    Checking means that you do not wish to bet, but calling is not an option and is most often associated with post-flop play. Before the flop, the only player that can check without calling is the Big Blind, since he or she has already placed the largest bet possible (the big blind).
  3. Call
    To call means to exactly match the current largest bet, raise, or reraise. Before the flop, if no one has previously raised, you can call the exact amount of the big blind. This is known as “limping.”
  4. Bet
    Technically, the only time you can bet is after the flop and when no one else has previously bet before the action got to you. Before the flop, any bet is actually a raise of the big blind, which is considered a forced bet (or ante). Any bet must be double the big blind before the flop and equal to the big blind after the flop.
  5. Raise
    If you want to commit a higher amount of chips than the current bet, you will need to raise. A raise must at least be equal to the size of the prior bet or raise.
  6. Reraise
    During a poker round, when someone has previously raised before you, your only option to making an even bigger bet is to reraise. The rules of reraising work exactly the same as it does for raising. A reraise must at least be equal to the size of the prior bet, raise, or reraise.

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What Are The Basic Rules of Gameplay?

Texas Hold’em consists of various stages or betting rounds. Each round (or street) continues until the betting round is closed. Make sure you pay close attention to learning the order of play since it is different depending on what stage of the hand you are currently involved in.

This guide will focus on gameplay for 3 or more players. The rules are a bit different for heads-up play but don’t worry about that right now. As you gain more experience it will become important to learn how heads-up play works.

Pre-flop – The First Betting Round

The first betting round occurs immediately after all of the initial hole cards have been distributed to every player at the table. The first player to act pre-flop is the player directly to the left of the Big Blind, usually the under the gun player (UTG). Once he or she has acted, play then moves to the next player to the left. Play then continues counter-clockwise until the big blind has acted.

A screenshot of a 6-max table before the flop

A 6-max table with the blinds posted and the cards dealt

When pre-flop is over it is time for post-flop. During post-flop, a series of community cards will be turned face up to be matched with each player’s hole cards. Each player uses the cards on the board to make the best hand they possibly can.

How Are the Cards Dealt Post-flop?

On the flop, the dealer deals three community cards. On the turn and river, only one card is dealt per each street for a total of five cards by the end of the hand.

To deal the cards properly on the flop, turn, or river the dealer has to follow the burn and turn rules of the game. First, before the community cards (or card) can be dealt, a single card must be “burned.” To burn a card basically means to take the first card off the deck and discard it before dealing the flop, turn, or river. One card must be burned per street.

The Flop – The Second Betting Round

The first post-flop round, or first street, is known as “the flop.” The flop consists of three community cards that are laid out in the middle of the table. Each player uses his or her two hole cards, matched with the community cards, to make their five-card hand. Based on the flop, each player, in turn, makes a decision on how to play their hand accordingly.

The first player to act after the flop and on all further streets has been dealt is the small blind. Once he or she has acted, play then moves to the next player to the left, the big blind. Play then continues counter-clockwise until the round has been completed.

Poker table screenshot with flop and positions shown on a 6-max table

The three cards of the flop have now been dealt

The Turn – The Third Betting Round

Unlike the flop, the turn is only one card. Each player now uses their two hole cards along with only three out of the four cards on the board which allow them to make the best hand that they can. Always remember that a poker hand always consists of only 5 cards total.

Again, another round of betting occurs, starting clockwise from the small blind and working around the table. Remember, the button, or player closest to the right of the button, always goes last.

Poker table screenshot with flop, turn, and positions shown on a 6-max table

Now the single turn card has been placed on the table

The River – The Fourth and Final Betting Round

On the river, a fifth and final card is added to the board. Again, each player still involved in the hand matched their hole cards with the best three cards on the board to make the best hand they possibly can.

Poker table screenshot with flop, turn, river and positions shown on a 6-max table

Here’s the final street! The 5th and final card on the board.

Once the final betting round is completed, the remaining players still left in the hand expose their hole cards so that the winner can be determined. This is known as the showdown.

Showdown

Showdown is when the hole cards are revealed and the winner is established based on the best five-card hand.

If you are a live player, I recommend always flipping up your hand at showdown and let the dealer or other players help you figure out who has the winning hand. Once you gain more experience, you can learn to start “mucking” your hand if you know that you have lost. To muck means to leave your cards face down and slide them into the middle of the table. Discarded hands in the middle of the table are known as the muck.

For online players, the process is automated so you don’t have to worry about accidentally mucking the best hand.

Below is an example hand played out from pre-flop through to the river.

How Can The Action Be Opened or Closed on a Round?

There are two types of actions that can be performed at the poker table: closing actions or opening actions.

  • Opening Actions
    Once someone places an initial bet, raises, or reraises another player, the betting round is said to have been opened or reopened. Once the action has been opened or reopened, all other players still left in the hand are required to act again until play is either closed or reopened again. The actions associated with opening or reopening the action are betting, raising, and reraising.
  • Closing Actions
    A closing action moves play on to the next round or ends the hand. It occurs when no other bets or raises can be made because the final player left to act decides to either fold, check, or call. Therefore, folding, checking, and calling are known as closing actions.

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The Basics of Betting

Now that you understand how a poker hand is played, let’s talk about betting. In poker, betting works a bit different depending on whether it’s before the flop or after.

Pre-Flop Betting

First off, before the flop, two bets have already been technically made before anyone acts. Both the small blind and big blind have already been wagered. Therefore, when the blinds have been posted and all of the cards have been dealt, any bet made is actually referred to as a raise, since you are raising the big blind. The first raise before the flop is often referred to as an “opening raise.”

What Is An Opening Raise?

An opening raise is when a player makes the first bet after the blinds are posted before the flop comes down. If the opening raise is reraised, it’s known as a 3-bet, since it’s the third raise being made.

3-Betting & 4-Betting

The way 3-betting or 4-betting works is not as complicated as you might imagine. Simply put, the posting of the big blind is the first bet, the opening raise is the second bet, and the reraise of the opening raise is the third bet. This can continue indefinitely until someone doesn’t have enough chips to make an additional raise, ie., if you reraise a 3-bet, it’s called a 4-bet. If you reraise a 4-bet, it’s called a 5-bet. You get the idea.

Below is an example hand that continues all the way until a 5-bet.

Post-Flop Betting

After the flop, the slate is clean and the first wager made on each street is known as a bet. Most players do not use the 3-bet/4-bet nomenclature after the flop as it can get confusing when discussing a hand. Using the term 3-betting, 4-betting, etc. is almost universally associated with pre-flop play only. Instead, the term raise, reraise, and re-reraise are used instead. It’s extremely rare that there will ever be an additional raise beyond that since, most of the time, someone would be all-in by the second reraise.

Continuation Betting

On every street after the flop, the last person to perform an opening action (bet, raise, or reraise) before the next card is dealt is known to have something called the “lead.” To have the lead means simply that you were the last aggressor on the prior street. If the player with the lead bets first it’s known as continuation betting or c-betting. Basically, the term just means that a prior bettor continues betting on the next street. If a person who does not have the lead bets on a post-flop street, it’s known as “taking the lead.”

Donk Betting

If an out-of-position player does not have the lead and bets into the person with the lead, it’s sometimes referred to as donk betting.

Summary

The beauty of Texas Hold’em lies in the simplicity of the basic rules. In a matter of minutes, anyone can understand how to play the game. Even so, that is not entirely where the appeal for the game comes from. The real draw comes from the near-perfect balance of skill and luck that endeavor offers. There’s just enough information known to be able to glean what our opponents are doing, making it a highly skill-based game. On the other hand, there is a definite gambling aspect to the game that gives excitement as you never know enough to fully figure the game out. The bottom line is that Texas Hold’em offers a little bit of something for everyone. Whether you are a pure gambler who loves the thrill of big all-ins or a reserved person who enjoys solving the minutiae of the game as a battle of wits. Texas Hold’em is the game for you.

Advice On Getting Started as a Beginner

If you are a complete beginner, here are a few things I recommend doing before you move on to the next section on strategy. This will make sure that you have a firm foundation on how gameplay works and make learning more advanced concepts much easier.

  1. Memorize the Hand Rankings
    Make sure that you have a firm grasp on what beats what in poker. Nothing would hamper your play more than if you got to a showdown and thought that your straight beat a flush. There is nothing wrong with keeping a cheat sheet in front of you while you play until you find that you no longer have to look at it.
  2. Practice At Home
    Most everyone owns a deck of cards. If not, you can pick up one really cheaply at any second-hand store. Once you have the deck, sit at a table and pretend there are several other players. Designate the Button and Blind players with some type of marker. A coaster works great for the button and pennies will suffice for the blinds if you don’t have any poker chips. Deal out the cards to all of the “ghost” players and yourself, just as a real dealer would in a casino. At first, I recommend dealing the cards face up. Then deal out a flop, turn, and river and practice ranking each player’s hand in order from best to worst, based on the cards on the board. (possibly do a video on this at my kitchen table?)
  3. Get Some Play Money Experience
    Just to get a feel for how the game plays, I recommend practicing on a poker site that allows play money. The best place to do this is probably at Pokerstars since they have such a high number of players. US players can’t play on Pokerstars for real money, but they can play in the play money games. Don’t worry about strategy for now. Just play as many hands as possible and get a feel for the mechanics of betting, raising, calling, and folding. Try to see as many showdowns as possible, especially in small pots. Observe what other players are doing and see if you can guess which player has the best hand each time based on the action. Once you have spent a few hours in the play money games, you should be ready to move to the next step in the guide.. learning about strategy!

What’s Next?

Once you understand the basic rules of gameplay in Texas Hold’em, it’s time to move to the next stage of your poker development and start learning about strategy. Don’t worry, things won’t get too complicated for you too quickly. I have purposefully set up this guide to incrementally build upon your poker knowledge and ease you into the game as efficiently as possible. My goal is to first create a firm foundation around the basic fundamentals and then slowly increase your understanding as you play and study.

Keep in mind that this guide is not designed to make you the best player you can be in an hour, day, or even a month. It takes many hundreds of hours of study and play before you can even begin to understand all of the numerous complexities involved in mastering the game. The good news is that it’s possible to have a lot of fun while learning! So, if you are up to the task and ready to find your best poker game, let’s continue.

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