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Poker 101: Taking the Poker Plunge

Learning the ropes of America’s hottest card game

by Kevin Blackwood


The poker craze has transformed gambling over the last decade; a game once relegated to smoky back-rooms is now the coolest, most cutting-edge game in the casino. It seems nearly everyone has fallen in love with poker, including many high profile celebrities.

But perhaps you’ve been hesitant to try your hand at poker because you’re not sure where or how to begin. Do you think a bluff is a rock formation in Arizona, and confuse Annie Duke with Annie Oakley? If so, here’s a crash course to get you started in poker.

poker Strategy

Poker 101
In the old West, draw or stud were the most common types of poker, but now over 100 documented versions of poker exist, each with their own quirky rules. Stud is still dealt at many clubs, but the most popular ones today are the newer kids on the block, such as Omaha, Razz, and Texas Hold ‘em.

The rules for the various poker games can be found in books or online. Many websites supply helpful tools for beginners, such as poker glossaries with explanations of common terms like “blinds” and “antes.” A lot of potential embarrassment (and money) can be saved if you take the time to learn these terms, and the basics of play, before you wager any money at the tables.

Nowadays, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to picking up the basics of poker. Not surprisingly, TV has introduced many players to the game. The World Poker Tour is what hooked me, and I picked up the basics by studying the tense battles on TV. Another great learning tool are the instructional DVDs from various poker greats like Howard Lederer and Phil Gordon.

Old school gamblers tend to gravitate to books, and there are hundreds of different texts available on poker. Most beginning books will rank the various starting hands and help get you going on the right track, since the most common error for novices is playing too many hands.

If you are comfortable around your computer, there are a number of great options available at the click of a mouse. A number of software programs will teach you the nuances of poker and help you hone your game without ever having to leave the house. The Internet offers a bunch of websites dedicated solely to poker. There are articles, tutorials, and tips that will help steer you in the right direction. One that helped jumpstart my education was the free poker school offered at the Game Master Online.

Mentoring is a common situation among the top players. Actress Jennifer Tilly, now a formidable player in her own right, was mentored by Phil Laak; Annie Duke learned from her brother, Howard Lederer. Assuming you can find an experienced player to teach you, there are several ways to arrange the mentoring. One is to talk with your guru about different hands and find out how they would have played those cards in that situation. Another is to sit behind a player and observe their play. This is usually done in person (I had the good fortune to do this with Antonio Esfandiari), but it can also be done online, by talking on the phone or with Instant Messaging.

Take It To the Limit
One of the first decisions you will make in poker is whether to play limit or no-limit. No-limit is usually more familiar to new players, since that’s the game of choice for televised tournaments. In this format, players can push any or all of their chips into the pot at any time.

However, my recommendation is to start off with limit games. It may be less sexy or exciting than no-limit, but it’s an easier game to learn. The no-limit structure creates far more opportunities for rookies to make major mistakes, such as pushing all-in to win a small pot (high risk/low return). In limit games, the amount players can bet on each round is always fixed. For example, if a casino offered a $1 to $2 limit Texas Hold ‘em game, bets and raises are restricted to increments of $1 for pre-flop and post-flop action, and then increased to $2 for the turn and the river.

No Place Like Home
Once you feel ready to give poker a try, the next question is where to start. If your local casino has a poker room, that’s a good spot to begin the journey. However, the professional dealer will keep the game moving at a brisk pace, which makes it easy to commit errors—in terms of etiquette, as well as strategy—as you learn the game.

On the other hand, if you have enough friends to play poker with, spending your Friday nights in the living room can be leisurely and relaxing. Another bonus is that your odds are better at home since there is no rake (the commission or percentage of each pot that the house takes for dealing the game).

Face-to-Face or Cyberspace?
An alternative to live play is Internet poker. Personally I don’t think there is a better way to learn poker, and playing online offers an extra bonus: Anonymity. When you make a stupid mistake or get caught trying a foolish bluff, no one can hear you scream in cyberspace. An additional benefit is that poker games are always available around the clock. And the limits online can be microscopic (.05 to .10, for example), which can save you a lot of money while you learn the ropes.

So a fair question is: Should you play live or Internet poker? There are advantages to both. Poker is a very social game, and anyone who enjoys getting together to swap stories or trade barbs will gravitate towards live games. But playing online also has many advantages. Convenience is the biggest factor for many people, especially if you don’t live near a live poker room.

Also, since there is no dealer or physical shuffling or handling of chips, you often will play twice as many hands online as in a live game, which accelerates your learning process (and saves you money, since you don’t have to tip the dealer when you win a big pot). Another great feature of online play is that many poker sites offer some form of hand history. This means you can go back and see what your opponent was holding on a previous hand, whereas in a live game, the losing player normally mucks his hand on the river.

However, as you may already know, legal issues currently cloud Internet poker. Technically, most home games violate local laws, but online the issues become even murkier and you should always find out what the current restrictions are in your area before anteing up.

Another choice to make is whether to play cash games or tournaments. Cash games have players who come and go, buying chips with their own cash. If anyone taps out and loses all his chips, he has the option of reaching into his wallet to buy more chips, or leaving the table (which frees up the seat for a new player).

Tournaments operate differently. Players buy-in to enter. This is usually a fixed amount, such as the whopping $10,000 entry fee for the World Series of Poker. In exchange, each player is given an equal amount of starting chips to begin the tournament. Once a player loses all of his chips (unless it is a re-buy tournament), they are knocked out of the tournament. This produces an exciting “freeze-out” format that is often more exhilarating than regular cash games.

The tournaments on TV are multi-table tournaments (MTT), meaning that they start with a large number of players at several different tables. As players get knocked out, the tables are consolidated until all the remaining players are able to fit onto one table, which is known as the final table. To win any money in these MTT events, you typically have to finish in the top 10%. For example, if 100 players entered, the pay structure might award money only to the top 10 players who survived until the final table. Everyone else would lose their entry fee, whether they finished in 88th place or 12th place.

Single Table Tournaments
Online, another type of tournament called the Sit-N-Go (SNG) has become very popular. These are normally one-table tournaments that begin as soon as the table is full. For example, a $10 SNG would require an entry fee of $10 (and a $1 commission so the house can make a profit). Once every seat is filled by players who paid the required entry fee, the cards are dealt, until only one person is left with any chips.

A SNG has two advantages over a MTT: It takes far less time to complete (usually no more than an hour compared to several hours or days for MTT), and payouts are given to the top three players (which is approximately 30% compared to the 10% in MTT). However, one drawback is that you will never get a really big payday from a SNG, as the winner of a $10 SNG collects only $50. But in a MTT, your return can be strong, especially if you win against a big field of several hundred players. In those cases, your $10 entry fee might reward you with a win of over $1,000 for first place.

Another popular tournament is the freeroll. As the name implies, these are tournaments with absolutely no risk. The casino puts up all the money, so you literally can’t lose. Unfortunately most freerolls consist of small amounts, such as $100 to be carved up by 500 players, so the upside is not very strong. But they can be a nice way to get started in tournament poker without losing your shirt.

Beyond the Basics
My poker career started with limit cash games, but eventually I switched to no-limit tournaments for two reasons: Tournaments are a lot of fun, and have an exciting atmosphere similar to a sporting event. Several online poker rooms offer lucrative overlays in their tournaments by adding extra cash into the tournament pool.

But regardless of where or what type of poker you play, one thing should be mandatory: Always keep records. If you don’t have a log of your wins and losses, it’s nearly impossible to know if you are progressing towards the top of the food chain or are simply fish food for the poker sharks.

Kevin Blackwood has written three books, including Play Blackjack Like the Pros and Casino Gambling For Dummies. More information about his books can be found at

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