We go through our lives hearing and seeing many references to the game of poker. Certain idioms even manage to permeate into the speech of non-poker players. Have you ever heard someone describing another person as “bluffing”, or using an expression such as “I’m going to call his bluff” or “I’ll put on my best poker face”?

Often people have absolutely no idea that they are referencing one of the most popular card games of all time, poker.

To many, however, while they realise poker is a game played with cards and chips; this is the extent of their knowledge. Perhaps you are here because you’d like to get in a little deeper - below the surface.

Check out this interactive poker guide:

So, what is a poker game really like, and how is it played?

Variations of Poker

There are many different versions or “variants” of the game poker. Historically, the most popular variants have been “draw games” and “stud games”.

If you ever see a hand of poker played in a film that pre-dates the year 2000, it will typically be one of these two formats.

However, a new phenomenon has taken over in more recent times. The game is “No Limit Hold’em”. The majority of poker games referenced or shown in current media will be of the No Limit Hold’em variety.

Each game genre has slightly different rules, but the principle is the same in each. Take all of your opponents' chips!

The Objective

The first thing we need to know when we play any new game is the objective. Perhaps you have already realised that poker players start the game with a certain amount of chips. (Small plastic discs that represent monetary value). These chips are used to make wagers or bets, usually based on the strength of a player’s cards.

The idea is to win as many of our opponents’ chips as possible. There are two main formats through which this is done: Cash games and Tournaments.

In a “cash game”, players can sit in and play at a table – coming and going as they please. If a player runs out of chips they may “rebuy” and gain additional chips for a monetary fee (unless it’s a play-money game). At the end of the game, players can typically redeem their chips for the equivalent value in cash.

In a “tournament”, the game continues until only 1 player is left remaining with all the chips. If a player runs out of chips, they usually will not be able to rebuy and is now considered out of the tournament. The objective is to be the last player standing. Prizes are usually awarded based on which position a player finishes in the tournament.

The Strategy

There are certain strategy elements that the majority of new poker variants share in common. In the majority of cases, there are two ways that we might win chips.

The first way is to collect very strong cards and make a good “hand”. Once we have a very strong hand, we can start to make bets. Hopefully, our opponents will take up or “call” these bets with a hand that is inferior to our own. When the cards are turned over, we will win all of the chips that were wagered.

However, there is a second way. And it’s this way that makes poker so exciting. We might not actually have a strong hand but we can pretend that we do so by “bluffing”. We might make a big bet representing that we are very strong. Our opponent is under no obligation to “call” our bet if they feel they are beaten.

They have the option to give up on the pot and “fold”. The good news for them is that he won’t lose any additional chips – the bad news is that they must sacrifice everything they have wagered so far.

Every time a player makes a bet, they place that bet into the middle of the table. The collection of chips in the centre is referred to as the “pot”. If we get all of our opponents to fold, we don’t need to show our hand and we win whatever is in the pot.

The Psychology

One of the reasons that players love poker is for the psychological aspect. Figuring out whether or not our opponents are bluffing can be exciting. It can also be a great feeling when we are able to successfully pull off a bluff, and get our opponents to fold when we hold nothing.

It’s often said that poker is a game of people, not a game of cards. Sure, we need the cards in order to play, but the best decision at any point will often be based on who we are playing.

Are they the type to believe us when we make big bets or not?
Do they like to gamble or are they risk-averse?
How likely are they to try and bluff us?

Many plays may give off “tells” or signals that indicate what type of hand they are holding. Perhaps they appear agitated or nervous. Maybe the opposite is true and they appear overly casual. Perhaps they place their chips into the pot forcefully, or maybe they slide their chips smoothly and calmly. All of these visible indicators can help us to understand what type of holding our opponent might have.

Why Play Poker?

Many people mistakenly feel that poker is a game of luck, similar to other casino games such as blackjack and roulette. Unlike the average casino game, however, poker is a game of skill. The best players will win in the long run.

It’s true that the outcome of any individual hand of poker could depend a little bit more on luck than it does skill, but the luck will even out in the long run. The players that make the best decisions at the tables will consistently win the most money over the course of many hands.

As such, poker can provide us with an intellectual challenge, rather than simply a form of entertainment. It draws on and teaches us the following disciplines:

  • Statistics and Probability
  • Game Theory
  • Psychology

It also teaches us useful skills regarding our mental state, along with discipline and organisation. In other words, learning to play poker can teach us a lot about managing other areas of our life. There can also be large financial benefits to playing. Because it is a game of skill, many players opt to make poker their profession and take up full-time play.

Even if we don’t ever decide to play poker at a professional level, it can be a great way to relax and have fun with our friends.

Good luck and see you at the tables!

Chad Holloway is a 2013 WSOP Bracelet winner who has previously worked for PokerNews as a managing editor and live reporter