Poker is one of the most popular card games, with millions of Canadians enjoying the game both live and online. You can play poker free with friends, or try your hand at high stakes games in casinos and poker rooms stretching from Montreal to Vancouver.
This page introduces the betting, strategy, and rules of poker for new players. The focus is No-Limit Texas Hold’em, the most popular form of poker. Below, you will first find information on hand rankings, and the order of actions in a hand (rules). Bluffing is a key component of any poker game and is covered separately. Strategy, poker variations, and the different formats this game is played in are then explained.
Official poker hand rankings
You win chips in poker in two ways. You can get your opponents to fold, in which case you win the pot. Alternately, if a hand reaches ‘showdown’, then the strength of hands on a standard hand ranking chart will be compared. The winner is the player with the best poker hand.
Every player needs to know the standard poker hand ranking chart before starting to play:
- Royal flush: Ace, king, queen, jack and ten all of the same suit.
- Straight flush: Five cards in a sequence, all of the same suit. A Royal Flush the highest possible straight flush.
- Four of a kind: Four cards all of the same rank; for example, four queens.
- Full house: Three of a kind and a pair within your five cards, for example 2-2-2-K-K.
- Flush: Any five cards within the same suit.
- Straight: Five cards in a sequence, with at least two different suits.
- Three of a kind: Three cards of the same rank.
- Two pairs: Two pairs of cards of the same rank.
- One pair: A single pair of cards of the same rank.
- High card: When none of the above hands apply, you have a ‘high card’ hand based on your highest card. For example, if you have an ace in your hand and none of the hands listed above, you have an ‘ace high’.
In Texas Hold’em your best poker hand uses the best five cards from the community cards and your own two cards. It is possible for two players to have the same ranked hand, in which case the pot will be split. The rank of cards is used to determine the winner when two players have a flush, straight, or full house.
How to play Texas Hold’em poker — order of play
Texas Hold’em is by far the most popular form of poker today. Some 80% of all hands are in this format. ‘No limit’ betting means you can bet any amount of chips you wish any time it is your turn. In this form of poker every player gets two cards of their own, and must combine them with the flop, turn, and river.
Here is a look at exactly how a hand of Texas Hold’em works.
On the table there is a ‘button’. This indicates the player who is dealing. It is moved clockwise around the table after each hand. The button shows which player acts first and last in each hand.
Blinds are involuntary bets. They start each pot in Texas Hold’em. The player to the left of the button posts a ‘small blind’ and the next player left will post the ‘big blind’.
The size of these blinds will be fixed on a cash game table at around 1/100 of the standard buy-in. For example, the blinds might be set at 50c/$1 in a $100 buy-in game. In a tournament, the blind levels will increase as the tournament goes on.
Hole cards and initial bets
Once the two ‘blinds’ have been posted, the dealing will take place. Every player will receive two face down ‘hole cards’. These are for the individual players’ eyes only.
At this point, the first betting round will take place. In this first round, the player to the immediate left of the big blind will start the action. Each player has three options when their turn comes:
- Fold: This will end the player’s involvement in the hand immediately and they will not be required to put any chips into the pot. If a player has raised before you get to act, and you don’t want to raise again or match their bet, then folding is your only option.
- Call: You stay involved in the hand by matching the size of the largest current bet. If nobody has bet ahead of you, you can call by matching the size of the big blind.
- Raise: When you choose to raise you are increasing the size of the last bet. In No-Limit Hold’em, you can bet as much as you wish — your entire stack if you want to. Standard raise sizes to open a pot are from 2x to 4x the big blind. If someone else has already raised, you can bet much more.
If someone raises, then the play continues clockwise until everyone has a chance to react to that bet. For example, one player might raise 3x, another might call, then a third player raises a total of 10x the big blind. The initial raiser and caller (plus the players in between yet to act) will get a chance to re-raise, call, or fold before the betting round is considered closed.
If everyone folds to a raise, then the pot is awarded to the betting player without the need for any cards to be shown.
The flop, turn, and river betting rounds
With the first round of betting complete, the players will see the ‘flop’. These are the first three community cards and are dealt face-up. The second round of betting will now start. The active player left of the button starts the action, with the player on the button (or closest to it) always closing the betting.
Once this round of betting is complete, the ‘turn’ will see the dealer reveal one more community card. Another round of betting takes place before the dealer reveals the final card — the ‘river’. At this point, the final round of betting will take place.
With the betting now complete, the players reveal their hands and the player with the best-ranked hand will scoop up all of the chips.
Determining the winner at showdown
If the last betting round is completed with two or more players still in the hand, a showdown is used to determine the winner. If the betting is completed before the river, then the final community cards are dealt first. The player that made the last bet or re-raise shows their hand first.
With two hole-cards and five community cards, you need to create the best possible poker hand using just five of them. If the shared cards make the best hand, then that is what is used. It is possible, too, that players have the same ranked hand — for example, a straight. In this case the straight with the highest card wins. It is possible for the pot to be split.
There are situations where a player is all-in, and other players want to continue betting and raising. In this situation, a side pot is created for new bets. The smaller stacked all-in player has no involvement in this side pot, though can win the initial pot that they contributed to.
Texas Hold’em starting hands guide
It only takes a few hands before the order of events, betting, and determining who wins the pot becomes intuitive. After that you are ready to start battling for pots.
A good way to beat new players is to be a little more disciplined with your starting hand selection than they are. By sticking to two-card starting hands which have good prospects, you will win money from opponents that play ‘any two’ or overplay suited cards (for example).
Starting hands can be grouped:
- Premium hands: A pair of aces, kings, queens, or ace-king are the strongest starting hands. Play them ‘fast’ with raises and re-raises.
- Mid-pairs: Eights through to jacks are often the best hand before the flop, though can be hard to play when the community cards include aces or kings.
- Small pairs: You can win at showdown with an unimproved pair 22-77, though this is rare. The biggest profits will come from those times you make a hidden three-of-a-kind.
- Suited aces/suited connectors: Aces with smaller side cards of the same suit can make hidden flushes to win big pots. Suited connectors include hands like six to seven of hearts. They have chances of making both straights and flushes.
- Unpaired high cards: Hands like kind queen suited and ace-jack can be strong. Keep in mind that they do badly against the premium hands and then play cautiously if your opponents are seeking action.
Some examples of bad starting hands include an ace-six off suit (which is easily ‘dominated’ by bigger aces). Hands like queen-eight suited are also trap hands. If you hit one pair, you will never really know if you are ahead without risking a lot of your chips.
How to bluff in poker games
There are two ways to win at poker. One is to win with the best hand and the other is to make all your opponents fold.
Bluffing plays an important role in the game. To be a successful poker player, you will need to maximize the amount of money you win when you do have the best hand. At the same time, you need to win a share of the pots you get involved in where you do not have the best hand, or where nobody hits the flop.
You must bluff sometimes. A player that never bluffs is easy to beat. You simply fold when they bet big and you do not have a strong hand, and bet whenever they check (stealing the pot). If you always bluff, experienced opponents will beat you easily — waiting for good hands and letting you bet your stack into them.
The best form of bluff for new players to learn is the ‘semi-bluff’. Here you are betting when you have four cards to a flush or straight. Sometimes you will win the pot right away when your opponent folds. When you do get called, you can make a strong hand on the turn or river, winning a big pot that way.
Bluffs are player-dependent. They work best when you have one (or max two) opponents, who have not shown strength in the hand. If you are last to act (on the button) and an opponent that called your raise pre-flop checks to you, then a bet will often take the pot down. In the same spot, with a raise and re-raise ahead of you on the flop, you can easily fold and save your bluffs for another day.
Learning the different poker formats
The basic form of poker sees the chips you bet with have a real money value. This is known as a ‘cash game’. When you head to online poker Canada sites, you will find several different forms of poker, along with variants with different rules and betting styles.
Within Texas Hold’em you’ll find the following formats:
- Cash games: Sit with real money and win pots which have real money value. You can join and leave games at will. Two-, six-, and nine-player tables the most common sizes.
- Tournaments: All players start with the same number of chips for their buy-in amount and are eliminated when they lose their chips. The last player standing wins the biggest prize, with 10% to 15% of the field winning money. Poker tournaments have multiple variations including re-buy, bounty events, and satellite qualifiers to big prize live tournaments.
- Sit and go: These are single table tournaments that start when all the seats are filled. The most common size is nine-handed, with the final three players getting paid.
- Fast fold: No waiting time between hands in this format. Pools of players mean that as soon as you fold, you are combined with others from your pool and start a new hand right away.
- Lottery/jackpot sit-and-goes: A super-fast game with random prize pools of up to 10,000x your buy-in. Expect short chip stacks and rapid blind increases.
Popular types of poker games
No Limit Hold’em is the quickest poker game to learn, making it the best game for new players who want to get started with poker. This is far from the only format and was rarely played at all until about 15 years ago.
Here are some of the alternative types of poker. You can enjoy many of them online, and in the bigger card rooms at Canadian live casinos:
- Omaha: In this game players are dealt four hole cards, with the same five community cards. Players must make their best hand with exactly two hole cards and three community cards. The most popular variant is ‘pot limit Omaha’, with Omaha Hi-Lo and other variants also available.
- Seven-card stud: In this traditional poker format, each player is dealt their own ‘board’ of seven cards. Three are face down and four face up. Make the best possible five-card hand from your cards. This game is best enjoyed with fixed limit betting. Razz is a low-only form of stud poker. Other variants include Stud Hi-Lo, and five-card variations.
- Draw poker: In five-card draw, each player is dealt five cards but can choose how many to swap on a drawing round. Variations include two to seven triple-draw and Badugi.
- Mixed games: Some online poker sites in Canada let you play in games where the type of poker changes at set intervals. Examples are HORSE and Eight-game poker.
Texas Hold’em has betting variants. It can be played with fixed limit bets, or with pot limit betting.
Best poker tips for new players
No Limit Hold’em is a great starting point for new players, as there will never be an issue finding a game, whether live or online.
When you first learn to play poker, the phrase ‘tight is right’ is important. You should aim to only get involved with your best hands. If you look around, you’ll be able to find many starting hand charts, that tell you the hands you should be playing. Obviously, if you are dealt a pair of aces, you should bet and raise aggressively, but what if you are dealt a king-ten off-suit in middle position? These charts will tell you when or if you should be playing that hand.
If you only ever bet with premium hands, or bet different sizes depending on how strong your hand is, experienced opponents will take your chips very quickly. While you learn the game, betting consistent amounts will help disguise your strength. Once you get a feel for the tables, you can spot situations where adjusting bet sizes to exploit your opponents is best.
Position is a hugely important factor in poker that players learning to play overlook. If you are the last person to act in a hand, you have a huge advantage. This is because you have all the information from the other players’ betting before you act. If you see bets and raises ahead of you, then you can fold, saving chips. If nobody shows any interest in the pot and it is checked to you, acting last gives you the opportunity to bet, winning a pot you might not have been able to win had you acted first.
Poker is a game that is easy to learn, though almost impossible to master. Even the world’s best poker players are continually working on their game. Hand reading, odds, and exploiting different types of opponent can always be improved.
Wrapping up: the best way to learn poker is to find a game
The best way to become an expert poker player is to get involved in the action. Free poker apps will only get you so far, as there is little incentive for anyone to fold when no money is at risk. You can get a good bonus and tournament entries with a minimum deposit at many of the best Canadian poker sites. Once you check out the different poker formats, try some bluffs and learn about bet sizing and position — you will be in a great position to specialize, and maybe even learn to become, a profitable long-term player.