The descriptions below assume a familiarity with the general game play of poker, and with poker hands.
Like most variants of poker, the objective of Texas hold ’em is to win pots, where a pot is the sum of the money bet by oneself and other players in a hand. A pot is won either at the showdown by forming the best five card poker hand out of the seven cards available, or by betting to cause other players to fold and abandon their claim to the pot.
Hold ’em is normally played using small and big blind bets. Antes may be used in addition to blinds, particularly in later stages of tournament play. A dealer button is used to represent the player in the dealer position; the dealer button rotates clockwise after each hand, changing the position of the dealer and blinds. The small blind is posted by the player to the left of the dealer and is usually equal to half of the big blind. The big blind, posted by the player to the left of the small blind, is equal to the minimum bet. In tournament poker, the blind/ante structure periodically increases as the tournament progresses. (In some cases, the small blind is some other fraction of a small bet, e.g. $10 is a common small blind when the big blind is $15. The double-blind structure described above is relatively recent; until the 1980s, a single-blind structure was most common.)
The three most common variations of hold ’em are limit hold ’em, no-limit hold ’em and pot-limit hold ’em. Limit hold ’em has historically been the most popular form of hold ’em found in casino live action games in the United States. In limit hold ’em, bets and raises during the first two rounds of betting (pre-flop and flop) must be equal to the big blind; this amount is called the small bet. In the next two rounds of betting (turn and river), bets and raises must be equal to twice the big blind; this amount is called the big bet. No-limit hold ’em is the form most commonly found in televised tournament poker and is the game played in the main event of the World Series of Poker. In no-limit hold ’em, players may bet or raise any amount over the minimum raise up to all of chips the player has at the table (called an all-in bet). In pot-limit hold ’em, the maximum raise is the current size of the pot.
Play of the hand
Play begins with each player being dealt two cards face down. These cards are the player’s hole or pocket cards. These are the only cards each player will receive individually, and they will only (possibly) be revealed at the showdown, making Texas hold ’em a closed poker game. The hand begins with a “pre-flop” betting round, beginning with the player to the left of the big blind (or the player to the left of the dealer, if no blinds are used) and continuing clockwise.
After the pre-flop betting round, assuming there remains at least two players taking part in the hand, the dealer deals a flop, three face-up community cards. The flop is followed by a second betting round. This and all subsequent betting rounds begin with the player to the dealer’s left and continue clockwise.
After the flop betting round ends a single community card (called the turn or fourth street) is dealt, followed by a third betting round. A single community card (called the river or fifth street) is dealt, followed by a fourth betting round and the showdown, if necessary.
If a player bets and all other players fold, then the remaining player is awarded the pot and is not required to show his hole cards. If two or more players remain after the final betting round, a showdown occurs. On the showdown, each player plays the best five-card hand he can make from the seven cards comprising his two hole cards and the board (the five community cards). A player may use both of his own two hole cards, only one, or none at all, to form his final five-card hand. If the five community cards form the player’s best hand, then the player is said to be playing the board and can only hope to split the pot, since the other player can also use the same five cards to construct the same hand.
If the best hand is shared by more than one player (e.g. if no player is able to beat the board), then the pot is split equally amongst all remaining players, with any extra chips going to the person closest to the button in clockwise order. However, it is common for players to have closely-valued, but not identically ranked hands. In particular, kickers are often needed to break ties. Nevertheless, one must be careful in determining the best hand. The goal is to make the best five-card hand; if the hand involves fewer than five cards, such as two pair or three of a kind, then kickers are used to settle ties (see the second example below.) Straights sometimes split the pot.
The best possible hand given the five community cards is referred to as the nuts. The lowest possible nuts is three Queens (this occurs with 2 3 7 8 Q on the board with no more than two cards of any one suit).
Here’s a sample showdown:
4♣ K♠ 4♥ 8♠ 7♠
Each player plays the best 5 card hand they can make with the 7 cards available. They have:
|4♣ 4♥ 4♦ A♣ K♠
|Three 4s, A and K kickers
|A♠ K♠ 9♠ 8♠ 7♠
|K♠ K♥ K♦ 4♣ 4♥
|8♠ 7♠ 6♦ 5♦ 4♥
In this case, Ted’s full house is the best hand.
The blinds for this example hand
Here’s a sample deal involving our four players. The players’ individual hands will not be revealed until the showdown, to give a better sense of what happens during play:
Compulsory bets: Alice is the dealer. Bob, to Alice’s left, posts a small blind of $1, and Carol posts a big blind of $2.
Pre-flop: Alice deals two hole cards face down to each player, beginning with Bob and ending with herself. Ted must act first because he is the first player after the big blind. He cannot check, since the $2 big blind plays as a bet, so he folds. Alice calls the $2. Bob adds an additional $1 to his $1 small blind to call the $2 total. Carol’s blind is “live”, so she has the option to raise here, but she checks instead, ending the first betting round. The pot now contains $6, $2 from each of three players.
Flop: Alice now deals the flop of three face-up community cards, 9♣ K♣ 3♥. On this round, as on all subsequent rounds, the player on the dealer’s left begins the betting. In this case it is Bob who checks. Carol opens for $2, Ted has already folded and Alice raises another $2, making the total bet now facing Bob $4. He calls (puts in $4, $2 to match Carol’s initial bet and $2 to match Alice’s raise). Carol calls as well, putting in her $2. The pot now contains $18, $6 from the last round and $4 from three players this round.
Turn: Alice now deals the turn card face up. It is the 5♠. Bob checks, Carol checks, and Alice checks; the turn has been checked around. The pot still contains $18.
River: Alice deals the final river card, the 9♦, making the final board 9♣ K♣ 3♥ 5♠ 9♦. Bob bets $4, Carol calls, and Alice folds (Alice’s holding was A♣ 7♣; she was hoping the river card would be a club to make her a flush).
Showdown: Bob shows his hand of Q♠ 9♥, so the best five-card hand he can make is 9♣ 9♦ 9♥ K♣ Q♠, for three 9’s, with a King and a Queen as kickers. Carol shows her cards of K♠ J♥, making her final hand K♣ K♠ 9♣ 9♦ J♥ for two pair, Kings and 9’s, with a Jack kicker. Bob wins the showdown and the $26 pot.
Kickers and ranks
The following is another situation which illustrates the importance of breaking ties with kickers and card ranks, as well as the use of the five-card rule. After the turn, the board and players’ hole cards are as follows (though none of the players know each other’s hole cards):
|Board (after the turn)
8♠ Q♣ 8♥ 4♣
At the moment, Bob is in the lead with a hand of Q♠ Q♣ 8♠ 8♥ K♥, making two pair, Queens and 8’s, with King kicker. This beats Carol’s hand of Q♥ Q♣ 8♠ 8♥ 10♦ by virtue of his King kicker. Both Alice and Ted are hoping the final card is a club, which will make them both a flush, but in that case, Ted would have the higher flush and win the showdown. For example, if the final card was the 7♣, Ted’s flush would be Q-J-7-4-2, while Alice’s would be Q-10-9-7-4. Alice could still win, though, if the final card were the J♦, as that would give her a Queen-high straight. On this deal, however, the final card was the A♠, which didn’t help either of them. Bob and Carol still each have two pair, but notice what happened: both of them are now entitled to play the final Ace as their fifth card, making their hands both two pair, Queens and 8’s, with an Ace kicker. Bob’s King no longer plays, because the Ace on the board plays as the fifth card in both hands, and a hand is only composed of five cards. They therefore split the pot.