Poker 101: What is poker, and how is it played.

Poker 101: What is poker, and how is it played.

By Jude Goodwin © Great Bridge Links

Poker’s roots can be traced back to several games from various parts of the world, all contributing to the blend that became modern poker. It likely evolved from the 16th-century Persian card game “As Nas” and was further influenced by European games like “Poque” and “Primero” upon reaching the Americas. By the 19th century, poker was a staple across the United States, evolving into numerous variants and becoming a fixture in American culture.

Poker’s roots in my own history started on Sunday nights with my father, mother, and three brothers. After our roast dinner and an episode of Wild Kingdom the table would be cleared and a green felt placed down. Then the cards and the poker chips would be brought out and we’d all be given a stack of white red and blue chips to start. I remember playing this way for years, starting when we were as young as 8, 10, 12 and 14.

As I read through all the articles on this website, and other gaming websites, I realize there aren’t really any ‘back to basics’ articles on exactly what poker is and how to play it in its most basic form. So here we go!

Cowboy Poker

We’ll start here because, at least to me, this is the absolute basic form of the game. Sometimes this is called 5-Card Stud and it once enjoyed widespread popularity but has been largely overshadowed by games like Texas Hold’em and Omaha in more recent years. However, it still holds a place in the roster of classic poker games, offering a straightforward and compelling style of play that hinges more on betting strategy and player psychology than the dynamic potential of a changing hand.

You have five cards and the best hand wins. But what is a good hand in poker? Here’s how you rank the hands, from highest (least common) to lowest (most common). When we were kids, we used to write this down and keep it next to us for easy reference.

  1. Royal Flush: Ten, Jack, Queen, King, Ace, all in the same suit.
  2. Straight Flush: Five consecutive cards of the same suit.
  3. Four of a Kind: Four cards of the same rank.
  4. Full House: Three of a kind and a pair.
  5. Flush: Any five cards of the same suit, not consecutive.
  6. Straight: Five consecutive cards of different suits.
  7. Three of a Kind: Three cards of the same rank.
  8. Two Pair: Two different pairs.
  9. One Pair: Two cards of the same rank.
  10. High Card: None of the above hands, the highest card plays.

When you look at these possible deals, you can make sense of why some are more highly rated than others. There are 52 cards in a poker deck, and this includes 4 suits with 13 cards in each suit. There are only 4 aces, only 4 kings, only 4 queens, etc. There are 109,824 possible pairs. There are 54,912 possible three of a kind. There are only 10,200 possible straight hands. So you see, as a hand pattern becomes less common, the value goes up.

There is no Poker without a bet.

In basic Cowboy Poker, everyone puts an ‘ante’ in the pot – dealer might decide on the ante or the table might decide. Usually my dad or oldest brother would tell us what the ante was. If you’re playing at a casino, the ante will be written somewhere on or near the table.

Then the 5 cards are dealt face down. Once the cards are dealt and you’re holding your hand, there’ll be one round of betting. You bet depending on how good your cards are, referencing the list above. Or you might have a bad hand and bet to make others think you had a good hand. This is called a Bluff. My middle brother Scott loved to bluff and he was quite good at it! Note, today he plays in the WSOP but in those days he was only 12.

If you don’t want to bet, you can Fold. Technically, you fold if you don’t have a good hand. Unless you’re my brother Scott.

In this basic version of poker, the person to the left of the dealer starts the betting. That person can bet any amount they wish. Then around the table always moving to the left (clockwise), players can match the bet and say “I call the bet” or they can Fold, or they can Raise the bet saying something like “I call your bet and raise it another (amount here).” Then all around the table everyone has to ‘call’ this new bet, even the original better.

This is where Bluffing can come in. If you raise the bet, people will think you have a good hand – and you should have a good hand – and players who don’t like their hands much will Fold. Bluffing can backfire more often than not though, especially if you’re known to bluff a lot – like my brother Scott. Players can ‘call your bluff’ by calling your bet and you’ll have to show your hand in the end.

I remember oh so many times when I folded with a pair of Aces because of my brother’s high bet*, only to see at the end of the hand that he held garbage. Sigh.

Betting is over when everyone has Called and there have been no more raises. Then each hand in play – not any folded hands – must reveal its cards. Folded hands don’t have to reveal. It’s very telling to know what another player folded on, or what they bet on – but it’s simply not permitted to look at the cards in a folded hand.

And that’s it – winner takes their chips and everyone antes into the pot for another deal.

*Sometimes the dealer can set a betting structure, and put a limit on how high the bets are able to go. Fixed limit sets strict bet sizes, Pot limit allows more aggressive betting while capping the maximum wager, and No limit, with its unrestricted betting, invites bold maneuvers but can often be too rich for a friendly home game.

OK Yes, there are variations

There are a zillion variations of poker, but the ranking list above remains constant. Except in Lowball, which reverses the list – but that’s another story. When we were playing at the kitchen table all those years ago, we always played Dealers Choice. This meant that the dealer was able to choose the poker variation of the hand they were dealing. This was a lot of fun, especially for little kids. To be able to choose your favourite variation or your luckiest variation was a highlight of the night.

But I need to tell you about the Draw. Because most of the time poker is played with one or two draws.

The Draw

In Dealer’s Choice, dealer will choose how many draws, either ‘no draw’ or ‘one draw’ or ‘two draws’ – they could choose more draws but it was generally considered tedious to have more than two. Dealer can also dictate how many cards the players were allowed to draw. So for example “two 3-card draws” means there will be two draws of up to 3 cards. A “one-card draw” would allow only 1 card. This declaration will happen before the first card is dealt.

The Draw is a way for players to improve the value of their hands. After the  deal and the first round of betting dealer will deal the draw. Each player would take a number of cards out of their hand, place them face down on the table,  and ask for new ones. This is a telling moment. If a player does not draw new cards, it implies they have a strong hand. Or they are bluffing.

The Draw moves around the table clockwise.

Players can choose not to draw, or they can choose to draw some or all of the allowed number of cards.

In a “five-card draw” a player is allowed to throw in their entire hand. The deal to a 5-card draw is a bit different. If a player throws in their entire hand, the dealer will deal them 4 cards, and then a final 5th card at the end of the draw, after everyone else’s draw is done.

Once the first draw is over, a new betting round takes place with payers betting, raising, calling or folding as before.

If there are more draws, another draw now takes place and it all repeats.

Tips for the Draw

When you are playing the draw round, be careful not to throw your discards into the centre before your turn. The number of cards you discard are very telling to the other players. Hold your hand intact until it is your turn. And when you do put your discards on the table, make sure they are face down!

Some draws are more likely to succeed than others, and understanding the odds can significantly influence a player’s strategy. Here are a few common types of draws in draw poker, with insights into their practicality and likelihood of completion:

1. Inside Straight Draw (Gutshot)

An inside straight draw, or gutshot, occurs when a player needs one specific card to complete a straight. For example, if a player has 4-6-7-8, they need a 5 to complete the hand. This is one of the less favorable draws because there are only four cards in the deck that can complete the straight.

  • Odds: Roughly 11% (or about 1 in 9) chance of hitting an inside straight on the next draw.

2. Open-Ended Straight Draw

This draw occurs when a player has four consecutive cards and can complete a straight with either of two cards at either end. For instance, holding 5-6-7-8, a player can complete a straight with either a 4 or a 9.

  • Odds: About 17% (or about 1 in 6) chance of completing the straight on the next draw, making it almost twice as likely to hit compared to an inside straight draw.

3. Flush Draw

A flush draw is when a player has four cards of the same suit and needs one more card of that suit to complete a flush. For example, if a player has four hearts, any heart on the draw will complete the flush.

  • Odds: Approximately 20% (or about 1 in 5) chance of drawing a flush on the next card, assuming 9 cards of that suit remain in the deck.

4. Straight and Flush Draws (Combo Draws)

These are particularly strong in draw poker. A player might have a hand that could potentially complete either a straight or a flush, increasing the number of winning cards. For example, holding 5-6-7-8 of hearts allows for completing a straight with a 4 or 9 of any suit or a flush with any heart.

  • Odds: Significantly higher due to the dual possibilities, depending on the exact hand and the number of remaining cards in the deck.

5. Drawing for a Full House

When holding three of a kind, players may draw two cards hoping to pair one of the other two cards, or, less likely, draw another pair to make a full house. If holding a pair, players might draw three cards to try for three of a kind and then a full house.

  • Odds: More complex as it depends on how many of each rank remain. Generally less favourable than straight or flush draws.

Choosing which cards to draw is pivotal in draw poker. While the potential to hit a big hand can be tempting, the likelihood of success often dictates a more conservative approach. Wise players evaluate not just the odds of completing their hand but also how the hand might stack up against the opponents’ potential hands.

OK one last tip. Watch what cards people throw. If you see someone throw away 3 cards, it’s pretty easy to assume they have a pair in their hand. If they throw away 2 cards, it’s likely they have three of a kind, or maybe they’re hoping to build up a flush. Or a straigh. Or they are bluffing.

Some fun Dealer’s Choice Variations

As I mentioned, there are many variations of poker and each of the variations has many variations of the draw.  Truth is, not many people play Dealer’s Choice anymore. Most people play Texas Hold’em. This form of poker became the  most popular in the world because of the Moneymaker Effect which began in 2003

The “Moneymaker effect” refers to the explosive growth of poker’s popularity after Chris Moneymaker, an amateur player, won the World Series of Poker Main Event in 2003. His victory, having qualified through an online tournament, brought massive attention to the game and particularly to Texas Hold’em, heralding a global poker boom.

Even my brother Scott plays only Texas Hold’em now. We have lots of articles about Texas Hold’em on this website, so I’m not going to spend too much time on it here. What I’d like to do is talk about a few variations for a night of Dealer’s Choice poker.

Spit in the Ocean

This variation is known as a ‘community card’ variation of poker. We used to love this variation when we were kids. The dealer, while they are dealing cards to each player, can randomly deal a single card face down into the middle of the table. We used to like to yell ‘spit!’ when we dealt that card. Players are dealt only 4 cards, and the ‘spit’ card is a ‘community card.’ It’s not turned over immediately – there’s a round of betting first. Then the community card gets turned over and players can add it (figuratively) to their hands and another round of betting happens. Then there’s a draw where players have the option to discard and draw up to four cards from the deck, trying to improve their hand with the aid of the community card. A final round of betting occurs after the draw, starting again with the player to the dealer’s left.

I have in my memory the idea that the ‘spit’ card was wild, but I can’t find this in the rules anywhere so I’m not sure. But if it were wild, everyone would have at least a pair. And if you had the same card as the ‘spit’ card – a two for example, then you now had two wild cards which could lead to some crazy good hands.

3-Card Low

One of my brothers used to love this variation. In it, players are dealt only 3 cards. The object is to have the lowest three cards at the table. The best hand would be A23. A hand full of pips and no pairs would do well. A hand like 742 or 532 or 42A would all be pretty good.

There are a few varieties of this game too – of course. You can play it with or without a ‘draw.’ You can play it so the cards are dealt one by one with a betting round in between. And here’s a fun variation. Deal the first card down. This would be called the ‘hole card,’ Have a round of betting, then deal the next card up. Another round of betting then deal the next card up. After another round of betting, the ‘draw’ happens. If a player tosses some of their up cards, the new cards are dealt ‘up.’ If the player tosses their hole card, the new card is dealt face down.

This can be a really fun variation, with lots of player interaction. One hand I’ll never forget. I had something like 53 up and a 2 in the hole. My brother Scott had 43 up but he had tossed his hole card in the draw. The chances of him drawing a card lower than the 5 were extremely low. Of course, we know that Scott bluffs too. He looked at his hole card and pushed a huge pile of chips into the betting pool. Typical Scott! He’s trying to bluff me! If he wasn’t bluffing, he’d bet quietly to keep the betting open right? So I called. I’ll always remember him looking at me with a big smile and turning over an Ace in the hole.

Seven Card Stud

This is the last variation we’ll be talking about here. It was very popular with my brothers, and indeed was once one of the most popular forms of poker, particularly before Texas Hold’em surged in popularity. Unlike community card games like Texas Hold’em, in 7-Card Stud, each player receives their own individual hand, some of which are dealt face down and some face up. There can be many rounds of betting in this variation, which is one of the reasons I didn’t like it much as a kid. I could lose a whole lot of poker chips on a single hand. Here’s how it goes:

Each player starts by paying an ante to build the initial pot. The game proceeds with each player receiving three cards: two face down (hole cards) and one face up (door card). The player with the lowest door card usually starts the betting. There can be limits and other regulations regarding the betting.

Betting Rounds

  • Third Street: After the initial deal, there is a round of betting starting with the player showing the lowest card.
  • Fourth Street: Each player remaining in the hand receives another card face up (also known as “second street”). The player with the highest visible hand starts the betting.
  • Fifth Street: Another card is dealt face up, followed by a round of betting.
  • Sixth Street: Players receive a sixth card face up, followed by another round of betting.
  • Seventh Street (or River): The final card is dealt face down, and the final round of betting occurs.


If there are still multiple players in the pot after the last round of betting, the game moves to a showdown. Players reveal their hands starting with the last person to bet or raise (or the first person still in the hand clockwise from the dealer if there was no betting on the final round). The player with the best five-card poker hand, using any combination of their seven cards, wins the pot.

It’s in the chips!

Poker chips and playing cards caddyPoker can be a lot of fun on games night with the family or with friends. You don’t need much – just a few good decks of poker cards and a box of poker chips. Here’s a general guide to how poker chips are typically valued, though it’s important to note that these values can be adjusted based on the preferences of the game organizer or the stakes of the game.

  • White: The lowest-valued chip, typically worth $1.
  • Red: Commonly worth $5.
  • Blue: Usually valued at $10.

Of course there can be other colours as well, but a lot of basic chip sets just have the three. And you can always play just for chips – as we did as kids. This link will take  you to our Amazon Affiliate where you’ll find a pretty good replica of the round poker chip caddy we used on those Sunday nights during my childhood.

So now you know everything you need to know about the game of Poker to sit down at a table and start having fun.