How to Play and Win Texas Hold’em Poker for Beginners
Published on July 16, 2023
In the United States, Texas hold’em is the most popular game of poker available. You’ll see more money changing hands at the hold’em tables in a casino than almost anywhere else.
And if you want to be the “best poker player in the world,” you need to master Texas hold’em. It’s the game played at the main event of the World Series of Poker every year.
Expert play requires more skill than most people think. The simplicity of the game along with the high luck factor make novice players think that playing well is easier than it really is. It’s also a fast game that accommodates more players at the table than some other poker games.
This post is for the poker player new to Texas hold’em who wants to pick up on some of the less obvious complications that might arise at the table.
Let’s start with the forced bets.
In Texas hold’em, there are 2 forced bets each hand.
Without these forced bets, players would fold until they got the best possible hand. But since the blinds are at stake every hand, players are forced to act at least part of the time, or they’ll go broke.
Most Texas hold’em games don’t use an ante. The blinds are the only forced bets.
The blinds are usually set at the lower end of the stakes at the table. For example, in a $5/$10 Texas hold’em game, the large blind is usually $5. The small blind is half that, $2.50.
The players who must make the blind bets rotate around the table. In a home game, the 2 players to the left of the dealer have the small blind and the large blind, respectively. In a casino game, a dealer button represents where the blinds are.
The button rotates clockwise around the table as the game progresses—after each hand, it moves one player.
Once the blinds have been posted, each player gets 2 cards, face-down. These are the players’ hole cards. There’s a round of betting after the hole cards are dealt.
In stud poker, the betting order is determined by the value of the face-up cards in the players’ hands. (These are called the board cards.)
But in Texas hold’em, the betting order is determined by where the blinds are. The player to the left of the big blind acts first. She can fold, call, or raise.
Action continues around the table. If a player wants to play, she must at least call the previous action, even if it’s just the big blind. After everyone has had a chance to bet, the small blind and the big blind also get a chance to raise.
After the first betting round, the dealer deals “the flop.” These are 3 cards that all the players at the table share. They’re dealt face up in front of the dealer, and they’re traditionally all turned over at the same time—hence the expression “flop.”
(If the cards were turned over one at a time, perceptive players could watch the other players’ reactions to each card to draw conclusions about what hole cards everyone has.)
There’s another round of betting after the flop. At this point, players can check if they don’t want to bet and no one who acted before them bet.
A 4th community card is dealt after that round of betting.
This card is called “the turn.” That’s followed by another round of betting.
This is a 5th community card. This is also the final betting round. If 2 or more players are still in action after “the river,” there’s a showdown. The 2 players compare their hands to see who has the better or best hand according to the standard poker rankings.
You can use any combination of hole cards and community cards to make your final 5-card hand.
But there are some subtleties left to explore.
Betting limits is one of those subtleties. Texas hold’em is usually played with one of the following betting limits.
Your bets preflop and on the flop are the smaller of the 2 numbers indicated in the limits of the game. In the example $5/$10 game we’re talking about, the bets during these 2 rounds must be made in increments of $5.
On the turn and the river, the bets increase to the 2nd number ($10). You must bet or raise in increments of $10 during these stages of the game.
Your minimum bet is the same as in limit hold’em, but the maximum bet size is the size of the pot. You get to include the value of your call when determining this size.
For example, if there’s $15 in the pot, you can raise to $45. ($15 in the pot plus the $15 you’re calling.)
You have the same minimum bet as in the other versions of the game, but the only limit to the size of your bet or raise is the number of chips in front of you.
I often tell the other players at the table at the Winstar that any 2 cards can win. This is true, but it’s deceptive.
The truth is that the players who are selective about which hands they play are the ones who walk away with the most money.
If you want to win at Texas hold’em, part of the trick is only playing strong cards preflop.
Position is more important in Texas hold’em than in almost any other game. Some starting hands can be played with a lot of profit potential from late position, but you need to fold them in early position.
If you’re playing at a full table of 9 players, here’s your position.
The player with the dealer button in front of him is always the last player to act, regardless of the round. (In a home game, the dealer is the last player to act.)
Raising is what makes the game of Texas hold’em exciting. You should raise often, especially against weak opponents. You should also pay attention to how often your opponents raise.
Any time an opponent raises before you act, it’s time to reconsider whether your hand is good enough to play. I’m a fan of the raise or fold guideline.
If your hand isn’t strong enough to re-raise the raiser, go ahead and give him credit for having a great hand and fold—unless you’re already involved in the pot. In that case, it’s okay to call a single raise and see what the flop offers.
Pay attention to position, too. Players who raise from early position usually have stronger hands than players who raise from late position.
Winning poker is aggressive poker, too. Players who win a lot of money at Texas hold’em don’t do it by calling a lot of hands down to the river.
If you have a big pair preflop, you should almost always raise. Big pairs play better against fewer opponents. The more people in the pot with you, the more likely it is that someone will draw out on you.
If you have more speculative hands preflop, try to get into the hand cheap with plenty of opponents. Then if you hit your hand, you can get paid off.
You should also raise aggressively preflop from late position if you have any reasonable hand and little opposition. You want to give yourself a chance of winning the blinds.
You have 169 possible 2-card combinations before the flop. These combinations can have only a limited number of characteristics of interest to the poker player, though.
Pairs, of course, are often good starting hands, but the higher the ranking, the better they are. A pair of aces or a pair of kings is a great starting hand. A pair of 2s or 3s, though, is speculative.
Suited cards are good starting hands, too. They give you the possibility of hitting a flush. The higher the rank of the cards, the better-if you hit a pair on the flop, it might win even if you miss your flush.
Connected cards are adjacent in terms of rank, so they present the possibility of a straight. Higher connected cards are stronger than lower connected cards. A jack and a queen is far more valuable preflop than a 7 and an 8.
Connected cards can also have gaps. The bigger the gaps, the weaker the starting hand. A 7 and a 9 has one gap (the 8). A 7 and a 10 has 2 gaps (the 8 and the 9).
Hole cards can also be connected and suited at the same time. These provide more possibilities, but the rule of thumb is still that higher-ranked cards are better than lower-ranked cards. The king and queen of a single suit is a much stronger starting hand than the 7 and 8 of the same suit.
Earlier, I mentioned the importance of position. It makes more of a difference preflop than anywhere else in the game.
You should only play a pair from early position if it’s ranked 7 or higher.
You should only play suited connectors if they’re both ranked 9 or higher, but a gap is okay with suited connectors ranked this high.
You can also play unsuited cards from early position if their rankings are high enough—an ace with any card 10 or higher is playable. A king with a queen or a jack is playable from early position, even if they’re not suited.
In middle position, you can play smaller pairs. You can also play big-little suited—an ace with a smaller card of the same suit. You can play suited connectors where the lowest card is ranked 8 or higher. You can even add in some non-suited big cards—basically, any 2 cards of 10 or higher.
In late position, you can play lots of hands—any pair, for example. Any big-little suited combination makes sense from late position, too, including a king and a smaller card of the same suit.
The trick is getting away from the more speculative hands if the flop doesn’t fit.
Keep in mind that 71% of the hand is known after the flop. Since the bets preflop and on the flop are half the size of the bets on the turn and the river, you get the most value for your money on the flop. You need a strong hand to stay in the game after the flop.
If you don’t at least have a draw to a hand that might win, you should fold on the flop. It’s too expensive to continue if you don’t.
Keep in mind that it’s harder to improve your hand in Texas hold’em than in other games, because you only get 2 more cards after the flop.
This means that the cards on the flop should fit your hand. If they don’t, you should fold.
In other words, if the cards on the flop don’t improve your hand or give you a draw to a strong hand, stop putting money in the pot. Fold.
Let’s say you have the ace and queen of hearts as your hole cards. If you get an ace on the flop or a queen, you’ve improved your hand. If you have a pair of aces at this point, you have the best possible pair and a solid kicker (the queen).
If you get a queen, you have a strong pair with the best possible kicker.
You might also see 2 other cards of the same suit on the flop, giving you a draw to the best possible flush.
Those are examples of flops that fit your hand.
On the other hand, if the flop comes off with a king, or 3 cards of a different suit, or anything else that doesn’t fit your hand at all, it’s time to get out of the hand.
You should have, at the least, a hand as strong as the ones below to continue past the flop.
If you have the straight draw or the flush draw, you should only continue if you have at least 2 other players in the pot. You need to get paid off when playing a speculative hand.
Your “kicker,” by the way, is the card used to break a tie if you have the same hand as your opponent. For example, if you have an ace and a king in the hole, and your opponent has an ace and a queen, if you both wind up with a pair of aces, you’ll win because of your king kicker.
This is why “big slick” is such a strong hand. Big slick is the ace and king, regardless of whether the cards are suited.
The flop is the most important moment in the game of Texas hold’em. Just remember that half the time or more, the flop won’t go your way.
If you have a straight flush, a 4 of a kind, a full house, the nut flush, or the nut straight on the flop, you should put money into the pot aggressively. You’re almost certainly going to win the pot at the showdown, so drive the action.
(The “nut” version of any hand is the highest possible hand. With a flush, the nut flush is the one where the highest card is an ace, for example.)
If you have a 3 of a kind, you have a solid hand. It’s better if you have a small pair that hits one of the cards on the board, rather than having a small card in your hand that matches a pair on the board.
Other solid hands include 2 pairs, the top pair, or an over-pair. The top pair is the highest-ranked card on the flop along with the matching card from your hand. An over-pair is a pair that’s ranked higher than any of the cards on the flop.
I like to play draws aggressively on the flop. If you have 4 cards to a flush or to a straight on the flop, raise with it. If your starting hand standards are good, you have possible pairs that can win the pot for you, too.
Learn to recognize drawing hands which offer you multiple potential winning hands. An example is a flop that gives you both a straight draw and a flush draw.
The flops to be careful of are the ones where your opponent might have a better kicker than you do, or the ones where your opponent might have a straight or a flush.
The turn isn’t nearly as hard to play as the flop. After all, if the flop didn’t fit your hand, you folded—so it probably isn’t even an issue. If you know you have the best hand on the turn, you should, of course, raise aggressively.
Draws become more expensive on the turn, though—the bet size doubles at this point of the game. You might get a card on the turn that gives you a draw you didn’t have before, increasing the value of your hand. Pay attention and notice when this happens.
Most turn cards don’t help most hands, though. This is one of the reasons why the flop is so important.
To make guesses about this, think about their position and their behavior. Did they raise from early position and then re-raise? They’re probably sitting on a big pair.
You should also pay attention to their general tendencies throughout the game. Some players are just aggressive regardless of what they’re holding. They could have anything in the hole.
The turn is also a great opportunity for you to pull off a bluff. Most players bluff too much, though. You should only bluff on the turn if you’re facing 1 or 2 opponents.
Also, if either of them are bad poker players, don’t bother trying to bluff them. Bad players are notorious for being unwilling to fold.
Strategy on the river is predicated on the fact that you now know what your final hand is. If you’ve been paying attention to your opponents’ behavior throughout the hand, you should have at least a guess at what cards they’re holding.
If you’ve been playing a drawing hand and hit your draw on the river, it might be appropriate to check, especially if you have several opponents. This gives your opponents an opportunity to bet into you, and then you can re-raise.
You should be reasonably sure you have the best hand in this situation.
On the other hand, if you have few opponents, or if you’re in late position, bet and raise with that made hand. You need to do what you can to get money into the pot.
Watch out for your opponents’ potential draws becoming real hand. If a 3rd suited card falls on the river, and you’re holding a big pair, you might be beat. I’d play that top pair conservatively, but depending on the size of the pot, I probably wouldn’t throw it away.
Playing Texas hold’em is an essential poker skill in today’s casino poker environment, especially in the United States. The game is subtle and involves a lot of luck, but a skilled player can do well because of (not in spite of) these factors.
Probably the most important aspects of Texas hold’em strategy are position and hand selection. If you play tight from early position and loosen up from late position, you’ll be on the right track.
The next most important aspect of the game is playing the flop well. If you fold when the flop doesn’t fit your hand, you’ll do all right.