Photos by Aaron Kahn
Some people have the gift of living their lives with an incredible enthusiasm that seems to rub off on those around them. My friend Replay Dave is one of those people. His voracious passion for gambling has enriched my life by bringing into it Jai-alai (the greatest spectator sport in existence) and the "Cadillac of Poker Games," Texas Hold'em.
Texas Hold'em has recently experienced a huge surge in popularity. Perhaps it is because of the boom in televised poker action on shows such as World Poker Tour and Celebrity Poker, or perhaps everyone is like me and has a gambling-crazed friend. Everywhere I look, it seems that people, even those that I would never have guessed to be the "wagering sort," are playing poker.
Hold'em is just one of countless poker games played throughout the world. It is the one that I have the most fun with, because great cards are not vital when it comes to the possibility of winning money. It is a really easy game to learn and a somewhat difficult one to master, so I'll run down the basics step by step.
As in most games, the deal rotates clockwise around the table. The player to the left of the dealer puts in their blind. This is a bet made before the cards are viewed to ensure action in every hand of poker. Some games have two blinds, which would be provided by the two players to the left of the dealer.
Every player gets two cards face down. This is your pocket hand. These are called Hole Cards. The betting starts with the player to the left of the blind. In order to stay in, they must call/see (match) or raise the blind. Each player has the option to fold their hand at any time. As the betting goes around the table, each player must, in turn, match or raise the highest placed bet to continue. At the end of every betting round, each player must have an equal amount of money in the pot.
The dealer then burns one card, laying it facedown on the table. Burn cards are never revealed. Their purpose is to assist in keeping an honest game, in the case that a player has marked certain cards or the deck has been stacked. They then turn over the next three cards. This is called the Flop. Another round of betting occurs, starting with the person directly to the left of the dealer. The leading better has the option to check, which is acknowledging that they would like to continue in the game, though they do not wish to place a bet. This can go on with every player until someone places a bet.
After that, a card is burnt and another is turned face up. This card is called Fourth Street, or the Turn Card. Another round of betting ensues. Another card is burnt, and the last community card is turned up. This card is called Fifth Street, or The River. There is now a final round of betting before the remaining players reveal their cards.
The object is to make the highest ranking five-card poker hand out of the five community cards and the two in front of you. The fact that every player shares the five community cards in the game of Texas Hold'em gives you the advantage of insight into your opponents' hands, which you will not have in most other games of poker. Everyone is aware of the best possible hand that any other player can have. It is then just a matter then of judging whether your own cards measure up against the probability of another player having a superior hand.
Poker hands rank in the following order: a pair, two pair, three of a kind, a straight (five cards, unsuited, in consecutive order), a flush (five cards of the same suit), a full house (three of a kind and a pair), four of a kind, and a straight flush (five cards, suited, in consecutive order). Basically, you are betting on the odds of your cards beating your opponents' cards.
Beyond those basic rules, the game is largely one of strategy. The bet leader has the opportunity to set the pace for the whole game. A strong leading bet will weed out the players who lack confidence in their cards. On the other hand, a weak leading bet or a check will lead those who you play with to believe that you lack confidence in your own cards and are more likely stay in, creating a more lucrative pot for the victor. Building the pot as much as possible is of the utmost importance when you believe that you will win. There will be times when a big bet will win the pot simply because nobody is willing to match, but this is not a move to pull very often if you don't really have the cards to back it up.
To be a good player, one must have a good understanding of human nature and a knack for reading their opponents. Your well being is very dependent on your ability to read the other players. Unless you are playing against pros, players inevitably fall into some of the same patterns. Once you are comfortable in the playing environment, start to notice the faces of the other players as they view their hole cards and the community cards. Take note of things like lip-biting, nose-itching, nail-biting, and unconscious nervous habits of the like. Also, be aware of the frequency with which the others look at their pocket hands, then back at the community cards. No one hand will tell you much about the way that people play, but over time an observant player will pick up certain consistent behaviors and see how they correlate to the cards dealt.
One of the key elements to the game is a player's ability to effectively bluff. It is fundamentally used to create an air of uncertainty. It must be done intelligently and strategically. The object of bluffing is to make everyone think that your hand is better than it is, and most importantly, better than theirs.
There are three poker players who will always lose in the long run. The first is the player who never bluffs and is therefore easily read as the one who only bets when he has a hand. The second is the player that always bluffs and does so expensively. The third is the player who always calls and never raises. Each of these players simply lessens their stacks with each progressive hand. Luck may be on their side once or twice, but legitimate wins are rare once your adversaries have your game figured out. The key is to appear inconsistent and hard to read, and to really take each hand for what it is. Remember, the cards have no memory. Each hand is a fresh start and a fresh opportunity. It is very necessary to act blatantly out of character throughout the course of the game. Keep them guessing. There is nothing wrong with being caught in a bluff, as long as your behavior in subsequent hands does not allow you to be called out again.
With that out of the way, there are a few ways to help yourself out. By learning a few basic chip tricks, you will surely strike fear into the hearts of your opponents and look like a more experienced player than you really are. It is of the utmost importance to practice chip tricks at home before you bust them out at the poker table. Your concentration will be most likely shattered if the chips are sent flying due to untrained fingers. The key is to appear nonchalant, as though it is the most natural thing in the world for you to be doing in the midst of a heated game. A good online reference that I found is: http://www.21ace.com/poker_chip_tricks.html. They take you through four of the more common poker chip tricks, give advice on how to most easily master them, and provide color step-by-step photos.
Some players choose to wear sunglasses, so that their eyes won't give them away. When playing in a game of decently high stakes, this is something that I recommend. Especially for players with little live poker experience. It is something that you will see the pros utilize quite often. It is something that I saw used at a house game that I played at in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It was well after midnight and we were in the middle of the game when some guy that I had never met came in wearing a pair of dark Oakleys. He sat down and did not remove them for a good hour. I will admit that I was intimidated by this character, and though I won more of his money than he won of mine, it is amazing what seeing a person's eyes will do for your level of comfort.
Chewing on gum or sucking on a lollipop is another tactic. I think that the psychology behind this is to appear occupied with things other than the game, thus saying to your opponents, "Hey guys, this game is so incredibly easy for me that I don't even have to pay attention to win your money. Shit, this Blo-Pop is tasty!" This is not really something that I would recommend, because upon receiving a good or bad hand, your chewing or sucking pattern may change. In a game against even slightly experienced players, this will be a dead giveaway.
People also try things like wearing hats, which they think make them look like real gamblers. Some also may wear more jewelry than usual in an effort to appear more affluent. I admit that I do both of these things. I often wear a foam trucker hat with a big "D" printed on the front - mostly because I feel that wearing it makes me more focused, not because it makes me look serious. I also make sure that I wear my four favorite rings (given to me by three important people and one who got me caught shoplifting in the ninth grade), which I feel bring me luck. However, I do not go as far as a professional British player named Devil Fish who wears huge rings on both hands which cover his pointer, middle, and ring fingers with the words "Devil" and "Fish" emblazoned in diamonds. This is mostly due to the fact that I'm a twenty-one year old server and sometime writer who depletes her diamond-purchasing fund on beer and scratch-off tickets. This will all change once I attain success on the pro poker circuit or win the lottery.
Drinking seems to be a big part of poker, or at least at all of the house games that I have been involved in. I don't condemn this in any way, but I don't think that it's the best idea to show up for a game already drunk. Many do and they are, more often than not, the ones who bet recklessly and finish with a smaller stack than they start with. Aside from losing money, inebriated players tend to be more easily distracted, holding up the game and therefore pissing off the other players. There are the people who can hold their own very easily when intoxicated, but they are a vast minority. I sure as shit can't. My suggestion is buying a six pack of decent beer, rather than a twelve of crap beer, and making the six last all night long. Not only will you be less drunk toward the end, the next morning will be a lot more pleasant. Some players have a signature cocktail that they nurse. For the past couple of weeks, I've been drinking martinis in order to appear more menacing. Turns out, that doesn't work when you play with the same group of friends in your living room every Sunday.
Overall, the most important element in becoming a better poker player is experience. In order to attain any real experience, it is essential to play for real money with a variety of people. It is technically possible to play with chips that do not represent real money, but with nothing at stake, nothing is learned. Good play is dependent on respect for the chips. Try to find a group of friends who can get together every week. Consistent play will help you to develop your game and fine-tune your own style while creating betting strategies. After developing confidence in your abilities, the best thing to do is to start playing in other games as well. By playing with a large range of people, you will be able to try out these strategies on people who are unfamiliar with them. You will also learn what works for others. Talk a little trash and have fun with it.
In the beginning, you will probably lose some money. Don't let minor losses discourage you, though. It is all just experience in the long run. And in the long run, experience and confidence are all that you really need. Even if your confidence is just one elaborate bluff.