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A Guide to Playing Poker Online
Online poker has been around almost as long as the internet itself. When very few people were even online yet, World Recreational Gambling launched a (not-for-real-money) poker tournament by email. Deals were determined by a random number generator, with players receiving email notifications of their deals and the bets of other players, and placing their own bets by email. Despite the slow interface, the tournament ballooned from 30 participants to 200 participants in three years. A clear signal had been sent—people had an enormous appetite to play poker online. And since then, it has really exploded in popularity; even actors are getting hooked on poker these days.
Planet Poker was launched as the first real-money-betting online poker site in 1998, inspiring a boom of high-profile follow-ons like PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, Paradise Poker, and more. When Chris Moneymaker won a multi-million-dollar grand prize at the World Series of Poker in 2001 and it became clear that he had entered the tournament via an auxiliary online poker competition, online poker had its coming-out party. Poker sites grew massively popular, and everyone wanted in on the action.
Online poker raged like wildfire until a US law called the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) poured a cold bucket of water on the fun. Millions of dollars in civil penalties, as well as criminal penalties, led to a widespread shutdown of major online poker sites and online casinos offering the game, including fears that players wouldn’t be able to get their deposits back.
Online poker continues today in a much-chastened way, both within and on the margins of legality. Still, if you love to ante up and play a hand against hardened players, online poker is still there for you. Oh and, in case you didn’t know, there’s no poker bluff quite as unreadable as a DNS line on a virtual private network. Don’t know what I’m on about? Just ask Dr. Google...
Poker Basics: A Primer
The classic deck of cards we play poker and blackjack with is also called the “French suited deck.” It arrived in Europe from Egypt in the 1300s as a deck of cards suited with hearts, bells, acorns, and leaves. The face cards were all male. The French then adapted the card to include a queen as the middle face card instead of a knight and added the suits from German playing cards (spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs) to create the 52-card deck we know and love as early as the 1400s.
Poker itself came to be in the 19th Century U.S. Rather than playing against the house, players played against each other with hidden or partially-hidden hands, betting against each other that the player could produce a hand that beat every other hand—or folding if they thought their hand could not win so as to put less money at risk. Whoever won the hand-collected the entire pot of bets. It’s still the same nowadays.
Players sometimes trade cards for other cards or have “community” cards revealed as the hand progresses. Either way, players must choose to call, raise, or fold the current bet at each pass around the table as it becomes clearer and clearer what their final hand will be, and how confident they are that the hand will win.
Because the players can see each other, psychology plays a major role. Players attempt to keep the infamous emotionless “poker face” to avoid revealing the strength of their hands. Professional poker players, in the endless search for that elusive big win, learn to identify player “tells,” small physical tics by which players reveal excitement or disappointment. Players also attempt an art of manipulation called “bluffing,” by which they attempt to convince other players--from their body language and/or liberal betting--that they have a better hand than they actually do, intimidating other players to fold despite the fact that they may really have had a stronger hand.
The end of the game is often heralded when all other players are out of money (“busted”) and one player wins the whole pot.
While different poker variations have different rules, the hierarchy of hands remains constant. Possible winning hands, from weakest to strongest, include:
- High Card. The ace is the highest card. From there in descending order, it goes King, Queen, Jack, and numbered cards in descending order. If the cards have the same value, the suits are ranked in descending order—spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs.
- Pair. The highest high card is beaten by even the lowest pair—two cards of different suits but the same value. If two players produce pairs, the higher pair wins (pair of eights over pair of fours, for example).
- Two Pair. The next best hand is “Two Pair,” by which the player produces two pairs of equal-value cards in the same hand.
- Three of a Kind. A Three of a Kind is like a pair, but with three equal-value cards.
- Straight. A Straight is five cards of any suit in sequence of value—for example, “Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven.” If two players turn over a Straight, the Straight of higher value wins. The highest-value Straight is a “Royal Straight”—”Ten, Jack, Queen, King, Ace.”
- Flush. A Flush is any hand of five cards that are all the same suit—for example, all spades, all diamonds, etc. If two players produce a flush, card value and suit value determine the winner.
- Full House. A Full House is a hand of five that combines both a Pair and a Three of a Kind. If two players produce full houses, card values and suits apply.
- Four of a Kind. A Four of a Kind is a hand that includes all four equal-value cards of all four suits. If two players turn over a Four of a Kind, card values take precedence.
- Straight Flush. One of the highest and hardest-to-achieve hands is a Straight Flush—a Straight with every card the same suit. In many games, the highest possible hand is a Royal Flush—a Royal Straight with every card the same suit.
- Five of a Kind. In games with Wild cards (often the Joker), sometimes the highest card is a “Five of a Kind”—a Four of a Kind with the Joker standing in as the fifth matching card.
How to Play Online Poker
To play poker online, first pick the poker site or app of your choice. Make sure to check the licence, reviews, and credibility of the site, especially their reputation for paying out appropriately, before you commit real money to your bank.
Once you have picked your site, sign up for an account. You may need to submit ID and/or location checks to confirm that you are authorised to play poker on this site. You usually also need to download the site’s “client software”, a small program on your computer--or the site’s mobile app if playing on your smartphone or tablet.
With your account created, the next step is to put money into your gaming bank so you can place bets. Different sites offer different payment methods, but the main options are:
- ACH. Another term for “e-cheque,” a direct money line between your current (US=checking) account and the site’s banking platform.
- Credit or Debit Cards. Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, Diner’s Club, or other options may be accepted. Note that just because your chosen site accepts these payment methods doesn’t mean all cards by these issuers will work. Some banks or processors refuse to process transactions for “online gambling,” even if it is legal. Note too, the UK’s ban on credit card gambling that commences in April 2020. Yep, just when we’re all on Covid-19 lockdown, that good ol’ UK legislation pops up again to ensure we can’t even take a punt on a poker game with a credit card! Talk about raining on what wasn’t our best parade anyway!
- Mobile Wallets. Popular mobile wallets include PayPal, Apple Pay, Skrill, Neteller, and Paysafecard. They act as a middleman for transactions with your bank account or payment card.
- Cryptocurrency. Made possible by blockchain technology, cryptocurrencies are popular among online gamblers and providers due to their secure, private, low-fee, hard-to-tax, and libertarian nature. Bitcoin is the most popular cryptocurrency.
Once you have filled your bank, choose your game and jump in. Most online poker sites have games going 24-7 in a variety of variations and rules. You usually don’t have to wait—you can jump in with the next hand. The interface determines how you bet, request cards, and manage your hand.
If the site is holding a tournament, you may, in lieu of betting from your bankroll, have the opportunity to play a small entry fee and receive a betting balance of chips to gamble with until they are gone … or until you win the whole tournament and possibly a grand prize.
A poker game might be defined by its betting rules, which include:
Fixed-limit poker, as the name implies, puts a limit on how much you can bet, which can lead to conservative and long-lasting games. In the case of Fixed-Limit Hold-Em, for example, the maximum bet is 4x the Big Blind.
No-limit poker, as can be expected, is a free-wheeling, dramatic, high-roller-friendly game whereby players can bet as much as they want and the pot can get as big as the players let it.
Pot-limit poker allows bets and raises of any size, but only up to maximum pot size, after which betting is cut off.
A note about online poker etiquette…
Oh and note, too, that etiquette also is important when playing online poker. There are rules, and then there are the unwritten rules!
What Types of Poker are There?
An exciting aspect of the game of poker is that it comes in many variations. The games all have the hand hierarchy in common, but you can pick your rules or move on to a new game if you get tired of one. Most of the popular variations of poker make the jump into online formats on most poker sites. Some that you might look for (and are likely to find) include ...
This is far and away the king of poker, so popular that the film Casino Royale with Daniel Craig updated James Bond’s game of choice from baccarat in the earliest Bond novel to Texas Hold’Em. It’s also the game of choice of the World Series of Poker.
Players in a game of Hold’Em are dealt two cards, known as “pocket” or “hole” cards, unique to that player. While spectators might get to see what those cards are, these cards are secret to every other player.
The dealer discards two burn cards and then turns over five “community” cards, starting with three right off the bat (the “flop”), followed by a fourth community card (the “turn”) and then a fifth (the “river”). Betting takes place before each turn of the cards. The position of “big blind” and “little blind” rotates around the table to establish minimum bets.
At the end of the hand, whoever has the best hand of five cards between their two pocket cards and the five community cards wins the pot.
Omaha poker is a variation on Hold’Em with four rounds of betting and five community cards. The difference is that players get four hole cards, and the five community cards are turned over at the same time. A player must create the best hand they can out of three community cards and two hole cards.
This classic form of poker has no community cards and requires an “anto”—a minimum bet that every player must place, each hand. Players are dealt five cards, all secret, and then have the opportunity to place bets, then exchange between one and three cards for replacement cards. What follows is another round of betting, and then the players who have not folded lay down their hands, with the winning hand taking the betting pot.
Stud games have no community cards, but each player’s exclusive hand is built from both face-up (public) and secret (hole) cards. Seven-card stud is dealt with three cards face-down and three cards face-up. The player must construct the best hand (s)he can out of five of the seven cards.
Chicago is a game of Seven-Card Stud where the player with the winning hand of five cards only gets half the pot. The other half goes to the player who gets, among the secret deal, either the highest spade card (High Chicago) or the lowest spade card (Low Chicago).
Follow the Queen
Follow the Queen is a variation on Seven-Card Stud where, when a queen is flipped over for the first time, the next card flipped is designated as a wild card. No queens flipped results in no wild cards for that hand.
Knowing all the ins and outs of shrewd moves in poker makes it not so surprising to learn that poker players also make the best investors!
Poker Terms You Should Know
In order to play online poker effectively, you need to understand the following terms:
To “call” or “see” is to match the current highest bet.
To “raise” is to introduce a new highest bet, forcing the other players into the decision to either call your raise, raise even more, or fold.
To fold is to quit the hand, forfeiting the possibility of winning the pot and sacrificing any money already bet. This isn’t the same thing as “losing” the game—players typically fold if they think they have no chance of winning the hand and don’t want to be forced into the position of losing more money calling or raising future bets. They instead conserve their bank for hands where they are dealt better cards.
A decision to pass on betting. If someone raises the bet, a player who checks will have to decide whether to call, raise, or fold.
A button is a chip or other token that denotes which player is taking a turn at dealing. In Hold’Em, this also indicates the position of the Big Blind and Little Blind. The button passes to the left.
“Blinds” in Hold’Em are rotating positions relative to the dealer who placed required minimum bets at the start of the hand—in other words, they have to “bet blind” before seeing a card. The “Little Blind” or “Small Blind” is to the left of the button. The “Big Blind” is to the left of the Little Blind and must bet twice the minimum bet of the Small Blind. Once the first cards are dealt, players (including the Small Blind) must call at least the Big Blind to stay in the hand. If someone raises the Big Blind, they must see the raise to stay in the hand.
Ante is a minimum bet that every player of certain poker games must bet before seeing their cards.
The “Flop” is the first three community cards in a game of Texas Hold’Em, revealed at the same time.
The “Turn” is the fourth community card in a game of Texas Hold’Em.
The “River” is the fifth and last community card dealt in a game of Texas Hold’Em.
“Hole” cards are the private cards dealt to players of Hold’Em, only usable by that player to create a hand.
“Burn” cards are cards that the dealer must discard after the Flop and the Turn in a game of Texas Hold’Em. This is to keep players from recognising any distinguishing marks from the backs of a deck of cards, which could influence their bet before the card is dealt.
“All-In” refers to the bet of a player who bets his/her entire remaining bank. A player may stay in a hand by going “All-In”, even if that quantity of chips is smaller than the current bet to call.
Poker Tips and Strategies
Ready to step up to a table … online and figuratively, that is? Here are some tips to get started … even if they may not quite ready you for playing in the 2020 World Series of Poker!
Tips for a Poker Beginner
- Play Fewer Hands. You might feel like you are folding every hand you get dealt at first, and bleeding your money from Blind bets. However, folding marginal hands and betting aggressively when you get dealt promising hands is a conservative strategy that can result in come-from-behind victories.
- Play Your Hands Aggressively. Bet aggressively early on if you see the potential developing for a high hand like a flush, straight, or full house. This has a “semi-bluffing” effect of scaring possible threats into folding. It also builds up the pot so that when you win, you win big, rather than having to waste a Royal Flush on a Big Blind check.
How Not to Look Like a Beginner
Even if you’re a beginner, it is important not to look like a beginner. Online, there is less of a likelihood that players will notice “tells” on your face, but if you make rookie mistakes, other players will target you for bluffs and other mind games that could deplete your bank and cause you to lose pots you ought to win. Here are some pitfalls to avoid:
- Don’t Limp. “Limping” is a term for calling the Big Blind before the flop. You have the option to do so, but it’s a bad move unless you’re a pro trying to psych out the table. You’re not there yet.
- Defend Your Big Blind. The Big Blind is an advantageous position because you get to be the last person to act before the flop. If you are Big Blind and unsure whether to call or fold, consider calling just to show you know the rules.
- Spot Weakness–and Attack. Look for a player who usually calls or raises to check. When they check, it usually means they have a weak hand. Try calling or raising them to intimidate them out of the hand.
While its heyday may be past and the moments that shaped online poker are now just bygone news, real-money online poker is still going strong.
So all we can say is, ante up and get in the game!