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A Beginner's Course in Texas Hold'em

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A Beginner's Course in Texas Hold'em
Part 1

This series originally appeared in Card Player Magazine.

This series is aimed squarely at beginning Hold'em players. The goal is to introduce new players to this exciting game and give them enough background to make them feel comfortable playing casino poker.

Texas Hold'em is among the most popular games played in casino poker rooms. Although playing expertly requires a great deal of skill, Hold'em is easily learned and deceptively simple. It is a subtle and complex game, typically played with nine or 10 players to a table, and is a faster, more action-filled game than stud. Texas Hold'em is also the fastest growing poker game in the world, and is the game used to determine the world champion at the World Series of Poker.

In this series, I'll present a short course in Texas Hold'em, designed for beginning players. You won't be an expert at this series' conclusion, but you'll have enough information to allow you to hold your own in most lower-limit games.

If you've never played Hold'em before -- While Hold'em may look like seven-card stud, it is a different game altogether. Because Hold'em players form the best poker hand by combining exposed communal cards in the center of the table with two hidden cards that are theirs alone, it is more difficult for an opponent to draw out on you than it is in a game like seven-card stud. For example, if you were dealt a pair of jacks and your opponent held a pair of nines, the presence of a pair of fives among the communal cards gives each of you two pair. But you still have the best hand. Unless one of those fives helped an opponent complete a straight, the only player helped by that pair of fives would be an opponent fortunate enough to have another five in his hand.

Blind bets -- Before cards are dealt, the first two players to the left of the "dealer" position are required to post blind bets, which are used instead of antes to stimulate action.

In a $10-$20 Hold'em game, the blinds usually are $5 and $10. Each blind is considered live. Because blinds represent a forced first bet, both of the blinds can raise (but only on the first round) once the betting has gone around the table and it is their turn to act again.

Unlike stud, where position is determined by the cards showing on the board, the player with the dealer button acts last on every round of betting - with the exception of the first one.

The deal and betting structure -- Two cards are dealt facedown to each player, and a round of betting takes place. On the first round, players may either call or raise the blind bet, or else they must fold their hands. Most casinos allow a bet and three or four raises per betting round, with one exception. When only two players contest the pot, there is no limit on the number of raises permitted.

When the first round of betting is complete, three communal cards - called the flop - are turned faceup in the center of the table. That's followed by another round of betting. On this and each succeeding round, players may check or bet if no one has bet when it is their turn to act. If there is a bet, however, players no longer may check. Once confronted by a bet, players may fold, call, raise, or reraise.

A fourth communal card -- called the turn -- is then exposed. Another round of betting takes place. Then, the fifth and final community card - known as the river - is placed in the center of the table, and is followed by the last round of betting. The best five-card poker hand using any combination of a player's two private cards and the five communal cards is the winner.

That's all there is to the play of the game. Yet, within this simplicity lies an elegance and sophistication that makes Texas Hold'em the most popular form of poker in the world.

Knowing when to hold'em and when to fold'em -- While Hold'em is exciting, exhilarating, and enjoyable, you ought to know something before diving in and plunking your money down - even if it's the lowest-limit game in the house. Here are a few of those somethings that I wish I had known when first making the transition from seven-card stud to Texas Hold'em.

Hold'em only looks like stud. It plays differently -- With a total of seven cards, some of which are turned faceup and others down, Hold'em bears a resemblance to seven-card stud. But this furtive similarity is only a "tastes like chicken" analogy.

One major difference is that 71 percent of your hand is defined on the flop. As a result, your best values in Hold'em are found up front; you get to see 71 percent of your hand for a single round of betting.

Staying for the turn and river demands that you have either a strong hand, a draw to a potentially winning hand, or good reason to believe that betting on a future round may cause your opponents to fold. Because there are only two additional cards dealt after the flop, along with the fact that the five communal cards play in everyone's hand, there are fewer draw outs in Hold'em than in stud.

The first two cards are critical -- You'll frequently hear players say that any two cards can win. While that's true as far as it goes, it doesn't go far enough. The whole truth is this: While any two cards can win, they won't win enough to warrant playing them. Like all forms of poker, you need starting standards. Players who lack starting standards take the worst of it far too often.

Position, position, and position -- There's an old real estate bromide that says the three most important features of any property are "location, location, and location." In Hold'em, it's position, position, and position. It's so important that some two-card holdings, which can't be profitably played from early position, are cards with which you might raise when you're last to act.

In a typical ninehanded game, early position includes both blinds and the two players to their left. The fifth, sixth, and seventh players to act are in middle position, and the eighth and ninth players are in late position.

The flop should fit your hand -- No matter how sweet your first two cards may appear to be, an unfavorable flop can render them nearly worthless. A key concept is that the flop must fit your hand. If the flop doesn't strengthen your hand or offer a draw to a very strong hand, you probably should release it.

Suppose that you called on the first round of betting with Ad Jd, and the flop is Qd 5d 3s You don't have a strong hand at this point. What you do have, however, is a hand with extremely strong potential. If another diamond falls on the turn or the river, you'll make a flush - not any flush, mind you, but the best possible flush, since your ace precludes anyone from making a higher one.

Even if you don't make a flush but were to catch a jack or an ace instead, that might be enough to win the pot.

Beyond the flop -- As a general rule, you shouldn't continue beyond the flop without a strong pair and a decent side card or kicker, or a straight or flush draw with at least two opponents to ensure that the pot is big enough to make it worthwhile.

Game texture -- The relative aggressiveness or passivity exhibited by the players also is important in determining whether to call bets or raises. A feel for the game's texture and how it should influence your play can be obtained only with experience. In the absence of that experience, err on the side of caution. It costs less.

Success in Hold'em demands that you be patient, pay close attention to position, and take comfort in the knowledge that good hands are run down less often than the best seven-card stud hands.

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