IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN A TEXAS HOLD ’Em tournament on TV lately, it’s probably because you haven’t actually turned your TV on. On any given night, you can now watch Las Vegas professionals playing Hold ’Em, Hollywood actors playing Hold ’Em, even rock stars playing Hold ’Em—all from the comfort of your own living room. The national obsession with Texas’s game has gotten so big, in fact, that World Poker Tour Enterprises, the parent company that produces the televised WPT events, is now listed on Nasdaq (ticker symbol: WPTE). “It’s unbelievable,” says Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson, a Longworth native and two-time champion of the World Series of Poker. “It’s brought poker players up to celebrity status.”

Brunson should know. The 71-year-old who cut his teeth playing the Texas poker circuit in the fifties and sixties became one of the game’s first big-name players in 1978, when he published Super/System, a breakthrough book that offered amateur players their first sound instruction in no-limit Texas Hold ’Em. Brunson is also partly responsible for Hold ’Em’s king-of-all-poker-games status. No one can pinpoint its genesis, but Brunson is intimately familiar with the game’s journey from Texas’s backroom gambling halls to Nevada’s casinos. He and poker raconteur “Amarillo Slim” Preston, San Antonio oilman Crandell Addington, and four other big-time Texas gamblers comprised the entire field of the first professional poker tournament at Reno’s Holiday Hotel, in 1969. (The game that decided that event was no-limit Texas Hold ’Em.) The following year, the charismatic gambling impresario Benny Binion, whose long Texas rap sheet perhaps only burnished his reputation in Vegas, moved the tournament to his Binion’s Horseshoe casino and called it the World Series of Poker. The success of that event over the years is in large part responsible for Hold ’Em’s popularity on television today.

Maybe you’ve watched a televised Hold ’Em tournament but haven’t actually played the game. Or maybe you’ve heard about a private neighborhood game, or one of the bar- or restaurant-sponsored tournaments held in cities across Texas, and are considering trying your luck. After all, it’s called Texas Hold ’Em. What kind of Texan would you be if you didn’t learn to play? Here, then, is a crash course on the game as well as some words of wisdom from Brunson and Addington, two master competitors. We couldn’t possibly distill all the knowledge and experience required to win in a high-stakes no-limit Hold ’Em tournament in a few pages. But if you’re determined to put your rear end in a seat at a local tournament table sometime soon, we can at least improve your chances of keeping it there for a while. »

The Rules

Texas Hold ’Em is a variation on regular stud poker: The object is to make the best five-card hands. The difference is that you’ll have seven cards—two of your own and five community cards—to choose from. Here’s how the game play unfolds.

A. The dealer deals two cards facedown to everyone (the hole cards; see “Bone Up” for a quick cheat sheet to Hold ’Em vernacular). The player to the left of the dealer is required to ante a predetermined amount (the small blind). The player to that player’s left must ante double that amount (the big blind). After that, each player may match the big blind (call), bet any amount over the big blind (raise), or quit his hand (fold).

B. Once all the players have either called, raised, or folded, the dealer turns over three community cards called “the flop” faceup in the center of the table, which all of the players share.

C. After the flop, there is another betting round, starting with the first active player to the left of the dealer. If there are still at least two players in after this betting round, the dealer turns another card faceup in the center, called “the turn,” or “fourth street.”

D. There’s another betting round.

E. Finally, the dealer turns the last card faceup in the center (“the river,” or “fifth street”). Thus, the players remaining in for the bet after the river are looking at seven cards: two hole cards only they can see and the five community cards. Once the betting is finished, the player who is called (the last person to make a raise) must reveal his cards.

F. Each time a hand is dealt, the deal rotates one seat to the left so that everyone at some point gets the dealer’s advantage of betting last.

The Rankings

Again, players win by having the strongest five-card hands. These are ranked—best to worst—as follows. You’ll want to memorize this information before throwing in your first chips.

1. Straight flush: five sequential cards all in the same suit. The highest straight flush—10, J, Q, K, and A of one suit—is called a royal flush. (Hint: Don’t fold this hand!) 2. Four of a kind: all four cards of the same rank, such as four 10’s, four 3’s, etc. If one or more players hold four of a kind, the player with the four cards of the highest value wins. 3. Full house: three cards (a set) of one rank and a pair of another rank, e.g., Q-Q-Q, 3-3. If two players have a full house, the player with the highest set in his full house wins. 4. Flush: five cards in the same suit, not consecutive. The highest card determines the strength of one flush versus another. In other words, a king-high flush beats a queen-high flush. 5. Straight: five consecutive cards of more than one suit. 10, J, Q, K, A is the highest possible straight. 6. Three of a kind 7. Two pair 8. One pair 9. High card

Know Your Limits

You’ll encounter two kinds of Texas Hold ’Em.

In LIMIT Hold ’Em, the amount a player can bet or raise on each round is strictly defined ($2, say, for the first two rounds and $4 for the last two rounds). In NO-LIMIT, any player may bet any amount of the chips in front of him once a hand is under way. No-limit is the version you’ll usually find in tournaments—with one fortunate twist. In the tournament structure, each player buys a seat with an equal amount of chips; when those chips are gone, so is the player. This happens when you’re forced to go “all in,” that is, to bet everything you’ve got. If you win the hand, you play on; if you lose, you’re out. But you can’t lose more than you bought in for.

Let’s Get It Started

You understand the basics. Now it’s time to put yourself in a game.

WHEN TO FOLD ’EM In your first hand, two cards have been dealt to everyone, and you are sitting to the left of the big blind. Do you call, raise the bet, or fold? Our experts offer similar advice: “In the early stages of the tournament,” says Addington, “a novice should only come into the pot with wired pairs higher than 9-9 or hands such as A-K, A-Q, A-J, A-10, K-Q, or Q-J, all preferably suited.” By “wired pair,” Addington means paired hole cards. “Wired pairs lower than 10-10 are best left to experienced players,” he continues. “Novice players are often left to guess about the value of these—and guessing is death in Texas Hold ’Em.” As you’ve probably already realized, sticking to this strategy means that more often than not, you don’t play; you fold. But trust these guys: Do nothing more than follow their criteria for good starting hands and you will improve your chances over other beginners dramatically.

DEALER’S CHOICE What will complicate matters is that Texas Hold ’Em tournaments typically use “accelerated blinds”: At set intervals, the small blind and the big blind double in size. This will prevent you from adhering to Addington’s advice too strictly, because at some point the blinds will get so large that they alone will deplete your chips. You’ll have to start playing, even with lesser hands. What to do? Part of it will be luck—hoping for great cards when you’re finally forced to play—but you can increase your odds somewhat when you’re sitting in the dealer’s seat. For example, let’s say you’re dealer and starting with J-7 as your hole cards and that everyone in front of you has either called or folded. You have an idea, then, that no one is excited about their cards. If you were to raise in this situation—even knowing your hand is no good—you might force some of the others to fold. This is called bluffing.

BET SMART As important as knowing when to fold is knowing how to manage your chips. “Two factors are important here,” says Addington. “The value of the stack held by the novice and the value of the stack of any player who might play a hand against the novice. Since a novice can’t rely on the tactics and skill of an expert player, he must rely on aggressiveness.” His simple rule: When you are up against a player with a short stack—in other words, someone desperate to stay alive—your play should be more strictly dictated by caution. But you may do better to let your artistic (that is, less predictable) impulses run wild against a player with a lot of chips, lest he pick up on your tendencies (see below) and whittle down your stack.

LAY OFF THE SAUCE Novice players get nervous entering tournaments, so knocking back a couple of drinks can seem like a good way to loosen up. And you’ll certainly be tempted: Selling alcohol is the only reason bars sponsor these events. But players who drink, Brunson says, “have a disadvantage. You need to be clearheaded and very alert.” Addington agrees: “I do not favor drinking while playing poker. Poker players must be able to count on all the messages from their senses.”

You’re Bluffing! I’m Telling!

Stick to our rules, and chances are you’ll be folding in early rounds waiting to get a strong starting hand. But the time you spend until the next hand is dealt can be put to good use. By observing how the players who stay in the hand play and looking for unconscious behaviors that expose what they’re really thinking, you can gain a strategic advantage. Here’s what to watch out for.

THE BLUFF Ask people to free-associate about poker and the word “bluff” will inevitably arise. This tactic comes in two basic flavors: Playing a hand as if it is better than it really is and playing a hand as if it is worse than it really is (known as slow playing). As for the first kind, I mentioned earlier the example of raising on the first betting round with weak hole cards when you’re seated in the dealer position. If no one has the guts to call your raise, congratulations. With what is probably an inferior hand, you’ve just bluffed the other players into folding and “stolen the blinds.” 

Slow playing, meanwhile, is a kind of bluff in reverse; a player thinks he has a hand that can make him a lot of money, so he plays it with false trepidation—only calling bets or making meek raises—hoping to keep other players in the game so he can milk more bets out of them. Just when you are wondering why this reticent player has remained in, he’ll start raising you, because he has you and your not-so-great hand trapped.

A word of caution: Just because you know what a bluff is doesn’t mean you should try it. Novices should be especially wary about bluffing in the early rounds of a tournament. One reason is that bets tend to be smaller in the early rounds and the chips are more evenly distributed. So even if a player thinks your hand may be as good as your raise would indicate, the cost to call you, on the chance that you may be bluffing, is relatively low. And if you try to bluff an experienced player, he will gain something, win or lose. Even if you’re lucky enough to take him to the showdown and win, he will observe that you are willing to play aggressively with a weak hand and factor that into his future thinking.

Another reason not to bluff in the early rounds of a tournament: The weakest players are still in competition. Think about it. If these numskulls are too dumb to fold on bad hands, more often than not they are going to be too dumb to fold to a bluff that might give a more experienced player pause. In fact, even if you have great cards, you can get beat in the early rounds by a novice who should have folded his hand before the first bet. In a recent private tournament I played, my 10-10 lost to a 5-7 when a 6 came down the river, combining with the 3 and 4 on the flop to give my opponent a miraculous straight.

THE TELL While a bluff is conscious communication that reveals falsity, a tell is unconscious communication that reveals truth, such as that you’re holding a pair of aces. A tell can be almost anything: a physical tic, profuse sweating, a quaver in the voice, the way someone peeks at his cards (hence all the poker players in sunglasses). The most observant players pick these signs up quickly, because tells tend to be associated with consistent patterns of play. For example, Brunson may notice that whenever I bluff, I don’t look at my cards as much as I do when I have a strong hand. The next time he notices me not looking at my cards, he’ll be ready. Reading tells is a highly specialized skill, and with so much else to think about in your first tournament, you’re better off making sure you’re not giving away your own. You look cool in sunglasses, anyway.

THE TENDENCY Tells are strictly unconscious indicators; tendencies refer more to someone’s style of play. In other words, an opponent of mine might think, “When Rich thinks he has a strong hand, he often tries to slow-play.” If you play in a neighborhood game, you can pick up on these clues and use them to your advantage. I’ve played poker with the same group of friends for close to ten years now, and while I’m sure all of us have our own tells, I haven’t learned to read any of them. But sorry, fellas, I do know many of your tendencies.

Bone Up

A review of the terminology we’ve covered—plus a few key phrases that’ll make you sound like a shark.

all in:
to bet all the chips or money in front of you on one hand: “My night was over when I went all in with three aces and lost to four of a kind.”
big blind:
a required bet usually twice the amount of the small blind. The bet is placed by the player seated two positions to the left of the dealer (i.e., immediately to the left of the small blind).
the five community cards on the table: “I was holding a pair of jacks, and there were a jack, two kings, a seven, and a nine on the board.”
the person seated in the dealer position, or, literally, the marker used to designate that position, often a chip or a token.
the amount of money required to enter a game or a tournament: “The local restaurant hosted a charity tournament with a one-hundred-dollar buy-in.”
complete hand:
a hand involving all five of your cards, i.e., a straight, a flush, a straight flush, or a full house.
fifth street:
the fifth and final community card turned over by the dealer following the third betting round. Also called “the river.”
the three community cards turned over by the dealer after the first betting round.
fourth street:
the fourth community card turned over by the dealer following the second round of betting. Also called “the turn.”
the two cards dealt facedown to each player. Also known as hole cards.
to match and then increase the amount bet during a round: “I’ll see your five dollars and raise you one dollar.”
to raise someone’s raise.
the moment after the final betting round when all bets have been called and players reveal their hands.
to play a strong hand weakly to entice more players to stay in and build up the pot.
small blind:
a required bet of a set amount placed by the player seated to the immediate left of the dealer.
split pot:
a pot shared by two or more players because they have hands of equal value. In other words, a tie.
three of a kind. As in, “I had two pair but was beat by trips.”

Hold Your Own

Can we offer a few parting words of advice?

IN THE END, you can eat right, get plenty of rest, avoid alcohol, hide your tells, bluff judiciously, fold when you don’t have good starting cards, bet correctly when you do—and still go home empty-handed. “The best way to explain it,” says Brunson, “is that with these tournament fields being so big now, it’s just like hitting the lottery. The difference is, good players have more tickets.”

How do you get more tickets? Brunson says that online poker games offer a relatively safe and inexpensive way to pay your dues. “There’s a hundred of ’em now,” he says of the Internet games (he has his own at doylesroom.com). “You can even play without playing for money. But even with the play-money games, you can get the concept, at least.” He believes it’s no accident that the two most recent winners of the World Series of Poker championship event won their seats in the tournament in online games. The 2003 champ, Chris Moneymaker (yes, it’s his real name), had never even played in a live game prior to the WSOP.

But Moneymaker is the exception. No matter how well you do in your first couple of tournaments, don’t get any ideas about purchasing a home in Vegas. Making a living at the poker table, says Brunson, is comparable to making it to the professional level in baseball or football. And there’s no guarantee that online gaming will prepare you for sitting across the table from a squinty-eyed pro like Addington who is ready to take your last penny. “When I was younger,” he tells me, “I could smell fear emanating from some of my opponents. It was an odor like wet, rusty steel.” Don’t say I didn’t warn you.