A Complete Guide to Online Poker and Where to Play
Poker is one of the most popular card-based games in the world both online and in land-based capacities. In what follows, we’re going to break down everything from the history of this game to its impact on popular culture, how to get the most value for your play and all of the different styles of play and sets of rules that can come together to give players several variations of poker to pick and choose from. We also list the best casinos to play online poker at along with their latest bonus offers below.
Top Online Poker Casinos
Introduction to Online Poker
Almost all forms of gambling on the Internet involve taking your chances against the house in some form or fashion. Virtually all players know and understand that this is a losing proposition in the long run, but the idea is to try to get lucky on this one bet or during this one session to overtake the odds and be a winner overall.
Poker is different in this regard. Instead of going up against the house, you’re facing off against other players in a situation where luck and skill combine to give weak players chances to get lucky and win in the short term while giving strong players plenty of opportunities to assert their skills over the long run to have consistent profits.
It’s this intersection of luck and skill that has kept the popularity of the game so high for so long. Poker in its current forms has been around for at least a couple of centuries, and various games that could have led to the creation of poker have incorporated similar gameplay elements for even longer.
The History of Poker
When looking at the history of a card game, you have to look at which games it could have been created from. You’ll normally look at the cards used and the rules of the game, but in the case of poker, you can also look at the style of betting and the strategic elements like bluffing.
Because there are two separate things to look at when tracing the history of poker (the procedural rules of the game and the betting style), we actually end up with two different potential avenues for how this game came about in its modern form.
Back in the 1930s, poker was played primarily with a 20-card deck that used five-card hands and was primarily played heads-up, or with just two players. In this form, it was thought to be a variation of a Persian game called As-Nas. However, this was later challenged, and evidence emerged that it was similar to a French game called poque (which could have come from the German word pochen, which can be translated to mean “to bluff”). This is where we get if we look at games that have gameplay similar to poker without taking into account the betting.
However, if we look at the betting instead, then we can easily trace poker back to the 1800s, particularly on the riverboats in the Southeastern United States where gambling was heavily developed as an industry. Poker was played with the modern 52-card French deck there as well was with the 20-card British deck for games with just two players.
The origins and introductions of various rules can be traced back to certain periods of time as well. Community card games like stud (and what eventually led to hold’em variations that are popular today) started up in the 1920s, and wild cards first started becoming widespread in the 1870s. Going further back, five-card stud first saw popularity during the American Civil War, and this is also the period of time during which the “straight” hand was added to the ruleset.
The Online Poker Boom
Something that always held back organized poker was that players were spread all over the place, and there wasn’t always the capacity for legal gambling in person. When online poker started coming up in the late 1990s, it took those barriers away.
From there, a fun series of events came together in the very early 2000s to start the online poker boom.
A man named Chris Moneymaker won the Main Event of the World Series of Poker after gaining his entry through an online satellite around the same time that the World Poker Tour was extremely popular on the Travel Channel. This led to a huge interest in the game on the Internet. Later on, its popularity would wax and wane over time, but it still has a very strong interest online to this day.
The Basics of the Rules of Poker
There are a lot of different kinds of poker with a lot of different kinds of rules. We’re going to work our way through all of it, but we’re going to start with the basic terminology and concepts and then work our way up through the more complicated aspects of the game.
Basic Five-card Poker Hands
Before we get into how the betting works, we’re going to look at the basic five-card poker hands. These are the hands used in the majority of poker games played today. Ranked from strongest to weakest, we have the following:
- Royal Flush – An AKQJT combination that share the same suit.
- Straight Flush – Five other consecutive cards that share the same suit.
- Four of a Kind – Four cards that have the same rank.
- Full House – Three cards with the same rank along with two other cards of a different rank.
- Flush – Five cards that are not consecutive but that do have the same suit.
- Straight – Five cards that are consecutive but that do not share the same suit.
- Three of a Kind – Three cards with the same rank.
- Two Pair – Two cards with the same rank along with two other cards that share a different rank.
- One Pair – Two cards with the same rank.
- High Card – None of the above hands.
In poker, your hand is the best combination of five cards that you can make from the above ranking. If you’re playing a game like seven card stud or hold’em variations where you have access to more than five cards, you can only use five of them to make your hand.
Kickers, High Card Hands and Ties
Sometimes you can have two people who have the same kind of hand, and a determination has to be made about how to break that tie. Most of this is based on the concept of kickers and of high card hands.
To determine who wins between two high card hands, you compare the highest card from each hand. If that’s a tie, then you go to the next highest card. This repeats until there is a winner or all five cards are the same. In the latter case, the hand is a tie.
Kickers are the cards that go along with what make the core hand. For example, if a player has AAAT4 for three of a kind in aces, the ten and four are kickers. Kickers determine tie breaks when applicable in the same way that high card hands are determined, so a hand of AAAT4 would beat a hand of AAA97 and so on.
The Rules for Showing Down
If multiple players find themselves at the end of the hand, then they have to compare cards to see who wins. This is called the show down, and the determination of who shows down first has a simple set of rules for it:
- The last player to bet or raise on the final betting street is the first to show, and then showing goes clockwise around the table.
- If no betting or raising happened on the final street, then the first person to have acted on that street shows first with the showdown proceeding clockwise from there.
This is one of the few sets of rules that applies equally to virtually all forms of poker, and there are no major or minor exceptions that happen on any games that most players will ever participate in.
Blinds and Antes
In different styles of poker, you’ll have blinds and/or antes put in that serve as the initial money to battle it out for. To keep things fair, players take turns putting in blinds around the table. As the dealer button moves around the table clockwise, the two (or more) spots to the left of the dealer button pay blind wagers before the game starts.
Antes, on the other hand, are usually paid by everyone at the table before cards are dealt. Which type of initial wager is used, or whether both are used, will vary depending on which type of poker game you’re playing.
How Side Pots Work
Suppose we have three people in a hand, but one of them runs out of money before play is finished and is therefore “all-in.” If the remaining two put in more money, it can’t all go into the same pot because it wouldn’t be fair for the player who is all-in to be able to contest to money that he or she hasn’t matched. From this problem, we get the idea of a side pot.
When one player goes all-in with two or more players remaining in the hand, all of the money matched with the all-in player goes into one pot that is contested among all of the players who contributed to it. Any remaining money past what the all-in player matched is put into a different pool called a side pot that can only be contested among the remaining players.
Until you see this in action, it can be a little tricky to understand, so here’s a basic example:
- Players A, B and C start a hand with €10, €30 and €50, respectively. There are no blinds or antes for the sake of this example.
- Player A goes all-in at some point and is called by B and C. The main pot now holds €10 from each of them for a total of €30. Note that players B and C have €20 and €40 remaining, respectively.
- Player B goes all-in at some point and is called by C. The side pot created by this takes in €20 from players B and C each for a total of €40. All three players contend for the main pot of €30, but only B and C contend for the side pot of €40.
Thankfully for most players, you won’t have to actually ever sort the chips or anything like that since you’ll have a dealer doing it for you online. However, it’s important to understand that you can’t win bets that you didn’t match in this game.
Lowball Poker Game Rules
Some poker games are different in that they try to get the worst possible hand instead of the best possible hand. The rest of how the game is played will be the same, but there are two distinct styles of low-ball play:
- 2-7 Lowball – Aces always play as high, and flushes and straights count.
- A-5 Lowball – Aces always play as low, and flushes and straights do not count.
To give you an idea, the best hand to have in a 2-7 lowball game would be 75432 that does not make a flush. It can’t be 65432 because that would make a straight.
In A-5 lowball games, the best hand to have is 5432A. Note that it doesn’t count as a straight because straights don’t count in this game, so you’re really just trying to get the lowest set of kickers that you can (for another way to think about it).
An Overview of Poker Game Structures
There’s no doubt that you’ll find a ton of different structures and table sizes when it comes to different types of poker. Cash games and tournaments are very different, but so are heads-up and full-ring tables. In what follows, we’re going to offer a brief explanation of each type of structure that you might run into and what stands out about them.
Cash Games vs. Tournaments
In a cash game, you’ll put in a certain amount of money and have the ability to leave with whatever money you have left at any point in time between hands. If you’ve ever seen a Wild West movie of a bunch of guys sitting around a saloon playing poker, then this was a cash game.
The main advantages to playing cash games are:
- You do not have to commit for a longer period of time and can get up and leave whenever you want.
- You can jump in at a table at any time and do not have to wait for a tournament start time.
- This allows you to pick your seat to try to target or avoid specific players, which is something you can’t do in tournaments.
Tournaments are different in how they are played. In these events, everyone puts up a set entry fee for a set of tournament chips. These chips are then played with until you either go bust or end up as the last person with any chips remaining. Payouts are base on how long you last compared to other players with an average of 20-25 percent of players or so winning a prize. The higher you place, the higher your prize.
The following are the pros to playing the tournament format:
- You know exactly the maximum amount that you can lose in your session.
- Events are available at all sizes (one table, a few tables, many tables).
- There are different types of strategies involved in tournaments compared to cash games.
- The top prizes in tournaments are huge compared to that in cash games.
Different types of players will prefer cash games or tournaments, and plenty of people enjoy both. However, if you’re just starting out, then we recommend single-table tournaments (also known as a sit-and-go format) at low stakes to get used to online play.
Full Ring, Short-handed and Heads-up Tables
When you’re talking about the number of players at a table, there are three distinct types:
- Full Ring – Tables with 7 or more players
- Short-handed – Tables with 3-6 players
- Heads-up – Tables with exactly 2 players
The fewer the players at a table, the faster the play will be and the more hands you’ll end up playing if you’re playing well. However, depending on the type of poker you play and your general disposition, the right size of table can different for each player.
If you like a slower style of play where you can wait on better hands, then you’ll be better suited to full-ring play. If you like a faster pace of action where you can loosen up a little, then short-handed play will probably be your best bet.
However, heads-up play is a completely different beast, and it has its own incredibly complex set of strategies because you’re going up against a single person who is analyzing every move you make. On top of that, you have to play a whole lot of hands to avoid being eaten up by the blinds and/or antes. This makes it very stressful and high-impact, so to speak, which isn’t every player’s metaphorical cup of tea.
An Overview of Poker Betting Structures
While there are several different styles of poker, and while these styles can be played in both cash games and tournament formats, there are also different betting formats. The most popular are fixed-limit, pot-limit and no-limit, and most games can be played in one or more of these styles.
Each one of these will work out the same no matter which actual game you’re playing, so understanding how the structure themselves are put together makes it a lot easier to learn new games, both from the standpoint of poker strategy and from the simpler position of just knowing how the gameplay goes.
Fixed-limit Poker Betting
With fixed-limit betting, you’ll have a set bet size that all bets and raises are set to for that particular betting round. For example, in €5/10 fixed-limit hold’em, you can only bet and raise in increments of €5 on the pre-flop and flop streets, and that increases to €10 on the turn and river.
There can also be limits as to the number of raises that can be put in on a given betting round. In most games, this is four, so in that same €5/10 game noted above, the flop action could see a bet of €5, a raise to €10, a re-raise to €15 and another re-raise to €20, but that would be as far as the betting could go, and a player’s only option at that point would be to call or fold.
Many styles of poker are played with fixed-limit betting, and online stud poker games in particular are virtually always played in the fixed-limit format.
Pot-limit Poker Betting
The second most popular style of poker in the world is pot-limit Omaha hold’em, but other games can be played pot-limit as well like Texas hold’em or lowball draw games.
If you’re opening the betting in a pot-limit game, the most you can bet is the actual amount in the pot. So if the pot is €25, you can bet up to €25.
Where pot-limit poker can get confusing is when you’re facing a bet and want to raise. The main question is what the maximum amount is that you can raise to, and there’s a popular misconception that it’s just the amount in the pot.
Your maximum raise amount in pot-limit poker is the amount you would put in for a call combined with the size of the pot after you would make the call.
That can be a little confusing, so here’s a simple example. Suppose the pot starts off on a betting street as €10, and you face a bet of €6. If you want to raise, you figure out what the total amount of the pot would be after you call and add that to the amount of your call itself.
So here, there was €10 in the pot plus the €6 your opponent bet. If you add your call of €6 to that, then you get €24, which tells you the most you can raise to after you make that call.
No-limit Poker Betting
Of the three types, no-limit betting is actually the easiest and most flexible to understand. The maximum you can wager is always the amount left in your stack at the table. It’s as simple as that, and there’s nothing else really to know.
No-limit Texas hold’em is the most popular poker game in the world, and it became popular primarily because of big tournaments that use this no-limit betting structure. It’s a great structure to tournaments because you can push your opponents to the question of whether or not they want to risk their tournament life on a single hand, which adds extra psychological factors.
The Most Popular Poker Games Online
There are several dozen styles of poker when you look at each individual variation. By combining different table sizes, stakes, betting structures and whether it’s in a cash game or tournament format, you end up with an absolutely enormous number of discrete games that have their own particular strategies, communities and more.
While it would be outside of the scope of what we have here to try to go into a lot of depth on each individual one, what we are going to do is look at a few of the most popular styles of the game available today in the general sense and what goes into their popularity.
Texas hold’em poker is the single most popular style of the game by far. In fact, with virtually any online poker site, you can add up all of the non-Texas hold’em tables to see that they are fewer combined than the number of tables that offers this style of poker.
The procedure for how this game is played is as follows:
- Two blinds are posted (antes are optional), and players receive two hole cards face-down. The pre-flop betting street occurs.
- Three cards are dealt face-up across the center of the table, and this is called the flop. The flop betting street occurs.
- A fourth face-up card is dealt in the center (called the turn), and the turn betting street happens. The same is repeated with a fifth card and betting street called the river.
- If more than one player makes it to the end of the hand, a showdown occurs using the standard rules.
What makes this game so special strategically is that players can use any combination of their two hole cards and the five community cards on the board to make the best five-card poker hand that they can. Since players are essentially sharing five of the seven cards they have available, it makes those two personal hole cards very important, and trying to figure out which cards the opponents have is a key part of the game.
You’ll typically find this game in no-limit and fixed-limit betting styles with the former being the more popular by far.
Omaha hold’em is very similar to Texas hold’em, and it’s easily the second most popular game played today. The betting aspect of the two games are exactly the same, and the way the cards are dealt is similar except for one key difference:
In Omaha hold’em, players are dealt four face-down hole cards instead of just two.
However, instead of being able to use any combination of hole cards and community cards, Omaha poker requires that players use exactly two of their four hole cards and three of the community cards. Therefore, having cards that work together well instead of just having high cards becomes a key component of strategy.
This game is usually played with a pot-limit betting style.
Seven Card Stud
Seven card stud poker was the most popular game in the world for a while several decades ago, but now it’s relegated to third place with the influx of hold’em that started in the late 1980s up through the middle of the 1990s.
Here’s how the cards are dealt for this game:
- Players post antes and are given three cards, two of which are face-down with one face-up. Betting starts based on whoever has either the highest or lowest card showing, depending on the house rules, and proceeds clockwise.
- A fourth card is dealt face-up to all remaining players with the fourth street betting happening just after. The same is repeated with fifth street and sixth street, but in fixed-limit games, these streets see the betting unit doubled.
- Finally, seventh street is dealt face-down leaving players with three total cards face-down and four cards face-up.
- Players do not share face-up cards in stud like they do in hold’em. Instead, you make the best five-card hand out of the seven you have been dealt.
This is a rare game with five betting streets, which is the most you’ll find in virtually any style of poker. This is a big part of why it’s not popular for playing no-limit or pot-limit, and you’ll only find it in a fixed-limit format.
The game that many people grew up with simply being called “poker” is actually five-card draw. It’s a pretty simple game with only two betting streets.
Players post antes and are dealt five cards. A betting street happens, and players are allowed to discard some number of cards and receive back replacements to try to make a better hand. Another betting street happens, with the bet size doubled if in a fixed-limit format, and then a showdown occurs.
This game plays much faster than any of the other above three, and that makes it great for fast sessions. You’ll find this game played in fixed-limit, pot-limit and no-limit betting formats.
Poker is an extremely complicated game in the general sense because there are so many different rule sets that you can mix and match from. Because of this, however, you’re able to learn the game in the general sense and then apply that to all of the individual variations.
Each online poker room will have different styles of poker with different numbers of tables available for each. With so many variations available, it’s obviously important to include the type of games you’re looking for in your criteria for picking and choosing, but it’s also important to get comfortable enough in various types of games that you don’t absolutely need to play only one type of poker.