Poker without betting is hardly poker! While there are some varieties of poker that don’t involve betting—like Knock Poker—it is a feature of the vast majority of them. Most poker games include one or more betting rounds (Texas Hold’em and Omaha, for instance, have four betting rounds before the showdown). Fortunately, once you get used to how the betting in poker operates, the knowledge transfers pretty well to every other variety of poker.
This post describes some of the rules governing cash or ring games—that is, non-tournament games. Tournament games have special rules because they are played with chips that have no cash value; real money is only given out when the tournament is over. Also, while the rules of poker are fairly standard, there are some variations and extra bets that some players and cardrooms add to spice up the game. If you’re joining an unfamiliar game, it’s best to ask about the rules before you play!
Basic betting actions
- Check. The simplest betting action is to check. This is option is only available when no bets have been placed in the current betting round (even blinds are considered a bet in this instance). A check declares that you wish to keep the current bet at zero and not wager any additional money. If all players check, the betting round ends with no more money being added to the pot.
- Raise. A raise increases the current bet. If all other players have checked, a bet of any amount is a raise. If another player has bet, a raise is betting an amount more than what the previous player bet.
- Fold. To refuse to match a raise. In so doing, the player surrenders their cards and takes no further part in the game until the next hand.
- Call. Matching whatever the current bet is. If a previous player bet $5, a call is also betting $5. Note that any amount previously wagered does not have to be re-matched; if you bet $5 and the next player raises to $10, you need only wager $5 more to call. When all active players have called, the betting round ends.
Most poker games include table stakes rules. A player is limited to the money they have in front of them on the table at the beginning of the hand. They cannot exchange money from their pocket for chips midway through a hand. This is done to allow a player to limit their risk and to prevent players with more money from bullying less-wealthy players out of the game. If a player wishes to rebuy, that is, buy more chips to bet with, they must wait until in between hands.
Once a player has chips in front of them, whether by exchanging cash for them or by winning them from other players, they cannot take a portion of them off the table or cash them in; they must remain in play. If a player wishes to cash out, they must leave the game and take their entire stack of chips. While it is possible to leave the game immediately after scoring a huge pot, it’s considered good etiquette to stay in the game for at least a few more hands to allow other players a chance at winning some of the money back.
When discussing what type of poker game is being spread, the game is usually quoted as the minimum bets for the table, whether it is limit or no-limit, and the type of game (if multiple types of poker are being spread; otherwise, Texas Hold’em is usually assumed). One of the most popular games in casino poker rooms, for example, is $1/$2 no-limit Hold’em.
The two amounts given as the minimum bets are in effect at different points in the hand. In Texas Hold’em and Omaha, the first two betting rounds (pre-flop and the flop) are conducted with the minimum bet at the first, lower rate. The last two betting rounds (the turn and river) have minimums equal to the second amount, which is called the big bet and is usually double the smaller bet.
Limits (or not)
Most poker games are said to be either “limit” or “no-limit”. No-limit games are simpler: you can bet almost any amount at any time, including your entire chip stack! There is usually a restriction that a raise cannot be followed by a smaller raise, so if the first player to act raises $50, you cannot raise after them by $1.
Of course, no-limit games also offer a substantial degree of risk to the players—a player can be forced to call a hand with every chip they have on the table! Some players, especially newcomers, may not feel comfortable playing no-limit games.
Limit poker is often preferred by less confident players, but it is also slightly more complicated. All raises must be equal to the minimum bet for the round. For example, in a $3/$6 limit Hold’em game, during the first (pre-flop) round, each raise is $3. So, if blinds are used, the big blind will be $3, and the first raise will be an additional $3. The next player can either call for $6, or raise another $3, bringing the bet to $12, etc. This continues until a cap, a fixed number of raises, is reached. For example, three raises may be allowed before the betting is capped. When the cap is reached, no further raises are allowed; players may only call or fold.
Pot-limit poker is kind of a compromise between limit and no-limit poker. In pot-limit games, the maximum bet is equal to whatever the pot currently contains. This amount includes whatever was in the pot at the beginning of the betting round, plus any raises or calls that have taken place, plus however much it would cost the current player to call. So, if the pot had $100 from antes and prior betting rounds, and a previous player on this betting round raised to $50, the current player could raise by up to $200 ($100 + $50 from the previous player + $50 call from the current player).
Unlike limit games, however, you are never compelled to bet the maximum (called potting it); you may bet any lesser amount that you wish (although raises must usually at least equal the amount of any previous raises). There is also no cap on the number of times players may bet the pot on any betting round.
When a player ends up with their entire chip stack in the pot, whether they called an amount that exceeded their stack, or because they raised by the total amount of their stack in a no-limit game, the player is said to have gone all-in. An all-in player is allowed to keep their cards and participate in the showdown at the end of the hand, but cannot take part in any further betting rounds, because they don’t have the money to do so. Therefore, any further betting that takes place by other players is kept in a separate side pot. The all-in player cannot win this side pot. If additional players end up going all-in at later stages of play, additional side pots can be created.
At the end of the hand, if the first all-in player has the best hand overall, they are awarded the main pot, and each side pot is awarded to the player eligible for it with the best hand. If a non-all-in player has the best hand overall, they get the main pot, plus all the side pots.