Poker used to be cool. From Wild Bill Hickok getting shot up over aces and eights to Paul Newman and Robert Shaw eyefucking each other in The Sting, it has always held a place in American culture as the game you'd find grown-ass men playing in the smoke-filled back rooms of grown-ass places. Blame Norm Chad and the ESPN neckbeards (or the accompanying rush of dorm-hero online "pros" throughout the aughts), but that cool is long gone. And the shame of it is, a lot of people who missed out on the poker boom—or were put off by it at the time—wouldn't really know what to do now if a game struck up at their local place of disrepute, and would maybe avoid the scene entirely for fear of, what, looking stupid? Fuck that. Here's all you need to look like you know what you're doing, not fuck up the game, and hopefully not get taken for all you're worth.
That said: I do mean hopefully. This article can't teach you how to play poker well. There's plenty enough writing about poker out there, and plenty enough guides on the matter, both basic and advanced. We'll take you through some basic table etiquette, parlance, and rudimentary concepts for playing soundly. But remember: We're only here to make you Good Enough. We aren't even trying to keep you out of the "If you can't spot the sucker in the first 20 minutes ..." pile, since an experienced player will get a sense of where everyone stands easily enough. We're more aiming for "Just make sure you're second-slowest when you're escaping the bear" territory.
Most of this advice boils down to "keep the hell to yourself"—this is good general practice regardless of venue, but at a poker table, typically, it's taken seriously enough that you may as well envision everyone, particularly those seated next to you, as masturbating—pants ankled, going to town—and thus any interference with bets or action is both impolite and inherently aggressive. So, here's how to fit in well enough at a table that you won't get on everyone's nerves, and also how to keep your head far enough above water that you can afford to come back.
You're shooting for two things here: You want to avoid slowing the game down, and you want to avoid being the annoying simp everyone has to correct. We'll start with pace-of-play stuff.
1. Know when it's your damn turn.
This seems simple, right? Just know when you've got to do something. Mewling, "Oh, is it my turn?" as everyone's been staring daggers at you for the last 20 seconds is a pretty common new-player fuckup. So, just keep an eye on the game when you're in a hand, and know who else is still involved. (This is important anyway! You should always know who's in a hand, which we'll get to later.)
As action goes around the table, pay attention to not just bets and calls, but players checking, which will often just be them tapping the table.
2. Don't bet or fold out of turn.
This follows the same general principle as above, but instead of just annoying everyone, you're actually threatening to screw up the play of other players. In simple terms, a lot of bets and calls rely on how many other players are in a hand, and whose turn comes first. If, for example, someone leads out with a bet and there are three players who still have hands, the first person who has to decide if he wants to call the bet has to worry about the two players behind him. So if you're one of those two players, it's important that you wait your turn. If you call too fast, you might chase that second guy away because he thinks he's up against at least two good hands, and if you fold too fast, he might not call because he doesn't stand to win enough money to justify the risk now that he knows at least one person is folding.
Unlike in blackjack, where fucking up the idealized play only changes some quantum state of randomized cards and has no actual effect on play, screwing this up actually bones over people who are trying to play poker. So, know when it's your damn turn.
3. Know what kind of bet you can make, and what kind you can't.
There are a few ways you can screw up and bet incorrectly. First, if there are blinds, the minimum you're allowed to bet is the blind. So if you're doing $.25/$.50, you can't bet a quarter after the flop—you have to bet at least 50 cents. Similarly, you can't raise for less than the original bet. So if someone bets $50, you can't raise $10 to $60 total (unless you're going all-in); you have to raise to at least $100.
You also have to make your bet in one motion. You can't just put a few chips out, and then a few more, and then a few more, even by accident. This is called string betting, and it's a sucker move. (The reason this isn't allowed is that you can try to see if this amount makes your opponents uncomfortable, or maybe this amount.) The only time you're allowed to slide your bet in piecemeal is when you've said out loud how much you're going to bet or raise. If you say, "I bet $50," so long as $50 is a legal bet, you've bet $50, and the action is on the next player; you've just got to get your $50 in there now. You can't renege on a bet after you say it out loud, or substitute some higher or lower amount.
Finally, most games have a cap in the number of bets and raises you can make. No Limit Hold'em doesn't have a cap, but 7-Card Stud and most fixed- and pot-limit games have a limit of one bet and three raises per round of betting. (Some games will raise this to a bet and four raises, but that's less common.)
4. Don't stack your chips like an asshole (also: Stack your fucking chips).
You have to stack your chips. Keeping your chips in neat stacks is important so that you know how much money you've got to work with, and can bet quickly and efficiently, but mostly it's for the benefit of other players. Hiding chips or making it hard for others to estimate how many you have is extremely bad form, because just like your position at the table and in the hand affects how people bet against you, so does how many chips you have.
Anyway, there's actually an art to this: You want to keep it to about 20 chips per stack. You'll find that, in addition to this being a relatively easy amount of chips to manipulate, it also tends to fall in line with the stakes of the table as long as your game is using appropriate chip denominations. With 50-cent chips, this will give you stacks of $10; with 25-cent chips, it's stacks of $5; or with $5 chips, it's $100.
5. Don't splash the pot (also: Don't say, "Don't splash the pot").
Don't quote Rounders. Also, don't fuck around with the pot. Meaning, when you bet, don't just toss your chips in the middle of the table; place them in front of you, preferably in somewhat organized stacks. This lets the rest of the table see what you've bet, and keeps it separate from the pot.
Don't buy in for a ridiculously small amount. Fine if you're friends with everyone. Otherwise, you're wasting a seat.
Know the difference between "bet" and "raise." This is the poker player's version of "I don't know, can you go to the bathroom," which is to say only assholes really care about it and will correct you, but again, every single poker player is an asshole.
Leave your cards on the table. Don't hold them up to your chest and peek at them, or whatever the fuck. Leave them on the table and try to remember what you have.
Don't look at other players' cards. After a hand, it's a player's option if he or she wants to show you. Otherwise, stay out of it.
Don't slow-roll (unless you're being a dick [which is entirely OK, but might get you beaten up]). Slow-rolling is a troll move in games that have hole cards, where at the end of a hand, you only turn over one of your two cards—say, showing that you've got a pair of 10s—when you've actually got a much better hand thanks to the still-hidden card. By the rules, you've got to turn both over eventually anyway, so practically, all you're doing is letting some poor asshole think he's won before sitting him back down. It's a dick move. Among friends, this is almost always funny. Among strangers, especially ones you've just beaten in a hand, it's rude as hell, and some people take it seriously. Some especially strict house rules even hold you to the hand you represent with the slow-roll, which is some bullshit, but not unheard of.
Don't overdo jargon ("trips," "set," and so forth). No one likes this, even when it's the officious poker assholes doing it. Plus, you'll probably screw something up and look dumb.
Don't take money off the table. In house games, once you buy in, you're in. So it's rude if, say, you're at a $20 buy-in game and, having run your stack up to $100, you cash out $20 or $40 and just play with your winnings. If your table runs out of chips, leave the cash from new buy-ins on the table (cash always plays) and sell some chips to whoever needs them. In essence, give people a chance to win their money back.
In a casino, fuck 'em—stand up and cash out whatever you want—but you generally can't take money off the table while you're sitting.
Tip the dealer. If you're playing at a casino, or any sort of cash game with dedicated dealers, it's customary to tip every time you win a pot. Don't tip based on how big the hand you won was; $1 or $2 per win is fine.
HOW TO ACTUALLY PLAY
Obviously, learn the rules. There are resources all over the internet that explain the basics of games like Texas Hold'em or Seven-Card Stud. Most of these, though, are pointed at a certain type of beginner who's seeking a gateway of higher learning, who aspires to more than simply learning the basics and hanging around. But there's nothing wrong with aspiring to know enough to simply hang around. Hanging around will get you places, and is a hell of a lot less stressful on the uptake. Here are some essentials for that.
1. Play good cards.
This is a good entry point, because it emphasizes that if you have no idea what you're doing, you can't take the online guides to how to actually play too seriously. Those are, for the most part, aimed at playing against skilled players playing something close to if not optimal, competent poker for real, make-a-living stakes. If you're reading this, that probably isn't the game you're attending. So, take the ideal starting hand lists to heart, but remember that "playable" is relative to your game and your opponents and your stake. Play good cards, but also have some fun. So go ahead and bet out with 5-6 off-suit in early position if you want—just know know what you're doing before you start screwing around.
2. Bet according to the size of the pot (and your opponent's stack).
Here's a recurring punchline with beginner players. A hand has seen a lot of action—two, maybe three or four players have been going back and forth, betting and raising every round of betting—and by the river, there's a sizable pot on the table, whereupon the newbie bets out $5 into a $300 pot, and everyone stares at him like he just swallowed a cactus. A simple poker-theory explanation here is "pot odds," which states that if you think your chance of winning a hand exceeds the bet-to-pot ratio, make the call, because you're pot committed. (This gets a little more complicated when you factor in what are called "implied odds"—these shift the bet-to-pot scale to include how much you think you'll win off of your opponent, based on what you think he has and how many chips he has—but that's not necessary to start out.)
But without getting too stuck in the weeds, the point here is that the actual number of chips or dollars you're betting means nothing without context. In poker, the context is the size of the pot and how many chips you and your opponent have. Having a lot of chips acts as a deterrent—don't bet into this guy, he might raise the stakes to a level I'm not comfortable with in this hand—and a big pot requires a big bet if you want anyone to take it seriously.
3. Pay attention to your position.
Position is much more important than most people realize. You want to be the last person making bets, or, more accurately, the last person making decisions. If there are three people in a hand, the first person to act has no information about the other two players—they could have great hands that they'll bet strongly—and so any bet he makes is at risk of being raised by players acting behind him. This is doubly true if the late-acting players (this is called late position) have a lot of chips (see above).
What this means for you in practice is that you should pump the brakes a little bit when you're in early position, and only bet out if you're strong, or if you want your opponents to think you're strong.
4. Don't slow-play everything.
If you get a good hand, bet. This is the simplest thing in the world, but it's something you'll see a lot of new players mess up. You don't need to trap people every time you get a good hand. If they're in the hand, they probably have a hand they like, too. If the stakes are relatively low, sometimes it will be obvious that you should check a big hand, but in general, make your bet—this is the only way you make money.
5. Don't be unbluffable.
Remember: It's okay to fold. Folding is a perfectly fine thing to do. Sometimes you're going to get bluffed, and sometimes you're going to have laid down the best hand, but for most players starting out, the instinct to call every bet is far stronger than the instinct to get out of the way and play more hands. Don't fold everything, but just keep in mind that folding is not a moral flaw; it's just a decision.
Adequate Man is Deadspin's new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.