Explaining Poker Lingo

Whenever I write about poker, there will inevitably be a comment or two by someone to the effect of “Wha? I didn’t understand a word of that.” This is because poker, like most activities, has developed a lingo all its own that is foreign to someone who hasn’t played the game, or who has played it only casually. So I thought I’d take the time to explain what some of those terms mean.

Let me start by explaining the game I play, Texas hold ‘em. This is a seven card game, but five of those are community cards — meaning they’re in everyone’s hand. Each player is dealt two cards that only they can see (this is often referred to as the pocket), then five cards are dealt face up in the middle of the table and each player then uses those cards and those in his hand to make the best five-card poker hand. But the community cards are dealt in a particular order. The first three cards are turned up all at once; this is called the flop. The fourth card is turned up by itself; this is called the turn card (or sometimes fourth street). Then finally the fifth card is turned up; this is called the river card (or sometimes fifth street).

Between each of these is a round of betting, but let me first explain the blinds. If there is a dealer at the table, the order in which he deals the cards rotates clockwise by placing a button in front of one of the players. The player to the immediate left of the button is in the small blind; the player to his left is the big blind. That means they have to put money into the pot before the cards are dealt. In a $1/$2 no limit hold em game, for instance, the player in the small blind would have to put $1 into the pot and the player in the big blind would have to put $2 into the pot, before the cards are dealt.

So once the cards are dealt, there’s a round of betting and it begins with the player to the immediate left of the big blind; that position is called being under the gun. He can fold his hand (sometimes called mucking), he can call the $2 bet or he can raise (and in a no limit game, he can raise as much as he has in front of him in chips, but the raise has to be at least twice what the last bet was, so $4 would be the minimum he could raise). The players then act in clockwise order, with each one facing the same choice of folding, calling or raising the last bet that was made. Once it gets around to the player in the small blind, he has the same choices, then the big blind goes last in the first round of betting. On all subsequent rounds, the betting starts with the small blind and ends with the player on the button. That’s why having the button is a very strong position in each hand, because you get to go last on the last three rounds of betting, so you get to see what every other player does before you have to make a decision.

After that first round of betting, the dealer turns up the flop and there’s another round of betting. Then the dealer puts up the turn card and there’s a round of betting. Then the dealer puts up the river card and there’s a final round of betting before the pocket cards of the remaining players (if there is more than one) are turned up and the player with the best hand wins the pot. In a typical hand at a table with 8-10 players, only two or three of them will usually stay in to see the flop. That’s because there will usually be at least one raise on the first round of betting and those with weaker hands will likely fold because they know their chances of winning are slim.

So what are the best pocket cards to start with? The best hand pre-flop is, obviously, a pair of aces. Any paired hand is good and the higher it is, the stronger it is. Someone with pocket 9s or better is probably going to raise before the flop, as will those with hands like AK (that is, an ace and a king), AQ, AJ, KQ and other strong hands. If your two cards are of the same suit, or suited, they are a little bit stronger than an unsuited hand because it makes you a bit more likely to hit a flush; if they are connected — that is, if they are sequential, like 89 or JQ — then your hand is a bit stronger because it increases your chances of getting a straight.

So let me walk through a hand I posted the other day about the World Series of Poker final table and explain what the terminology I used means in that context:

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