The Basics of Poker
Poker is a family of card games in which players wager money against each other in order to obtain the best possible hand. Different games use different deck configurations, number of cards in play and rules, but all have a common goal: to determine which hand is best according to the game’s rules.
To start the game, each player must ante (place a small bet). Then, each player is dealt two cards and must keep them secret from the other players. During betting rounds, each player may “call” to match the previous bettor’s bet or “raise” to add more money to the pot. In some variants, a player can also “check”, which means to stay in the hand without making a bet.
The most common form of poker is Texas hold ’em, in which each player is dealt two cards and must place a bet. The player to the left of the dealer must post a small blind, which is usually a fixed amount; the next player to the right of the dealer must place a big blind, which is a larger bet.
In no-limit Texas hold ’em, the minimum opening raise is exactly twice the size of the big blind; in fixed-limit hold ’em, it is always exactly twice the small blind. In pot-limit hold ’em, the maximum raise can be all of the chips in a player’s stack (an “all-in” bet).
There are many other forms of poker. Some are similar to Texas hold ’em, but may be played with more cards or a different set of rules. These include draw poker, where a player tries to make a hand from a combination of cards that are not on the board; community card poker games, which are similar to draw poker, but in which the cards in a hand are not shared by all players; and lowball poker, where the lowest-ranked hand wins.
The ability to bluff is one of the most important skills in poker. In fact, it is a key element of the game’s strategy and explains why players often win large amounts of money even when they don’t have a great hand.
It’s not just about cards and money, though; psychologist Maria Konnikova writes in The Biggest Bluff that her immersion into the world of high-stakes poker has helped her understand human decision-making at a deeper level than she ever had before.
As a result, she is able to take the most logical path when faced with a difficult decision. That’s what makes this game so exciting to study: it’s all about how people think, and what they do when faced with a challenge.
Among the advances that have come from these studies is a new understanding of optimal frequencies and hand ranges. The former are the entire spectrum of hands a player can have in a given situation, and the latter are the frequencies with which that player should bluff.
This type of thinking helps players figure out what bets are appropriate in particular situations, and can help them calculate pot odds. Using solvers, Koon has discovered that tiny bets, sometimes as small as one-fifth the pot, are the optimal way to go; larger ones, such as two or three times the size of the pot, can be wrong. And, while he’s always known that he should maintain a balance between playing it straight and bluffing, solvers define precisely how often he should employ either tactic, identifying the best and worst hands to bluff with, depending on the cards in play.