Monday, December 12, 2005

All right, what are we playing?

OK. When you look at your cards you know what they're worth - that is, once you get cards. (We wouldn't want you to go into the game unprepared, right?) But before we deal, we have to know which game we're playing. "Poker" is really not a game as much as a genre, with all sorts of variations that can be drawn into roughly four classes. You may wind up with as few as two or as many as nine different cards.

For now we're going to cover (briefly) those four classes of game. (As we keep going, each of these will be linked to a post going into more detail about specific games.) And to save ourselves grief, we are going to take for granted that (unless specified) these games are straight poker, meaning no wild cards. Here at the Hive's School of Cards we keep things simple.

1. Draw. Draw games are the first things many of us think of when we hear "poker," perhaps having been involved in games while we were kids. A draw game means that you get your hand, decide which of the cards could stand improvement, and trade them in to the dealer, who gives you fresh replacements from the deck.

2. Stud. A stud game works a little differently. You don't get your cards all at once like in a draw game, and some of your cards are dealt face up, for everyone to see. Of course, this means that you also get a gander at what other people may have. It represents a step upward in strategy and complexity.

3. Community. These games resemble stud in that some cards are face-up; however, in a community game the face-up cards go to the center of the table and every player uses them. As a result, the down cards (known as hole cards in poker parlance) become very important. The most popular poker game today is a community-card variety best referred to as Hexas Told Them, lest the Hive be buried under an Everest of spam.

4. Un-poker. As a change of pace, some home games enjoy what one may call Carnival Cards, in which a dizzying array of rules and wild cards fly about the table. The sounder varieties can be classified in one of the first three categories; the remainder are entertaining as a change of pace, but do not follow the basic rules of poker - for example, one game called 7-27 counts points more in the manner of blackjack than poker. Only when the first three are thoroughly covered will we delve into this shadowy fringe of faux-poker.

Again, we will cover specific examples in future installments. Right now I want to move from "what" to "how," because all of these games have a few things in common beyond flushes beating two pair and what-have-you, what one might call card etiquette. Some tables are more lenient than others but it's better for the host or the dealer not to need to correct you. In general, here's how to make a good impression on your fellow card slingers:

Point #1 - the dealer has the last say. It stands to reason. Before a single card leaves his hands, he calls the game; if there are special rules and/or wild cards, he spells them out; and he makes sure that it's all dealt properly and promptly. On top of all that he makes sure that the pot isn't short. He's the Mozart of this particular little concerto, so it's only fair to defer: if you're not sure about a game or have a dispute during the hand, the dealer is the final court of appeal. Besides, most games rotate the deal each hand, which means that sooner or later you'll be the one making those decisions. Given the nature of poker, it's important to play friendly.

Seriously. I know you're trying to take each other's money, but think. Remember when we talked about the slow-roll? That principle applies all over. Don't kvetch if you've lost; don't crow if you've won. Your friends may not take kindly to this as they watch you rake in their gas money for the month; and it won't go over any better among strangers.

Point #2 - don't act out of order. (Or, Everything I Needed to Know About Poker I Learned in Kindergarten.) Take turns. If you toss money in early, you've hurt the game - the people you skipped might suddenly decide to fold instead of play, costing someone a larger pot than they would have had (perhaps even you, so don't do it). And if they decide to raise the bet instead, now you've already committed money to a hand that may suddenly look rather shopworn. You can still fold, but you do NOT get your money back once it's in the pot. In fact, let's call this point 2-B - if it's in the center, it's gone. That goes not only for money you've wagered but cards you've folded. If you toss it away you can't get it back, so think twice. (The ONLY exception is if, after all the bets are made, you have accidentally put in too much. Then the dealer, and only the dealer, can give you back the difference. To avoid this causing trouble, some games require you to keep your bet out in front of your cards until everyone has either matched it or folded. Only then does the dealer sweep them all into the pot.)

Point #3 - knowledge is power, so ask if you don't know. Even an expert player can innocently mishear the instructions (did you see that catch?!?) and then proudly exhibit an imaginary hand (whaddya mean fives aren't wild?) and lose. Speak up if it seems odd or unclear: it saves trouble (and more importantly, your money) and helps you learn the games more quickly. The reverse of this coin is that, once you're out of the hand, keep knowledge to yourself! Don't sneak peeks at the others' cards (even with permission), and don't discuss the hand with other folded players unless you're positively out of earshot. Your loose lips may sink a promising hand based on information you unwittingly reveal in your words, or even your looks. Above all, never show your hole cards once you've folded. Fold face down - in fact, any of your exposed cards (in stud games) ought to be turned over as well, so people don't think you're still in the action.

Point #4 - act decisively. What you mean to do, do plainly, even if you have to say out loud what you're doing. This especially helps when (as is inevitable) the pot is light an ante. (An ante is a small bet everyone makes before the deal begins, to ensure that you're playing for something more than the coffee stain on the tablecloth.) But in general it pays to be above-board and trustworthy, and this helps because it lets the table police itself. If you toss money to the pot and nobody quite sees it, you will (at best) confuse others, who won't know if you've called or raised without asking. But if you say "I call" then not only will they know, they'll remind you how much you owe (see how nice a friendly game is?).

(Some games solve the ante problem simply - the dealer antes for everyone on his deal. This way the pot always starts right. As the night progresses and the deal rotates, each dealer puts in and nobody is shorted. But it still pays to be above-board about it.)

Various tables, again, will have a certain flexibility to these four basic points, and as the players in a regular game gain familiarity some of these show a definite flexibility. It's nice to know what the courtesy is beforehand, though.

Next up? Draw, pardner! We'll cover some basic draw games and maybe deal a few sample hands...

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