Thursday, December 01, 2005

Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

I've been asked to provide a small tutorial on the nature of the neighborhood poker game. (That's the Hive, your one-stop blog for politics, theology, and gambling!) Let's start basic: how do you win a hand of poker?

OK, let's start more basic - what is a hand of poker?

A hand is five cards. Some games are played with more cards for each player, but in order to determine who wins, one chooses the best five cards, based on their rank (from Ace high to 2 low) and suits (four of them: clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades). (Extra cards tend to make the winning hands stronger: first, you get more cards to choose from, and second, good players can make better decisions when they see more of the cards.) And which five cards do you want? Basically, you want stuff that comes out lower on the following list. Here are the possible hands of poker, in order from least to best:

» High card. Also known in poker circles as "crap." Nothing matches, nothing's in the same suit, not enough consecutive cards. This means that you just take the five highest cards and that's your hand. Called by the rank of the high card, as in "I've got ace high."

Ah - but what about two people with aces? It's time to cover tie breaking. (This applies to everything else on the list as well, so keep track.) The highest card is always the most important: A-8-6-4-3 beats K-Q-J-10-5, even though all those picture cards (the king, queen, and jack) look so impressive. If the high card is the same, keep moving down until you find different cards: A-J-8-5-4 beats A-J-8-5-2, for example. So yes, it's possible to have tie hands - not that these hands will win, even if tied. These are the dregs, I tell you. Someone just about always has at least one pair, which sounds an awful lot like a segue...

» One pair. Two matching ranks. The pair is, again, the most important part, so 2-2-6-4-3 beats any of the hands described above. But twos are the lowest of the pairs, beaten by everything from a pair of threes to a pair of aces. If you have an identical pair, then the highest unpaired card breaks the tie: K-K-10-6-5 beats K-K-8-7-6.

(This tie-break card is usually called the kicker, because like football kickers, they usually screw up everything. No, I'm not bitter.)

» Two pair. Just what it says. Q-Q-7-7-A is an example. The higher pair of the two gives the strength of the hand, so if you've got A-A-2-2 you beat the player with the queens and sevens. If you also have queens and sevens, however, you can't win because you can't out-kick the ace. If you both have identical hands, split the pot and keep dealing - nobody else will want to relive how weird that was. (Usually announced as "queens over sevens," so you can sound professional while losing to "aces over twos.")

» Three of a kind. Sometimes called "a set." But you can just say "three nines" or whatever. Notice that here kickers won't be an issue, since only pinochle decks have more than four nines. (More on that later...)

» A straight. Here's where it gets fun. People start tossing about their fancy lingo and their cute matched cards - "Kings over." "Sorry, set of nines." But then you coolly announce, "I've got a straight." There they are - five cards in sequence (suits don't matter). The high card in the sequence determines which straight wins if there's more than one, but that doesn't matter to you, because you've got the ace-high straight, A-K-Q-J-10, also called "Broadway" (it's where the stars come out to shine, ya know). So you start to rake in chips - until -

» A flush. - until the chump next to you taps you casually on the arm and says, "Your straight's no good here." Then he turns over five cards of a matching suit and ruins your night. (That's why it's not kosher to wait until someone else thinks they've won before turning up your hand. It's called "slow-rolling," and once Mr. Flush does it to you, you'll know how those cute matching cards felt.)

Like everything else, high card in the flush determines the winner, so an ace-high flush beats a king-high, and so on. Suits, however, don't break ties. Hearts are not more valuable than clubs, for example, so if you've actually tied with another flush (all your cards have the same rank), just split the pot and keep dealing. (However, that is weird enough to talk about while you split, if you're neither slow nor obnoxious about it.)

» Full house. This is a three of a kind plus a pair: Q-Q-Q-7-7, for example ("queens full of sevens," as compared to "queens over sevens" from before). It's an excellent hand, and some casinos will offer a "bad beat jackpot" if someone loses while holding one (though usually it has to be aces full.) It's also known as a boat - everyone else sinks down in their chair when it floats by, muttering "Good hand." (Let's pretend that's what we heard.) The higher three-of-a-kind part will determine the winner if there are two boats gunning it out.

(And ties? Again, impossible under normal circumstances. But our friend Martin re-defines the term 'possibility.' Martin's the guy who introduces a new game to the table and then has to ask, "How do I deal this?" every other time it's played. Martin's the guy who tries to slow-roll a hand that someone else has already beaten, and then takes five minutes trying to figure out how his cards don't win the pot. And Martin's the guy who brings the cards to the game, only to have seven guys turn up full houses or four of a kind on the first hand - yup, you guessed it; Martin bought pinochle cards. If your home game doesn't have a Martin, go invite one.)

» Four of a kind. The crown-prince of poker, four of a kind (or "quads") is tough to get and gives you a virtual lock on the hand. As such, you shouldn't pull the old M*A*S*H joke of "two pair - two red tens and two black tens." Your friends will have every right to banish you from the game after a line like that. Two four-of-a-kinds are quite rare in the same hand, but if so, the higher rank wins. But even quads have to bow to a higher authority...

» Straight flush. Yup. It takes the deadly combination of two different hands to beat a four of a kind. A straight flush is five cards of the same suit in sequence, such as 7-8-9-10-J of hearts. Just for giggles, I'll point out again that the highest card breaks ties, so 7-8-9-10-J of hearts would beat 4-5-6-7-8 of diamonds. (The poor guy with the diamonds won't be giggling, however. Best to have an ambulance on hand for him.) And the queen mother of all straight flushes is the ace-high straight flush, also known as the royal flush.

(I've only seen one natural royal flush in my life as a casual player - a hand in which the dealer, as a gag, rigged the result so that I would get one. It was worth it just to hear the reactions upon seeing it.)

And that is that - unless of course you're playing with wild cards... Ignore the green section if you don't need (or don't care) to know about it. Everyone else:

Wild cards are a card that can be counted as anything by the bearer. (This must be determined before the dealing starts - I can't emphasize that strongly enough.) So, if the dealer calls "twos are wild" before the hand, and you hold 2-7-8-10-J at the end, you have (tada!) a straight - you count the wild deuce as a nine.

Naturally this makes the winning hand stronger, and the more wild cards out there, the worse it gets. With wild cards, decent hands like two pair or three of a kind usually wind up losing to crap like your jack-high. However, crap like your jack-high usually winds up losing to a two pair that suddenly becomes four of a kind because one pair is wild - so don't get your hopes up too much. Lousy cards still tend to lose to good cards. However, wild cards are fun for one thing:

» Five of a kind. Through the use of the wild card it is possible to gain five of a rank even though there's only four of everything in the pack. Some people pooh-pooh the wild card, but it's worth it to be able to say, "I've got five aces." It's the highest hand in the universe - it beats the royal flush and everything else out there.

(It's also fun to be able to say, offhand, "Oh, I've got a royal," even if two of them are really deuces play-acting. It's a royal flush, man. For an instant the club soda becomes a martini, the radio starts playing cool jazz, and you're James freakin' Bond scoring a hundred thou at Monte Carlo. "I've got a royal." No big whoop.)

And that's what you need to know in order to start learning the individual games. More in our next!

-- "Spats" Nightfly

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