Ring games (the fancy term for a Poker game where you can buy in and cash out as you please) are the most popular games on the Internet. Even though you don’t play with real money, you can still find games that allow you to bet as if you were using good ole greenbacks. Betting typically comes in three forms: no-limit, where you can bet any amount at any time; pot-limit, where you can bet any amount up to the size of the current pot at any time; and fixed-limit (sometimes referred to solely as limit), where you bet in specific, predetermined amounts.
With the no-limit and pot-limit games, if you’re unclear about the buy-in and limits from looking at the home page, go to any table and try to sit in an open seat — the site gives you very explicit details of limits and buy-ins from the chip purchase dialog (and you can always cancel if the requirements are too rich for your blood).
Hankering for Hold’em
Texas Hold’em overtook Five-Card Draw as the serious Poker player’s game of choice in the middle of the 20th century. The takeover was so complete that the player who wins the $10,000 buy-in no-limit Hold’em event at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas automatically attains “World Poker Champion” status. No questions asked.
Hold’em has such a stranglehold on the brick-and-mortar world that you can barely tell other variations of Poker even exist. And the online world is no different. Hold’em easily outstrips all other games that you can play online.
The game dynamic in any environment is simple. All players are dealt two hole cards and take a round of betting. Three community cards are dealt face up (the flop), followed by another round of betting. A fourth community card is dealt (the turn; more rarely called fourth street), and the remaining players bet again. A final community card is dealt (known as the river, fifth street, or when Lady Luck flips you the bird, your favorite string of expletives), and the final round of betting ensues. The player with the best five-card hand takes the pot — you can use zero, one, or both of your hole cards to make your hand.
AN EXAMPLE HOLD’EM HAND
You receive A♥ 10♥ as your hole cards. The round of betting ensues.
The flop appears on the center of the table A♦ 2♦ J♣. You go through the second round of betting. (You have a pair of aces and bet on it.)
The turn is the K♦. You bet with your pair of aces and straight draw. The river is the Q♦. You decide to keep betting your hand.
The good news is that you have an A-10 straight (known in Poker slang as Broadway); the bad news is that any player still in who holds even one diamond beats you with a flush.
Hold’em is extremely well suited for computer play, adding to its popularity and domination of the Internet. Dealing happens automatically with no delay for shuffling, and because your visual focus falls almost exclusively on the community section at the center of the table, even the little chicklet versions of the playing cards aren’t too troubling.
In sheer number of players, Hold’em games outnumber all other forms of Internet Poker combined roughly 6 to 1. That doesn’t mean you can’t play other games, but it does mean that you find the most competition, the largest spread of limits, the widest tournament variety, and the greatest selection in table size if you play Hold’em.
The overall skill level of an Internet Hold’em player is widely variable, but roughly speaking the situation is exactly what you may expect: The higher the table limit, the better the competition.
The playing mechanics of Omaha are identical to those of Texas Hold’em (see the previous section for Hold’em info), with two big exceptions: You receive four hole cards rather than two, and when determining your best five- card hand you must use exactly two of your hole cards combined with exactly three of the five community cards.
Until you warm up to this dynamic (especially if you’ve resided under the polluting influence of Hold’em for years on end), playing Omaha can be mind-bending. When you first start playing the game (or if you’re tired), you can easily misread a hand. Some Poker sites have coaching text that tells you the best value your hand can represent at any given moment (“You have two pair, aces and eights,” for example). If you play on a site that evaluates your hand on the fly, keep an eye on what the computer knows you have versus what you think you have or have a chance of making.
Omaha just squeaks over Seven-Card Stud as being the second most popular card game on the Net, but Hold’em is so overwhelming in popularity that many sites may have only a table or two where you can play Omaha (especially in the wee hours of the morning when the Poker crowd thins out).
You can play Omaha in two versions: standard Omaha (sometimes referred to as Omaha High) and Omaha High/Low, which is a split-pot game where both the high and low hands reap equal shares of the pot. You generally play Omaha, in all forms, with pot-limit or fixed-limit betting. No-limit is an Omaha rarity.
In the standard version of Omaha, the best (highest) hand takes the entire pot. Sites offer Omaha almost exclusively as a pot-limit game, and to us it seems to be the hardest game to beat on the Internet.
As a gross generalization (but still an essentially true generalization), Omaha players tend to be very skilled and very dedicated. Compared to Hold’em, experts haven’t written nearly as much about Omaha. As a result you tend to see more experienced players in the game, while the truly bad players stay away.
Pot-limit Omaha is the most popular game in Europe, and it also enjoys extreme popularity in the southern United States. The pot-limit version is a gambler’s game in a big way — you see a huge variance in the hands compared to Hold’em, and it seems as though pretty much any hand has a shot pre-flop. The skill in this game, for sure, is knowing when to run away and knowing when to stand and fire.
DECISION TIME: OMAHA HIGH
You receive A♥ K♦ 10♠ 10♥ as your hole cards. You bet during the first round.
The flop comes 7♠ 7♣ J♦. At this point you have two pair: sevens and tens, with a jack kicker. (Remember, you must use exactly two of your hole cards.) You decide to check and call a bet.
The turn is the J♥. You still have two pair: tens and jacks with a seven kicker. You’re worried about another player having trips or a J-7 making a full house. You call a moderate bet.
The river is the 10♦. You now have a full house: tens full of jacks. Anyone who holds J-7, J- 10, 7-7, or J-J as hole cards beats you, but you have a pretty good hand. Decision time!
Easy now Tex: You can’t automatically count on your three Cowboys taking down this pot. In the High/Low version of Omaha, the high hand splits the pot with the low hand if, and only if, the low hand contains no pairs and no cards higher than an 8 (with aces counting as 1). Straights and flushes don’t matter for the low hand. If no low hand is possible, the high hand scoops the entire pot. In High/Low, you can use different cards for your high hand and for your low hand. In both cases, you must use exactly two cards from your hand and three cards from the board to determine your high and low hands. You find roughly the same number of players in both the pot-limit and fixed- limit forms of this game, based on nothing more than personal preference.
AN OMAHA HIGH/LOW WINNER — SQUARED
You receive A♠ 3♣ J♠ J♦ for your hole cards, a good starting hand with both high and low possibilities.
The flop comes over 4♠ 7♦ J♣. You now have three jacks for the best high hand currently possible. Your A-3 gives you a shot at the second lowest possible hand if another card 8 or less that doesn’t pair the A, 3, 4, or 7 shows up on the board.
The turn is the 2♠. You now have the lowest possible hand at the moment (A 2 3 4 7), the highest possible hand, and a shot at the nut flush draw. Not a bad situation.
The river is the 3♠. An odd draw. You no longer have the nut low hand (A-5 beats you with a wheel, ace through five). You now have an ace-high flush, and only someone holding the 5♠ 6♠ can beat you with a straight-flush. If no player has a wheel or the straight-flush, you play your A-3 for your low hand and the A-J for the high hand, taking the whole pot.
Omaha High/Low, certainly at the low limits, is a great game to cut your teeth on, especially if you need a break from Hold’em. The split pots mean that you can enjoy the fun of seeing the site rake chips to your side of the table about twice as often. (The increased action can, however, be a little psychologically dangerous because you can get used to the new scooping rhythm of Omaha and end up staying in too many pots when you go back to Hold’em.)
If you see a game labeled solely as Omaha, always expect it to be Omaha High. Make sure before you evaluate betting on a possible low hand that you’re playing at a High/Low table. If you don’t and you’re playing Omaha High, you end up betting on a losing hand.
Serving up Seven-Card Stud
Seven-Card Stud is probably the best-known Poker game to people who have wandered no farther than their kitchen table to play cards. Every player is dealt two hole cards and an up card, which is followed by a round of betting. The remaining players get another up card (referred to as fourth street), followed by a round of betting. Another up card is dealt (fifth street), and everyone bets. Yet another up card is dealt (sixth street), and everyone bets again. Players who haven’t folded by this point receive a final card face down (a third hole card — referred to as either seventh street or, as with the last card in Hold’em, the river), and the final betting round follows. To recap: All players still in on the river have three cards down and four cards up. The best five-card hand takes the pot.
SLOW AND STEADY SEVEN-CARD STUD
In a brick-and-mortar environment, Seven-Card Stud is the slowest game in the house; the physical mechanics of pushing a ton of cards around on the table and the perpetual delay of slowpokes who wait to toss in their antes at the start of each hand can slow play to a snail’s pace.
Online, however, the feeling is a bit more disconcerting and herky-jerky. With Stud, some of the action comes faster (like the general dealing mechanics), but other actions (like players evaluating their hands) are nearly the same. Because of this, to us at least, Stud never feels quite right.
Obviously this is a matter of personal preference. If you’re a big fan of Stud in the brick-and- mortar world, you should give it a whirl in cyberspace and see what you think. People who play Stud exclusively in the brick-and-mortar world usually love it online, but players who simply want to play a variety of games on their computer may not be as thrilled.
Like Omaha (see the previous section), you can play Seven-Card Stud in two forms: standard and high/low. And, again as with Omaha, you can expect to find significantly fewer active games to join on the Internet compared to the number of Hold’em games because it simply isn’t as popular with today’s Poker generation.
Aesthetically, Stud often doesn’t translate as well to the computer screen as Omaha and Hold’em do, primarily because you have to look at many more cards spread around the screen instead of seeing them grouped in one community playing area. Sites that use smaller card images can really make you squint.
If you play online Stud, be sure to put your screen in a glare-free spot — you don’t want to experience the aftertaste of not seeing an opponent’s four aces showing because of a bad reflection.
You play online Stud almost exclusively with fixed-limit betting, in both tournament and ring-game situations. To be honest, we aren’t sure exactly why, but it may have something to do with the game’s history. Stud is an older, slower game, played before the new fangled “big betting” methods of pot-limit and no-limit.
Standard Seven-Card Stud
As with Omaha, if you ever see a listing that labels the game “Seven-Card Stud,” the highest hand wins the entire pot.
STRAIGHT FROM A STUD’S MOUTH
An example from a standard Seven-Card Stud game:
You receive 8♥ 8♦ as your hole cards and the 7♠ face up. (Online, your hole cards are shifted down slightly in the card lineup.) You go through a round of betting with your pair of eights.
Fourth street is the 6♣. You bet.
Fifth street is the 10♣. You bet. You still have a pair of eights with an inside straight draw. Sixth street, your last up card, is the K♦. Your hand hasn’t changed much with the king. Seventh street, your third hole card, is the 6♥. You bet with your two pair, sixes and eights.
In general, standard Stud games are very accessible, playable, and winnable — especially at the lower limits. The general level of play doesn’t seem as good as it does in Hold’em and Omaha, possibly because not as many people play, or possibly because Stud scholars haven’t written as much on the game, allowing for fewer Stud scholars to develop.
As a general rule, if you can’t beat what you see face up from the other players’ hands, get out while you can. If you can’t quickly improve your medium pair, and an opponent has two queens showing, you may be throwing money away trying to catch cards on a dead hand.
Seven-Card Stud High/Low
As you may have gathered from the name, in High/Low the high hand splits the pot with the low hand, if, and only if, the low hand doesn’t include a card higher than an 8 (the qualifier). Straights and flushes don’t count against the low. (You can have an ace through five straight for the high and the low, however.)
Seven-Card Stud High/Low is beatable, but it takes more time to master than its standard (high only) cousin. As with Omaha High, this game tends to breed specialists, and you have very little written theory at your disposal. You should play low limits until you get comfortable with the different pacing and have a good feel for the kind of behavior you see from better players.
Imagine this situation: You’re playing a High/Low game with two other players, and you’re dealt the best possible low hand, A 2 3 4 5 (the hand known as the wheel), so you know you’re guaranteed at least half the pot. You should raise without abandon at every possible opportunity here, right?
You encounter a problem if one of your opponents also has a wheel and a third player has a better high hand than your five-high straight. Your opponent with the high hand takes half the pot. You split the other half between you and the other player holding a wheel. Although you contributed one third of the pot with your bets, you only get one-quarter of the pot back when you tie for the low; therefore, you lose the difference between the quarter of the pot you won and the third of the pot you contributed (namely th of the total amount of the pot). Unfortunately, you’ve been quartered. (Of course, this scenario is exacerbated if you have to split with even more players.)
Getting quartered is rare in Stud High/Low, where everyone plays their own unique hand, but the situation is surprisingly common in Omaha, where players share community cards.
If you suspect you may be in a situation where you’re donating money, even if you have a wheel, you should merely call all bets. Don’t raise and don’t make the first betting action (allowing for someone else to raise you). You may hear the expression “Don’t raise a naked low” in Omaha High/Low, which is exactly the situation we’re referring to: a case where you have a low hand that may be duplicated, giving you no shot at winning the high hand.
YOU SEVEN-CARD STUD …
You receive Q♥ 2♠ as your hole cards and the 8♠ as your first up card. You go through the betting round with your queen high and two cards toward a low hand.
Fourth street is the 3♠. You have a three-card flush draw and three cards toward a low hand.
Fifth street is the Q♠, giving you a pair of queens with a flush draw for high hand and three cards toward a low hand. You stay in through the betting round.
Sixth street brings the 4♠. You now have a queen-high spade flush for your high hand. You also have a pretty good low drawing hand — you need one more card under an 8 that doesn’t pair up. You keep on through the betting round.
Your third hole card is the 5♠. Your high hand is a Q 8 5 4 3 spade flush. You also qualify for a low hand with 2 3 4 5 8 (remembering that the flush doesn’t matter). Unless another player has a monster hand, you should rake in at least half the pot. Well done!
Playing Crazy Pineapple, Five-Card Stud, and more
Hold’em, Omaha, and Seven-Card Stud are the staples of online play. But other games come and go occasionally as sites experiment with what customers want to play. Each of the following games is, or has been, available online. Have a look on any given Poker site in the lobby under something akin to the “Other Games” tab to find these little creatures.
You can’t really find much written theory on any of the following games, but you always play them for low stakes, due to a general lack of popularity. You also don’t swim into waters with many sharks, which is a nice break from the normal Hold’em, Stud, and Omaha minefield.
Pineapple and Crazy Pineapple
Crazy Pineapple is a variant of Hold’em with one big exception: You get three hole cards rather than the usual two. You bet and see the three community cards, bet again, and then discard your least-helpful hole card before you see the fourth community card. From there, play continues like
regular Hold’em. In the less-common Pineapple, you receive three hole cards and discard one before the flop.
Winning in both forms of Pineapple takes experience because you regularly face stronger hands compared to Hold’em. You may be amazed at how often you find yourself holding the second-best hand. The good news for a beginner, however, is that you don’t come across many Pineapple players, and because of that, all the games you find are low stakes and fixed-limit ring play only.
Watch a bit of the action first instead of playing right away. And after you get started, always keep an eye out for specialists who lurk, waiting to pounce on your stack.
Yep, we’re talking the Five-Card Draw of the Old West. All players are dealt five cards and then bet. Players discard (you can throw out none, some, or all your cards) and receive replacements from the dealer, and then you make the final round of bets. Lay your cards on the table and become the toast of the saloon (or the target of a few six-guns).
Five-Card Draw works surprisingly well online because you focus only on your cards until the showdown, and all you have to do is click on the cards you want to discard. The pacing online is near perfect, very close to any home game. Even if you haven’t played before, it takes only an hour or so to warm up to the betting and game dynamics, as well as the caliber of hand you need to win any given pot.
Unlike the rest of the online Poker world, every Five-Card Draw table we’ve played on has been congenial (if opponents chat between play), and most games have been outright fun. As with Pineapple, you can’t find much Five- Card Draw action, and you can expect low fixed-limit ring games.
If you need a break from the tedium of the larger Internet games, the western movie’s game of choice can be an excellent decision. If you want a Poker game on the Internet that you can just dive right into, Five- Card Draw is it (because of the congenial atmosphere, and general pacing of the game).
In Five-Card Stud, all players are dealt a hole card and an up card. After a betting round, you receive three more up cards with betting rounds following each. The remaining players have a total of five cards. Best hand wins.
Five-Card Stud has the same game-dynamic problems as Seven-Card Stud (see the “Serving up Seven-Card Stud” section earlier in this chapter), although we like it even less. Having images of cards (often small ones) spread about the screen just doesn’t feel right. You can easily overlook someone else’s hand, especially if a lot of players are in the pot. And overlooking another player’s hand can be financially deadly.
In Five-Card Stud, you can’t expect a whole lot of mystery to come with any hands, because 80 percent of what you have is face-up. No mystery leads to no thrill. We know there must be a reason why people want to play this game; we just don’t know what it is.
Wild card games
You break out the kitchen table games, like Baseball, Follow the Queen, and Spit in the Ocean, when you play with your Poker buddies. These games often require less skill and more luck, and because anyone can get lucky, these games allow more people to play more hands, and you tend to see more betting going on than in the Stud games online. Sitting down at the kitchen table and playing a game like Spit in the Ocean gives you a chance to have more fun playing and spend less time thinking about strategy.
Brick-and-mortar cardrooms have never provided wild card games, partially because players take too long evaluating the hands. You also run into discrepancies in the ways different players interpret the rules. You can, however, find online Poker sites with these games offered. Online sites spell out the rules precisely and never misevaluate hands, making the Internet the best wild card game destination outside of your kitchen.
Player’s choice (mixed games)
If playing only one type of game puts you in a funk, or if you want to get a feel for your overall Poker prowess, player’s choice may be for you. In this world the game changes, typically after every orbit of the dealer marker (after the deal makes its way around the table). You can play a round of Hold’em, followed by a round of Seven-Card Stud, a round of Omaha, and so on.
You get variety without changing tables, and you get to exercise different parts of your Poker brain. And player’s choice isn’t some online whim: You can play a mixed game at the World Series of Poker. H.O.R.S.E., which stands for Hold’em, Omaha, Razz (Seven-Card Stud, low hand wins), Seven- Card Stud, and Seven-Card Stud High/Low (E for eight-or-better), combines all the major Poker games.
The shift in rhythm can get to you, particularly if you’re tired, and you always have to avoid misreading your Omaha hand after you play rounds of Hold’em.