Learn to play poker

If ever a gambling game can truly be called "All-American" -- despite origins in Europe -- it is poker. From the Mississippi riverboats to the casinos of today, what started as a simple five-card game evolved into many variations, including seven-card stud, Texas Hold'em, Omaha, lowball, and a variety of related games (including high-low split versions of each) that have been altered to suit the tastes of the players.

Poker is an easy game to play, but a difficult one to master. You can't hurt your bankroll too much in low-limit games ($1-2, $1-3, for example) if you have just basic knowledge, but without practice and application of correct strategy, you can't ever hope to win. (You'll find more information about the requisite skills in Texas Hold'em, Stud, Omaha High and Omaha High-Low split poker, the four most popular casino poker games.)

Not every casino has a poker room. The game is space and employee intensive and casinos can make more money per square inch with slot machines than with poker. If the resort you're visiting doesn't offer it, try the one next door.

Know The Don'ts

Keep in mind that if you've played poker at home or in your club, or any place other than a public card room, you can transfer only a wee bit of that experience to the casino. The game doesn't resemble what you see in most movies -- and it's definitely not like the TV commercial that shows a cowpoke betting the deed to his ramshackle home, only to see it being pulled away by a pickup truck


Stu Unger holds the 5 high straight to win the 1997 World Series of Poker at Binion s Horseshoe. This was Unger's 3rd title.

 

  • Don't expect to play with all manner of wild cards. No Christmas tree, big elbows, zigzags, criss-cross, not even dealer's choice ( although some cardrooms do let you play dealer's choice, they limit the versions of poker you can play to the common casino poker games.) No deuces wild, no one-eyed jacks count as anything but the symbol on the card. Expect nothing fancy at all, just basic poker at different betting limits.

     

  • Don't expect to have Aunt Martha to bring you sandwiches (few rooms allow you to eat at the table.) Expect a cocktail waitress, usually in a skimpy dress, to offer free drinks (for which you should tip her). If you do get a drink, don't set it on the green felt where it can easily spill (use the plastic holders provided by the casino.)

     

  • Don't expect to shuffle, cut or deal the cards. The house provides a professional dealer to handle that (it's customary to tip the dealer when you win a pot.) In fact, the only time you should touch the cards is to look at your hole cards. DON'T take them off the table.

     

  • Don't expect to play for free. This is Las Vegas, after all, and somebody has to help pay for the chandeliers and the people who dust them. The house will take a "fee" (called the rake) from every pot. There's a house maximum, depending on the limits you're playing.

     

  • Don't expect a party atmosphere. Most people who play casino poker are very serious. You might get some joking and laughing from time to time, but generally, you'll get very little conversation at all.

     

  • Don't manhandle the cards. Squeeze them if you like, but bending, throwing or scraping them with nail polish are all forbidden. Count on a gentle warning for a first offense, but a possible barring for a subsequent one.

     

  • Don't expect to be facing all amateurs and tourists like yourself. Las Vegas is loaded with regular poker players ­ from "kids" to "cronies." Some of them are shrewd enough to hide in their solitude and silence, then pounce when they have a killer hand. Others will play only the very best cards (they're called "rocks.")

    Then again, you might come up against two of these nasty characters who, recognizing the rube in you, will gang up on you. It's rare, but it does happen. You're sitting between them. One of them bets, you call, and the second one raises. The first one might reraise to hurry you out of the pot immediately, or might just call in hopes that you'll stay in for one more round at least.

    Eventually, they might try raising you out completely. Or one of them might say something like, "You guys better have a pretty high flush to beat my powerhouse," implying that he has a full house. Don't believe him.

    This is one of the few "cheating" moves you're likely to encounter in a Las Vegas card room. If you suspect it's happening, leave the game, report it to the floorman, but by no means should you contribute another chip to the table.