Whenever I write about poker, there will inevitably be a comment or two by someone to the effect of “Wha? I didn’t understand a word of that.” This is because poker, like most activities, has developed a lingo all its own that is foreign to someone who hasn’t played the game, or who has played it only casually. So I thought I’d take the time to explain what some of those terms mean.
Let me start by explaining the game I play, Texas hold ’em. This is a seven card game, but five of those are community cards — meaning they’re in everyone’s hand. Each player is dealt two cards that only they can see (this is often referred to as the pocket), then five cards are dealt face up in the middle of the table and each player then uses those cards and those in his hand to make the best five-card poker hand. But the community cards are dealt in a particular order. The first three cards are turned up all at once; this is called the flop. The fourth card is turned up by itself; this is called the turn card (or sometimes fourth street). Then finally the fifth card is turned up; this is called the river card (or sometimes fifth street).
Between each of these is a round of betting, but let me first explain the blinds. If there is a dealer at the table, the order in which he deals the cards rotates clockwise by placing a button in front of one of the players. The player to the immediate left of the button is in the small blind; the player to his left is the big blind. That means they have to put money into the pot before the cards are dealt. In a $1/$2 no limit hold em game, for instance, the player in the small blind would have to put $1 into the pot and the player in the big blind would have to put $2 into the pot, before the cards are dealt.
So once the cards are dealt, there’s a round of betting and it begins with the player to the immediate left of the big blind; that position is called being under the gun. He can fold his hand (sometimes called mucking), he can call the $2 bet or he can raise (and in a no limit game, he can raise as much as he has in front of him in chips, but the raise has to be at least twice what the last bet was, so $4 would be the minimum he could raise). The players then act in clockwise order, with each one facing the same choice of folding, calling or raising the last bet that was made. Once it gets around to the player in the small blind, he has the same choices, then the big blind goes last in the first round of betting. On all subsequent rounds, the betting starts with the small blind and ends with the player on the button. That’s why having the button is a very strong position in each hand, because you get to go last on the last three rounds of betting, so you get to see what every other player does before you have to make a decision.
After that first round of betting, the dealer turns up the flop and there’s another round of betting. Then the dealer puts up the turn card and there’s a round of betting. Then the dealer puts up the river card and there’s a final round of betting before the pocket cards of the remaining players (if there is more than one) are turned up and the player with the best hand wins the pot. In a typical hand at a table with 8-10 players, only two or three of them will usually stay in to see the flop. That’s because there will usually be at least one raise on the first round of betting and those with weaker hands will likely fold because they know their chances of winning are slim.
So what are the best pocket cards to start with? The best hand pre-flop is, obviously, a pair of aces. Any paired hand is good and the higher it is, the stronger it is. Someone with pocket 9s or better is probably going to raise before the flop, as will those with hands like AK (that is, an ace and a king), AQ, AJ, KQ and other strong hands. If your two cards are of the same suit, or suited, they are a little bit stronger than an unsuited hand because it makes you a bit more likely to hit a flush; if they are connected — that is, if they are sequential, like 89 or JQ — then your hand is a bit stronger because it increases your chances of getting a straight.
So let me walk through a hand I posted the other day about the World Series of Poker final table and explain what the terminology I used means in that context:
Merson had about $116 million and Sylvia had $42 million. Sylvia raises to $2 million on the button, Merson three bets to $4.8 million, Sylvia four bets to $10.2 million. Merson goes into the tank for a minute, then moves all-in and Sylvia insta-calls him. Sylvia turns over AK and Merson has KK, so he’s a huge favorite to win the hand, knock Sylvia out and go to heads up with a 4-1 chip advantage over Balsiger. The flop comes 3-5-2, rainbow. A brick 8 hits the turn and then a magic 4 comes down on the river to give Sylvia a wheel.
Now keep in mind that there were only three players left at this point. Balsiger was in the small blind (I think it was $400,000 at that point), Merson was in the big blind ($800,000, twice the small blind) and Sylvia was on the button, so he was in the strongest position. Sylvia raises to $2 million before the flop; Balsiger folded his small blind and Merson re-raises to $4.8 million (this is called three-betting — putting in the third bet, after the big blind and the initial raise). Sylvia than re-raises, or four bets to $10.2 million. Merson then goes into the tank, which means he takes a long time to make a decision, before going all in — betting all the money he has in front of him. Sylvia then calls immediately, without taking much time to think about it, which is often referred to as “insta-calling.”
But also keep in mind that Merson had more money than Sylvia. A lot more. So Merson wasn’t really all in; He had $116 million, so even if he lost the hand, he would only have to put as much money as Sylvia had in front of him into the pot, about $42 million. Sylvia, though, was truly all in; if he loses the hand, he’s out of the tournament. When they turn their cards over, Merson has KK and Sylvia has AK. These are both very strong hands, but Merson’s is a lot better — in fact, Sylvia’s hand is dominated, meaning one of his cards is essentially worthless. The only card on the board that could realistically help Sylvia is an ace because if he hits his king, Merson would have three of a kind. So before the flop, he has three outs, meaning cards that will make his hand better than his opponent’s hand. Since there are 52 cards in the deck, each specific card has about a 2% chance of turning up and he has three outs, so that’s a 6% chance of getting the card he needs. But there are five cards being flipped up, so that’s five chances to get the card he needs. Five chances at 6% probability on each trial = a 30% chance of winning the hand (this is an approximation and it only applies before the flop because, as we’ll see, there are other possible ways for him to win the hand).
So the flop comes 3-5-2 rainbow, meaning each one of those cards is of a different suit. And this changes the odds completely. Ordinarily, not getting the ace on the flop would reduce Sylvia’s chances of winning the hand from 30% to 12%, because now he would only have two more opportunities to get an ace (and each opportunity, as noted above, is worth 6%). But with that flop, Sylvia picked up an inside straight draw — if he gets a 4, he would have a straight of A2345, which would beat Merson’s pair of kings. That’s the lowest possible straight in poker and and it is referred to as the wheel. So at this point, we would say that Sylvia has a wheel draw.
So after the flop, Sylvia now has seven outs instead of three — the three aces left in the deck and the four 4s. Each out being worth 2%, that’s a 14% chance — but there are still two cards to come, so double that and he has a 28% chance of winning. He’s basically back where he started before the flop, his odds having only dropped from 30% to 28%. The turn card is an 8, which would be called a brick — that is, a card that doesn’t help either player and is essentially irrelevant. So now, with only one card remaining, Sylvia is down to a 14% chance of winning. He still needs either an ace or a 4 on the river to win the hand and stay alive. And sure enough, the 4 comes up and Sylvia wins the hand with a 5-high straight, or a wheel. And that’s what we call a bad beat because Merson was a 7/1 favorite to win the hand before that last card. We would also call that a suck out, meaning the player was way behind in the hand and hit a very unlikely card to win.
There are some other terms you’ll hear a lot in poker as well, so let me just list them:
Donkey: A really bad player, as in, That guy is the biggest donkey I’ve ever seen.
Nit: A player who agonizes over every decision, even if it involves a very small amount of money.
Tight: A player who plays very conservatively, not taking big risks and rarely putting money into the pot without a very strong hand.
Loose: A player who plays a lot of hands, many of which are not very strong, and takes big risks with his money.
Aggressive and passive: These are often used in conjunction with tight and loose, but they don’t mean the same thing. An aggressive player is one who raises a lot rather than merely calling a bet; a passive player is one who usually calls rather than raising, even with a strong hand. A player who is tight aggressive is one who doesn’t play many hands, only playing when he starts with very strong pocket cards, but raises when they do come into a pot. A player who is tight passive is one who doesn’t play many hands but, when he does get good cards, typically only calls with them instead of raising. A player who is loose aggressive is one who plays a lot of hands and raises often with them, whether their hands are strong or not (that is, a player who bluffs a lot). A player who is loose passive is one who plays a lot of hands, but usually just calls with them and doesn’t raise, even if their hand is strong.
Cooler: When two very strong hands go against one another or when a very unlikely card hits to make someone with a very strong hand lose. This is often also an example of a suck out and a bad beat.
Spike: A very unlikely card. If one player has AA and another has KK and a K comes on the flop, we could call that spiking a king. That situation would also be considered a suck out, a bad beat and a cooler (some of these terms are used interchangeably). In the hand discussed above, we would say that Sylvia spiked a four on the river.
Reading a player: This means trying to figure out what your opponent has in his hand, also called putting them on a hand.
Backdoor and Runner runner. This means a hand you can hit after the flop, but only if you get exactly the right card on the turn and the river. Let’s say you have two clubs in your hand and the flop comes with one club. We could call that a backdoor flush draw and say that you have to “go runner runner” to hit the flush.
Open-ended: This is when the cards in your hand and the cards on the flop give you four cards in sequence. Let’s say you have a 79 in your hand and the flop comes 10-8-2. You would then have a 7-8-9-10 and would need either a 6 or a jack to make the straight.
Inside: This is when the cards in your hand and the cards on the flop give you four cards to a straight, but not in sequence. So let’s say you had that same 79 in your hand but the flop came 5-8-2. You’d have 5-7-8-9 and would need the 6 to make a straight; that’s called an inside straight draw.
Double bellybuster: When you have four cards to a straight that are not in sequence, but you could make two different straights. So you start with that same 7-9 in your hand and the flop comes 3-5-6. A 4 would give you a 7 high straight and an 8 would give you a 9 high straight. In terms of the number of outs you have, it would be the same as an open-ended straight.
Broadway: An ace high straight (10-J-Q-K-A).
Calling station: A player who rarely raises and rarely folds, even when they should know they’re beaten. This player would also be considered loose passive, and it’s really the best kind of player to have at the table because they pay you off when you have really good hands and they rarely maximize their winnings when they hit one themselves (unless there’s a whole bunch of calling stations at the table, which can be very frustrating because if you have 5 or 6 players all trying to hit a draw, the chances that one of them will hit it goes up significantly).
Clock: when a player takes a very long time to make a decision, another player at the table can call a clock, which means the player would then have one minute to make up their minds or their hand is folded. If a player has a big decision to make — one with a lot of money at stake — the other players will generally give them all the time they need before calling a clock, unless it’s just a ridiculous amount of time.
Position: As I explained above, the player on the button has a big advantage in every hand and we would then say he has position. But you don’t necessarily have to be on the button to have position. If you act after another player, you have position on them. You have the advantage because they have to act first and that gives you information that helps you put them on a hand.
Tells: There are a lot of oversimplifications out there about tells, and a lot of myths. It’s rarely as easy as the movies make it seem, like if you see someone take a deep breath you know for sure they’re bluffing. Yes, there are physical tells in poker — movements, gestures and such — that can give you some indication of whether a player is nervous or relaxed, confident or uncertain, an so forth. That’s why when you watch poker on TV, you usually see players who try to remain motionless before and after their bet, to give away as little information as possible. That’s why you see some players wear sunglasses, because pupil dilation is a sign of excitement (though I think this is mostly useless; it’s pretty hard to see when someone’s pupils dilate, even from a couple feet away).
You’ll notice that when Phil Hellmuth is in a hand, he has sunglasses on and he balls his hands up and puts them over his mouth, so his arms are hiding his neck and throat, and remains absolutely motionless. That is designed to prevent the other players from getting any information — you can’t see an elevated heart rate by looking at his carotid artery, you can’t see if he swallows hard by his Adam’s apple moving, and so forth. He doesn’t smile, he doesn’t laugh, he doesn’t respond if you ask him a question (it’s routine to ask someone a question when you’re trying to get a read on him, like asking how many chips he has left, in order to get him to speak; they don’t have to answer, the dealer will count the chips and answer for them).
This is all part of reading a player, or trying to put them on a hand. But it goes far beyond just trying to see if they’re nervous or confident. A lot of tells are based not on physical clues but on betting patterns. If a player always raises when they’re on the button, then you can assume they have a much bigger range of hands to play when they’re in that position because it’s highly unlikely that they’re just getting good cards every time they’re on the button. More likely they’re often raising with weak hands in that position because they know they have the advantage after the flop. When a tight player raises, you’re more likely to believe they have a strong hand; when a loose player raises, you know that he might be either strong or weak.
What you’re really doing when you look for tells is looking for a change in the patterns of a player’s behavior. If a player usually leans back in his chair and is talkative and then, suddenly, he’s sitting straight up and leaning into the table, and not talking, something happened to make him change his behavior — and you have to figure out what it is. If he usually takes 10 or 15 seconds to make his decision but in this hand he suddenly puts in a raise very quickly, is that because he’s got a really good hand and is confident in it? Or is it because he’s trying to make you think he has a really good hand so you’ll fold? These are not absolute predictions, they’re based on probabilities and careful observation.
Some players are very easy to read, others are not. Most players never get beyond the most basic level of deception — if they’ve got a weak hand they act strong and if they have a strong hand, they act weak. And some players are better than others at reading people, which is also useful information to a good player. I’ll give you a great example from a few weeks ago. I’m playing in a no limit hold em cash game with a guy who is extremely loose aggressive, the kind of guy we refer to as a maniac. He’ll play any cards in any position for any amount of money, with no regard for what the other players might have and no consideration of what his odds are of winning the hand.
I’ve got position on him, so he has to act first. I’m dealt pocket kings. He raises pre-flop in front of me, I reraise him (knowing he’ll call anything). The flop comes K-10-2, so I’ve flopped top set (three of a kind with the highest card on the board). Despite the fact that I raised him preflop, he bets into me (most players would check there), and I raise him again because I know that no matter what he has, he’s unlikely to fold. The turn card is another 10, which is absolutely perfect for me because it gives me a full house, a virtually unbeatable hand in that situation. He bets into me again, at which point I decide to do a little hollywooding — that is, a rather dramatic acting job. “Goddammit. Did you just hit your set of 10s on me?” I said. I wanted him to think that I had something like AK. I think about it for a minute, acting like I was really agonizing over the decision before I called his bet. We call this a crying call. I’m trying to induce him to bet again on the river, of course, and he does exactly that. I move all in after that and he calls me and I get all his chips.
Now while this was going on, a couple of the other players at the table are practically biting their lips to keep from laughing out loud because they know exactly what I had and what I was doing. When he called my all in, one of the guys at the other end of the table says loudly, before I turned up my hand, “Ed has to have pocket kings.” They all could read me because I’d made it so obvious through my dramatic fake tells. And I would never have done that if I was up against the guy who said that because I know he would see through it. But my opponent in that hand is just a completely clueless player and I knew it would work on him. So understanding how well another player can read you is a big help in knowing how to get the most money out of them.
And by the way, it could also work the other way. If I was in a hand with the player who called my hand and knew what I had, I could also use that as an opportunity to make a similar move against him when I’m bluffing. He is likely to think I was slowplaying a really big hand if he sees me doing that again. On the other hand, he might also think, “He’s making it look obvious that he slowplayed a huge hand here” and interpret that as a bluff. On the third hand, I might be able to use that to my advantage and know that he would think that and therefore do it that way to make him think I’m bluffing when I’m not. This is what makes poker so much fun, it’s all about psychology.
Really bad players only think “What do I have in my hand?” Better players think “What do I have in my hand and what does my opponent have?” Good players think “What do I have, what does my opponent have and what does my opponent think I have?” Great players think “What do I have, what does my opponent have, what does he think I have, and how can I make him think I have something different than I do?” It’s a big psychological chess game.
Anyway, I hope the three people that bothered to read this got something out of it.