All About Real Money Texas Hold'em
No gambling game is more quintessentially American than real money Texas hold'em. The combination of skill, luck, boldness, and psychology make this game a perfect microcosm of capitalist culture. Free Texas hold'em games are available, too, but they don't make nearly as much sense as playing for real cash.
This page provides some recommendations about where to play for real money online, along with a tutorial for how to play and some strategy advice. It also includes sections about the different types of Texas hold'em you can play (yes, there are multiple variations), and the pros and cons of playing for real money.
How Texas Hold'em is Played
Texas hold'em is one of a family of card games that use "community cards". When you learned to play poker, you probably played five card draw at the kitchen table. In that game, and in stud games, you're dealt a hand, and that's the hand you play.
But in a community card poker game, you have some cards in your hand, and you share some cards with your opponents. The cards that are shared with the other players at the table are the eponymous "community cards".
In Texas hold'em, each player gets two cards in her hand (these are known as hole cards). Then there's a round of betting. Then three more cards are dealt in the middle of the table (the flop). These are the first community cards. After the flop is another round of betting, which is followed by another community card (the turn). After another round of betting, a final community card (the river) is dealt. Then there's a final betting round.
As in all poker games, players have the option of betting, checking, calling, folding, or raising during the betting rounds. If a player folds, she loses all claim to the pot at the showdown, but she also doesn't have to contribute any money to the pot.
At the showdown (after all the betting rounds), the player with the best five card hand—using any combination of community cards and cards in her hand—wins the pot. In the event of a tie, the pot is split between the winning players.
One of the other major differences between Texas hold'em and other poker games (besides the community cards) is the way forced bets are handled. In all poker games, some type of forced bet stimulates action. If everyone had the option of dropping out if they didn't like their hand, you wouldn't have a game, because everyone would just fold until they had a stellar starting hand.
In most poker games, these forced bets are made every single hand by every single player. This forced bet is called an ante.
But in Texas hold'em, the forced bet is placed in the form of a pair of rotating bets called "blinds". There's usually a small blind and a big blind. The size of the big blind is usually roughly twice the size of the small blind. The big blind is also usually roughly half the size of the maximum bet.
Finally, a note about betting limits. During the first two betting rounds (the hole cards and the flop), the bet size is half that of the bets in the next two betting rounds (the turn and the river). When people talk about a $2/$5 Texas hold'em game, they're talking about a game where the bets are made in increments of $2 during the first 2 rounds and $5 during the final 2 rounds.
Standard poker hand rankings are used to determine winners in Texas hold'em. You'll almost never see wild cards used in a Texas hold'em games, although in some wilder home poker games, wild cards aren't that uncommon.
Types of Texas Hold'em
Like most gambling games, you can subcategorize Texas hold'em games by type. The differences in gameplay are minor in the case of Texas hold'em, though. The first types to considered here are categorized according to bet sizes. These are as follows.
- Pot Limit
- No Limit
In a "limit" hold'em game, the betting limits are fixed during the rounds. In the earlier example, $2/$5 hold'em, you must make bets in increments of $2 and $5 depending on the round. You can't raise someone $100 on a hand, for example—you can only raise them $2 or $5.
This makes for a more predictable and mathematically "solvable" game. You have a good idea of how much money it will cost to continue in a hand, and you can compare the rough odds of winning with the odds being offered by the money in the pot to determine whether calling or folding is a profitable move.
In a "pot limit" hold'em game, the maximum bet is determined by the amount of money already in the pot. This changes the math of the game dramatically. For example, if you're betting into a pot with $20 in it, your maximum bet is $20.
In a "no limit" game, you can bet as much as you like as long as you have that many chips in front of you. This can lead to all kinds of different mathematical situations. For example, you might have $100 in chips, and there might only be $20 in the pot. If you bet $100 into a $20 pot, your chances of getting a lot of folds and winning the pot with no contest are excellent, but the payoff is relatively low.
Another wrinkle happens when an opponent doesn't have enough chips to cover your bet. No, they don't have to go take a mortgage out on their house in order to stay in the hand—they just create a side pot that consists of the amount of money that they can risk versus that amount from you. Any other bets on the table beyond that are unable to be won by the player with the "short stack".
The next types of Texas hold'em are categorized by playing style (for lack of a better word). These are as follows.
- Ring Games
Ring games are Texas hold'em games which are played on an endless cycle. You might have winners and losers rotating in and out of the game, and if players drift away, the game might end—but not because the game is won or lost. It just ends because of lack of interest.
In ring games, the limits stay the same throughout. Players who focus on limit game in ring format are often called "grinders". They know the math well enough to grind out a profit by exploiting small edges and folding a lot.
Tournaments, on the other hand, have winners and losers. You buy in for a certain amount, then you're given a stack of chips. Unlike in ring games, in which the chips have a set dollar value, the chips in a tournament are just a means of keeping up with how you're doing in the game. They have a variable value based on how many players are left, what the blinds are at this point in the tournament, and what the prize pool looks like.
The other difference between Texas hold'em tournaments and ring games is the changing size of the blinds. In order to force an eventual end to the game, the blinds and bet sizes go up at pre-determined intervals throughout the tournament. Sometimes this is based on an amount of time that's elapsed, but in online poker tournaments, it's also sometimes determined by the number of hands played at each level.
Eventually the blinds and bets get high enough that players are forced out because they can no longer realistically fold until they have a hand they like.
Multiple tournament formats exist, too. The World Series of Poker is an example of the most common live Texas hold'em poker tournament format. It's a multi-table tournament in which the players buy in for $10,000. They get their chips and play until they're eliminated or until they've won.
In online poker, another tournament format is hugely popular—it's called a "sit and go". These are often single table tournaments with relatively small buy-ins. They start as soon as the tournament fills up with players. (Traditional tournaments have a scheduled start time.)
The prize money in a poker tournament comes from the buy-ins. Most tournaments pay out for multiple places, but some tournaments are played in a "winner take all" format. In single table sit and go tournaments, it's common for the top 3 places (of 9 or 10 players) to pay out 50%, 30%, and 20% of the total prize pool. In multi table tournaments, the payouts are set by whomever is hosting the tournament.
Some players specialize in tournaments rather than ring games. Because of the prize structure and the variable value of the chips during the tournament, tournament strategy differs significantly from ring game strategy.
By varying the number of hole cards involved, you can create games which COULD be considered variations of Texas hold'em, but which are probably more properly defined as different poker games in their own right.
A prominent example is "Omaha", which isn't actually a variation of Texas hold'em at all, even though it's a "hold'em" game. In Omaha, each player gets four hole cards instead of two. The rest of the game plays the same, with one more exception—players have to use two (and exactly two) cards from their hand and three (and exactly three) cards from the board to create their final hands.
Omaha is also often played hi-lo style, which means that the qualifying low hand splits the pot with the winning hand. This changes strategy dramatically.
Pineapple hold'em is another variation. In Pineapple, players get three hole cards instead of two. It's played in one of two ways. In the first variation, players get to discard one of their three hole cards before the betting starts. That's the traditional way to play Pineapple hold'em.
A second variation, called "Crazy Pineapple", allows each player to keep their three cards until the turn. After betting on the flop, the players decide which of their three hole cards to discard.
A third variation, called "Lazy Pineapple", allows you to keep all three cards until after all the action is finished. This variation is also sometimes called "Tahoe Pineapple".
"Super hold'em" is a variation similar to Pineapple, but instead of having to throw away one of your three hole cards, you get to keep all of them and create a final hand using six cards.
"Double Flop hold'em" is another fun variant that's gaining popularity. Instead of a single flop being dealt, two flops are dealt. You get to choose which flop you're going to use to create your final hand.
Free Texas Hold'em VS Real Money Texas Hold'em
As kids, we used to play free poker all the time. Just playing for chips, or toothpicks, or matches, was our version of the "free money play" that's now so common on the Internet. Then, as now, playing free Texas hold'em is a great way to learn how the game works, when to act, and so forth.
Money isn't just the root of all evil. (That's a misquote, anyway, actually—it's "the love of money" that's the root of all evil.) Money is the root of Texas hold'em. Without money on the line, the game doesn't matter.
One of the best books about poker we've ever read was called Poker Night, and it was written by John Vorhaus. In it, he explains how to play various home poker games. But he has an interesting essay about deciding what stakes to play for. He explains a concept called the "gulp limit".
The theory is that poker only starts getting interesting when you play for stakes that actually matter to you. If you don't care about the money on the line because the amount is so low, you make different decisions than you would otherwise. And the other players make different kinds of decisions, too.
Vorhaus suggests that you play for enough money that if you were to lose your entire stack, you'd be forced to swallow hard, even though the amount of money shouldn't be enough to interfere with your ability to pay your rent or utilities. That's your gulp limit.
That's such a great concept that we've applied it to all kinds of gambling that we do. Gambling means risking something of value in exchange for the opportunity to win something of value. If a penny is meaningless to you, then playing penny ante poker is a waste of time. You might as well be spending your time playing solitaire or Minecraft.
Free Texas hold'em does offer one significant advantage over Texas hold'em played for real money. It's impossible to lose money when you're playing for free.
And, of course, if you live in most of the United States, online poker is (at best) a legally gray area. Almost all of the real money poker operators have left the United States market because of the government's actions against PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker. The cardrooms that still take action from U.S. players are smaller and don't offer a lot of action. Transferring money to and from these cardrooms is inconvenient and expensive at best, although for some hardcore rounders, it's worth it.
In a handful of states, like New Jersey and Delaware, online poker has been legalized, but it's heavily regulated, and you're only allowed to play with real money players who are physically located in the state. Again, this leaves you with a limited number of choices about where to get your real money poker action.
You can read more about the legal situation relating to online poker, and other forms of gambling, in our page explaining gambling laws in the United States.
For years, poker sites like PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker operated "free" versions of their sites at the .net version of their domains. That was just an attempt by their marketing departments to get players to their sites. A percentage of the players at these free games would eventually switch to the real money games.
The best bet for players who want to play Texas hold'em in the United States now is probably ClubWPT, which is only marginally free. It's a subscription based site where you pay a monthly subscription fee in order to play. Your chips aren't worth real money at this site—they're just a means of keeping up with how many points you've earned on the site.
We have at least one friend who used to play poker professionally who's active on this site. He loves it because the players are so terrible, and it's a great example of how the money flows to the skilled players.
Another option for free Texas hold'em in the United States is to find a bar that's hosting free Texas hold'em tournaments as part of the Amateur Poker League or some comparable organization. These game usually offer a nominal cash prize of $50 or something for their winners. They cost nothing to enter.
Surprisingly, you can find some excellent players at these free bar-hosted poker tournaments. At the same time, some of the other players are so awful that it's painful to watch them ever win a hand.
Our best advice regarding free Texas hold'em is to use it as a set of training wheels to get you used to the game and its action in order to prepare for your eventual real money career.
Online Poker Sites
Not everyone reading this page hails from the United States. That being the case, players from other countries have a lot of options when it comes to playing Texas hold'em for real cash on the Internet. We look at some of the better options for these players below.
This is still the largest poker site online, and if you're playing from a country other than the United States, that might be your best option. In terms of being able to find the most players online at any given time, no other site even comes close. You'll find anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 real money players in the cash games there at any given time. No other site even comes close.
888 is another option worth considering, although we're not crazy about their software intereface. At any given time, you'll find between 2000 and 3000 real money players online, which makes the site only about 1/10 as active as PokerStars. In other words, 888Poker is in a distant 2nd place.
Best known as a sports betting site, Bodog is actually a full service gambling site which also offers poker and casino games. They're surprisingly popular, and they have similar traffic numbers to 888Poker.
Party Poker used to be the 800 pound gorilla in the online poker industry, but PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker stayed in the United States market long enough to earn enough money to gain an almost permanent competitive advantage. Still, even though Party Poker is only a shadow of its former self, it's one of the biggest poker sites in the world. Depending on what time you're playing, you'll find similar traffic on Party Poker that you'll find on 888, iPoker, and Bodog.
United States players have fewer options, but here is some information about sites that still accept real money players from this region.
This used to be known as the Yatahay Network. True Poker is probably the most famous brand name associated with the Winning Poker Network. You'll only find about half as much traffic on this network as you will on the other 2nd tier sites above, but that still makes it one of the largest Texas hold'em venues online that accepts real money from the United States.
This network also accepts real money players from the United States. They've changed their name multiple times in recent years—they used to be called the "Action Poker Network", and before that, they were known as "Tiger Gaming". They have roughly 2/3 the amount of traffic as the Winning Poker Network.
This is a third option for real money players from the United States. They have slightly less traffic than the other two sites listed here that accept United States play, but they're quite popular. CarbonPoker is probably the best known site from this network.
An Introduction to Hold'em Strategy
If you're going to play Texas hold'em for real money, you should (at the very least) learn enough about the strategy behind the game to break even. That's not as easy as you might think, either, because of something called "the rake".
Poker rooms, online and off, make their money by taking a percentage (usually about 5%) of each pot over a certain amount. That amount is called "the rake", and it pays for the dealers and other associated costs of running a poker room.
Look at it this way—if you're playing poker with 10 players who are all equally as skilled as you are, then over time, you'd expect to be able to break even. You'd win as many pots of roughly the same size as the other players—at least in the long run.
But if 5% of those pots is being taken by the host, you're going to lose 5% of your money over and over again in the long run.
What's the bottom line?
You have to be a little bit better than the other players just to break even, because you have to win 5% more money just in order to break even.
The first strategic consideration that most players take into account when playing Texas hold'em is how to decide whether or not to even get into a hand in the first place. You might think that the first two cards are a minor consideration when compared with the five cards yet to be dealt, but that's not the case at all.
Think about it as if you were racing horses. If you only bet on horses which had a head start, you'd be betting at a huge advantage over the other bettors, wouldn't you?
If you take the same attitude toward your starting hands in Texas hold'em, you'll see similar results. You want to get your money into the pot when you have an edge over your opponents.
You'll find multiple ways of thinking about starting hands in Texas hold'em, but one of the easiest is to think of them in terms of what kinds of hands are playable. As a general rule, the following types of hands are the only playable starting hands in Texas hold'em.
Pairs are often worth playing. The higher the rank of the pair, the more playable the hand. Aces and kings, for example, are always worth playing preflop. Middle sized pairs, like 10s, Js, and Qs are often playable, too, but those aces and kings are still out there somewhere. Lower pairs, 9s and lower, are more speculative hands, and you're hoping to hit three of a kind on the flop in order to continue with that kind of hand.
These are also playable. These are cards which have the potential to make both a flush and/or a straight if the right cards come out on the board. Don't underestimate the importance of these cards being suited. A jack and a ten that aren't suited might barely be playable, but if they're suited, they're almost certainly playable because of the flush potential.
Another concept to get familiar with are gaps in your connectivity. A 7 and a 9 of the same suit might still be playable in some circumstances, even though there's a gap (the 8) between the two cards.
The really high-ranked suited connectors, like AK suited and AQ suited, are often more playable than some smaller pairs because of the multiple number of ways you can wind up with a good hand.
This means you have an ace or a king with a smaller card of the same suit. If you get hand like this, you're hoping to hit a flush really fast, preferably on the flop.
Even though these don't really fit into any of the other categories just mentioned, these are still playable hands.
The other consideration when deciding on a starting hand is what position you act in. If you're relatively late to act, you have more information about what the opponents might be holding.
Here's an example.
You're dealt an ace and a 2 of spades. You're the first person to act. You bet. The player behinds you raises, the player behind her raises too, and the fourth player to act ALSO raises.
One of those three players almost certainly has a better hand than you in this situation, so your best course of action in this situation is probably to fold. But had you folded because you were out of position, you could have saved yourself a bet.
On the other hand, if you had that same hand and were the last person to act, and four other players limped in on this hand, you'd have great pot odds to call. If two or three of those players had raised, you'd be confident that your hand wasn't good enough, and you could fold with confidence.
And when you do limp in that situation, you have the opportunity to hit your hand. But since you're last to act, you also get to see whether or not the players before you seem strong. If they miss the flop, they might check it to you, in which case you might be able to pick up the pot even if you didn't hit the flop by just making another bet.
Position is an important consideration in all the rounds of play, but especially preflop. The later you act, the better your hand is. The earlier you act, the worse your hand is.
You should probably only be playing the best 15% to 20% of the hands you get preflop.
Beginners should follow an old-time Texas hold'em poker maxim:
"Fit or fold."
That means if the flop doesn't fit your hole cards, you should fold rather than continue to put money into the pot.
What do we mean when we say "fit"?
We mean that the flop improves your hand.
Here's a couple of examples.
You have a pair of 7s preflop. The flop comes A72. That fits your hand, because you now have three of a kind. You might get beat by someone who has pocket aces, but chances are, if someone had pocket aces, they would have raised preflop, and you would have folded. So you're good to play this hand aggressively at this point.
You have a pair of 7s preflop. The flop comes 10,9,4, and they're all hearts. You missed the flop. Two of the cards on the flop are higher than your 7s, so if any of your opponents had a 9 or 10 in the hole, they have you beat. And to top that off, if any of your opponents has even one heart in the hole, they have a really good shot at hitting a flush on the turn or the river—if they don't already have a flush. Folding here is probably the only move that makes sense.
You can think about your playing style in a couple of ways. One of these is how selective you are about which hands you play. The other is how often you bet or raise as opposed to checking or calling.
The first of these is a measure of how tight or loose you are. Tight players stick to good hands and fold a lot. Loose players play a lot of hands and seldom fold. In general, it's better to be a tight player than a loose player.
The second of these is a measure of how aggressive you are. Players who bet and raise a lot are considered aggressive. Players who check and call a lot are considered passive. In general, it's better to be aggressive than passive.
The best of all possible combinations of these traits is "tight aggressive". You don't play a lot of hands, but when you do, you put pressure on your opponents by betting and raising against them. They have to decide whether or not to keep playing, so you'll pick up some pots just because they fold in the face of your aggression. And when they do call your bets and raises, you'll often have the cards to beat them.
Loose aggressive players often do well, too, especially in pot limit and no limit games. They constantly put pressure on their opponents to fold. The small pots they pick up over and over again help them to pay for the times when they get beat. Loose aggressive players are often called maniacs.
A tight passive player is called a rock. He loses his money, but he loses it slowly. He also rarely gets action when he does bet or raise, because the other players recognize that if he's betting or raising, he must have the nuts.
Loose passive players are the best players to face, because they put a lot of money in the pot and seldom have the cards to win. These players are called calling stations. Whatever you do, don't be a calling station.
Many players can improve their play by focusing on becoming more tight aggressive. It's a simple approach. Just start folding more often, and when you are in a hand, raise or bet. In fact, if you want to be a tight aggressive player, remember the following maxim:
"If it's not good enough to raise with, it's not good enough to call with, either."
That alone will improve your game dramatically.
Most beginner Texas hold'em players overestimate the importance of bluffing dramatically. The reality is that many winning players, especially at the lower stakes, rarely (if ever) bluff.
One of the most important considerations when deciding whether or not to bluff is how many opponents you're facing. If a lot of players are in the hand, you have to successfully bluff all of them. Most of the time, if you're facing three or more opponents, you shouldn't bluff.
The other consideration is the playing tendency of your opponent. You should have a general idea of how often your opponent will fold to your bluff, which means paying attention to the other players' styles. A calling station might be impossible to bluff.
Semi-bluffing is almost always a better choice than bluffing. A semi-bluff is when you bet or raise with a hand that's probably second-best, but also a hand that has a chance at improving.
Here's an example of a semi-bluff.
You have a pair of 2s in the hole, the 2 of spades and the 2 of hearts. The flop comes AQ7 of hearts. You're probably beat on the flop, but you have 2 cards to come.
Your opponent is likely to have a pair of aces or queens at this point. But it's a scary board, because he might think you hit your flush right out of the gate. Even though he probably has a better hand than you do, you might be able to win it by betting into him here. And even if he calls, you still have a shot of hitting a 2 or another heart on the turn and/or the river, in which case you might be able to beat his pair of aces or queens.
You get a chance of winning the pot if your opponent folds. But you also get a chance of winning the pot if you hit your hand. This is a much better situation than just hoping your opponent will fold.
Of course, entire books have been written about Texas hold'em strategy. It's a nuanced gamed with lots of considerations. Being good enough to break even is relatively easy, especially at the lower stakes.
Texas hold'em for real money is the most American of all gambling games. How ironic it is that most Americans are unable to play for real money on the Internet then. The political climate in the United States is changing all the time, though, so it's possible that legal hold'em might become a possibility in the near future.
Free Texas hold'em games are available, but we suggest that the best use of these is as a way to learn how the game works. You should move on to real money games as soon as you're comfortable doing so, even if it means playing in live, low-stakes games. Bar poker sponsored by groups like the Amateur Poker League are also a lot of fun.
Texas hold'em is even more fun when you know how to play well enough to break even or profit. Some basic strategic considerations can turn you into a small net winner. But to become skilled enough to play professionally takes a considerable amount of effort and learning.
It's worth the effort, though.
Author: Brad Johnson
Updated: February 2016