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The Rules of Neighborhood Poker According to Hoyle
By Stewart Wolpin
New Chapter PressCopyright © 1990 Stewart Wolpin
All rights reserved.
The Poker Primer
A is for Ace, which can be high or low;
B is for Bet, which makes the pot grow;
C is for Cards, which you must choose.
D is for Dollars, which you will lose.
In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the opening vignette featured a poker game. The deal came to Lt. Commander Data — the android (I told you anyone could learn poker). He shuffled the cards, then calmly declared: "Seven-card stud. After the first Queen, one-eyed Jacks and low hole wild." Gordy, the blind engineer, muttered, "Let me write this down so I can remember it."
Don't worry about Data's blathering. The point is that his instructions represented dealer's choice in all its wonder. The dealer decides what game he wants to deal, and everyone must play, no matter how silly the game may sound. The game continually changes from hand to hand as the deal moves clockwise around the table, the play controlled by the whim of the new dealer.
But the poker basics — the rules of how games are dealt, what hands beat what hands, poker according to Hoyle, Scarne, or whomever — don't change, even unto the 24th century. You won't find five-card draw in New York that different from five-card draw in Portland, Oregon — or Portland, Maine, for that matter.
To begin: A is for Ace-high, which means you don't have a pair or higher and the best card in your hand is an Ace. If no one else has a pair or higher, Ace-high is the best hand and will win the pot. If no one has an Ace, then King-high will win, and so on through Queen-high, Jack-high, etc. If you and someone else both have Aces, you compare the next highest cards. If you're still tied, compare the third highest cards, and so on. If you're tied after the fifth card, call Guinness.
A complete hand is always composed of five cards-just like the five fingers on your flesh-and-blood hand. Here is the sequence of winning hands, in ascending order:
High card, or Ace-high
Three of a kind
Four of a kind
Five of a kind (in a wild card game)
Even non-poker players have a passing familiarity with this list. Card makers, such as Hoyle, include it with every pack of cards. It's part of the three Rs of poker — Reading the cards, Raising the bet, and Raking in the chips. You can't spell "winnings" without it.
People, however, make the mistake of believing that knowing this list means they know how to play poker. This is like saying that if you can count from one to ten, you can do calculus. Test anyone who evinces interest in playing in your neighborhood game. If he answers your "Do you know how to play?" query with a scholarly recitation of this list, politely tell him that there's no room at the table (unless you really don't like the guy and you can think of no better pastime than to see him shovel cash from his wallet to yours).
Since this list is the ABCs of poker, allow me to explain each hand. You may want to clip this list and keep it handy at your next game. It may not be necessary, but, as my grandmother used to say, it couldn't hurt. Even simple things can be forgotten after enough Wild Turkey.
Ace-high is a hand with five mismatched cards, the highest of which is an Ace. Ace-high beats a hand in which the best card is a mere King.
A pair is a hand in which two cards are of the same denomination — two 7s or two Kings, for example. The other three cards are mismatched. If someone else has an identical pair — say you both have a pair of 7s — the winning hand is determined by the next highest card in your hand, the "kicker." If an Ace is one of your three extra cards, and the other fellow only has a King as a kicker, you win.
Two pair is two sets of pairs — a pair of 7s and a pair of Jacks, for instance — and the fifth card is the kicker. When you announce your hand, say "I have two pair, Jacks over," meaning that the Jacks are your highest pair. The highest of the two pair determines the winner of a hand. If someone else has two pair, Queens over, you lose. If you both have Jacks over, the player with the highest second pair wins. If you have two identical pairs, the player with the highest kicker wins. If you're still tied, call Ripley's (you already called Guinness).
Three of a kind is a hand with three cards of the same denomination, such as three 7s, with two unmatched cards. If two players have the same three of a kind, don't call anyone. You're playing with a Pinochle deck.
A straight is five cards in numerical sequence, regardless of suit, such as:
As you can see, the cards are not the same suit. In a straight, it's the numbers only that count. A straight can start with an Ace — A-2-3-4-5 — which is called a "small" straight, or end with an Ace — 10-J-Q-K-A — which is called a "high" straight (not a "big" straight; no one said poker was logical).
A flush is five cards, all of the same suit — five hearts, five diamonds, five clubs, five spades — in no particular numerical sequence, such as 2-6-9-J-A of hearts. If two players have flushes, the one with the highest cards is the winner. For instance, if you have an Ace, you have an Ace-high flush and will beat a King-high flush. If both players have Aces, then the next highest card determines the winner. Holding a flush and losing to another flush isn't cause for calling Ripley or Guinness. Just hope your host has removed all the breakables.
A full house, also known as a "boat" for reasons I've yet to discover, is a hand with both a pair and three of a kind — for instance, three 7s and a pair of 2s. When declaring your hand, you say, "I've got a boat, 7s over," indicating that the three of a kind, the dominant set, is the 7s. You could be beaten by a full house with three 8s or any set of three cards higher than 7s. The pair is never a determining factor unless you are playing with wild cards that make identical sets of three of a kind possible.
Four of a kind is a hand in which you've been lucky enough to collect all four cards of one denomination — all four 7s, for example. Two players can hold identical four of a kinds only in a wild-card game.
A straight flush is a straight made up of cards of a single suit — 4-5-6-7-8 of hearts, for instance. A royal flush is a "high" straight flush with an Ace: A-K-Q-J-10. In a hand played without wild cards, a straight flush is the highest hand possible and the royal flush is the highest straight flush and a sure winner. I've never seen a natural royal flush, but then I've only been playing poker for 20 years.
Five of a kind can be achieved only in a wild-card game. There are only four suits and, therefore, only four cards of each numerical value — four 7s, for example, or four Queens. You can get five of a kind only if you have wild cards in addition to your "natural," or non-wild, cards. To get five 7s in a game in which the dealer has declared deuces wild, you'd need: four 7s and one deuce, three 7s and two deuces, two 7s and three deuces, or one 7 and four deuces. Five of a kind is a great hand to be holding and a lousy hand to lose to, especially if you've been betting heavily and smugly on a straight flush.
I've had five of a kind. More often — twice in one month, in fact — I've had wild card royal flushes, only to lose to five of a kind. I was betting heavily and smugly. They're using my screams in the next Nightmare on Elm Street.
TWO'S COMPANY, TEN'S A CROWD
Neighborhood poker is best when played with five to seven players. The more cards used in a game, the better the hands tend to get since more cards in the deck will be in play. With four hands, you may use only half the cards in the deck, so the best cards may not even make it into someone's hand. If you play with only four players, a pair may end up winning all the time, and that's not exactly exciting. No one is going to do much betting with only a pair. Poker is exciting when a full house beats a flush and the winner rakes in fifty chips and some loose bills, not when a pair of Queens beats a pair of 10s and the winner scrapes in ten chips.
Six is the best number of players because you can play any poker game invented, and you can all fit around a medium-size table without being able to smell your neighbor's nervous sweat. If you have more than six players, it's tough to play five-card draw, one of the most popular poker games. In five-card draw, each player can replace up to three of his five cards with three new cards. That means each player can get up to eight cards. Multiplied by seven players, that's 56 cards. There are only 52 cards in a deck. Even with two Jokers in play, which I hate, there are still not enough cards to go around.
Okay, you have seven players and you can get along fine without five-card draw. Seven players can still fit, if a little tigher — and smellier — around the table. But with more than seven players, its tough to play the most common poker game — seven-card stud. If each of eight players gets the maximum seven cards, that's also 56 cards. Plus, with eight players, that table is getting crowded.
So, if you have fewer than five players, play Black Jack or Rummy. If you have more than seven, play a lot of six-card stud and wear nose-plugs.CHAPTER 2
What You Play For
Ravelli: "Whadoyoo play for?"
Mrs. Rittenhouse: "Oh, we just play for small stakes."
Ravelli: 'And trench fried potatoes?"
The Marx Brothers, 1930
It's very messy to play poker for french fried potatoes. The ketchup tends to make the cards sticky, for one thing. But identifying the stakes — how much money you'll be playing for — is the first question you'll ask when considering a new game or satisfying a poker curiosity-seeker about your own game. Stakes describe the level of game you play — how serious the game is. The higher the stakes, the more serious the game. We play for small stakes (without the french fried potatoes) because we don't like to be too serious. (In fact, now that I think of it, maybe it would be more fun to play for french fried potatoes. But I digress.)
The stakes should tell you how much you could lose in a worst-case scenario. Ask about this before you enter a game. I define a neighborhood game as one in which I won't lose more than $50 on an average night. How much your possible losses will be, of course, depends on the stakes and how well — or how badly — you play. Admittedly, $50 is a completely arbitrary figure based on my socioeconomic status (i.e., a perpetually broke freelancer).
If you need a less restrictive definition of low-stakes poker, how about this: You shouldn't lose more in one night than you would spend on a hot date. (But after you've lost $50 in a poker game, you don't then have to suffer the further ignominy of a handshake instead of a kiss and not being invited upstairs.)
In more practical terms, stakes define the highest amount of money that can be bet at one time — the "limit." In Las Vegas, the lowest limit I've found is a $4 game — no player can bet or raise more than $4 in one bet. Most neighborhood poker games range between 50-cent and $2 limit games.
Stakes are set by the guys sitting around your table — the "house" in neighborhood poker — who are trying to find the holy ground between "If we don't play for at least this much, no one will be bluffed out," and "If we play for this much, I'm liable to be eating bologna sandwiches for the next month." The lowest allowable bet should be enough to force you out of a game if you only have an iffy hand. If the lowest allowable bet is too low, everyone will stay in every hand, which removes the element of bluffing. For poker to have any excitement, there has to be an element of danger — the danger of the month-long diet of bologna sandwiches.
How much you can bet is determined by the stakes and the chip denominations available. Poker chips in neighborhood game are most often plastic and come in red, white, and blue; each color equals a denomination. For some reason, white chips always represent the lowest allowable bet. In a $1 limit game, the white chips would be worth a quarter, the red chips; 50 cents, and the blue chips, $1.
Some low-stakes games have liberal betting rules. In a $1 game, you can bet any amount that is a multiple of 25 cents — the lowest available chip denomination — at any time. You can, theoretically, bet $1 on your first up card. In other games there are varying levels of restrictions, depending on whose house you're in. In some $1 games, you can bet $1 only in the last betting round.
The reason for any and all restrictions — and for a limit on stakes — is to keep things friendly. The reason you play neighborhood poker is to have fun, not to win money. Money just makes the game interesting. A friend of mine once said that if you need the money from a neighborhood poker game to live on, you need help.
Few players in a neighborhood poker game are appreciably better than the other players. With some notable exceptions, no one wins all the time and no one loses all the time. Another poker acquaintance of mine noted that the same $50 keeps making its way around the table. In other words, you'll win one week, you'll lose the next. Players who lose consistently don't stay in the game and are replaced by better players who share the wealth — or lack thereof.
Part of the stakes is the ante — the preliminary bet, a set amount placed into the pot by each player before a hand is dealt. The ante ensures that each player has a small investment in the hand and that no one gets a free ride if he drops out after seeing his crummy cards. The ante remains consistent throughout a game, so the question "How much is the ante?" isn't raised before each hand. Keeping the amount of the ante consistent simplifies matters.
But, like everything else in life, anteing is not as simple as it should be. The most accepted method of anteing is the dealer bellows "ante up" and everyone dutifully tosses in the required amount. But when the antes are counted prior to a deal, the pot is often short one ante — a poker inevitability, sort of like the death and taxes of poker. No matter how diligent or reliable the players are, or how alcohol-free the game is, half the pots are always shy one ante. Each player piously testifies that he's anted, often relating a complex series of events as proof: 'After I folded my last hand, I knew I should get ready for the next hand, so I took a chip off my pile and left it out front here so I wouldn't forget to ante, and now — it's not here! So I must have anted." Eventually, some impatient and overly generous sucker will disgustedly throw in a second ante just to get the next hand started.
One way to avoid this misunderstanding is to ante in sequence, starting from the left of the dealer. But after three hours of playing with Jack Daniels, it's tough to get players to behave so anal-retentively.
A second method to make sure that there are no mistakes and guarantee that the pot will always be right is for the dealer to ante for everyone. If there are five players in the game and the ante is a quarter, the dealer antes $1.25 — 25 cents times five players — before dealing. This means, of course, that each player must deal the same number of hands so that no one antes more than anyone else.
As I mentioned, the ante remains consistent throughout a game. Any dealer, however, can declare any ante he likes for that hand. In some five-card stud games, a dealer will double the ante and the stakes to make a pot bigger than it might normally be after the four rounds of betting in five-card stud.
The size of a pot can also be increased by charging players for additional cards in certain games. The dealer announces before he deals that the first new card, for instance, will cost everybody $X, and the second new card will cost $X-Plus.
The ante is part of the pot that the winner or winners of a hand collect. However, in some games the antes from each hand are put aside. A group in one neighborhood game I know saves all the antes for a big party at a fancy restaurant at the end of the year. I have suggested to the group I play with that we save our antes to buy a real, felt-covered poker table, with built-in coasters for bottles or glasses, and chip wells. My "friends" want to know who'll own the table. I assumed that since we play in my apartment. ... The suggestion hasn't gone over too well.
Excerpted from The Rules of Neighborhood Poker According to Hoyle by Stewart Wolpin. Copyright © 1990 Stewart Wolpin. Excerpted by permission of New Chapter Press.
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