Poker Betting and Showdown

Introduction

There are many types of poker, but one essential part of all of them is the betting process. This page describes poker betting and the subsequent showdown in some detail, and assumes some familiarity with the basics of poker, as provided for example on the poker rules page. Rules that are specific to particular poker variants are covered on the page for the variant in question.

Poker with money or chips

Poker is sometimes played for cash on the table, but it is far more convenient to use tokens known as poker chips. Traditionally these came in three denominations of different colours, white chips being the cheapest, reds being worth five whites, and blue chips equal to 5 red or 25 white. These ratios could be adjusted according to the requirements of the game. Chip sets nowadays often have a wider range of denominations, for example 1, 5, 10, 25 and 100, each of a different colour. Some sets also have 2, 20 and 50 and larger values. These chips will generally be provided by the host in a private game or the house in a public card room. The cost of 1 unit can be whatever is appropriate for the game being played - for example a 1-chip could be worth $1 or ¬£1 or 1€ or any other convenient amount. Chips are bought from the host by the players as required for playing, and redeemed at the same rate when the player leaves.

Sometimes poker is played in the form of a tournament in which each player starts with an equal value of chips. Players who lose all their chips are eliminated, and play continues until one player has won all the chips. This form of poker is sometimes known as freezeout. If there is a large number of players, the game can begin with several tables, and as players drop out the survivors are consolidated onto fewer tables, taking their chips with them. Towards the end, all the remaining players will compete at a single final table, using all the chips. A potential disadvantage of this type of game is that players who are eliminated have nothing to do while the others complete the game, and it may take a while before only one player remains. Normally the stakes (the size of the blinds or minimum bets) are increased periodically to bring the game to a quicker end. In a large tournament, rather than give all the money paid for the initial chips to the single winner, it is divided into prizes for first, second, third place and so on, given to the players who survived longest.

It is sometimes said that poker is a game that can only be played for money, and certainly a game of poker in which players did not mind who won and how much would be fairly boring and pointless. It is possible, however, to play poker without money if the players care sufficiently about how many chips they win or lose. One way to achieve this is to play a tournament as described above, but in which the initial chips are free, or only a nominal entry fee is paid, and the prizes are objects rather than sums of money. As usual the player who wins all the chips gets the first prize, and there can be smaller prizes for runners up who survive almost to the end. The desire to win a prize may be enough motivation to stay in the tournament as long as possible and treat one's chips as though they are valuable, and the game will work in much the same way as poker played for money, perhaps without the legal and moral problems sometimes associated with gambling.

Player Preferences

There are great differences between poker players and what they expect from a game, and these are reflected in the variants and stakes chosen.

At one extreme, there are those who enjoy poker primarily as a social pastime. They like to have a small amount of money at stake, to give the game a slight edge, but well within the amount that any player can easily afford to lose. Often they will be more interested in the excitement of occasionally holding a particularly good hand or experiencing an unexpected turn of events than they are in optimising their play. They like plenty of action, if possible on every deal. On the whole such players prefer to play for limited stakes, and tend to favour exotic variants with wild cards and other innovations, often within the context of a dealer's choice game.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are professional players whose aim is to win money. They get their satisfaction from managing their chips skilfully and outwitting their opponents. If this involves folding most of the time and rarely playing a hand, that is fine so long as it is profitable. They take pride in knowing the odds, analysing the strengths and weaknesses of the other players and using this knowledge to maximum advantage. These players generally like to stick to a single poker variant for a whole session, going for long term profit over a large number of deals. They prefer to play with higher betting limits, which allow the greater scope for skill and bluff.

There are of course all kinds of players with approaches to the game that fall between these two extremes.

Betting Principles

The betting process used in poker is known to card game historians as "vying", although in practice the card game terms "vie" and "vying" are obsolete. The players vie with each other by betting on who holds the best hand of cards. The bets are made by moving chips into a central area called the pot, pool or kitty. In most versions of poker there are several betting rounds or betting intervals, during which the deal or other game play is paused while the players take turns to act - that is to choose whether or not to place a bet. Players who wish to stay in must at least match the other players' bets. These are the active players. A player who is unwilling to match the other players' bets can fold, dropping out of the action and abandoning any chance to win the chips in the pot. The betting round normally ends when the total amounts bet by all the active players are equal. If at any stage there is only one active player, that player immediately wins the pot. Otherwise, after the last betting round, the pot is won by the active player who holds the best hand.

During a betting round, the active players act in clockwise order around the table. It is very important that players act only in turn. If you act out of turn you unnecessarily give information to your opponents, and you can be held to that action when your proper turn comes. The possible actions are as follows.

Check
If no one has bet so far in the current betting round, a player can remain active without adding any chips to the pot. The player announces "check" or knocks the table. In the first betting round of a new deal, if no one has opened the betting, players may say "pass", which is equivalent to checking. In this situation, if no one opens the betting but all players pass (or check), normally the cards are thrown in and the turn to deal passes to the left.
Bet
If no one has bet so far in the current betting round, a player can announce "bet" followed by an amount, and push chips to that value into the pool. Betting in the first round, when the previous players have all checked (passed), is known as opening the betting. It is possible to bet by simply pushing chips into the pot without saying anything, but in that case it must be done in a single unambiguous motion. If a player announces a bet of a certain amount, but puts in a different amount of chips, the verbal announcement takes priority and the number of chips must be corrected.
Call
Any bet or raise must be at least matched by other players who wish to remain active. A player who wants to match the latest bet or raise without raising the stake further announces "call" and adds enough chips to the pot to make his or her bet equal to that of the player who most recently bet or raised. Calling is also known as seeing the bet or raise in question (because the caller is effectively paying to require the bettor's hand to be shown, at least if this is the final betting round), or as staying.
Raise
After a bet or raise, another player may raise the stake further. The player announces "raise" followed by the amount by which they wish to raise, and must then add to the pot the amount required to call plus the amount of the raise they announced. Alternatively the player can simply add the appropriate chips to the pot in a single motion. If there is a discrepancy between the verbal announcement and the chips offered, the announcement takes priority. Note in particular that a player is not allowed to raise in two instalments, for example responding to a $100 bet by saying something like "I'll see your $100 ... and raise you $200" or by first putting in the chips to call and then adding a raise. This manoeuvre, often seen in old movies, is known as a string raise. It is disallowed because it is unfair to try to mislead an opponent into thinking you are calling, watch their reaction, and on that basis decide whether to raise. If a player attempts a string raise, their action should be counted as a call, and the extra chips for the raise returned to them.
Fold
A player who does not wish to match the latest bet or raise can fold or drop, by announcing this and discarding his or her cards face down. Cards discarded by players who have folded accumulate into an untidy heap known as the muck. You can also fold by silently discarding your cards, pushing them towards the muck. Players who have folded do not get any further turns in this or subsequent betting rounds and cannot win the pot. It is legal to fold even when there has not been a bet or raise - this is known as "checking out" - but there is generally no good reason to do this, since you could remain active without spending any extra chips.

During a betting round it is very helpful to keep each player's bets separate from the chips bet in previous betting rounds and from the bets of the other players. That way it is easy to see how much everyone has bet and how much one has to pay to call. Some particularly well organised poker tables are marked with a betting line about 20cm in front of each player. This line separates the private area where a player's own cards and chips are kept from the common area holding the pot, the discards, and community cards, and so on. Any chips pushed across this line are considered to be in the pot. At the end of each betting round the chips in the pot are amalgamated into a single pile (or more than one pile if there are side pots - see below).

Betting Limits

Before joining a poker game, it is wise to have some idea how much one stands to win or lose. This is determined largely by the betting limits - the minimum and maximum amounts that players are allowed to bet. Every game has a minimum amount that can be bet - this may correspond to the value of the smallest chip in use. Some games also have a fixed maximum bet: this is normal in social games for small stakes.

In other games there is no fixed maximum. The maximum bet can be proportional to the size of the pot at the time, which allows the size of the pot to increase exponentially, or one can play without a maximum limit, so that it is possible to bet all your chips at once if you wish. Games with higher limits or without limits give greater scope for bluffing than those with low limits: it may be too expensive to risk calling another player's bet, even if you suspect that it is a bluff.

In most games, bets are limited to the chips you have on the table in front of you. You are not allowed to buy extra chips in the middle of the betting (or simply produce more money from your pocket) in order to continue the betting. This is known as playing for table stakes. The exact consequences when a player runs out of chips are rather complex and are described in the table stakes section below. These details become important when playing without a fixed maximum bet, since the betting can easily reach the point where all a player's chips are in the pot. In games with a relatively small maximum bet, it is less likely that a player will run out of chips completely.

The most usual betting structures are as follows:

Fixed Limit
The size of all bets is fixed. When it is your turn to act, your only decision is whether to fold, to call/check or to bet/raise - not how much to bet. Normally the size of the bet doubles for the later betting round(s). For example in fixed limit $2-$4 draw poker, all bets and raises before the draw are $2 and all bets and raises after the draw are $4.
Spread Limit
A minimum and maximum are specified, and a player can bet any amount between these limits. Often the upper limit doubles in the later betting rounds.
Pot limit
A minimum bet is specified. The maximum bet or raise is the current size of the pot. More exactly, in the case of a raise, the maximum is equal to what the pot would contain if the current player were to call the latest bet or raise. Example: at the start of a betting round the pot contains $50. Player A bets $50 (the maximum). If player B were to call the pot would contain $150, so B can raise by up to $150. If B does this, which means putting in $200, the pot will contain $300. It would now cost C $200 to call, so C can raise by a maximum of $500, putting in $700 to make a pot of $1000. Assuming that there are no other active players it will now cost A $650 to call, and it will cost B $500 to call. If both call, the pot will contain $2150 - the original $50 plus $700 from each player. It would of course be unusual to have three players all making maximum raises like this.
No limit
A minimum bet is specified, and a player may bet any amount up to the total chips that the player possesses. Betting all one's chips is known as being "all-in".

Other structures are possible such as half pot limit, in which the maximum bet is half what the pot would contain if you called.

Some online poker rooms provide capped no limit and pot limit games in which there is a maximum amount that a player can bet in one deal. This amount, the cap, is lower than the maximum buy-in: usually it is set at around 20 big blinds. All the betting rules of normal no limit and pot limit games apply, but in the game is played as though players whose chips stack is more than the cap in fact only have the amount of the cap in chips at the start of the deal. Any players whose total bets reach the cap are treated as though they were all-in.

Number of Raises

In fixed limit and spread limit games there is usually a limit on the number of raises in a single betting round. One bet followed by three raises is a common limit, in which case the third raise is also known as the cap. In some games the limit is different in earlier and later betting rounds.

The purpose of this rule is to prevent two players from colluding by making a long series of small raises, which a third player wishing to remain in the pot has no option but to call. For this reason, the limit normally does not apply when there are only two active players remaining. In this "heads-up" situation, either player can end the series of raises simply by calling the latest raise, so the protection of a limit is unnecessary.

In games without a fixed maximum bet there is usually no restriction on the number of raises.

Minimum Raise

In formal games there is generally a rule that a raise cannot be less than the previous bet or raise. So for example in a spread limit $1-$4 game if player A bets $3, player B can put in $3 to call, or $6 to raise $3, or $7 to raise $4. B is not allowed to put in $4 or $5, which would amount to a raise of $1 or $2, as the raise would then be smaller than A's bet. This rule only applies to raises: the first bet of a new betting round can be the minimum for that round, irrespective of the size of the last bet or raise in the previous betting round. This rule appears to be fairly new: I have not seen it mentioned in any 20th century poker book. Perhaps it was introduced during the large, well publicised tournaments in the 1990's, which are largely responsible for the current popularity of poker. This rule is now standard for formal poker and on-line poker, and has been introduced into some private games.

Nevertheless, many private poker games are played without this minimum for raises. Any raise can be any amount from the minimum bet for the round up to the maximum, even if the previous bet was larger. In such a game, if the number of raises is limited, a player may legitimately make a minimum raise of a larger bet in order to consume one of the allowed raises and thereby restrict the potential size of the pot.

A bet that is at least the minimum is sometimes known as a full bet, and a raise that is as least as large as the largest bet or raise in the current betting round, and not less than a full bet is known as a full raise. Bets and raises that are smaller than this are known as incomplete bets or raises. When playing with table stakes, if one does not have enough chips for a full bet or raise, it is legal to go "all-in", putting all one's chips in the pot for an incomplete bet or raise - see the table stakes section for details.

The Check-Raise

A few games - especially fixed and spread limit games, and some low stakes private games - have a rule against the "check-raise". With this rule in effect, if you call or check (or pass) during a betting round and some other player after you bets or raises, when the turn comes around to you again you are not allowed to raise: you may only call or fold. To raise in such a situation is sometimes known as sandbagging. You have a good hand, but instead of betting you lie in wait, pretending to have indifferent cards, and when a player bets against you, you launch your ambush by raising back. In some circles this tactic is considered unfair or at least unfriendly and is therefore outlawed. Note however that even with this rule in effect, checking in one betting round does not prevent you from betting or raising in a later betting round, by which time your hand might have improved.

In most formal games and nearly all games without a fixed maximum bet (pot limit and no limit games) the check-raise is permitted and is considered a valid and useful tactic.

Antes and blinds

Every poker game begins with some kind of compulsory payment to the pot. Without this, the players would have no incentive to bet. If you were to bet chips into an empty pot you would stand to lose them if another player with a good hand bet against you, but if all your opponents had indifferent hands and dropped out you would get back only the same chips that you put in, gaining nothing. If the pot contains some chips to begin with, it is worthwhile for players with moderately good hands to bet in order to win those chips.

The most straightforward way to start the pot is for every player to pay an equal, fixed ante before the deal. A practical problem with this is that quite often someone may forget to pay the ante, and when the shortage of chips in the pot is noticed, it can be difficult to establish who is at fault. A solution is to have the dealer pay a single, larger ante on behalf of all the players. This is fair provided that everyone deals the same number of times during a session. Note that the ante does not count as a bet: even if only a single player pays an ante, the other players do not have to match it. In the first betting round players can simply check to stay in.

In some games, one or more players are forced to make a blind bet before the cards are dealt. Normally the player(s) placing blinds will be immediately to the left of the dealer seat, sometimes including the dealer as well. If the blinds are unequal in size they will increase to the left, the leftmost player placing the largest blind. The largest blind should be equal to the minimum bet for the game. For example a $2-$4 fixed limit game might begin with a small blind of $1 placed by the player to left of the dealer seat plus a big blind of $2 from the player to the left of the small blind. Blinds do count as bets, so players who wish to stay in must at least call the biggest blind. The first betting round starts with the player to the left of the big blind, who may call, raise or fold. The big blind player acts last, and may raise even if no one else has done any more than call. Alternatively, if no one else has raised, the big blind player may simply check to stay in, since the active players' bets are already equal.

In games with blinds, the player to the left of the big blind may be allowed to straddle, which is to place a voluntary blind bet twice the size of the big blind before the cards are dealt. In some games, if a player straddles, the next player to the left is allowed to re-straddle, placing a blind bet of twice as much again. The first betting round will begin to the left of the player who placed the largest straddle. Normally a straddle also raises the betting limits proportionately: the straddle is twice the big blind, so the minimum bet is doubled, as is the maximum in a fixed or spread limit game. The purpose of straddling is to gain the advantage of acting last in the first betting round. However, this advantage is probably not worth as much as the cost of placing a blind bet which will be wasted if one's cards are poor.

In stud poker, the pot is normally started by a compulsory bet known as the bring-in. There may or may not be an ante as well. Unlike a blind bet, the bring-in is placed after the first part of the deal, and is based on a player's hand - in a stud game the player who must bet is determined by the up-card. The bring-in may be less than the minimum bet - for example $2 in a $5-$10 game, but the player may opt to place a full minimum bet instead ($5 in the example).

Some games are played with a kill. This is a blind bet normally twice the size of the minimum bet, which must be placed by a certain player (the killer) in particular circumstances - for example after a big win or winning twice in a row. If the killer would otherwise have been due to place a blind, the kill replaces the blind. As with a straddle, the minimum and maximum bets are increased in proportion if there is a kill. The first betting round may begin either to the left of the kill or to the left of the big blind according to local rules. Either way, players who wish to stay in must at least call the kill bet. The killer can raise at his or her first turn.

Table Stakes

All formal poker games and tournaments in casinos and public card rooms and many private games are played for table stakes. This means that you can only bet using the chips that you have in front of you at the start of the deal. This rule is to prevent a player from suddenly betting a large sum which the other players were unaware of at the start of the deal and which they cannot afford to call. When playing for table stakes:

  • You can buy more chips only between deals - after the pot has been won and before the cards are dealt for the next hand.
  • You are not allowed to remove any of your chips from the table, except by leaving the game permanently and converting all your chips back to cash. (An exception to this rule is made in casinos for small amounts of chips paid for refreshments or as tips given to the professional dealer.)

Normally there is a minimum value of chips that must be bought in order to join a game. This is fixed by the host, and is typically around 10 to 20 times the minimum bet. Some games without a fixed maximum bet may have a maximum buy-in. In this case you are not allowed to buy chips that take you above the maximum. You can however exceed the maximum by virtue of chips won from other players, and while in this situation you cannot buy any more chips.

Table stakes rules are important in games without a fixed maximum bet, in which players may easily run out of chips as the pot size escalates. In fixed limit and spread limit games table stakes are not so important, especially if the limits are low. Players do not often run out of chips and if they do it does little harm to let them buy more any time they are needed, even during the betting if necessary, since the amount that can be bet is restricted by the fixed maximum.

Going all-in

When playing with table stakes you may reach a situation where you do not have enough chips for the action you wish to take. In this case you put all your remaining chips in the pot and you are said to be all-in, or tapped out. There are three cases to consider:

All-in call
If you wish to call, but do not have enough chips, you can call by betting all the chips you have. The pot is then divided: the main pot contains your bet and equal amounts of chips from all active players. A separate side pot is created, which contains all the extra chips bet by active players who put in more than you. Any players whose turn comes after yours and before that of the player whose bet you were calling will have to put part of their call or raise in the main pot, matching your call, and the remainder in the side pot. You are entitled to hold your cards and take part in the showdown without betting any more chips, but at the showdown you are only in contention for the main pot, so you cannot win more from any one opponent than the amount of your own bet.
 
All-in bet or raise
You can bet or raise all-in provided that you have more than enough chips to call, and your chips do not exceed the amount required for a maximum bet or raise. If your chips are not even enough for a the full amount of a minimum bet or raise, you can still bet or raise all-in and what happens next depends on the betting structure and the house rules.
  • In a fixed or spread limit game, if the all-in bet or raise is less than half the minimum amount required for a full bet or raise, it does not reopen the betting unless a subsequent player completes it.
    • A player who has not acted at all in the current betting round may fold, call or "complete" the bet or raise. To complete it, the player puts in the amount that would have constituted a full bet or raise. Part of this (matching the incomplete bet) will go into the main pot and the remainder will start a side pot.
    • A player who has previously acted may call, fold or complete the bet or raise (as above) if there has been a full bet or raise since their previous action.
    • If a player has previously acted and the cost to call is less than half a minimum full bet or raise, the player may only call or fold. The player cannot raise or complete the bet.
    • Completing a bet or raise reopens the betting, and all other active players now have the full range of options to call, fold or raise.

      Example: In a $5 betting round with five players, player A checks, player B bets $5, player C calls for $5 and player D goes all-in for $6. Player E has the option to fold, to call for $6 or to complete the raise for $10 (of which $4 goes into a side pot). If E calls or folds, A has the same options. If either E or A completes the bet, B and C have the full range of options, to call, fold or raise. If both E and A call or fold, neither B nor C can raise: their only options are to call for $1 or fold. If E goes all-in for $8, this is enough to re-open the betting, since the total raise since the last full bet is now $3, more than half a full raise. So any of A, B and C are now allowed to raise a further $5.

    • In a fixed or spread limit game, if an all-in bet or raise is at least half the amount of a normal full bet or raise, it is treated as a full bet or raise and all active players have the option to fold, call or raise. There are two possible rules about the size of a raise:
      1. A raise is subject to the normal limits. For example in a fixed limit game player A bets $4 and player B who has $6 left goes all-in, which is a raise of $2, i.e. half a full raise. Player C may now fold, call for $6 or raise $4 by putting in $10 of which $6 goes into the main pot and $4 into the side pot..
      2. In order to raise a player must first complete the bet of the player who is all-in. In the above example C would have to put in $12 to raise, completing the $2 raise to $4 and raising a further $4: $6 goes into the main pot and $6 into the side pot.
  • In a pot limit or no limit game, an all-in bet that is less then the minimum or an all-in raise that is less than the previous full bet or raise does not reopen the betting. After an incomplete all-in bet or raise, the rule is as follows:
    • A player who has not yet acted in the current betting round may call, fold or raise.
    • If a player has already acted in the current betting round, and the amount it would cost to call is less than the last full bet or raise or less than the minimum bet, the player is not allowed to raise, but may only call or fold.
    • If a player has already acted, and the amount that would be required to call is greater than or equal to the last full bet or raise, or greater than or equal to the minimum bet if there has been no full bet or raise in this round, the player may call, fold or raise.

    Example: After the flop in a no limit Texas Hold'em game there is $100 in the pot. Player A checks, player B bets $20, player C calls for $20 and player D goes all-in for $35 (a $15 raise). Player E's options are to fold, to call for $35, or to raise by at least another $20 (putting in at least $55). If player E calls or folds, player A has the same options: player A is allowed to raise even though he checked before, because player B has placed a full bet since player A last acted. If player A also calls or folds, player B can only call (for $15) or fold: B cannot raise because there has been no full raise since B's previous bet. For the same reason, player C can only call or fold. However, if player E or player A had raised, this would have reopened the betting, and players B and C would also be entitled to raise.

All-in on the initial bets
If you do not have enough chips for the compulsory bets at the start of a deal, you are automatically all-in. You put in all the chips you have, and you have the right to stay in to the showdown, but only for the main pot. As usual you cannot win more from any other player than the amount you put in yourself. The players who put in more than you contribute an amount equal to your all-in bet to the main pot and any excess to a side pot.
The betting and play then proceed normally. If the game is played with blinds or a forced bring-in bet, and the bring-in or the largest blind is incomplete because the player is all-in, anyone who wishes to call must nevertheless put in the full amount of the blind or bring-in bet that should have been placed, and a player who wishes to raise must put in at least double this amount, as though they were raising a full blind bet. An amount matching the all-in player's bet will go into the main pot and the remainder into the side pot. Example: the blinds are $20 and $40. Player A, to dealer's left, puts in $20 and player B, whose blind should have been $40, goes all-in for $10. There is now a main pot containing $20 ($10 each from A and B) and a side pot of $10. If C wishes to call, this will cost $40, even though no player has yet bet that amount. $10 will go into the main pot for a total of $30 and $30 into the side pot for a total of $40. Alternatively C could raise by putting in at least $80 of which $10 goes into the main pot and $70 into the side pot.

Side Pots

Each time a player goes all-in and another player bets more than the all-in player, a new side pot is created. So if more than one player goes all-in in the same deal, there can be several side pots. Each player who is all-in is in contention for the main pot and all side pots in which that player has chips. When a new player goes all-in, the current side pot is capped and a new side pot is created. The capped side pot holds equal numbers of chips from each active player apart from those who were already all-in before the side pot was created.

Example: There is $50 in the pot. Player A bets $20. Player B has only $5 and calls with that, going all-in. The main pot should now contain $60 including $5 of A's bet and the whole of B's call. The first side pot has the remaining $15 of A's bet. Player C raises $20. Of the $40 that C puts in $5 goes in the main pot to equal B's call and $35 goes into the side pot. It now costs $40 for D to call, but D has only $35 so calls for that amount. A second side pot is now needed. The main pot should by now contain $70 - the original $50 plus $5 each from A, B, C and D. The first side pot should have $75: that is $15 from A, $30 of C's bet and D's last $30. The second side pot has just $5, the remainder of C's bet. The other players fold. In order to call, A would now have to put in $20, matching C's raise. Of this $15 would go into the first side pot for a total of $90 and $5 in the second side pot for a total of $10.

A player who folds cannot win any part of any pot. Suppose that at the end of the example above, A decides to fold. The side pots are allocated in reverse order of creation. C automatically wins the second side pot and gets his $5 back. The first side pot ($75) is won by whichever of C and D has the better hand. The main pot ($70) is won by the best of B, C and D. Player A, who has folded, cannot win the main pot, even though he has contributed the same amount to this pot as B, C and D.

When the action is complete, all active players' cards are turned face up. When there are at least two active players, and all but one of them are all-in, there will be no more betting since the one active player who has chips to bet has no one to bet against. At this point, the normal rule is that all the active players' cards must be revealed, and any further cards are dealt face up (even those that would normally be dealt face down). The same rule naturally applies in the unusual case where there are at least two active players and all of them are all-in.

Split Pot Games and Declaration

In some versions of poker, the pot is split between two winners - for example the holders of the highest and lowest hands. In some games this is done automatically: the players simply show their hands and the pot is divided equally between the best hand in each category. In other games players have to declare which part of the pot they are playing for. In this case there are three possible declarations. In a high-low game you can declare "high" to compete for highest hand, "low" to compete for lowest hand, or "both" (also known as "pig"), to win the whole pot if and only if you have both the highest and the lowest hand.

Declaration in Turn
Each player declares in turn, in clockwise order, starting with the player who placed the last bet or raise in the final betting round, or with the player who began the last betting round if everyone checked. This gives an advantage to the last player to declare, who may be able to win half the pot by default by choosing the option that no one else has chosen.
Simultaneous declaration
Players indicate their declaration by holding chips in a closed fist - no chips means low, one chip means high and two chips means both. When all are committed, all open their fists simultaneously. This method eliminates the last player advantage, but there is less scope for tactics, since no player has any information about the others' intentions.

Winning the Pot - the Showdown

Winning without a showdown

Players who fold place their cards face down in a discard pile known as the "muck". If the poker game being played includes a "draw", in which players may discard cards and obtain replacements from the dealer, these discards are also placed in the muck. No one is allowed to look at any of these discarded cards. If at any point during the betting only one active player remains, all others having folded, this last surviving player automatically wins the pot. In this case there is no showdown, and no one is entitled to see the winner's cards.

Exceptions. There are two exceptions to the above rule.

  1. In some games (for example 5 card draw jacks or better) there is a minimum requirement to open. If the opener subsequently folds or otherwise discards any cards that formed part of the combination required to open, these discards must be kept separate from the muck, and can be examined at the showdown to establish that the opening was legal.
  2. In some games (for example trips to win, 8 or better) there is a minimum hand required to win the pot. In this case the winner must show enough cards to prove that the requirement is met, even if the pot is won by default because everyone else folded.

Procedure for the showdown

If there are two or more active players, then after the last round of betting (and after the declarations on a split pot game with declaration) there is a showdown to decide who has won the pot. Players are encouraged to show their cards promptly to avoid delaying the game, but if there is any reluctance, they are required to show them in clockwise order, beginning with the last player who bet or raised in the last betting round, or with the player who began the last betting round if everyone checked.

When showing hands, players must show all their cards - not only those required to make the best hand or to prove they have beaten another player, and not only those that make the best five-card hand, but all the cards they were dealt.

It is normal practice that only players who consider they have a chance of winning need show their cards - others discard their cards into the muck at this stage without showing them, thereby forfeiting their right to win any part of the pot. Contrary to this practice, there is a rule in most formal games that any player who was dealt a hand - even a player who folded - is entitled on request to see the cards of any player involved in the showdown. The purpose of this rule is to protect players against collusion: a player who appears to be co-operating with another can be forced to show his cards to demonstrate that his betting actions were based only on his own interests and not to help another player. However, it is considered rude to demand to see a losing player's hand, and this right should be used sparingly. It normally comes with a condition that it can be revoked if abused or over-used. Abuse would include asking to see a losing hand in order to embarrass or irritate another player.

In some games, especially high-low games and games with wild cards when the players have more than five cards to choose from, it can be easy to overlook what is the best hand that a player can make. There are two possible rules for this.

1. The cards speak for themselves
This is the usual rule in formal games and tournaments. The cards shown by a player are counted as the best hand that can be made from them, irrespective of how the owner may describe them. The dealer and all players, including those who have folded, are jointly responsible for establishing which hand is best and that the pot is correctly allocated.
2. Players declare their hands
This rule is more usual in private games, especially when playing variants with wild cards in which it is not trivial to evaluate a hand. In the showdown players show their hands in rotation and declare what they have. Each player's hand counts as what the player says it is, provided that it is at least as good as the player claimed. Other players should not offer advice. If you subsequently notice, after the next player has shown and declared, that your hand is in fact better than you claimed (for example you called it four queens but by using your wild cards differently you can make a straight flush), it is too late to change. Your declaration stands.

Split pots

If there is a single best hand and a single pot, this is easy. The owner of the best hand wins the whole pot.

It can happen that two or more players have equally good hands. This is common in games where there are community cards shared by all players. In this case the pot is split equally between the holders of the best hands. If the chips in the pot cannot by divided equally, the odd chip(s) are given to the player(s) nearest to the dealer's left.

In a high-low game where the pot is to be divided between the highest hand and the lowest hand, if the amount in the pot is an odd multiple of the smallest chip, the odd chip goes to the winner of the high hand. Example: the players in clockwise order are A, B, C, D, E and F (the dealer). B, D and F have equal highest hands and C has the lowest hand. There is $69 in the pot and $1 is the smallest chip in use. First the pot is divided between high ($35) and low ($34), and then the high part is divided between B, D and F. Player C gets $34, B and D get $12 each and E gets $11.

Exception. In some stud games played in casinos and public card rooms there is a non-playing dealer and no dealer button. In this case when a pot is split suits are used to decide who gets the odd chip. If the split pot is for the highest hand the odd chip goes to the owner of the highest card with ties for highest broken by suit, using the order spades (high), hearts, diamonds, clubs (low). If the split pot is for the lowest hand the odd chip goes to the lowest card, using suit to break ties. For this purpose only, all the cards dealt to the player are considered, not only those used to form the winning hand. Note that suit ranking and cards outside the five-card hand are used only to award the odd chip of smallest denomination when a pot is split, never to decide which players have won. If the best five-card hands are equal apart from suit, the pot is split as evenly as possible between them.

Split pot games with declaration

In a high-low (or other split pot) game with declare, when one or more players have declared "both", it is first necessary to check whether any of these have won the whole pot. In order to win "both" in high-low, it is necessary to have the highest hand among those who declared "both" or "high" and the lowest hand among those who declared "both" or "low". If either is beaten or tied with another player the player who called "both" cannot win any part of the pot, and is eliminated from the comparison of hands. If no "both" player wins, the pot is split between whoever has the highest hand of those who declared high, and the lowest of those who declared low. Thus it is possible, for example, for a player who declared "high" to win the high pot even if another player who unsuccessfully declared "both" had a higher hand.

If (after eliminating players who declared "both" unsuccessfully) everyone has declared "high" then the highest hand wins the whole pot, and if everyone declared "low" then the lowest hand wins the whole pot. This is most likely to happen with simultaneous declaration: with sequential declaration, if all but one players have declared "high", for example, the last player will usually take the easy route of declaring "low" and taking half the pot unopposed.

In the unlikely event that everyone declares "both" it is possible that there will be no winner. In this case the contents of the pot are carried forward to the next deal.

Variations. Some players do not allow the "second best" hand to win when a player unsuccessfully declares "both". For example, to win "high" you must have the highest hand of all the players who declared "high" or "both". So for example if a player declares "both" and beats a "high" player but is beaten for lowest by a "low" player, the "low" player wins the whole pot and the "high" player gets nothing. Some players allow the high or low part of the pot to be split if a "both" player ties with a "high" or "low" player. The page on high-low declare from the rec.gambling.poker FAQ gives some examples of how showdowns are resolved differently according to the rules used.

If you are the only person in competition for a particular part of the pot, everyone else having declared for the other part, then you automatically win the part you declared for. This is sometimes known as walking. There is some controversy over whether you have to show your cards in this case. Normal practice is that in this case the player does not need to show his or her cards unless the variant played has some minimum qualification for winning hands - such as "trips to win" in a high poker game or "8 or better" is a low game, or the requirement to show a spade to win a share of the pot that goes to the holder of the highest spade.

It may be desirable, as a deterrent to collusion, to give any player who was dealt a hand the right to demand to see the cards of a player who has "walked" in a split pot game. If so, this right should only be exercised as a last resort, for example if two players can reasonably be suspected of having an agreement to bet against each other until all the other players have been driven out and then share the pot between them, even if their hands would not normally justify this action. I would be interested to hear from any experienced home poker players who have views on this.

Side Pots

If there are side pots they are each dealt with separately, starting with the one that was created last and working backwards to the main pot. For each pot, the hands of the active players who have chips in that pot are compared to determine who wins it. It is helpful if players who are not involved in the later side pots wait to showing their cards until the pots in which they have chips are due to be dealt with.

The rake

The rake is a small amount taken from each pot and given to the host. In a casino this tax pays for the facilities provided - the table, the cards, the professional dealer and so on. Online poker rooms also collect a rake to pay for the service they provide. Home games are sometimes played with a rake to pay for refreshments or to save for an occasional celebration. Normally the rake is a percentage of the pot with a maximum - for example 5% but not more than $3. For practical reasons the rake may go up in steps as the pot size increases - for example $0.25 for each $5 is the pot would result in a rate of 25 cents from a $4 pot but 50 cents from a $5 pot.

The most popular online games, especially low stakes Texas Hold'em, involve playing a large number of deals rather quickly, and many of them are won with little or no betting, so that the pot rarely reaches the level at which the maximum rake applies. The exact rake rules for small pots can therefore have have a significant effect on a player's winnings in the long term. There is an analysis of rake at low stakes at FirstTimePokerPlayer.com.

Some casinos instead of collecting a rake from the pot charge for their service by means of a "time collection" - a rental of a certain amount per player per half hour.

Other Betting and Showdown Systems

Two to Win

This structure is sometimes used in games which would otherwise have quite small pots - for example fixed limit draw poker. The winner does not take the pot but is given a marker, such as a bottle top, and the pot stays for the next deal. When a player wins a second time, as shown by the fact that the player already has a marker, the player takes the whole pot that has accumulated and all players give up their markers. If two players tie with winning hands at the showdown and neither has a marker yet they get one each, if just one has a marker that player wins the whole pot, and if they already have a marker each they split the pot.

This betting structure does not work well with table stakes and side pots. A player who runs out of chips in a two-to-win game just has to buy more chips if he or she wishes to continue betting. This should not cause a problem since two-to-win is normally only used in fixed limit games with a cap on the number of raises, so that the pot size is limited.

Match Pot Betting

This system is entirely different from normal poker betting. It is described here because it is used in some showdown games that often allowed as variants in dealer's choice poker, notably Guts. However it is also found in other types of card game, such as the trick-taking game Bouré.

If the pot is empty everyone contributes an equal amount. Then the cards are dealt and there is a declaration round in which the players decide whether they want to stay in and take part or to drop out. Those who drop out cannot win the pot, but cannot lose any more than they have already put in. Those who stay in have a chance to win the pot, but will have to pay more if they lose. There are three possible methods of declaring:

  1. The dealer counts aloud "1 - 2 - 3 - drop" and on the word "drop" those who wish to drop out drop their cards face down on the table. This is a little unsatisfactory since it is difficult to guarantee that the players will really act simultaneously rather than waiting a split second to see what the others do.
  2. Chip declare: each player holds out a closed fist and when all are ready they open their hands. Those holding a chip are in and those with empty hands are out.
  3. Sequential declare: the players declare "in" or "out" in clockwise order, starting to dealer's left. This is tactically more interesting. It gives an advantage to the dealer, who can safely declare "in" if everyone else is "out". Therefore it is important that the turn to deal rotates.

The winner is then determined, either by comparing the hands of the players who stayed in or whatever other method is used in the game being played. The winner collects the pot - if there are two or more winners they share the pot between them. Anyone who stayed in and lost has to match the pot - that is, they have to pay an amount equal to the whole contents of the pot, which goes into the pot for the next deal. For each new deal, everyone participates, including those who dropped out of the previous deal.

Using either of the simultaneous methods 1 or 2, it is possible that everyone will drop out. In that case the pot simply remains for the next deal.

Note that this game can be dangerous. Even if the initial stake is small the pot can get large very quickly. Example:

  • Eight players A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Everyone puts in 50 cents at the start of the game so there is $4 is the pot.
  • First deal: A, C and D stay in - the others drop. C wins the $4 and A and D must each pay $4 to make a new pot of $8.
  • Second deal: A, D, E and F stay in. E wins the $8 and A, D and E must each pay $8 creating a $24 pot.
  • Third deal: A, B, C, F and G stay in. A wins the $24 and the other four each pay $24 to make a $96 pot.
  • Fourth deal: D, E and F stay in. F wins the $96 and D and E pay $96 to make a $192 pot.

So the pot is now nearly 400 times the size of the initial stake after only four deals. The only way it can reduce again is if only one player has the courage to stay in and thereby scoops the whole pot (or is all the players who stayed in tied to win the pot).

There are some variants that limit the growth of the pot.

Maximum pot size
One is to establish a maximum pot size. Then anything in excess of this maximum is put aside as a reserve and brought into play when the main pot has been won. In the above example, if the maximum pot size was set at $50, then after the third deal there would be just $50 in the main pot and $46 set aside. In the fourth deal F would win only $50 and D and E would each pay $50, creating a $50 new main pot with the other $50 set aside so that the reserve is now $96. If only one player stays in, that player just wins the main pot, and $50 chips are taken out of the reserve to create the next pot. Only when the main pot and the reserve are empty will all the players have to contribute to a new pot if they wish to continue playing.
Only one loser pays
In some versions only the player with the worst hand has to match the pot. In this version generally all the players other than the loser (including the winner of the previous hand) have to pay a fixed ante to the pot. It is this ante that causes the pot to grow: without it, it would stay the same size, except when two players tie for worst hand and both have to match the pot.
 

Some play these games with a kitty or ghost player. An extra hand is dealt for the ghost and no one sees this hand until the showdown. To win the pot you have to beat not only all the other players but also the kitty. If the kitty wins, then everyone who stayed in has to match the pot. This variant makes life a little harder for the dealer when sequential declare is used: if all the other players are out the dealer cannot get an automatic win, but runs the risk of being beaten by the kitty.

Some play with legs, which are the equivalent for match pot games of the "two to win" system for normal poker betting. If only one player stays in, that player does not take the pot but is given a "leg", represented by some kind of token. If all the players who stayed in tie, they each get a leg. The first player who collects an agreed number of legs, usually three, collects the pot. (If two or more players acquire three legs simultaneously as a result of a tied win the split the pot between them.)