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Getting Started in Poker

So let’s play a little poker I: The culture of the card room

Poker continues to grow in popularity. Card rooms are flourishing in Atlantic City, in the Connecticut woods, the Mississippi shore, the riverboats in the Midwest, the entire west coast and, of course, in Las Vegas —- not to mention all those quasi-legal ’private’ clubs that have long operated in cities and towns around the country. And not only are people playing the game, they are talking about it, reading about it and debating strategy. There are magazines devoted to poker, chat rooms, web sites, poker counselors, poker ‘boot-camps,’ hundreds of major poker tournaments are run every week with entry fees from a few cents (in online games) to $50,000. The Main Event at the World Series of Poker has attracted over 8,000 players in some years, each of whom ponied up $10,000 for a shot at immortality.

Almost everyone has played a little poker some time in their lives. They did the penny ante bit by the kitchen sink, dabbled in a game with friends or ventured into a round of strip poker (usually quitting just before losing their own shorts). They know queens are higher than jacks and that three little bitty deuces beats two big fat aces but not a lot more. For these people, a modern card room can be a daunting place —- but it doesn’t have to be. Once you understand something of the culture of a poker room it will become as unintimidating as a slot machine.

The geography of a card room Every poker room will have a front desk where you sign up for your game. Just tell the clerk which game you would like to play and the stakes. If you’re just starting out, begin at the lower levels and the most common games. Typically only one form of poker is played at a given table and only at the specified stakes. Currently the most popular game is hold ‘em. I’ll tell you about it in another column.

If it’s your first time, let the people managing the room know. They will love to have you there. They will welcome you and answer any questions you may have. Ask about the game and its details, the stakes, the protocols, and the house rules. If you’re unsure about even the basics, just open your yap and ask. Card room managers want to increase their business, players want new blood in the games. It doesn’t matter how much of a novice you are. Someone will be there to offer help and support.

Occasionally you may find that all the seats in the game you want are filled. The clerk will put your name on a list and call you when a seat opens up. If you end up having to wait, use the time to your advantage. Watch the game. You can get a feel for the action and learn a lot about poker by joining the railbirds (spectators who hang around and watch the action).

The basics: dealers, cash, stakes, rakes and tips Dealers: Unlike home games, a casino employee deals the cards and controls the game. They keep track of the betting, resolve any disputes, handle the money, and keep the game moving. Most are quite skilled and proficient. They will also answer any question you may have.

Cash: When you take your seat give cash to the dealer who will convert it into chips. A good rule of thumb in “limit” games, where bet sizes are fixed, is to buy between 10 and 20 times the big bet. If the stakes are $1-$2 start with between $20 and $40. If the game is no-limit, usually 100 times the big blind is a sensible buy-in. When I play $1 - $2 no limit, I buy in for $200. If you lose much of your initial stake you should bring more cash out before the next hand starts. Once a hand has begun you cannot bring money onto the table.

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