How to Play Poker in a Casino

If you've never played poker in a casino, it may seem intimidating compared to a

night at your home game, but not to worry! Once you sit down at your first casino poker table, you'll realize it's not so different and you'll be raking in the chips before you know it. Here's how to get started!

Step 1: Get on a List

The first thing you're going to need to do is to sign up on the queue or list for a game with the poker host or manager. There will be a podium in almost every casino poker room where there's a list either on a board or, more likely, on video monitors that list every game going on and who is waiting to sit down. If you're not sure where to go, just ask a waitress or any other casino employee. They will point you in the right direction.
Once you locate the sign-up area, you can ask if any games are "open" or have seats and they'llfor you know -- otherwise, you'll want to sign up on the list for a few games. They should have a list of what kinds of games -- you'll always find Hold'em, but there maybe games of Omaha or Seven-card stud too. They'll also list the limits, or betting amounts, for each game and whether it is a limit or no limit game. For your first outing, it's probably best to stick to the lowest limit tables, which will likely be a $1/2 no limit hold'em game or a $2/4 or $3/6 limit hold'em game.

Give the poker host your initials and tell him which lists you'd like to be added to and voila! You're done.

Step 2: Buy Your Chips

While you're waiting for your initials to be called, it's a good idea to find the cage and get some chips. The people working the cage know just what kind of chips you'll need for your game so you can just tell them you are buying into a $1/2 no-limit game or a $3/6 limit game and they will give you the right chips. I recommend buying $100 for either of these games, but you can also check what the minimum buy-in is with the poker host and get that amount. If you do need more chips, you can always buy more at the table, but most places prefer that you sit down with chips instead of holding up the game and getting your first buy-in at the table.

The exception to this rule is if they call for a brand-new game or table. Then they usually will have a dealer sitting there with racks of chips you can buy. And many casinos have chip-runners who will get your chips for you. All that said, there is never a downside to having your chips already.

You've signed up on the queue at the poker room, now the real fun begins.

Step 3: Sit Down and Play!

When you hear your initials called for your game, tell the poker host to "lock it up" for you if you want that seat. He will point you to your table and the dealer will let you know what seat is yours if it's not obvious (it'll be the one without someone in it or chips in front of it).
The dealer will ask you if you want to "post" -- that means put in the big blind and get dealt into the next hand right away. I recommend saying no and waiting until the big blind reaches you to start playing. It will give you some time to get used to things and observe the action before jumping in.

Once you've posted that first big blind, that's it, you're officially playing poker in a casino.

Step 4: Remember the Rules and Maintain Good Poker Manners

Once you're in the game, you'll want to follow all the rules of poker etiquette you'd follow at a home game, but there are some rules you'll want to pay more attention to you might skip at home:

  • Remember to say "raise" if you are planning on raising. String bets are not allowed.
  • When you fold, make sure it's obvious and push your cards towards the dealer.
  • Casino poker is always played for table stakes, meaning you cannot bet more than you have on the table in chips at the time. In some casinos, $100 bills play if they are on the table, but check first before assuming this is true.
  • Remember to tip. Poker dealers and waitresses make a living on tips. Read more about tipping poker dealers here.
  • Do not talk on your phone at the table. It's rude and most casinos don't allow it.

Step 5: Taking Breaks and Calling It a Night

If you need to take a phone call, go to the bathroom, or just clear your head, you can get up at any time as long as you're not in a hand. Just stand up and take your time. If you miss your blinds, you'll return to a token letting you know you'll need to post your blind to re-join, or you can wait until the big blind reaches you again to come back into the game.
If you're done playing for the night, just tell the dealer to deal you out and leave. You are not obligated to stay any length of time -- you can play 10 minutes or 10 hours -- it's up to you.

How to Survive Your First Live Poker Tournament

But if you've played poker at home, online or even at a local card room once or twice, the core elements and strategy of the game don't change. So neither should you.

We've gathered all the advice we wish we'd been given before we played our first tournament below for a quick and dirty survival guide for playing your first live tournament.

If this is your first time in a casino or poker room, try reading our 14 Essential Tips for Your First Time at a Poker Room for some extra pointers to get comfortable before and during your first visit.

Poker Tournaments: A Roar of Sound

Playing your first tournament is, well, loud. In big tournaments you'll be in a room with hundreds (or thousands) of other players all hoping to send you home early.

The room will be a roar of sound with the sound of clicking chips a dull roar. If you want to learn how to shuffle chips yourself, which is what everyone is doing, check our Poker Basics series here:

There will be people in the tourney who are so serious about playing they'll refuse to so much as smile the entire time.

You'll have professionals and amateurs sitting hip to hip, clashing cards to the yells of beats and cries of suck-outs.

A large tourney is really unlike anything else you can experience. Tension runs high enough to make some people crack.

It's rare to not have at least one person leave the room in a state of lurid, verbose anger.

In this sea of emotion, loss, luck and victory you have to remember to keep your own head. Stay calm; stay relaxed.

In essence, the tourney is no different than any home games you've played with your friends.

A flush still beats a straight. The best hand on the river still wins. And if you lose all your chips, you're still out.

Ultimately, the core of the game doesn't change. Play with the same joy and freedom you use to beat your best friends at poker.

How to Protect Your Chips in Poker Tournaments

Rule #1: If Someone Plays Strong Early, They Probably Have It

If you're used to playing poker with your friends in home games then you'll be used to playing for honor as much as the prize.

Poker home games with friends are usually much looser with lots of relatively hopeless large bluffs. Running a huge bluff on a good friend is often more fun than anything else in poker.

But the majority of players in your first poker tournament will be playing very tight. The only hands they'll play early are very strong ones. If someone is playing as if they have a better hand than you, they probably do. We can never say this enough:

  • Chips = Life

Protect them any way you can. You can't afford to limp n with poor hands or run elaborate bluffs in most tourney situations.

You have to conserve your chips and only play in the pots in which you have a legitimate chance to win.

Who's Stealing Blinds?

At the same time you should pay attention to who's stealing blinds at your table. If the button is stealing your blinds every orbit, than protecting your blinds is just as important as the other chips in your stack.

If you feel the player is only stealing, it's correct to re-steal. Not only will you protect your blinds and collect her bet at the same time, but you'll make her think twice before trying to steal from you next orbit.

If the button raises after a couple of limpers you don't want to attempt a re-steal without a legitimate monster. The chances of getting called or pushed on are too large in this scenario.

Stealing and re-stealing should be second in your mind behind protecting your chips.

Further Reading:

Watch Your Stack Size!

If you let yourself get blinded down to nearly nothing, you put yourself into a really poor spot. It's always better to take a risk to keep a healthy-sized stack than to let yourself get down so low you have to take a risk.

The reasoning here is simple: if the chip average is $1,000 and you have $600, taking a coin flip here will put you just above average with a win.

If you let yourself get ground down to $200 a coin flip still has the same odds of winning, but you'll end with $400 chips.

Your stack is still so low you now have to take a second coin flip to still be below average. The odds of winning one coin flip are 50%; the odds of winning two consecutive coin flips are 25%.

By letting yourself get ground down, you're forcing yourself to face twice as much risk for fewer chips.

Further Reading:

Turn on Your Aggression

After all my advice to protect your chips and play tight, you need to turn on your aggression when your chips start to get low compared to the blinds.

This doesn't apply to calling other raises unless you have the nuts.

You should be raising with any decent hand, hoping to steal but still having a good chance to win if you get a call.

Calling pre-flop is rarely a good play in the late stages of a tourney. Raise or fold -- or if you're as low as our example, push or fold.

If making a standard raise (approximately 3x the big blind) will make the pot larger than your stack after getting one call you would be better off pushing pre-flop. If the pot is $1,200 and your stack is $400, it's almost impossible to bluff someone here.

You would have had a better chance at making them fold pushing $1,000 pre-flop.

Further Reading:

Know Your Goal in a Poker Tournament!

You have to know your goal in the tournament -- your honest-to-goodness goal. Almost all professional poker players will play to win; most amateurs are playing to just make the money.

There's a big difference in how you will play the game if your goal is winning as opposed to just finishing in the money.

Is it more important for you to limp into the money and leave yourself in a state that will make it almost impossible to make it to the final table? Or is it better to risk not making the money at all for a real shot at taking down the final table?

That's up to you to decide. But there's a proper strategy you can apply for each.

Further Reading:

Know the Rules of the Poker Room

As mentioned in First Time at the Casino Part 1, you need to know all the rules of the room. The rule most amateurs get tripped up on the most is the "oversized chip" rule.

If you throw in one oversized chip (meaning the bet to you is $25 and you throw in one chip worth $100) it is always a call unless you say the word "raise" first.

If you don't want to make any betting mistakes, the rule of thumb is to always vocalize your intended actions.

Know the Blind Structure!

You need to know the blind structure of the tournament. If the tournament structure is really aggressive, it will force you to make stronger moves much earlier.

Tournament officials will supply you with this information if you ask. Some places will print it out for you; others will just let you look at the list.

Most Poker Tournament Players Are Just like You!

Most of the players in poker tournaments are in the same boat as you -- they're first-time or casual players.

Half the players who put on an act of being a serious player are anything but. If you know how to play the game, you have no need to worry.

Just play as best you can and have a good time! Having a good time, regardless of results, will make winning the prize nothing more than a delightful bonus.

How to Act When Playing Live Casino Poker (For the First Time or for the Millionth Time)

Poker is far unlike any other casino game, in that you re sort of like the casino itself: you need paying customers in order to be successful.

Think about it. A casino can be dead empty, yet you ll still be have your choice of the slots. You ll probably be able to play blackjack, Pai Gow, craps and roulette. Yet you will not be able to play poker.

Poker players depend on other members of the general public walking into the casino to sit down and play poker. It s a basic requirement one we take for granted yet one that needs to be pounded into the head of every player nearly every day.

Why? Because too often, poker players forget who their customers are. (Pssst: it s the other 8 players sitting at your table).

I mention this, because far too many times, there are examples of bad business at the poker table. That is, a player berating another player for what he thinks is inferior, or suboptimal play.

It s bad for business, for two reasons: (1) it can scare the player away or
(2) it can make him a better player.

1) Scaring the Player Away

The scene: the upstairs poker room at the then smoky Lady Luck Casino in Black Hawk, Colorado.

I m playing $2-$10 spread limit hold em (in which your bet can be anywhere from $2 to $10 per bet). The table is fairly fun and easy-going.

During one hand, I had flopped an open-ended straight draw. My chances of making a straight on the river were roughly 1 in 3, and with 3 other players in the pot, it was worth it to chase it down to the river.

The balding, 30ish former hockey player (he kept reminding us he played college hockey), didn t like it when I made my straight and cracked his pocket kings. He muttered an insult under his breath, but I could barely hear it as I was raking in my pot and his chips in my pile were making too much noise.

Cut to, the very next hand, when I flopped another 1/3rd chance of making a great hand this time the nut flush. I got there on the turn against a couple of other players including .you guessed it, balding former hockey player, who had flopped a straight.

This time, however, the loss caused him to explode. H called me a donkey, and an idiot, and other bad names I can t mention on a respectable website. Or even this one for that matter.

After a couple more minutes of insults, I grabbed a rack and stacked up my chips to go home. My back-to-back wins of huge pots had decimated the table, as I had by far most of the chips on the table. Balding hockey player wasn t even reloading, so the game didn t look too profitable.

More importantly, as a guy who avoids conflict, the game wasn t going to be fun for me. Had everyone been laughing and good sports, I would have stayed. But, when balding hockey player asked me, Where the hell are you going? I told him the truth: I was going to go to Ameristar (a poker room down the street), to get drunk and probably lose all of my chips.

The chips I had won at the Lady Luck could of (and likely would have), gone back to the balding hockey player and his seat mates if only he could have been a good sport. Was opening his mouth to criticize me worth $400? I only hope his outburst made him feel better, but the look on his face said otherwise.

2) Make the bad player better.

Help the golfing partner in your foursome improve his stroke. Help your co-worker with that important report. But don t ever help a player whose money you re trying to win, become better at poker.

How in the hell could you chase that flush? shouted the angry New Yorker to the young player two seats to the left of me. I was sort of wondering the same thing, as the young player had nothing on the flop, other than a back door flush draw (meaning, when you need to hit runner, runner suited cards to make your flush). It s a bad, unprofitable long-term play. In other words, I loved seeing it.

This took place at a $2/4 limit hold em game at the old Oasis Poker Room in Mesquite, Nevada, but the way the New Yorker acted, you would have thought it was the final hand of the World Series of Poker Main Event.

I had a draw, said the young gun, to which the angry Yankee informed him that the chance of him catching his necessary two suited cards on the turn and river were astronomically low.

The young gun didn t reply, but I could tell the wheels were turning in his head. If chasing a back door flush draw heads up in limit hold em wasn t a good play, well then, by golly, he wasn t going to do it again, I pictured him thinking.

An maybe I m wrong, but at that exact moment, a bad poker player just got a little better, all thanks to the unsolicited poker advice shared by a New Yorker angry over losing a pot.

(Phil Hellmuth shows how not to act at the poker table)

Don t Tap the Aquarium

Ironically, pointing out inferior play, (or worse, good play that you THINK is inferior), communicates just how bad of a poker player you are.

That s because a good poker player stays relatively emotionally level. He or she won t berate bad play. They WANT to see bad play. Sure, it may mean you lose a pot here or there, but it s great for the long term.

This is especially true when playing against brand new players, or bad players, otherwise known as Fish.

Making fun of a bad players poor play is known as tapping the aquarium.

Just like knocking on the glass walls of a real aquarium, tapping the aquarium at the poker table means you ll scare all of the fish away. The bad player may storm out right away, or more likely, leave and never return to the card room again. After all, who wants to spend their free time giving money away to people while being ridiculed? It s certainly bad for business.

And yet, while tapping the aquarium has become common verbiage in poker rooms, the phrase doesn t really fit the constant berating of other players you ll see and hear in card rooms across America today.

Amazingly, you ll see a losing player mock an opponent who is his equal. In some cases, you ll watch as an oblivious bad player criticizes a superior opponent. When a player is so bad, he doesn t even realize he is trying to denigrate a superior player, it s not tapping the aquarium. Tapping the shark tank, maybe.

It s human psychology 101, yet it bears repeating: nothing good can come from berating an opponent at the poker table. The very short term release of anger you ll feel is far outweighed by the internal damage you ve created to the table vibe, the positive expected value you would have experienced, and a little to your soul.

Denigrating another player makes someone look foolish, but it s not your opponent.

Occasionally, you ll have a bad player berate you. He ll wonder how you could possibly play that hand, or how you could call. Your play may or may not have been justified. Either way, instead of sharing your poker knowledge, theory or strategy on the play, just keep quiet. Or, if you re like me, and sometimes can t help yourself, give the obnoxious loser a wink and say,

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