Teaching poker to absolute beginners

I like teaching and I like poker, although I’ve rarely tried to combine the two. This week, I’m going to give it a shot. I run a meetup group here in Peoria for single people. I have wanted to host some poker games for the group for some time. I finally decided to go ahead and host one this week. It wouldn’t simply be a poker tournament, it would first be a one hour lesson in the basics of Texas Hold’em tournaments. And then we would do an actual one table tournament with me dealing.

I’ve always thought teaching poker to beginners would be a fun thing to do. My goal with the class portion is simple, demonstrate the basics of the game like how the cards are dealt, how betting works, and how the winner is determined for each hand (and for the tournament). I also want them to understand the rules of betting, and various quirks of how poker is typically dealt, so that if they ever want to play in a casino run tournament, they will be able to sit down and play without asking too many questions. If we have time we will also go over some basic strategy ideas.

As a way to prepare, I thought I would write down here a plan for how I might approach the lesson.

I’m assuming that the people who are going to come will be familiar with card games in general, and the 52 card deck. Most if not all, will have a basic understanding of poker. Most will probably need a cheat sheet to keep track of what hands beat what. I’m pretty sure none of them will have played any hold’em tournaments.

I think the way to begin is probably at the end of a hand. The first thing I would do is deal out two cards to each person and deal the five cards in the middle and show each person how they would determine their hand (and who would win). I think it’s good to start here, so that people can see where the hand will end up. We will do this a few times, at least until a few of the bigger hands like flushes or straights show up. I’ll stress how important it is for the cards in your hand to match up with the board. I’ll also stress how important it is to look at the board and know what the best possible hands would be.

At this point I would talk about two very important rules that some players may not know if they have only played casual poker:

  • Cards speak – the player with the best hand wins. If they turn over their hand at the end, they do not have to declare what they have. It doesn’t matter if they know what they have, as long as someone at the table sees the cards and recognizes what hand they have (this is the dealer’s job primarily).
  • You must show both cards to claim the pot.

Next we will go through the betting rounds to get to that point. First I’ll deal everyone two cards face up, we will talk about which hands have some value and which hands do not. We will speculate who might stay in with the two cards they are dealt and who might drop out. Then we will deal the flop (the first three cards on the board) and talk about how the flop matches their hole cards. Again we will speculate (without betting) who might stick around and who might not. Then we will do the turn and the river. Again we will determine who won. I’ll want to do this a few times too, to show that sometimes hands that drop out might have won.

After they get a feel for that, we will break out the chips. We will start with the dealer button and the blinds and show how that first round of betting works. Then we will work our way through a few hands. I’ll talk a bit about pot size and the purpose of betting and raising. I’ll explain why it’s important to put your chips in front of you, but not into the pot during the betting round. Also, it’s important to not make change until the betting is over. If there is a dealer, let the dealer handle it.

Next we will talk about what table stakes means and what it means to go all in. I’ll set up some examples, first with one player allin against another player. Then another hand with a side pot (1 player allin but two other players still competing for the side pot). And finally I’ll show them a situation with more than one side pot.

I think that poker like many things is taught by starting at the beginning. Everyone is dealt two cards and then they talk about the blinds and what might be a good hand to start with. But I have a hunch that this will work better. I’ll start at the end of the hand and show them where they will end up. It might be easier to understand what’s happening in the early rounds when they can see the end game.

I suspect this must be true for improv too. It’s easier to teach a Harold to someone who has seen one.

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