Beginner’s Guide to Casino Poker: Getting a Seat in Your First Game

Casinos have rules, processes, and etiquette that might trip up new players — or at the very least confuse and mystify them — on their first few trips. I’ll try to explain them to you ahead of time, so you don’t feel scared or humiliated. Understanding them may also prevent you from losing money due to an unintentional rule violation during the game.

This series of articles focuses on how casino poker varies from what you’ve learned from playing online poker or in home games, particularly in terms of its “procedural” characteristics. I’m going to assume that readers have enough expertise with one or both of those other sorts of poker games to feel comfortable playing them and that they’d like to expand their repertory with casino poker.

I’ll provide you step-by-step instructions to getting into a cash game in this first chapter. In a subsequent column, I’ll go through how to enter a casino poker tournament.

Identifying the Available Games

So you’ve been to Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Tunica, Los Angeles, or one of the many other poker venues offered in the United States and around the world. You’ve decided on which poker room to visit. So, what’s next?

The first step is to learn about the games that are offered. Poker rooms advertise game availability to potential players in a variety of ways. The majority now features a large-screen TV that displays the fun and the names of anyone waiting to play. Some people utilize a whiteboard that is manually updated. One person behind a desk with a plain piece of paper is still used in the tiniest rooms, and you must inquire what games are offered.

Let’s say you learn that the options are as follows via one of these methods:

  • 2-4 limit hold’em
  • 4-8 limit hold’em
  • 1-2 no-limit hold’em
  • 2-5 no-limit hold’em
  • 4-8 Omaha-8

After such lists, you’ll often notice a number in parenthesis that indicates how many tables of each game are currently active. The actual table numbers are displayed in some places. (In a poker room, each table is assigned a unique number.) If there are names under the game title, it means that others are eager to play.

What Do the Figures Mean?

The pair of digits in front of the game’s name expresses the stakes of the game. Surprisingly, the numbers in different games have distinct meanings.

Fixed-limit games are named after the size of the bets you can make in hold ’em and Omaha (also known as “flop games”). For example, “4-8 limit hold’em” means that the first two betting rounds of each hand (before the flop and on the loss) are $4, and the turn and river are each $8. Although some casinos utilize alternative structures, the blinds in these games usually are one-half of those values, or $2 and $4 in this example.

Stud games (and, if you can locate one, draw games) all follow the same format: the numbers in the game’s name denote the maximum stake sizes.

However, when you think you’ve grasped the concept, you notice that no-limit games are listed differently. The term “1-2 no-limit hold’em” does not imply that the stakes are $1 and $2, as this would defeat the purpose of the “no-limit” structure. Instead, the two blinds are used to name these games, with the small blind being $1 and the big blind being $2 in this case.

To add to the confusion, a few casinos, most notably those in southern California, have abandoned the principles I’ve just explained in favor of a befuddling jumble of buy-ins and blinds as game titles.

A “$40 NL” game, for example, will refer to no-limit hold ’em with a buy-in of exactly $40 — no more, no less — and blinds of $1 and $2, respectively. Other versions are used in specific locations, but they are too numerous to list here. But don’t worry; if you tell them you’re new to the area, they’ll gladly explain what the words, numbers, and abbreviations imply. The following explanations will serve you well almost anywhere else.

Purchasing a Ticket and Taking a Seat

So, let’s say you’ve opted to play one of the available games. Approach the person waiting to greet you at the poker room’s entrance and tell them what you’re looking for. You’ll either be placed on a waiting list or, if you’re lucky, led or escorted right to an empty seat in a live game.

If you have to wait, be sure you don’t go somewhere where you won’t be able to hear your name called. When it’s your turn, some poker clubs will call or text your cell phone, allowing you to do anything else while you wait. However, I believe it is preferable to stay and observe (from a safe distance) a game of the type you intend to play to get a sense of what’s going on.

After that, you’ll need to exchange some cash for chips. But how much is it? The amount you can or must pay to buy into a game is tied to the blinds and bet sizes, but not in any obvious or defined way. In most no-limit games, the buy-in is capped at 100, 150, or 200 times the cost of the large blind. There are, however, poker venues with much lower buy-in limits and others with none at all.

You won’t figure it out on your own; you’ll have to consult an employee. Limit games are frequently uncapped, but if you bought into a fixed-limit match for more than approximately 50 large blinds, you’d be looked at strangely because stack sizes don’t usually have a significant impact on how the game runs.

Let’s say you want to play $2/$4 limit hold ’em, and you’ve opted to buy in for the utmost amount this casino allows for this game, which is $200. You can exchange your cash for poker chips in four different ways.

  1. The person who signs you in at the front podium may also be the cashier for the room.
  2. They may take you to a different cashier’s “cage” where you can buy chips.
  3. When you sit down, you may be told to buy your chips from the dealer.
  4. They may have a “chip runner” take your money and bring you chips after taking your seat.
  5. Even for veteran players, which approach a specific location uses (and it might change depending on how busy they are) is not always evident – you have to ask.

Congratulations! You’ve cleared the first obstacle and are sitting in your first casino poker game, your chips neatly arranged in front of you. I’ll start delving into what the casino wants of you as a player at one of their tables in the upcoming entry.