In poker's old days -- that's about three years ago -- much of what many people understood about the game they learned from a Kenny Rogers song.
You had to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away. Right?
Well, the lyrical advice in that poignant old ballad was basically on target, but today a whole lot of folks are serious about figuring out exactly when they should be holdin' and foldin' and walkin'.
Some professional players have observed that poker is a game that takes an afternoon to learn and a lifetime to master. So, just as Rogers' fading gambler offered his young companion guidance, we'll try to give you some advice.
The game that has been featured on most television poker shows is Texas Hold 'em. And until it was popularized on ESPN broadcasts of the World Series of Poker -- where participation in the main event jumped from 839 players in 2003 to 5,619 last summer -- it was probably the least known of the basic poker games.
Draw poker, where players get to discard some of their original cards for new ones, and stud games, where players are dealt some combination of facedown and exposed cards, were traditionally much more popular, especially in the East.
But Texas Hold 'em, particularly the no-limit variety where there is no cap on betting, has grabbed the limelight because of its deceptive simplicity (see accompanying story) and dramatic turns of fortune.
But within this seemingly uncomplicated game reside layers of probabilities and psychology that give the game the delectable balance of science and art, like that found in an extraordinary wine.
Before we go any further, a disclaimer:
For any would-be player, an issue to consider is the legality of any poker game -- including ones at home -- that include cash wagering.
Gambling is usually a state issue, and sometimes, municipal jurisdictions have their own ordinances. Last year, a poker club in Baltimore was the target of a high-profile raid by city police. Players were not prosecuted because of a procedural error, but operators still face charges. Home card-playing involving small stakes generally has been immune from enforcement, but authorities have said even those games can be violations.
That said, the popularity of the game in private homes, online and at gambling establishments like casinos is only increasing, and poker can be fun to learn and play even when only piles of colorful chips or play money is at stake.
Begin with a book. There are many good reads on the game. One that many players have started with is Winning Low Limit Hold 'em by Lee Jones, who is also associated with the online poker Web site PokerStars. For tournament play, Anne Arundel County accountant Steve Dannenmann, who finished second and won $4.25 million in the 2005 World Series of Poker main event in Las Vegas, recommends Harrington on Hold 'em -- Expert Strategy for No Limit Tournaments: Strategic Play (Vol. 1) by respected pro Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie.
"What people need to do is exercise patience," said Dannenmann, who also finished fifth in the Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas, winning $100,000.
"And they have to play tight," he added, using the poker terminology for conservative play. "And when you think you're playing too tight, play tighter. Play top-10 premium hands and you'll do well."
The premium hands that Dannenmann speaks of are the best so-called starting hands, meaning the first two facedown cards each player receives. The very best starting hand is ace-ace, followed by king-king, queen-queen and ace-king of the same suit.
When Dannenmann enjoyed his improbable run to the final table at the poker World Series main event last summer, his poker experience was limited to a home game with friends, the most informal way to enjoy the game.
Putting together a home game requires little more than a table large enough to accommodate six to 10 people, a deck of cards and some chips. For home-style tournaments, a kitchen timer is handy to keep track of betting levels, meaning when the opening bets should be raised to help force the betting action.
Just about every retailer from Wal-Mart to department stores now sells home poker sets, and one that includes 500 chips should serve for most home games. A quick survey of online auction-and-shopping site eBay showed such sets for sale for about $10. Larger sets with 1,000 chips were closer to $30. You should find poker sets in the same price range at stores.
Of course, there are many places where poker and other forms of gambling are perfectly legal. Casinos in Nevada, Atlantic City and Connecticut are just a handful of the places where players can take a seat.
Several years ago, poker rooms were disappearing from casinos because the game is not a huge revenue generator. But today, casinos are opening and expanding poker rooms because of increased demand.