First of all, let me explain what I mean by "casino poker". It's not the contrived poker games where you play against the casino like Pai Gow or Caribbean Stud. I'm taking about the real kind of poker where you play against the other players at a table in the poker rooms that some casinos have. The two most common casino poker games are 7-Card Stud and Hold 'Em (aka Texas Hold 'Em) and they are single-deck games. (Casinos make their money at these games by taking a small percentage of the winning pot. There is no house edge because you're playing against the other players at the table with you.)
If you are new to casino poker there's only one place to go - the Excalibur. Not only do they offer free poker lessons every afternoon (7 days a week) at 2 pm, but their room caters to low-limit players. Betting is done with $1 chips and the maximum that can be bet (on a raise, etc.) is $5. If you arrive for the lesson early, feel free to watch a game in progress. Poker seems to be Vegas' spectator sport. You'll often see people watching the action in casino poker rooms.
The best part of casino poker is this:
You don't have to bet!
There is no initial ante. If you don't like the hand you're initially dealt, you don't place a bet. You just fold by flipping your cards over and pushing them toward the dealer. You're out of that hand with no money bet. (There is one exception to this that you will see below.) This, along with the fact that it's a low-limit game, means you could spend hours at a table with $30 to $50 stack of chips. When you see someone playing every hand they're usually someone who doesn't know how to play casino poker.
I'll cover 7-Card Stud on this page because this is the game played most often in the Excalibur's poker room. The main difference between it and Hold 'Em is that in Stud, all players are dealt all cards directly to them. In Hold 'Em there are "flop cards" which are dealt face-up in the middle of the table and all players use these cards in their hands. That's why Hold 'Em is often referred to as a "community game". If you know how to play Stud, making the transition to Hold 'Em is an easy one.
In 7-Card Stud you are dealt seven cards to get the best 5-card hand you can. You want to use the best of your five cards to make up the best poker hand you can following the traditional poker ranking of hands:
The game starts with the dealer dealing each player two cards face down and a third card face up. (The dealing and subsequent betting goes in a counter-clockwise rotation like at a blackjack table.) Look at your two face down cards using both hands (one to lift them off the table and the other to cover them so the other players can't see what you have).
At this point, the player with the lowest value up-card has to start the betting - usually with a $1 chip. This is the only time you are forced to bet and it's only done to get the betting started somewhere.
If you don't have anything promising at this point, lay your two cards back down on the table, flip the up card over so it is also face down, and push your cards towards the dealer. (Never flip your face-down cards up. This is only done at the end of the hand when players compare their hands to see who won.) You are now out of this hand and you wait for the next hand to be dealt.
For the players that don't fold the game continues with the first round of betting (which was initiated by the player with the lowest up-card). Players can call ($1) or raise ($1+) when they place their bets. If a player raises, let's say he raises $2 for a total bet of $3, then all players that bet after him must bet $3. You usually won't see a lot of raising in the early betting rounds.
Place your bet (chips) in front of your cards. Don't throw them into the pot. The dealer will do that. If you want to raise, put both the call and the raise in one stack in front of you. Putting your call out and then your raise is considered "string bets" which are not allowed.
Once the first round of betting is complete, the dealer deals each remaining player another card face up and another round of betting takes place. This takes place two more times until the remaining players have four up-cards (the one dealt initially and three additional). In other words, each time the remaining players are dealt a new card a new round of betting takes place back at the $1 level (raises don't carry over from one betting round to the next).
Opposite the first round of betting which was started by the player with the lowest up-card, these betting rounds are started by the player with the best up-cards. The dealer will determine this.
If you are chosen as the first one to bet in a round (because you have the best up cards), you don't actually have to bet. You can simply say "check". Check is simply declining to place a bet in a round because the card you were just dealt didn't help your hand any. Then each of the players after you can check also. However, if a player does bet rather than check, then all players that bet after him must bet also (i.e. call).
DON'T FOLD IF YOU CAN CHECK !
If you can check in a round don't fold. Wait for the next round to get the additional card. It may change your hand and it doesn't cost you anything. If it doesn't help, you can simply fold in that round (or whatever round where you weren't able to check).
You can fold at any time during these additional betting rounds. You'll lose whatever you've bet to this point, and it's tempting to keep playing to try and get it back, but you're much better off not to throw good money after bad. If your cards don't improve, fold and save your money for future hands.
At this point the players still in the game have six cards, two down and four up. The dealer then deals them the final 7th card face down. Put this face-down card with your other two face-down cards and have another look to see what best 5-card hand you can make.
If you think you've got a chance (which you should if you stayed in this long) see if this card improves your hand. A final round of betting takes place. You'll often see some raising going on in this round.
After the betting is done the players turn their cards face up and the dealer determines who has the winning hand. The dealer will take the houses cut out of the pot and push the rest of it over to the winning player. If there has been a lot of betting/raising going on at a table with a lot of players these pots can be quite sizable.
Note: It's customary to tip the dealer 50 cents when you win a pot (but I'm sure they wouldn't mind if you tip more on a big pot).
The dealer will then shuffle the deck and a new game starts. That's all there is to it.
Unlike blackjack, you should pay attention to the other players cards. That's because they are the ones you are playing against. Check to see if they're close to having a straight or a flush. Do you have a pair? If the other players have the other two cards of the same value showing you're sure not going to get three or four of a kind. If you're hoping for a straight flush make sure none of the other players are showing one of the cards you'd need to get it (although you could still go for a non-flush straight).
Like roulette, the $1 chips used in poker games are specific to that game. You can obtain chips from the dealer or at the front desk in the poker room. You change your chips into cash at the front desk also.
A lot of players say "never draw to an inside straight". That's a straight where you need one of the cards in the middle such as when you're holding 4 5, 7, and 8 and you need a 6. What they're saying is if you need an inside card to complete a straight, fold rather than pursue it. That's because only one card (actually four if none is already dealt) will complete your straight. If you're working on an "outside" or open-ended straight there are two cards (actually eight if none is already dealt) that can complete your straight - either the card to complete it at the beginning or the end. In other words, you have double the chance of completing an outside straight than an inside straight.
Don't pursue a questionable hand is important rule to live by because, even though it's a low-limit game, you can end up betting a lot of money on a hand. There are five rounds of betting in each game so if you stay in to the end you'll have a minimum of $5 in the pot. If there's raising going on in several rounds on top of it, you could easily end up with $20 in the pot on a single hand. You can be as tight as you want to be when playing poker. No one is going to force you to bet. It's also good to remember that if you see a normally tight player raising you may want to fold. Tight players aren't going to raise unless they've got a strong hand. By the same token, if you have a good hand don't raise by a large amount. You'll just scare all the other players into folding (if they know what they're doing) and end up with a smaller pot.
Don't be shy about getting in a game. Pros and hustlers don't bother with low-limit games. The players at the table will be other Las Vegas visitors just like you (with maybe an occcasional retired local resident). If you're uneasy about getting in a game take one of the free lessons. It's held at the same table where the live games are played and it's one of the regular dealers giving the lesson. The poker room is near the back of the casino. Just go to the front desk in the poker room and tell them you are there for the lesson. (It's a nice gesture to tip the dealer who gave the lesson when it's over.)
You cannot get more chips while a game is in progress. If you're low on chips and the raising gets to the point where you don't have enough chips to call a raise, you must fold.
In the back of the Excalibur's poker room you'll see a wheel on the wall. If you get four of a kind (winning hand or not) you get to spin the wheel for a cash prize ranging from $20 to $200. This is unique to the Excalibur's room and it's just a little extra something they throw in for fun.
Once you get comfortable playing low-limit casino poker and you want to test your skills against more seasoned players, the Bellagio and Mirage have popular poker rooms with the Mirage having one of the biggest. Circus Circus also has a poker room to the left as soon as you walk in the front entrance.
Give casino poker a try!