Poker is a game – or, more accurately, a group of games – with a huge number of fans worldwide. It’s a staple in casinos, where you can usually find several people playing at a table. However, you don’t need a full group to enjoy this classic game. How many people are enough to play poker, and how does this number affect the strategy?
Practically every variation of poker – including the most popular ones, such as Texas Hold’em, Omaha, or the 2-7 Triple Draw – can be played without any problems with just two players. In fact, many poker tournaments actually end up with a single pair of bettors going against each other to determine the final winner. It’s often called ‘heads-up poker’, and it’s also perfectly possible to simply arrange a game between two players.
What’s interesting is that the strategy can change considerably in this case, as the chances of having a winning hand are much higher. This is the direct result of having fewer opponents – in many cases, you can win even with a ‘weak’ hand, such as a single pair. The psychological aspect of the game becomes more important, as you practically always need to employ a good amount of bluffing and try to read your opponent correctly.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind with two-player poker: the person dealing the cards is always the small blind (the smaller of the two obligatory bets made at the start), making the other one the big blind. The order is usually determined by drawing a card before the beginning of the game. The first card is always dealt to the big blind, and the order of play is the same as when playing with more people: pre-flop, the dealer goes first, and post-flop, the dealer goes last. The players take turns being the dealer in order to ensure fairness when it comes to the blind bets. In general, heads-up games are considered as requiring more skill, and can often be more fun than playing at a bigger table.
In general, the traditional variations of poker assume two or more players, as it’s one of the games where the primary aspect is bettors going against each other. As such, you would usually need at least two players. The total number can theoretically go even above 20, but it’s usually six or nine people at the table. However, there are several versions designed for a single player, and the most popular one of them is probably video poker. The common aspect is that there are obviously no betting rounds, which are one of the most exciting parts of regular poker. When playing alone, your winnings are dependent solely on the value of your hand. This also means that the psychological aspect is completely gone, making single-player poker more similar to other casino games, where you have to rely only on your luck and strategy.
The typical version of video poker is the classic five card draw. A popular variant is also the Triple Pocket Hold’em, where the player picks from one of three hands dealt to them, while the others are ‘sent back’ to the dealer. There are also casinos and websites where you can go alone against virtual opponents – while technically still being single-player poker, the flow of the game is more similar to standard variations.
Interestingly, as opposed to several other card games (e.g. blackjack) where you can scale up the number of players along with the number of decks, poker has a hard limit when it comes to the table size. The reason is that all variations of poker use a singular deck – what’s more, all the rules and odds are dependent on this simple fact. As a result, there’s only ever 52 (or up to 55 with jokers in some variants) cards in play.
Given that there are 5 ‘community cards’ (that is, the shared cards that players use to make their hands along with their own cards), and each player gets two cards, we can quickly calculate the maximum number to be 22. This is of course a lot more people than you can typically find at a poker table. In the case of a real casino, there are the physical constraints to take into account – it simply isn’t feasible to have such a massive table. With a larger number of players, the pace is also noticeably slower, making the game much less exciting. As such, the typical number is up to 9 in a real life casino, and usually 6 in an online casino. Those numbers are considered optimal to ensure fair odds and a decent flow of the game. Sometimes, the game can start without a full table or with an extra player – it’s entirely possible to play with any number of players, from 2 all the way up to 22.
It’s worth keeping in mind that the strategy can change depending on the number of players. Generally, a larger table means that your chances of your hand being the best are smaller, thus promoting somewhat safer play than when going against one or two opponents. While your odds of having a specific combination of cards remain the same, the possibility of more players having better hands needs to be taken into account, which should affect the way you approach the game.