We're not going to lie - poker betting rules can seem a little confusing in fast-paced games with a lot of action. This said, it will only seem that way; the poker betting rules that govern actions don't actually vary. It can just appear convoluted because of different poker variations and/or the speed of the action.
There are really only five betting actions and two distinct precursors that will affect how to use your options. Here's what we mean:
The Precursor: There are no bets before you
Available Actions: Check, Bet, Fold
Option 1. Check: In the event no one has fronted any money before you (aside from mandatory betting from big or small blinds or antes), the poker betting rules allow you to 'check', meaning you don't put any money in the pot, but you get to stay in the game to see (and perhaps benefit from) the action. If you are the big blind and no one has raised once the round of action has come back to you, it is a good idea to always check. After all, you have already paid to be in the pot, so you might as well see where your money takes you - even if you have a weak hand.
Option 2. Bet: Put some money in the pot to drive action and show your interest. Betting forces your opponents to bet, or alternatively, fold. Most players bet when they have a solid hand, but there are other reasons to bet, even with a less than ideal hand (e.g. bluffing to drive/control the action). Poker betting rules simply stipulate when you can make a certain move - there is no stipulation on why.
Option 3. Fold: Fold and you don't front any money, but you also don't see any more action. You’re out of the game for this hand. Just keep in mind that while poker betting rules certainly allow this as an option, it is a totally unnecessary and pretty backward move. Even if you have a totally lousy hand, you can still check without committing any of your chips. After all, no one has bet so you can see the next street at no cost.
The Precursor: There's a bet before you
Available Actions: Call, Raise/Re-Raise or Fold
Option 1. Call: Basically, you're matching the bet amount and staying active in the hand. Unless an opponent raises, the round of betting will continue to orbit the table until it’s time for the next card to be dealt - or, if there are no more streets, until it is time for showdown.
Option 2. Raise/Re-raise: When you raise you match the previous bet, and then add extra. You'll want to do this to indicate a strong hand (whether you actually have one or not - see our bluffing strategy article). You will re-raise if someone has raised before you and you want to see their wager and then add even more chips to the pot. Again, poker betting rules don’t dictate that you have to have a good hand to make this move – you just have to have the cash, confidence and experienced know-how to back it up.
Option 3. Fold: Take yourself out of the game. The Con: You forfeit any money you've put into the pot up to this point. The Pro: It’s still better than losing more money when your hand can't back up your bankroll.
There you have it! Your most basic poker betting rules. As we mentioned, the rules stay the same; they can just seem hard to remember when the action is flying around the table or if you’re trying your hand at a different type of poker game. Don’t make it too confusing for yourself: just remember your two precursors and then rest will fall into place.