Mexican Poker is played with a deck of 41 cards: a standard deck of playing cards without the 8's, 9's, or 10's, but with a single joker added. Despite the relative rarity of official card rooms spreading Mexican Poker, a few card manufacturers (including the Mint playing card company) manufacture official Mexican Poker decks containing the proper cards.
The game begins by all players anteing a small amount, usually half of the smaller limit of a fixed-limit game (in the 1/2 limit game at the Bike, the ante is 50 cents). The dealer then deals each player one downcard, then deals each player one upcard. Play then continues with the first of the four betting rounds amongst the players. As in most hi stud games, the player with the lowest upcard must bet a bring-in, or may bet a full bet, but cannot check or fold. Action continues clockwise around the table (as is typical), as players can choose to fold, call, or raise according to the betting structure of the game.
After the first betting round is complete, the dealer deals one more card to each of the players remaining in the hand, but must deal the card face up or face down according to the player's choice. When it is a player's turn to receive a card in a "dealing round", they may choose to receive their new card face down by turning the current downcard face up. If they instead wish to keep their current downcard face down, they signal to the dealer (usually by making a "thumbs-up" gesture) that they want their new card dealt face up. After each "dealing round", there is another betting round, which starts with the player with the best hand exposed in their upcards. Once all remaining players have five cards in their hand, there is a final betting round, and then a showdown (if there is more than one player remaining at that point).
A dealer button is used in this game, but only for two reasons: to determine where the dealer deals the cards first in each dealing round (the deal always starts to the left of the button, regardless of the current upcards), and to determine which hand leads the betting in a betting round if two hands are tied in terms of their upcards.
The Joker has two possible meanings in Mexican Poker:
- If it is dealt to a player face down, then the Joker is considered completely wild, and may be played as though it were any card. This remains true even if the player subsequently turns the Joker face up and receives a new card face down during a dealing round.
- If it is dealt to a player face up, the Joker is considered a bug (though it usually is not called a "bug", but just a "joker") and can be played only to complete a straight, complete a flush, or as an Ace. When the Joker is dealt face up to a player, the dealer will generally place a special button or sign on the table indicating that the visible, exposed joker is not wild but is only a bug (or "partially wild"). This avoids confusion, since players can turn cards face up on their own and still retain a Joker's "wildness".
The removal of the 12 cards results in just one difference in hand ranking for Mexican Poker: a flush beats a full house (because a flush is harder to make, given the three fewer cards of each suit available). All other poker hands are valid and are ranked normally:
- High card
- One pair
- Two pair
- Three of a Kind
- Straight (*)
- Full House
- Four of a Kind
- Straight Flush
- Five of a Kind (**)
(*) Note that you can make straights in Mexican Poker which jump directly from the 7 to the Jack; although the 8-9-10 cards are missing, they do not make a "hole" in the straight sequence; the next card higher than a 7 is a Jack, and it can continue a straight. For players used to playing Hold 'Em or Omaha, this can be difficult to master: it is hard to train the eyes to see a 6-7-J-Q as being an open-ended straight draw.
(**) Because of the existence of the Joker in the deck, which can be wild, it is possible to make Five of a Kind, which outranks every other hand.
Mexican Poker can be played in any betting structure, though it most often played either fixed-limit or no-limit.
Mexican Poker is generally only spread in card rooms in the Los Angeles area. The Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens actually has a dozen or so tables dedicated strictly to this game, and there are games running on those tables 24/7.
Mexican Poker is generally limited to only seven players per table (though technically, eight players could play if the dealer reused the burn for the final dealing round).