Poker is all about making the best hand – or making your opponent think you have it. But what is the best possible hand in poker – and what are your chances of making it?
Poker is a family of card games where players wager over who has made the best hand. A poker hand is a set of five cards that falls into one of nine categories:
- high card,
- two pair,
- three of a kind,
- full house,
- four-of-a-kind, and
- straight flush.
The hand rankings are based on how difficult it is to make each hand category. The harder a type of hand is to make, the higher its value. Hands are ranked within each hand category based on the value of the cards involved – for example, a pair of Aces beats a pair of Tens, and a King-high flush beats a Six-high flush.
What is the Best Poker Hand?
The best hand you can make in most forms of poker is the Royal Flush. It’s made up of the five “broadway” cards all of the same suit.
In poker, “Broadway” refers to the five highest-ranked cards: the Ten, Jack, Queen, King, and Ace.
The Royal Flush is also the best possible straight flush. It’s both a straight (the five cards are sequential) and a flush (the cards are all the same suit).
Straight flushes are the hardest type of hand to make in poker, and so they have the highest value. The Royal Flush involves the highest value cards – and so it is the best of the best.
It isn’t actually harder to make than other straight flushes – in fact, in Texas Hold’em it is slightly easier! We’ll explain why later on.
You will find that the Royal Flush poker hand is usually listed separately in hand ranking charts, even though the Ace-high straight and Ace-high flush are not. There isn’t really a reason for this other than the fact the Royal Flush is the very best hand you can make and so deserves its own separate entry!
It’s called the Royal Flush because it involves all the “royal cards” – the King, Queen, and Jack. The name is a bit misleading because firstly it’s a straight flush and not just a flush. And secondly, you can make a lower straight flush with the “royal” cards – the King-high straight flush. But that’s been its name since the 1800s, and it sounds appropriately fancy for the strongest poker hand!
The only poker games where the Royal Flush isn’t the best hand are ones that use wildcards (because five of kind is possible) and lowball games (where you want to get the lowest possible hand).
Odds of Making a Royal Flush
The probability of hitting a Royal Flush depends on the form of poker you are playing. Texas Hold’em is by far the most popular, so we will concentrate on that. In the next section, we will look at Video Poker, which is pretty much the same as Five-card Draw poker.
Texas Hold’em involves making the best five-card hand you can out of the two cards in your hand and the five cards on the table. That’s a total of seven cards, making it a form of seven-card poker. You are making a five-card hand out of seven cards available.
Royal Flush Odds: Flop
There are 2,598,960 distinct combinations you can make out of five cards (the order doesn’t matter but the suit and value do).
This is the situation after the flop has been dealt. There are four ways of making a Royal Flush out of five cards (one for each suit) – so you have a 4 in 2,598,960 (or 1 in 649,740) chance of flopping a Royal Flush.
This is the probability before any cards have been dealt – obviously, you have zero chance if you don’t hold two suited Broadway cards when the flop is dealt!
And if you hold two suited broadways, then the chance of flopping a Straight Flush is much higher – 1 in 19,600 (the same as the number of possible distinct flops in Texas Hold’Em because there is only one possible “Royal Flush flop” that will turn your specific hole cards into a Royal!)
Royal Flush Odds: River
Of course, the flop is not the end – there are still two more cards to come. This makes an enormous difference to the probability. There are only four ways of making a Royal Flush out of five cards – but there are 4,324 ways of making it out of seven (5 community cards, and your 2 hole cards).
This is because there are many combinations of the two cards you don’t end up using in your best five-card hand. 1,081 in fact – multiply that by 4 (one for each possible Royal Flush suit) and you get 4,324.
There are 133,784,560 possible different seven-card combinations. 4,324 out of 133,784,560 works out to 1 in 30,940. Those extra two cards make a big difference!
The formula to convert probability to odds is
1-in-x = (x-1)-to-1. For example, a 1 in 6 chance is the same as 5-to-1 odds.
So (before any cards are dealt), the odds of making a Royal Flush by the river are 30,939-to-1. These odds might seem slightly short. After all, it’s easy enough to play 31,000 hands without seeing a Royal Flush.
But first, you have to remember that most hands don’t reach the river! There are many hands where everyone folds pre-flop that might have made a Royal.
And on top of that, probability doesn’t really work that way. You aren’t guaranteed to see something after X number of times just because the probability is 1-in-X. For example, if you flip a coin twice you aren’t guaranteed to see heads at least once, even though there’s a 1 in 2 chance of flipping heads. In fact, the probability is only 75%.
Why Other Straight Flushes are Harder to Make in Texas Hold’em
The Royal Flush is actually slightly easier to make than other specific straight flushes. This sounds crazy but it’s true.
If you take any specific straight flush (say the King-high straight flush,), there are 4,140 ways of making it out of seven cards compared to 4,324 ways of making a Royal.
The reason for this is that with a Royal Flush it doesn’t matter what the other two cards are – but with a King-high straight flush, you cannot have an Ace of the same suit as one of the other two cards. If you did it would make it a Royal Flush instead.
So there are slightly fewer ways of making a King-high straight flush out of seven cards than a Royal Flush. And the same is true for any other straight flush.
Royal Flush in Poker Tournaments
This hand happened on day 4 of the 2016 Pokerstars Caribbean Adventure tournament, involving Paul Tedeschi, Fabian Rabah and Phillip McAllister.
Unfortunately, the video doesn’t show the players’ hole cards – but here they are:
- Tedeschi (Middle Position) –
- McAllister (Button) –
- Rabah (Big Blind) –
Tedeschi open raises his pocket Queens from the middle position and Rabah and McAllister both call.
The flop comes,. It is giving Tedeschi a top set. He chooses to check behind Rabah. McAllister bets and the other two both call.
The turn brings the Jack of hearts. The board is now.
Again Rabah and Tedeshi check and McAllister bets. Rabah calls, but the short-stack Tedeshi elects to push all-in. Both his opponents call.
The river brings the Ace of hearts. The board is now.
Rabah has a straight but McAllister has the Royal Flush! Rabah bets and McAllister jams all-in – and who can blame him!
Rabah tanks for a while but finds the fold. McAllister shows his cards and Tedeschi is knocked out.
Countering a Royal Flush Hand
The Royal Flush is the strongest hand in poker. So, the only way to counter it is not to pay off your opponent! If you know your opponent has a Royal then you need to check/fold.
That’s the easy part – the tricky part is working out whether the opponent holds a Royal Flush in the first place.
First of all, the board needs three or four cards to build a Royal on it. But this will mean that there are plenty of other straights and flushes they could have. (These are the real threats in the long run.)
You should mainly worry about whether your hand beats the straights and flushes that the board makes possible. If the board is paired there is also the possibility of quads or a full house.
Consider your opponents’ actions up to the river and try to narrow the range of hands they could have. Most people will slow-play a Royal Flush – but if they’ve been calling each street, they must have something good – especially on such a scary board!
The time to be most concerned about a Royal is when there are four cards to a Royal on the board – meaning your opponent only needs one specific card to have hit it. But four cards to a Royal won’t happen often!
Most of the time, running into a Royal Flush in Texas Hold’em is so rare you should not automatically be worrying about it. Coolers are part of poker, and losing to a Royal with the nut flush or better is pretty much the ultimate cooler. You don’t really need a specific strategy for Royal Flushes, because you might only see them once or twice in your life.
If there are three or four cards to a Royal on the board and your opponent checks to you, think carefully before you bet and reopen the action. Always ask yourself: what worse hands than mine can they call a bet with?
Checking behind is the ultimate counter to the Royal Flush – but you will be missing out on value most of the time when they don’t have it.
Probability of a Royal Flush in Video Poker
Video Poker is basically Five-card draw poker. You are dealt five cards, and then you have one chance to choose to swap any or all of these. Instead of playing against other people, the machine pays out based on how hard it is to make your hand.
The probability of being dealt a Royal Flush in Video Poker is fairly straightforward to calculate. It’s the same as flopping a Royal Flush in Texas Hold’em. There are 2,598,960 different five-card hands you can make. This means the chance of making any specific hand is 1 in 2,598,960. There are four different Royal Flush hands, one for each suit. So the probability of being dealt a Royal flush is 4 in 2,598,960 – or 1 in 649,740.
Expressed in odds form, the odds of being dealt a Royal Flush in Video Poker are 649,739-to-1.
Odds of Drawing to a Royal Flush in Video Poker
Things get a bit more complicated if you want to allow for drawing. It all depends on how many cards you decide to swap out for new ones.
If you swap out five cards, then there are 47 cards left in the deck, and you’ve got rid of 5 duds. This means the chance of being dealt a Royal Flush are higher than your initial five cards – 383,483-to-1.
If you swap out four cards, then the odds of hitting your Royal Flush are 178,364-to-1.
Three cards, the odds are 16,124-to-1.
Two cards, the odds are 1,081-to-1.
Drawing one card, the odds are 46-to-1.
Some Video Poker machines offer bigger pay-outs for “Sequential Royals” – that is, Royal Flushes where the cards come in the correct order. The odds of hitting a Sequential Royal are thousands of times longer than hitting a regular Royal Flush – about 3.8 million to 1.
The Royal Flush is the best possible hand in poker – but it’s so rare many players will never see one. It’s best not to worry too much about running into one!