You may have heard the terms kicker and high card being used on poker shows or at the casino, but what does it mean and when do poker kickers matter? We’ll go through what high cards are and when they’re important when you’re playing.
Kickers in Poker Explained
In poker, kickers or high cards, are the cards that accompany your made hand that are used to determine the winner of the hand if two or more people have the same hand strength. High cards are commonly used to determine the winner between ties made with hands like:
- one pair,
- two pair,
- three of a kind, and
- four of a kind.
For made hands that use the five cards (e.g., straights, flushes, full houses), there is no kicker possible. The denomination of the hand itself decides on the winner (i.e., the highest card of that straight or flush).
- Player 1 has
- Player 2 has
- Board shows
Both players’ actual hand strength is a pair of aces. To decide the winner we look at the accompanying cards, as all poker hands are made up of five cards;
- the best five-card hand for Player 1 is a pair of aces with , ,
- the best five-card hand for Player 2 is a pair of aces with , ,
As Player 1 has the highest accompanying cards (), they win the hand. These accompanying cards are called the ‘kickers’, and the higher your kicker is the more likely you’ll win the hand if you and your opponent have the same hand strength.
If both players have the same kicker, or if the kickers are low enough that they don’t play (for example, if in the previous hand both players had A2 then the best five-card hand would be a pair of aces with, , ) then the hand ends in a tie and the pot is split evenly between the winning players.
Rules for Kickers in Common Poker Variants
Depending on the game you’re playing, there are slightly different rules for how kickers work.
Kickers in Texas Holdem
In Texas Holdem, the kicker (high card) is used to decide the winner between multiple hands of the same hand ranking. Each player forms the best five-card hand from the seven available (five community cards, and two hole cards). If the kickers are the same for two or more players during a tie, the pot is split between each player.
Kickers in Omaha Poker
In Omaha, you are required to use two cards from your hands and three from the board. Therefore the kickers you have in your hand become more important as it’s impossible that the ‘board plays’ (where the kickers on the board are higher than the ones in the players’ hands).
However, in Omaha you get at least 4 cards depending on the variant you’re playing so even though you can’t use all the cards on the board you have a lot more in your hand to choose from!
Kickers in Stud Poker
In Stud, your kicker doesn’t only dictate who wins in the event of a tie, it also dictates who is first to act on each street. As there are no blinds in Stud, position is determined by the strength of the hands showing with the strongest showing hand having to act first, then the rest of play moving clockwise from there.
Often there are no ‘made hands’ like pairs showing in Stud so it’s just a case of who has the highest up-cards.
Strategies with Poker Kickers
As your kicker helps determine your hand strength, you should be adjusting your post-flop strategies accordingly.
Bluff with a High Pair and Low Kicker in Poker
There may be some scenarios where you feel that even though you have a high pair, your opponent may also have a high pair but with a better kicker. In these situations you may be tempted to turn your hand into a bluff, however, there are very few scenarios where you need to turn a high pair hand (like top pair/second pair) into a bluff.
Instead, you’re much better off playing the hand more conservatively, trying to get only one or two streets of value from your opponent’s weaker pairs/draws and checking at least one street. It’s important to remember that ‘feeling’ your opponent has the same pair with a higher kicker is no substitute for optimal play.
Raise with High Pair and Low Kicker in Poker
A lot of novice players will look at a hand such as top pair on the flop and raise it, regardless of the board texture and the kicker that they have. What they don’t realize is that by raising, often they’ll be overplaying their hand, and when significant money goes in they’ll be up against the same pair with a better kicker, or an even better hand like two pair.
Rather than raising, you’re better off just calling if you’re not the preflop raiser, and going for either one or two streets of value if you were the preflop aggressor.
Cbet when In-Position and Check When Out-Of-Position
One of the great things about playing in position is that we can often decide whether or not we see the next card for free, or if we want a bet to go in on that street. When we have our high pair with weak kickers this is especially useful as we can c-bet the flop when our hand is likely good and we have the option to check back either the turn or the river if they bring particularly scary cards.
However, when we’re out of position we don’t have this luxury as we’re not last to act. In these situations, we want to be checking on earlier streets in anticipation of bad cards coming on the turn or river. We have to remember that most of the time these hands aren’t going to be worth three streets of value so erring on the conservative side will be better in the long run.
Size Your Bets Properly
It’s important when we’re placing our bets that we use the appropriate size for our hand strength. Knowing where our hand falls within our range and what size we should use accordingly is very important. If we start to use extremely large sizings with our middling strength hands, then we lose our value as we’re only going to be getting called by better hands.
We want to be betting sizes that we think get called by enough of our opponent’s weaker hands. Depending on the player this could be either a small sizing or a large sizing but we must be aware of what hands we’re trying to get calls from and size appropriately.
Being aware of your kicker strength (and whether or not it plays) will allow you to save money when you’re behind and extract value from your opponents when you have the dominating hand. Always pay attention to your kicker in poker!