When playing most variations of poker, the player with the best five-card hand wins the pot. There are many different hands a player can make, ranging from a high card to a royal flush. Some of these hands don’t require all five cards. For example, a flush is five cards of the same suit, so the player is using all five cards to make their best hand. A player with two pairs, however, is really only using four cards, two for each pair. The fifth card is known as their kicker, and often the kicker is what determines who wins a hand.
What is a Kicker in Poker?
Your kicker in poker is the remaining card or cards needed to create a five-card hand. If you have one pair, you technically have three kickers, although only the highest card will usually matter. In a game of Texas Hold’em, if you have AK and the board is AJ943, you have an ace with a king kicker. This is also called “top pair top kicker” because your king is the highest possible kicker you can have. If another player has AQ, while you both have one pair of aces, the player with AK will win since they have the higher kicker.
This becomes more clear when we look at each player’s five-card hand. Player 1, holding AK, has a five-card hand of AAKJ9. Player 2, holding AQ, has AAQJ9. Since the king is higher than the queen, player 1 wins the hand.
Kickers only come into play when two players have the same hand in terms of pairs and three of a kind. If a player has one pair of aces with a 5 kicker and the other has one pair of kings with an ace kicker, the pair of aces will always win. It is only when both players have the same one-pair, two-pair, or three-of-a-kind hand that we look at kickers.
There are times when two players have the same kicker since it is on the board. For example, if a board is AKJ53 and player 1 has A6 while player 2 has AQ, both players are playing AAK so we would have to look at the next kicker to determine the winner. Since player 2 has a Q they are playing AAKQJ while player 1 has a 6 so they are playing AAKJ6. This gives player 2 the victory for having the higher poker kicker.
It’s important to note that unlike some home games or non-poker card games, suits do not matter. If two players have the same exact five-card hand, you wouldn’t look at the suit rankings to determine the winner. If player 1 and player 2 both have AK on an AK853 board, they would split the pot. This is also known as a chopped pot since they chop up the money.
When Does Your Kicker Matter?
Kickers are very important in poker. Straights, flushes, and other hands using all five cards don’t come very often. More likely, you will be going to showdown with one or two pairs. This makes poker kickers extremely valuable, as they will often decide who wins the hand.
There is a reason you see many people folding hands like J3, K5, Q2, and so on. These hands with one high card and one low card don’t play very well post-flop because of the likelihood you have a bad kicker. You’ll often hear people say “I have kicker problems” when deciding to call a bet or not. Playing hands like J2 will give you kicker problems. When you hit a J, your kicker will never give you the best hand. To avoid kicker problems you can get rid of a lot of those types of hands, or use them solely as bluff catchers if you do arrive at the river with top pair and a bad kicker.
The strength of your kicker can matter more or less depending on the board. If you have A5 of spades and the board is AKJ42 your kicker, or lack thereof, is very important. You have a bad kicker, meaning almost any other ace your opponent has is going to beat yours. The only pair of aces that you beat is A3. In that case, your five-card hand is AAKJ5 while your opponent is playing AAKJ4. This player would have an ace with no kicker, meaning their kicker is lower than the kickers on the board. But this is a dream scenario. Every other ace beats you. If the player has AK, AJ, A4, or A2 they have two pairs which of course beats your one. If the player has A6-10 or AQ their kicker beats yours.
The above example is a board where kickers are incredibly important, but let’s take a look where it might not matter as much. Paired boards with additional high cards will usually diminish the strength of kickers. For example, if you have A5 on an AQ993 board, your five-card hand is AA99Q, meaning your 5 kicker doesn’t play. You could say your hand is an “ace with no kicker”. Since the board is paired with 99, there is less chance your kicker will play. However, if we change that Q to a 2, then kickers matter again. Your hand would be AA995 and most of the other Ax hands will beat you.
It is important to pay attention to the board when evaluating how important your kicker is. If your opponent has mainly one pair holdings in their range and you have one pair with a bad kicker, you should be careful about putting a lot of money in the middle. On the contrary, when you are playing hands with strong kickers like AK, KQ, etc. you can be confident in your ability to beat the other one-pair hands.
Wacky (and Incorrect) Home Game Kicker Poker Rules
I have seen some ridiculous home game rules when it comes to kickers. I started playing poker at home games with friends who had a loose grasp on the rules of poker. We would make judgment calls on the fly, incorrect assumptions, and straight guesses as to the rules surrounding who won the hand. Over the years I have met other players with similar experiences. Most of these home game misconceptions are surrounding kickers and using them incorrectly to determine who wins the hand. Here are a few of those strange rules.
The 6th Card Kicker
When I first started playing with friends we had no concept of a chopped pot. We assumed that you always have a winner and a loser, so if there was a chop we would look to the 6th card to determine the winner. If the board was AKJJ3 and two players had A7 and A2, the player with A7 would win even though their kicker didn’t play. On this same board, however, if the players had A7 and A3, we thought A3 would win since they had three pairs instead of two. If the players had the exact same cards in their hands, they would each draw a high card from the remaining deck to see who won the pot. It made no sense whatsoever, but we wanted blood. No chopped pots in those $20 home games.
Some home games will use the suits to determine whose kicker is higher. While this isn’t that crazy, it does eliminate chopped pots. If both players have top pair with the top kicker, the poker kicker with the higher suit will win the pot. The suits are ranked from lowest to highest as follows: clubs, diamonds, hearts, then spades. The only time suit rankings actually come into play in poker is while playing stud games, and that only determines who the bring-in (or forced bet) is.
Flush With a Pair Kicker
Probably the strangest home game rule I’ve seen has more to do with hand rankings than kickers, but it is an odd one. I’ve come across multiple players who at one point believed having a flush with a pair beat a higher flush without a pair. I once had a player come to a home game (where the rules were followed) and he was furious his Jh9h lost to AhKs on a QT923 four-heart board. He thought a flush and a pair would beat just a flush. Clearly, he didn’t understand what a five-card hand was.
While some home games may have interesting takes on kickers, it is important to remember you need the best five-card hand to win the pot. These interesting takes on kicker poker may lead to new variants, but none that you will find in a casino.
Kickers in Poker: Conclusion
Since most casino poker is NLH or PLO, it is very important to pay attention to your kicker and its relative strength on the board. When you have top pair top kicker (such as AK on an A-high board) you will always have the best one-pair hand. If your opponent mainly has one pair you can comfortably bet your hand. When you have a bad kicker or a kicker that doesn’t even play you need to be cautious when betting into or calling an opponent.
In order to keep from getting yourself in trouble with bad poker kickers, you should strive to play hands that make good top pairs. There is a reason you don’t see many people play A6 and A7 in large or even small pots. That is because these hands make bad top-pair hands. If you hit the ace, you could very likely be up against a bigger one. If you hit a 6 or 7, it is hard for that hand to be top-pair by the river. Even if you do have a small-medium top pair, that means with 4 other cards under it there are many two pairs, trips, and straights that can beat you.
When you look at preflop range charts from any position, you will see the top left corner contains hands that are almost always good to raise. These are hands like AK, QK, AQ, KJ, etc. The reason many preflop range charts highlight these hands is their ability to make strong pairs. Do yourself a favor, look at preflop range charts, identify the correct hands to play from each position, and stick to them. As you play these hands post-flop, you will see their ability to win pots with just one pair. Additionally, when the board pairs make sure you understand the changing dynamics for your poker kicker. Paired boards can make a good kicker nonexistent so it is important to adjust based on the changing board.
As discussed in this article, oftentimes a kicker will decide who wins the pot. For this reason, kickers are incredibly important and are something every poker player should be mindful of.