What Are the High Card Rules In Poker and How To Use Them To Your Advantage?

Poker is a game where you want to make strong hands against opponents who have slightly weaker hands. The best way to get paid is by making the best possible hand, or the nuts, while your opponent has the second-best possible hand or the second nuts. It’s not always easy to make a strong hand, in fact, most of the time in any poker variant you will make a hand that is weak or middling in strength. One of the best ways to make better hands than your opponents is by taking advantage of the high card rules in poker.

Hand rankings are constant throughout most poker games. The hand rankings from high to low are as follows: straight flush (royal being the best), four of a kind, full house, flush, straight, three of a kind, two pairs, one pair, high card. Whenever you make a flush and your opponent has three of a kind, you will win no matter what. You aren’t worried so much about high cards in this scenario. However, when both players have the same type of hand the high card poker rules will determine who wins the pot.

poker hand rankings chart

Texas Holdem High Card Poker

Let’s take a look at the most popular game: No-Limit Texas Holdem. When two players have the same category of hand such as a flush, the Texas Holdem high card rules dictate the player with the highest top card in their flush will win. The cards are ranked traditionally, from high to low as ace, king, queen, jack, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2.

For example, if player one is holding A4 of hearts and player two has KQ of hearts, on a board of J9752 with three hearts, player one will win. Let’s say the flop was all hearts, so the J, 9, and 7. Player one will have a AJ974 heart flush while player two will have KQJ97. Since the ace is higher than the king player one wins the pot according to the high card flush rules.

The same rules are true for straights. The Texas Holdem high card rules dictate that the straight with the highest top card will win the hand. So if player one has a straight TJQKA and player two has 789TJ, player one will win.

When it comes to four-of-a-kind, three-of-a-kind, and pairs it is obvious. The larger pair will always beat the smaller pair. For full houses, the larger three-of-a-kind will win. For example, on a board of A322K player one has 33, and player two has A2. Player one has the higher full house, 33322 so they beat player two’s 222AA.

There are plenty of high card rules that dictate which hand wins in each hand ranking category. So how can players use these rules to their advantage? Like all spots in poker, the strategy begins with your first decision. Preflop in Holdem and the other Flop games or third street for Stud variants.

In order to put yourself in a better position to win, you want to be entering pots preflop with large cards. For example, AK is the best unpaired hand you can play due to the ability to win due to poker’s high card rules. When you make a pair with AK you automatically have the best kicker. The most obvious straight you can make is the ace-high straight, also known as Broadway, which is the highest straight you can have. When you make a flush you always have the highest flush possible. Due to all these properties, people play AK very strongly.

To see the advantage of playing high card hands, let’s take a look at a marginal hand. J9 is a hand a lot of players get suckered into playing, especially when it is suited. This hand is troublesome in Texas Holdem. You can make a straight, but it could be vulnerable. On a TQK board, you lose to AJ and are vulnerable to any ace in case another jack hits the turn or river. When you make a flush with J9, most of the time it will be the fourth or third nut flush, leaving plenty of suited aces, kings, and queens that can beat you in a big pot. Finally, when you make pairs you are vulnerable either way. Making a pair of jacks leaves you with a less-than-desirable kicker. Making a pair of nines means you likely won’t have a top pair by the river and when you do the board will have plenty of straights and reasonable two pairs available.

Examining these two hands clearly shows that it pays off to play big cards. When you look at preflop charts for Texas Holdem you find that high cards are always favored. For instance, it is always optimal to open AK, AQ, and KQ suited from any position. As you get into later positions like the cutoff and button the recommended opening range is much wider. You see hands like A3 suited and K6 suited becoming good hands to open when they weren’t before. While the pairs could be problematic due to poker high card rules, the flushes these hands make are very strong.

7-Card Stud High Card Poker

While Texas Holdem is the most popular game, it is by no means the only game where you need to pay attention to high card rules. Stud games, mainly 7-Card Stud high and 7-Card Stud 8 or better (high/low) utilize the same high card rules as Holdem. The straights and flushes with the highest top card will win the pot.

You may not have many options to watch Stud cash games played, but there is usually coverage of big Stud tournaments. You’ll see many players opting to fold three low straight and flush cards in Stud high on third or fourth street (the first two betting rounds). Other times players will continue with those high card straight and flush draws. This happens for multiple reasons.

First, those higher flushes and straights are more valuable. This isn’t a surprise of course. As we saw earlier the ace-high flush will beat all the other flushes.

Second, in Stud, you get seven cards that only you can use. If you’re chasing a high flush or straight you might not make it, but you can make pairs. Those pairs will be much more valuable since they are high pairs with high kickers and your opponents are much less likely to also have them.

For our Stud example, let’s say player 1 starts with 567 two spades and player two starts with AKJ two hearts. On fourth street, player one gets the 9 of spades and player two gets the Q of hearts. Both players here have a very strong draw. Player one needs any 8 to make a straight and is two spades away from a flush. Player two needs a 10 for a straight or two hearts for a flush.

It would be absurd if player one folded to a bet on fourth street. They have an immediate gutshot and the possibility to pick up a flush draw on fifth street. As this hand plays out, however, you can see ways that player two is in better shape due to the poker high card rules.

Let’s say both players catch a J on fifth street, neither giving them a flush draw. Player one’s hand hasn’t changed. They still have a gut shot and can hit running spades for a flush. Player two, however, now has a pair. Since they were chasing the high straight and flush catching this jack turns their hands from a draw to a value hand.

If both players miss their draw then player two will easily win the hand. Even if both players were to hit a pair player two would still be way ahead with the higher pair. This is the power of high card poker. When you play high cards you are setting yourself up to win the hand more often, whether your immediate draw comes in or not.

High cards are also uniquely important to Stud since there are no community cards. Your face-up cards (you get four in 7-Card Stud) can tell a story. You may have 23 face down, but if you have AKJ showing you can represent many hands. You can have strong pair or three-of-a-kind combinations, straights, or flushes depending on the suits.

A few high cards showing in a Stud game give you more opportunities to bluff. If you have 569 showing you may have a straight, but if you don’t it’s harder to bluff. Most strong pairs will feel inclined to keep you honest and certainly, two pairs should be calling a single bet.

High Card Poker

One hand that is often neglected is the high card itself. While the weakest hand you can have is just a high card, you’ll be surprised how many pots you can scoop with it, especially in tournaments.

high hand

In tournaments, you will find yourself in many all-in situations. Since the blinds are constantly increasing your stack is getting shorter and shorter as the tournament progresses. There will be a point when most players have 75+ big blinds early on. Later you may find the average stack is only 20-25 big blinds. Playing short like this makes the high card poker rules much more important.

Hands like AK and AQ become very valuable when you get short-stacked. While most low-stakes cash players will have a variety of opinions on these hands, tournament players tend to look upon them more favorably. When you have less than 40 big blinds there are tons of scenarios where getting AK all-in preflop is the right move. With 20 or less it’s almost always a good idea to go all-in with these hands preflop if someone opens the pot.

There are a few reasons for this. Due to the diminishing stack sizes, you have to find more all-in spots to increase your chip stack. When you are this short getting people to fold preflop and winning the blinds and antes are very valuable. When you have 20 big blinds and the ante + small and big blinds equal 2.5 blinds you can increase your stack by over 10% just by picking up the blinds.

Most importantly, AK and AQ become valuable because of the Texas Holdem high card rules. Your opponents will be more incentivized to call your all-in. It’s a relatively small all-in with 20 big blinds and knocking you out means they get closer to that #1 spot. Many tournaments are won or lost based on the 15-25 big blind all-ins that occur as the field shrinks. Having high card hands will help you win these pots for the many reasons we’ve visited today. Your straights and flushes will be very strong. Your pairs will have good kickers. And in many cases, your high card will beat your opponent’s high card.

Tournament poker strategy has many spots where getting all the chips in with high card hands preflop makes sense. You may not find as many in cash games since you’ll be deeper stacked, but tournament players use high card rules to their advantage and get their short stacks all-in frequently with these types of hands.

Whether you are making straights, flushes, or pairs the poker high card rules matter. Across all poker variants high cards and kickers can make all the difference between a winning and losing session. While poker strategy varies between games and scenarios it always pays to take advantage of the high card rules.



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Connor Whiteley poker author
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Connor Whiteley

Connor Whiteley is a financial services professional and freelance writer who spends as much time as possible on the felt. Previously, Connor was a dealer in various underground Los Angeles poker games, but left the city and those games to raise his daughter with his loving wife Jennifer. Connor is constantly staying up to date […]

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