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Poker Kicker Rules

Sometimes in poker, multiple people will reach showdown with the same basic hand. The rules say that extra cards in each player has can be used as a tie-breaker, and these extra cards are known as 'kickers'.

Understanding the role of kickers, when they are important and when they are irrelevant will help you to avoid situations where you think you are winning but actually lose because of kicker issues.

The Basic Concept of Kickers

Let's look at a basic example of poker kickers to give you an idea of what this involves. Suppose we have the following match-up in an Omaha game:

Basic Poker Kicker Rules Example

What you can see here is that both players have a pair of aces. However, Hero has a king kicker, and Villain has a jack kicker. Since a king is higher than a jack, Hero gets the pot. This is a very straight-forward form of tie-breaking, but it can lead to some complications in certain types of scenarios. We want to clear up all possible misunderstandings for you with the following concept.

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Poker Hands Use Five Cards

Poker hands use five cards. This might seem like the most obvious thing in the world, but if you always know which five cards you are using to make the best hand possible, then you can eliminate a lot of mistakes when it comes to not realizing which kickers were in play. Consider the following Texas Holdem example:

Poker Kicker Rules with 5 Card Hands

Both players have the same two pair hand of aces over nines. From a first glance, it would look like Villain has the higher kicker. However, this hand is actually a tie. The reason for this is easy to see if you look at the best five card poker hand that each player has. Hero has A♦ A♣ 9♥ 9♠ J♦, and Villain has A♦ A♥ 9♥ 9♠ J♦. In this case, both players actually have the same jack kicker, and the other cards in their respective hands are irrelevant.

When Playing Omaha

If you're playing Omaha, the same exact idea applies of making sure that you use precisely five cards. The only difference is that you're forced into using three cards from the board and two cards from your hand. What's ironic is that this can actually make keeping up with your kickers easier since you are forced into avoiding a lot of the common mistakes that people make in holdem.

Hands of a Higher Rank

If you use this idea of making sure you think of the five card hand that each player has, then you will eliminate every possible mistake that you can make with kickers. With that having been said, it's still good to know common scenarios where kicker problems can come up, and we're going to look at how they work with hands of a higher rank.

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Kickers and Flushes

While kickers are typically viewed as being the cards outside of a hand that break a tie, sometimes the cards that are inside of a hand can be used to break a tie as well. In this case, you still have to look at the five cards that make up the hands at showdown. For a good example of this, look at how this seemingly silly holdem hand plays out at showdown:

Kicker Rules with Flushes in Poker

Take a moment with this example to verify that neither of these players have straight-flushes. Once you do that, you'll want to figure out which player has the highest hand by evaluating their respective flushes. To do that, you list out the five highest cards that each player has available to them in the suit of that flush. This process gives you the following two hands:

Player First Second Third Fourth Fifth
Hero A♣ 9♣ 8♣ 7♣ 5♣
Villain A♣ 9♣ 8♣ 6♣ 5♣

To evaluate these hands, you'll need to line up the cards in descending order like we have done in the chart above. Once you have them listed out correctly, work from left to right seeing which player has a higher kicker first. In this example, the tie-breaker comes down to the fourth card of the flush because Hero has a seven while Villain has a six.

Four of a Kind

Even hands as large as four of a kind can come down to a kicker. Consider the following highly-instructive example:

Poker Kicker Rules: 4 of a Kind

When most people look at a hand like this, they immediately feel as if Hero should have the advantage because his pocket pair has connected with the board on the river. However, both players actually have four of a kind here, and so the fact that Hero has caught a jack on the river is irrelevant. The final hand for Hero will be 9999J, but the final hand for Villain will be 9999Q. As we can see, Villain has the higher kicker and would be awarded the pot.

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