There’s a common poker phrase: “You got to know when to hold them, and when to fold them.” “Them”, in this case, is your cards. Very often, one of your two cards will connect with the board, while the other is simply being used as a high card. That is where the kicker comes into play.
What is a Kicker in Poker
The kicker in poker comes into play for made hands that don’t use all five cards. If two players reach the river and they each have two pair, the highest fifth card held by one of them would be the kicker. Kickers are used to determine hand strength, often when the players share a pair on the board. The player with the higher non-paired card has the higher kicker, and therefore, has a better hand.
One of the most common kicker battles is when one player has Ace-King, and the other one has Ace-Queen. Ace-Queen is normally a very strong hand on a board like the one above, as the queen is the second best possible card to have as your kicker. However, the king is the best possible one, so it rules in this case, so the Ace-Queen is likely to lose a good portion of their money.
It should be noted that kickers come into play with hands that don’t have aces as well. They can also factor into play in hands where no one has a pair. For example, if the board comes down ten high, and one player has King Queen, and the other has King-Jack or Queen-Jack, they will lose because they have a weaker kicker.
When do Kickers Play
It is important to note that kickers aren’t used in every hand of Texas Holdem. Hands that use all five cards at showdown, so all from a straight to Royal Flush, will not use a kicker. For example, a flush with KQs on the board 2d4d6s7s9s will be higher than a flush with JTs, but the king will not be called a kicker. It's just a higher flush, from the king, so by definition, there are no kickers in this hand. Full houses are compared by the value of the trips in the hand – for example, a JJJ-2-2 full is higher than 9-9-9-AA. There are no kickers here either.
Rules say that the following hands will need to use the kicker in the player’s hand to determine the winner.
- High Card
Let’s say, for example, the board is showing [9x][9x][5x][Kx][4x]. Two players go back and forth betting until one of them is all in and the other calls. One player shows Queen-Nine, trip nines with a queen kicker. It’s a strong hand, but not as good as the Ace-Nine shown by the other player. The ace is the best possible kicker, and in this hand, it is the deciding card. If both players had the same kicker, the rules say that the pot would be chopped.
There are not so many options for just one card to be the deciding factor – these are two pairs or quads. The second one is obviously rarer, but it does happen, like in the hand below.
Two kickers are much more common in hands. Imagine that this time there are not four deuces on the board, but three.
The hands of the two opponents in the example above seem almost identical. Each has trip deuces, and their top kicker is an ace. But this is only four cards. You need a fifth card to win the hand. And here the jack will be higher than the ten on board, so the AJ player wins the pot.
It’s also possible for the common kicker to lie on the board. For example, JT and JQ will split the pot on a board of 223JK. The queen is better than ten, but she will not play in this case, as both have the same combinations: two pairs, jacks, and deuces – with a king kicker.
Periodically in Texas Holdem, there are situations when players don't hit the board at all. This means that the strength of their pocket cards is not enough to make a stronger combination than the one that the dealer revealed. So if the board shows QxQx10xKxKx, and both players have cards lower than nine, the board is the best possible five-card hand, and would play for both players. You can get more experience learning how kickers work by playing online freerolls.
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Avoid Hands With Bad Kickers
The choice of starting hands in poker is important, especially when it comes to big cards, or in this case, big kickers. Poker charts, which are freely available on the Internet, will help beginners to play accurately from different positions, entering the game only with strong hands.
One way to avoid issues with bad kickers is to avoid playing often tempting hands such as King-Four suited and Queen-Five suited. Other hands like A2-A5 suited have become popular hands to three or four bet with for high stakes pros, due to their potential versatility post-flop, but the bad kickers can get you in trouble if an ace or king flops and you are outkicked. By avoiding temptation, you may miss out on a couple of big pots, but you will also be missing out on several big-loss opportunities with inferior kickers.