A “kicker” in poker is the 2nd characteristic to look at when determining rankings during a poker hand. (The first would be to simply determine the initial rank of a hand.) Kickers help to distinguish which hand is better when two hands are of the same value.
Kickers do not help to form the rank of the hand itself. They are only used to help rank the following hands:
In other words, because all hands that have a rank of a straight or better already use all five cards to make their poker hands, it’s impossible to have a kicker in these situations.
For example, you would simply say you have a “straight to the 9” (9-8-7-6-5) or “an Ace-high flush”. If you had either of these hands, you’d already know the exact hand’s value and if you beat another hand of the same rank (like an “8-high straight” or a “King-high flush”).
On the other hand, if both you and your opponent have a pair of Aces or the same three-of-a-kind, let’s say, then kickers are used to determine who exactly has the stronger hand of the two.
When to Use Kickers to Rank Poker Hands
Here are a few examples of when to use Kickers to rank poker hands:
Player 1’s hole cards are 66. Player 2 has 77. The board comes 7-6-3-2-K. In this case, both players have three-of-a-kind; however, because 7’s are already of a higher ranking than 6’s, the kicker is irrelevant in determining whose hand is better.
Player 1 has AK. Player 2 has AQ. The board comes A-9-7-5-3. Both players have one pair of Aces. However, to determine who has the better hand and who should be awarded the pot, the kicker is going to play a significant role here.
Player 1’s 5-card hand is A-A-K-9-7. Player 2’s 5-card hand is A-A-Q-9-7. You can see here that, after the pair of Aces, the 1st kicker is higher for the player with the AK.
Therefore, as he has the higher hand (due to his kicker playing and being higher), he shall be awarded the pot.
Player 1 has 75. Player 2 has K7. The board comes 7-7-A-6-2. Both players have three-of-a-kind 7’s. Player 1’s 5-card hand is 7 -7-7-A-6. Player 2’s 5-card hand is 7-7-7-A-K.
That 2nd kicker still plays a role in determining the best hand; as such, Player 2 wins the pot because his 5th card (2nd kicker) is higher than Player 1’s.
Player 1 has 75. Player 2 has 74. The board comes 7-7-A-K-2. Both players have the same 5-card hand: 7-7-7-A-K. The 5 and 4 in their hole cards do not count towards playing as a kicker in their hand because they already have two kickers in play from the board that are higher.
As such, a split pot is awarded, dividing the money in the middle equally amongst both players.
Poker Lingo: Kicker Problems
Poker players will often say that they have “kicker problems” when they have a hand of medium-strength value (like top-pair or another one-pair hand) but have a low or medium kicker. As such, these players fear that if they call their opponent’s bets, they’ll have the same value of hand as their opponent but be “outkicked” and subsequently lose the pot.
Kicker problems can happen all too often to beginner or inexperienced players. These players usually play far too wide of a starting hand range, both in terms of hands they open with (either by limping or raising) and hands they call an open. As such, against good players, beginners will frequently find themselves outkicked and/or “dominated”(whereby they have one card of the same value as their opponent, but their 2nd card is weaker than the 2nd card of their opponent – ie.AQvs A3, or A9 vs K9).
When players find themselves being dominated more often than not at showdown, this scenario is going to be a recipe for disaster and dramatically affect their bottom line, running it into the red.
So if you need a refresher for which hands you should be playing by position to ensure you’re not playing too many hands (or too few), check out this article on 6-Max Opening Ranges and Hand Selection Charts.
Attention Beginning Players: Don’t Play Too Many Aces
Many new players get over-attached to the perceived value that an Ace has in a poker game. Therefore, they end up playing WAY too many combinations of hands with an Ace in them and consequently run into spots where they get outkicked or dominated with a very high frequency.
Good players realize the value and playability of suited hands and will play them much more than their off-suit counterparts. This point is of massive significance, especially when you realise that there are three combos of off-suit combos of hands to every single suited hand!
A good player knows for his AX hands he should be open raising ATo+ (48 total combos of unsuited hands: AK, AQ, AJ, AT – 12 of each) and any suited Ace (A2s+, making up for 4 x 12 = 48 suited combos). This strategy means a good player opening from the HJ will have 96 total unpaired hands that have an Ace in them.Let’s look at the breakdown of playable AX hands (where “X” is a variable used to represent any other, non-paired card) from the Hijack position (2 seats to the right of the button) for both good players and weaker players.
Contrast this with perhaps any AX hand that a beginner might play (48 suited combos and 144 unsuited hands), and you’ll see that they’re playing precisely DOUBLE the number of AX hands that they should be (192 total combos)!Then you realise that the 50% portion of those hands that they shouldn’t be playing is likely going to be dominated by other players who see them through to showdown with many bets.
It’s no wonder fish lose as much money as they do, especially when they get married to a hand like top pair (such as a pair of Aces) and can’t find a fold, regardless of their kicker.
If this sounds all too familiar, be sure to check out our Ace In Poker: Ultimate Guide to learn the precise value of hands with an Ace in them and how you should be playing them accordingly.
Betting Strategy with Kickers in Poker
Hopefully, it’s become evident by now that not all hands are created equal. Kickers in poker play a considerable part in determining real strength of hands and win rates while at the table.
Kickers will come into play most often with regards to one-pair hands. (As it’s less often that two players will have the exact same two-pair or three-of-a-kind in a hand than when they have one-pair). As such, it’s vital to know how to manoeuvre with top-pairs hands of different kicker strengths.
The value your kickeris going to impact the following betting factors broadly:
- The number of streets you bet.
- The specific streets you choose to bet.
- The amount that you may choose for your bet.
Rule #1: In general, BET with top-pair, top-kicker(2 to 3 streets)
Suppose you’re in the cutoff and have top pair on a board of J-9-2-4-5. Holding AJ, this hand would be a solid candidate for going for three streets of value. It’s undoubtedly possible for you to have some busted straight draws here (KT / QT / T8 / T7 – at varying frequencies).
You’re going to want to bet with your best holdings to balance those out, which will comprise of the following hands:
- Straights: A3s
- Sets: 99 / 22 / 44 (assuming that, on the flop, you will check back top set of JJ and bet with a vulnerable pair like 44 on the flop)
- Two pair: J9
- Overpairs: AA / KK / QQ
- Strong top pairs: AJ
AJ and *maybe* KJ are probably at the bottom of what I’d put at a triple-barrel value betting range here.
NOTE: The exact number of value combinations you should be betting are related to (1)how many bluff combos you have and (2) the size of bet you choose to use. For more info on this, check out the Bluff and Value Section in our Comprehensive Bet Sizing Guide.
Rule #2: In general, BET or CHECK-CALL with top-pair, medium/bad-kicker (1-2 streets of betting)
The same scenario as before (board of J-9-2-4-5), if you have JT, betting for three streets would be a massive mistake because it’s almost certain that’d you’d only get called by better hands, like those of top pair but that have you out kicked. And if you’ll only get called by better hands when you bet, this essentially means that you’d be turning your JT into a bluff.
As such, top pairs with weaker kickers (or 2nd pairs with good kickers) must be played more conservatively than a hand like top pair, top kicker (TPTK), usually meaning that they can only go for 1-2 streets of value total. (Note that there will always be exceptions, of course,and that the board run out will undoubtedly affect betting on later streets.)
After the flop, you should be able to develop a rough game plan for how you want to proceed in terms of flop/turn/river betting order to satisfy the three betting factors listed at the beginning of this section (number of streets, which streets, and bet size).Developing this approximate “road map” after the flop is dealt will undoubtedly help you with your decision-making as you progress through the hand.
NOTE: On wet boards, such as J-T-9 with either two or three cards of the same suit, the value that AJ has with its top-pair, top-kicker goes down massively. The number of two-pairs, straights, and flushes that can easily be made by other hands either now or by the river is huge. As such, always measure the strength of your top-pair/any-kicker relative to how coordinated the board is and decide accordingly how conservatively or aggressively you should be playing.
Smaller Bet Sizing Allows Wider Value Bets
In the Comprehensive Bet Sizing Guide referenced earlier, another point worth transferring over into this article is this:
- Large bets are for polarised ranges, consisting of strong hands and bluffs
- Small bets are for merged ranges, with a wider number of value hands and not as many bluffs.
As such, if you do want to make a bet in poker, here are the following considerations to make from an exploitative standpoint:
- Which hands am I targeting in my opponent’s range relative to the strength of my current hand?
- Are there any worse hands that will call?
- How strong are the calling hands that my opponent(s)has?
- Taking all of this into account, what size of bet is more appropriate?
By the river, top pair hands will generally fall towards the bottom of an acceptable “value betting range”. However, using a smaller bet size (and not just for the triple barrel instances) can allow you to incorporate more of these weaker value hands into a betting range, especially if they’re on the cusp of betting vs checking.
Therefore, especially if you perceive your opponent to have a weak- to medium-strength holding in a hand, note that picking this smaller sizing is usually the way to go, even though it can be highly exploitable.
Overall, gaining that thin value (by betting an appropriately wide value range and/or by betting small) is going to help your profits surge in the long-run, versus if you (1) just “check it down” too frequently or (2) bet too big and make your opponent fold.
Coming back to the JT example from above on the J-9-2-4-5 board, using large bets for three streets undoubtedly polarises you in a spot where you should be merged, if anything, and only betting 1 or 2 streets. Betting small will certainly allow you to get called by a broader range of hands, regardless of which street.
However, if you wanted to keep your overall betting size broad in a particular spot, then you could also consider weighing the value of checking with more medium-strength. Hands (like JT) fall into this category to bluff-catch with, (a concept explained in the next section).
Bluff Catching vs Value Betting
Betting for value on multiple streets is something that can often be done by strong top pair hands. You’ll likely be able to be called by worse top pair hands that have those “kicker problems” that we discussed earlier.
With weaker top pairs, taking a passive “bluff-catch” line on certain streets with check-calls can sometimes be a much more advantageous line than betting yourself, especially if you think there’s a good chance your opponent will bet as a bluff.
NOTE: Checking with medium-strength hands at times can help you realize your equity better and also give you’re an opportunity to bluff – a betting option that he may otherwise not have taken. Players, in general, will be more inclined to bluff when checked to than versus when they’re facing a bet.
BLUFF-CATCH LINE #1: Cbet flop, check back the turn when IN POSITION
If you’re in position, cbet the flop, and then check back the turn on a draw-y board. It gives your opponent a chance to steal the initiative in the hand and turn all of his missed draws and/or weak SDV hands into bluffs on the river. After betting one street and checking the turn with top pair, you’d often have a straightforward call on a clean runout!
Even then, if you checked back the turn and then your opponent checks to you on the river, your opponent has given another indicator of weakness. Their play allows you to now decide if you want to value bet your weaker top pair or check it down and have it realise its equity.
BLUFF-CATCH LINE #2: Cbet flop+turn, check the river when OUT OF POSITION
This play can be especially profitable against fish who will generally play too wide a starting range of hands preflop, and then just play passively and call with all their draws (already too many) on the flop and turn, never raising with them. On the river,if (1) their draws missed, (2) they have no showdown value, and (3) you check to them, often they’re going to feel very inclined to bet now because they realise that their draws missed.
They have no other chance to win the hand other than by betting and trying to get you to fold.(If you bet, they’re usually going to be much more inclined to just fold their missed draws than bluff-raise with them.) Additionally, specifically versus loose fish, they’re likelier to have all of the abstract draw combinations of hands than worse top pair that you might gain value from through betting yourself, especially if your top pair already has a marginal kicker.
Again, prime candidates for these bluff-catching lines will often be top pairs with weaker kickers. However, under the right circumstances, a bluff-catching line withTPTKcan also be very acceptable.
In Position (IP) vs Out of Position (OOP)
As you can see from the last two “bluff catch” examples, playing a poker hand in position is very different from playing it in position. Position is power in poker. When you’re out of position, you shouldn’t be playing as aggressively overall as when you’re in position – even if you have the same strength of hand on the same board!
Position can totally shift the game play for a hand. Being out of position means that, in general, you should be mixing in more check-calls. Perhaps going for one street less of value betting at times (i.e. with some of your “cusp” / bet vs check value hands)than you would be doing in position, and taking much more aggressive, betting-based lines with a broader range overall.
This play might transform a hand like TPTK into a bluff-catch on specific turns or rivers when OOP, to avoid getting raised in unfavourable situations and also to help you adjust to having a positional disadvantage. This scenario is especially true versus good players who remain balanced well between their bluff and value combos and who can easily put you in a difficult spot with a raise when they have a positional advantage themselves.
Kicker in Poker Summary
Kickers will undoubtedly play a big part in a game of poker. While certain situations like calling three streets with AQ vs AK on an Ace-high board will all too often be unavoidable, always keep your kicker in mind. Try to avoid putting yourself in more difficult or losing situations than necessary.
Stick to strong starting hand ranges preflop. Take the strength of your hand (especially for one-pair, X-kicker hands) and your table position into account when figuring out your betting lines for how to effectively play well post-flop.