A “kicker” in poker is a side card that can break ties. It is the 2nd characteristic to look at when determining rankings during a poker hand. (The first would be to determine the initial rank of a hand.) 

Kickers help to distinguish which hand is better when two hands are of the same value.

For example, A♠4♦ up against A♥K♣ on a board A♦2♣J♥6♦6♥ would be “outkicked” by the K♣. Even though both hands have aces-up the K trumps the 4.

Kickers do not help to form the rank of the hand itself. They are only used to help rank the following hands:

  • 3-of-a-kind
  • Two-pair
  • One-pair
  • High Card

Hands that rank as a straight or better use all five cards, so it’s impossible to have a kicker in these situations. 

For example, you would 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. You would know if you beat another hand of the same rank (like an “8-high straight” or a “King-high flush”).

Say both you and your opponent have a pair of Aces or the same three-of-a-kind. Then you would use the kickers determine who exactly has the stronger hand.

When to Use Kickers to Rank Poker Hands

Here are a few examples of when to use Kickers to rank poker hands:

EXAMPLE #1

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.

Because 7’s are already of a higher ranking than 6’s, the kicker is irrelevant in determining whose hand is better.

EXAMPLE #2

Player 1 has AK. Player 2 has AQ. The board comes A-9-7-5-3. Both players have one pair of Aces.

To determine who has the better hand, 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 the first 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.

anthropomorphic King sitting on the shoulders of an anthropomorphic QueenGetting Outkicked – King over Queen

EXAMPLE #3 

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. Player 2 wins the pot because his 5th card (2nd kicker) is higher than Player 1’s.

EXAMPLE #4

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. 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 between both players.

Poker Lingo: Kicker Problems

Poker players will often say that they have “kicker problems”. This situation usually occurs with a medium-strength value hand (like top-pair or another one-pair) but with a low or medium kicker. 

As such, these players fear they’ll have the same value of hand as their opponent but be “outkicked” and lose the pot.

two players heads-up – one holding A2 with beads of sweat on their forehead looking worried and the other looking confident holding AQKicker Problems Can Have a Player Sweating

Kicker problems can happen all too often to beginner or inexperienced players. These players usually play far too wide of a starting hand range.This situation applies to hands they open with (either by limping or raising) and hands they call an open. 

Against good players, beginners will frequently find themselves outkicked and/or “dominated”. They may have one card of the same value as their opponent, but their 2nd card is weaker– i.e.AQvs A3, or A9 vs K9. 

Players can find themselves being dominated more often than not at showdown. This scenario is going to be a recipe for disaster and negatively affect their bottom line.

Need a refresher for which hands you should be playing by position?

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 of an Ace has in poker. They end up playing WAY too many combinations of hands with an Ace. Consequently, they run into spots where they get outkicked or dominated.

Good players realise the value and playability of suited hands. They will play them much more than their off-suit counterparts. This point is of massive significance! Consider 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+.

(This number consists of 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.

Let’s look at the breakdown of playable AX hands (where “X” is a variable used to represent any other, non-paired card). We’ll start from the Hijack position (2 seats to the right of the button) for both good players and weaker players. 

Contrast this with any AX hand that a beginner might play (48 suited combos and 144 unsuited hands). You’ll see that they’re playing precisely DOUBLE the number of AX hands that they should be (192 total combos)!

The 50% portion of those hands that they shouldn’t be playing is likely going to be dominated by other players. These opponents can see them through to showdown with many bets.

It’s no wonder fish lose as much money as they do. This scenario happens when they get married to a hand like top pair (such as a pair of Aces). They can’t find a fold, regardless of their kicker.

fish swimming after a bait with an Ace and a 3 hooked on itMarried to Aces with Kicker Problems

If this sounds all too familiar, be sure to check out our Ace In Poker: Ultimate Guide

You’ll learn the precise value of hands with an Ace, 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 real strength of hands and win rates.

Kickers will come into play most often with regards to one-pair hands. (It’s less likely that two players will have the same two-pair or three-of-a-kind in a hand when holding 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:

  1. The number of streets you bet.
  2. The specific streets you choose to bet.
  3. The amount that you may choose for your bet. 

pie chart split into 3 sections labelled NUMBER/STREETS/BET AMOUNTThe Three Factors Affecting your Kicker

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. AJ would be a solid candidate for going for three streets of value. 

It’s 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. Your range 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 to triple-barrel value in your betting range.

NOTE: The exact number of value combinations you should be betting are – 

(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. It’s almost certain that’d you’d only get called by better hands.

And if you’ll only get called by better hands, this essentially means that you’d be turning your JT into a bluff.

As such, top pairs with weaker kickers must be played more conservatively than a hand like top pair, top kicker (TPTK). This fact means that you can only go for 1-2 streets of value total. 

(Note that there will always be exceptions, of course. The board run out will undoubtedly affect betting on later streets.)

After the flop, you should be able to develop a rough game plan. The strategy should 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 help 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 goes down massively. The number of two-pairs, straights, and flushes, either now or by the river, is huge. 

Always measure the strength of your top-pair/any-kicker relative to how coordinated the board is. The decide how conservatively or aggressively you should be playing.

Smaller Bet Sizing Allows Wider Value Bets

poker chip in the centre of a wide targetSmaller Bet Sizing Allows Wider Value Bets

In the Comprehensive Bet Sizing Guide referenced earlier, another two points worth mentioning are these:

  • 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.

If you do want to make a bet in poker, here are the following considerations from an exploitative standpoint:

  1. Which hands am I targeting in my opponent’s range relative to the strength of my current hand? 
  2. Are there any worse hands that will call?
  3. How strong are the calling hands that my opponent(s)has?
  4. Taking all 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”.

Using a smaller bet size (and not just for triple barrels) can allow you to incorporate more of these weaker value hands into a betting range. This fact is especially if they’re on the cusp of betting vs. checking.

If you perceive your opponent to have a weak- to medium-strength holding, picking this smaller sizing is usually the way to go. This strategy is correct, even though it can be highly exploitable. 

Gaining that thin value (by betting an appropriately wide value range and/or by betting small) will help your profits surge in the long-run. 

Versus, if you (1) “check it down” too frequently or (2) bet too big and make your opponent fold.

EXAMPLE:

Let’s go back to the JT example from above on the J-9-2-4-5 board. Using large bets for three streets polarises you in a spot where you should be merged. If anything, you should only be betting 1 or 2 streets. 

Betting small will undoubtedly allow you to get called by a broader range of hands, regardless of which street.

Keep your overall betting size broad in a particular spot, by checking with more medium-strength hands. 

Hands (like JT) fall into this category to bluff-catch, (a concept explained in the next section).

Bluff Catching vs. Value Betting

Betting for value on multiple streets is something that you can often dowith strong top pair hands. You’ll likely be called by worse top pair hands with those “kicker problems” discussed earlier. 

With weaker top pairs, taking a passive “bluff-catch” line on particular streets can sometimes be a much more advantageous line. By check-calling rather than betting yourself, there’s a good chance your opponent will bet as a bluff.

NOTE: Checking with medium-strength hands can help you realise your equity better. It can also give your opponent an opportunity to bluff. This betting option is one that he may not have otherwise taken. Players, in general, will be more inclined to bluff when checked to than versus when 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. They can turn all their 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!

If you checked back the turn and your opponent checks on the river, they have shown weakness. Their play allows you to now decide if you want to value bet your weaker top pair or check it down and 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 range. Then they play passively and call with all their draws (already too many) on the flop and turn. They never raise 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 fold their missed draws than bluff-raise with them.) 

Prime candidates for these bluff-catching lines will be top pairs with weaker kickers.

Under the right circumstances, a bluff-catching line with TPTK can also be acceptable.

In Position (IP) vs. Out of Position (OOP)

poker player having wrestling position on another poker playerKicker Effects In and Out Of Position

As you can see from the last two “bluff-catch” examples, position makes all the difference

Position is power in poker. When you’re out of position, you shouldn’t be playing as aggressively compared toin position. Even if you have the same strength of hand on the same board!

Position can 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  with some of your “cusp” / bet vs check value hands. 

In position, you can take much more aggressive-betting lines with a broader range.

You might transform a hand like TPTK into a bluff-catch on specific turns or rivers when OOP. This play would avoid getting raised in unfavourable situations and help with having a positional disadvantage. 

Versus good players who remain balanced well between their bluff and value combos, this play is warranted. They can easily put you in a difficult spot with a raise when they have a positional advantage.

Kicker in Poker Summary

Kickers will undoubtedly play a big part in a game of poker. Specific situations like calling three streets with AQ vs AK on an Ace-high board will all too often be unavoidable.

But, always  - 

  • Keep your kicker in mind. 
  • Try to avoid putting yourself difficult or losing situations than necessary. 
  • Stick to strong starting hand ranges preflop
  • Account for the strength of your hand (especially for one-pair, X-kicker hands).
  • Consider your table position when figuring out your betting lines
  • Learn to playKickers effectively post-flop.

Kicker in Poker - FAQ

  1. Q: What is a “kicker” in poker?

    A: A “kicker” is a secondary factor in helping rank poker hands. Kickers only come into effect when two or more players have the same main value of hand. For example, take One Pair of Aces, or Three-of-a-Kind 5’s where the remaining “high cards” will make up their best 5-card hand. The better kicker (or extra card(s) in their 5-card) would decide the winner
     
  2. Q: What does it mean when a player says they have “kicker problems”?

    A: This situation happens when a player either thinks or knows he has a same primary hand value as his opponent. But his kicker isn’t strong enough to likely win the pot against them at showdown.

    For example, let’s suppose the board is A-J-8-6-3, you have A-2, and your opponent bets three streets. Let’s assume that the lowest holding they would bet for three streets would be another pair of Aces. This fact means that you can’t beat any of their value hands. You’re using the community cards for your “kickers”. So, you can only beat a bluff or chop with your opponent if they have A5 / A4 / A2 and share the same kickers as you. 

    In this situation, you’d have “kicker problems”.
     
  3. Q: What betting factors will my kicker affect?
    A: Your kicker directly correlates to the strength of your poker hand

    It can greatly affect -

    (1) the number of streets you choose to bet, 
    (2) the specific streets you choose to bet, and 
    (3) the amount that you may choose for your bet. 

    How your kicker will affect your betting will be more applicable to one-pair situations. You’re going to run more frequently into these situations than when you have the same two-pair hand or 3-of-a-kind.
     
  4. Q: How should my kicker affect whether I choose to bet or not?

    A: It’s essential to understand that your kicker shouldn’t be the primary factor on whether to bet.

    The following are stronger factors - 

    Initial strength of your hand (i.e. one pair, three-of-a-kind, full house)
    Board texture
    Bet sizing you want to use
    Your opponents’ tendencies 

    These issues will figure greatly in determining whether you should bet a hand.

    That said, if a particular hand is close between a bet and a check, you can look toyour kicker to help you decide.

    The higher the kicker, the more likely you should bet for value. The lower the kicker in these “cusp” situations, the more inclined you should be to check.
     
  5. Q: How can your strength of kicker affect what bet sizing you choose to use?

    A: Some spots have a standard “one size fits all” strategy. But you will want to have a mixed strategy to increase your EV in a hand. You’ll want to bet larger with some hands and smaller with others (still using a GTO, well-balanced strategy). 

    In select situations, this means that the higher kicker you have, the bigger bet size you might use. You can still get value from hands that have the same rank as yours but hold a lower kicker. If your kicker is weaker, you might choose a smaller bet size or opt to check. 

    What this comes down to is the betting principle stating that the wider your value betting range is, the smaller your bet size. This strategy gives you a better chance of getting called by a wider range of weaker hands.

    KICKER BETTING EXAMPLE: As an example, imagine having A-K on A-J-8-6-3. Using a larger sizing on the turn and/or river, you stand to gain value from one-pair of Aces hands with a weaker kicker. 

    Contrast this with choosing whether to bet a hand like A-2 in a similar situation. Now you don’t beat those better A-X hands. So, if you do choose to bet, it should be for a smaller sizing to encourage any Villain to call down with a wider range. Those hands would include more second- or third-pair type hands, instead of top-pair.
About the Author
By
Matthew Cluff is a poker player who specialises in 6-Max No Limit Hold’em games. He also periodically provides online poker content for various sites.
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