What Is A Kicker In Poker And When Does It Matter?

One questions I hear all of the time from poker players new to Texas Hold’em is “what is a kicker and when does it count?”. At first, it can be quite a confusing concept to wrap your head around but once you have an understanding of what a kicker is, it’s actually quite simple.

Here is the definition:

A kicker is a card in poker that decides the winner if two or more players are tied with the same hand rank. E.g. a player with AK will outkick an opponent’s AQ on a AJ932 board. Both players have a pair but AK has the better 5-card hand of AAKJ9 vs AAQJ9 where the K/Q, J, and 9 count as kickers.

One key point to keep in mind is that the best 5-card hand wins in poker. Winners are usually determined from the rank of a hand (e.g. flush vs full house or Ace-high flush versus King-high flush) but when both players hold the same hand rank, a kicker must come into play to separate the winners from the losers by making a 5-card hand.

So you might be wondering who wins in this scenario:

poker kicker example

Well think about it for a minute, and then if you can’t work it out, have a read of the list below.

Table Of Contents

How To Determine When A Kicker Play

Here is a list of the hands in poker and how/if a kicker is played:

High card:

A high card plays when neither player has a pair or better. When both players have a high card, all cards can be counted as a kicker. Take your two hole cards and five community cards, then start with the highest-ranking card and compare to your opponent while ignoring the two weakest cards of the 7 total.

An example of where a high card kicker plays:

  • Your hand: A9
  • Opponents hand: A5
  • The community cards: KQ823
  • Your best 5 cards: AQK98
  • His best 5 cards: AQK85

We ignore the 3 and the 2 on the board since they are lower than the other 5 cards.

And now, let’s take this situation where one of your kickers doesn’t play:

  • Your hand: A7
  • Opponents hand: A5
  • The community cards: KQ983
  • Your best 5 cards: AQK98
  • Hist best 5 cards: AQK98

I.e. the 5 and the 7 are both lower than the other 5 cards on the board and therefore the put is split.

One pair:

With one pair a kicker is used when your second card is better than your opponent and the remaining cards on the board.

  • Your hand: AK
  • Opponents hand: AQ
  • The community cards: AT752
  • Your best 5 cards: AAKT7
  • Hist best 5 cards: AAQT7

In this case, you have your opponent out kicked with the hand of a pair of Aces with King kicker vs a pair of Aces with a Queen kicker.

Two pair

A single card kicker plays with two pair only when you do not make two pair with both of your hole cards. For example:

  • Your hand: AK
  • Opponents hand: AQ
  • The community cards: A7552
  • Your best 5 cards: AA55K
  • Hist best 5 cards: AA55Q

The pot will be split if both players have the same two pair with their hole cards.

Two pair winners are determined by first determining the best highest-ranked pair between you and your opponent, and then if these are the same, you compare the 2nd pair.

Can you now work out the example we gave in the introduction? Here is broken down:

  • Your hand: A2
  • Opponents hand: A7
  • The community cards: A99J4
  • Your best 5 cards: AA99J
  • Hist best 5 cards: AA99J

Therefore the pot will be split since neither the 7 nor the 2 are played and both players have the same hand.

Three of a kind:

A kicker with three of a kind is determined in the same way as one pair. If you have AK on an AA752 board, vs AQ you will have the best 5 cards with AAAK7 vs AAAQ7.

  • Your hand: AK
  • Opponents hand: AQ
  • The community cards: AA752
  • Your best 5 cards: AAAK7
  • Hist best 5 cards: AAAQ7

You have the best five cards in this scenario because the K plays after the three Aces.

Note the difference between an ordinary 3 of a kind and a set – a set is when you make three you of a kind using the two hole cards whereas an ordinary three of a kind is when you have three of the same card using only one of your hole cards.

Take this example of having 99 on an A9642 board, you have three of a kind (or set) on this board but it’s impossible for anyone else to also have 99.

So there are no kickers when you have a set, because it’s impossible for your opponent to have three cards of the same rank, but a kicker can count for an ordinary three of a kind where only one card is used from your hole cards.

Straight:

There is no kicker with a straight because a straight is made using 5 cards.

Flush:

Similar to a straight, there can be no kickers with flushes as these hands require the 5 cards to be used.

Full house:

There are no kickers with a full house. Hands are ranked in a similar way to two pair.

Firstly, the best three of a kind is the winner, if both players have the same three of a kind, the best pair wins. If both players have the same three of a kind and pair, the hand will always be split.

Four of a kind:

A kicker does not play with a four of a kind unless the four of a kind is on the board.

  • Your hand: A5
  • Opponents hand: KJ
  • The community cards: QQQQ5
  • Your best 5 cards: QQQQA
  • His best 5 cards: QQQQK

You will win this hand as your Ace kicker players after the four Queens.

Straight flush/Royal Flush:

Similar to a straight and flush, kickers do not play as a straight or royal flush require 5 cards.

Here is a summary of when kickers do and don’t count in poker:

Hand Type Does a kicker count?
Ace high ✔️ Yes
One pair ✔️ Yes
Two pair ✔️ Yes
Three of a Kind ✔️ Yes
Straight ❌ No
Flush ❌ No
Full House ❌ No
Four of a kind ✔️ Yes
Straight Flush ❌ No
Royal Flush ❌ No

When A Kicker Doesn’t Play

We already mentioned when a kicker doesn’t play e.g. in a straight, flush or full house. However, a kicker also won’t decide the winner when you and your opponent has the same hand e.g. A5 vs A5.

A kicker also doesn’t decide the best hand when there are better kickers already on the board.

For example, if you have A4 and your opponent has A3 on an AK762 board, the best 5 cards for both opponents is AAK76 and the kicker won’t be included in the hand. Therefore, the pot will be split between the two players despite us having a better hole card than our opponent.

Kickers can also be counterfeited. If you have a hand of A5 on a AQT2 board, any card higher than a 5 on the river will mean that your kicker has been counterfeited and won’t play. E.g. if the river was a 7 the best 5 cards would be AAQT7.

When Is A Kicker Important?

A kicker most often comes into play when you have a high card or single pair.

However, the best hand you can get with a kicker is AK, because if your opponent has an Ace or King in their hand, you will have them outkicked and you will be a big favourite to win the hand (roughly 75% favourite).

top pair top kicker

AK always makes top pair top kicker which is the best one pair hand you can make.

Since players most often play high-rank hands, kickers are most important when you have a high card. This is why it is not advisable to play weak ace hands (e.g. A2 or A3) very often (see poker position).

A2 will make top pair bottom kicker on an ace-high board (e.g. AQ753) and is a significantly weaker hand than top pair top kicker.

If you do happen to have top pair bottom kicker on an ace-high board, it is quite likely that you could be facing another ace with a better kicker (or better) if a lot of money goes into the pot.

Being outkicked is one the common poker mistakes I recommend watching out for, so make sure you carefully consider your kicker the next time you are on the table!

Related questions

Do suits matter when counting kickers?

Kickers do not depend on suits and suits should not be considered when determining the winner of the hand except when a flush is possible.

Does kicker matter in 3 of a kind?

Yes, a kicker will be counted with 3 of a kind in the same way that it would be for a single pair.

Does the kicker matter in a straight or flush?

No, a kicker does not matter in a straight or flush as the best 5-card hand is made up of the 5 flush or straight cards. In this case, you can resort to who has the highest straight or flush.

Want to learn more?

Head over to our best poker training sites so that you can take your game to a new level and fast or check out our popular post on the best poker books.

Last updated: 6th November 2020.

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