For the uninitiated, poker can be a high-pressure (and highly complicated) game, with numerous possible hands and lots of rules to keep in mind. Perhaps one of the trickiest elements of the game for the beginner is remembering the combinations of cards that make up winning hands, and also how these hands rank against each other.
This is the first essential poker skill, once you have mastered hand rankings, you can automatically remember these and focus on improving other areas of your game in real time without distraction.
The first basic fact to grasp is that poker hands consist of five cards. So, even if you're playing a seven-card game, only the best five of those cards will play – which means you should always focus on making the best five-card hand you can.
It’s also critical to start thinking about what possible hands your opponents might have ‘made’ using the community cards dealt by the dealer as this will give you an idea of the strength of your own hand.
Read on to learn about the different poker hands in detail, with their rankings broken down:
When you haven't made any of the below hands, it's the highest card you're holding that counts. So, if nobody at the table has made a hand, the holder of the highest card wins. Cards must all be of different ranks, not consecutive, and contain at least two different suits (within a 5-card set) for this to apply.
Statistically, the more players left in a hand and the larger the table size (usually 6, 8 or 9 seats) then the more unlikely it is that High Card will be good enough. If you are up against a single opponent on the river, perhaps in a blind versus blind situation and the hand has been checked each time, this is one of the few spots where you could theoretically bet the High Card. It goes without saying – this is the worst poker hand within the rankings so play it carefully.
Ace High or King High on the river (the last community card to be dealt), especially if you are in position and the opponent checked, might either shut down the hand without showing your cards (denying information to the table) or perhaps get a call from a weaker high card to gain a little extra value. This is also the easiest hand for you to fold against almost any bet if the situation is reversed as your opponent might be tempted to bet/call or raise even with a weak Pair.
The simple but effective Pair is one of the most common hands in poker. This is when you have two cards of the same rank, and the higher the Pair, the stronger your position. How you play a Pair depends on the strength of the two cards, the position you have on the table and whether you held it before or after the flop (where the first three community cards are dealt).
Before the flop (known as pre-flop) your odds of holding what is known as a ‘Pocket Pair’ is 0.045% or, to make it more understandable, a massive 221-1 against on any specific Pair such as the best possible poker starting hand – Ace + Ace (known as bullets). However, it drops to 16-1 for any of the Pairs you can make. Betting Pairs, especially high value ones, before the next cards are dealt can be hugely important as the odds of a player hitting any Pair on the flop itself drop to 32.43% or around 3-1.
If you simply call the blinds pre-flop with say, a Pair of 10’s, without raising, you risk letting the small, big blind and late table positions such as the button see the community cards for free/little money and therefore, are increasing the chance of a hand they might have folded to a bet (Such as Ace-Six) catching a higher card to match their hole cards and beat your existing Pair with one of their own.
Out of position, you are going to be much more inclined to simply call someone else’s raise or throw away a weak Pair such as nine’s or lower without ever making a bet at all. Over betting a pocket Pair through the flop, turn and river (the three ‘streets’ of Texas Holdem’ poker) is one of the most common mistakes novice players make. The more community cards available and, the more players in the action, the greater the chance their hand has developed to be better than yours.
Sitting just behind Three-of-a-Kind in the rankings is the Two Pair: this is when your hand contains two separate Pairs of different ranks, for example 10-10-9-9-X or J-J-9-9-X. In the case of two players having Two Pairs, the hand with the highest Pair wins. In the example above, this would be the hand with the Pair of Jacks, as Jacks rank higher than Tens. In most forms of poker this is a relatively easy hand to gain. In Holdem, the most common poker variant, it’s also a hand that gets players into deep water.
Firstly, if holding a Pocket Pair and there is another Pair on the flop – you have to seriously consider the possibility that your opponent may well have hit ‘Three-of-a-Kind’ if he is still betting or worse, a ‘Full House’. Second, and this happens all the time, is someone else having a much stronger Two Pair than you do, largely down to beginners starting a hand with weak cards when the opponent did not.
Going into the start of the game with strong Pairs or premium connected hands like Ace-King helps you avoid getting into that situation later in the hand. On a board where there is the obvious possibility of a Straight or Flush you will have to be very confident of your ‘read’ on your opponent’s hand being weaker to bet Two Pair hard.
Sometimes you're lucky enough to have your Pair turned into a Three-of-a-Kind, a ‘Set’ or 'Trips' as it's affectionately known. This is when you have any three cards of the same rank (for example, 7-7 in your hand and a further 7 on the table, with two irrelevant cards), and it's a relatively strong hand, depending on the competition. Many players, when starting out, assume that because this is a hand where it’s 3x cards supplying the value – versus the 4x cards in Two
Pair – that it ranks lower. It’s statistically harder to make Trips in a hand and it ranks higher than Two Pair as a result.
The most comfortable way to play Trips is when you begin with a Pocket Pair and make your Trips or ‘Set’ on the flop. If there is no evident Straight or Flush, you are going to feel confident betting or calling with this hand strongly. However, the stronger your Set, and the less likely it seems from the community cards that someone has you beaten, or a draw to beat you, the more likely you are to think about betting lightly to gain value from the hand or letting someone bluff and then call or re-raise.
A Straight is where you land five cards in sequence (for example, Q-J-10-9-8) but from a mixture of suits. It's often a very strong hand, but it's worth less than a Flush. It’s extremely unlikely you will make a Straight on the flop. When you do, to gain maximum value, more advanced techniques like slow playing or inducing become extremely important to maximise the money you earn from what will most likely be the winning hand.
Where the Straight can cause players issue is, as with many hands, dependant on what cards they were holding pre-flop. If the community cards in front of you are 8,9,10 and you are holding Queen + Jack – you are going to be very confident that you won’t be out ‘drawn’ by an opponent. If on the other hand you were playing very loose and made the Straight with 6,7 – players with over cards may well stay in the betting and attempt to make their hand on the turn or river.
If you have a draw to the straight on the flop (1 card missing from the required 5) then your table position, number of opponents in play and their aggression all play in to your decisions. Although a strong hand, the Straight, as with ‘Three-of-a-Kind’ can be difficult to play for maximum effect when you are mastering the basics of the game.
When you make your Straight – always be aware of any Flush draws on the board and try to bet opponents off the hand and take the existing pot if they are coming back to you aggressively. If you have the right starting hand then this is one of the best poker hands to play even with minimal skills.
The Straight is the only hand where the Ace is both the lowest possible card and also the highest within a hand. Ten-Jack-Queen-King-Ace is known as ‘Broadway’ whilst Ace-2-3-4 and 5 is known as ‘The Wheel’.
To make a Flush, you need five cards of the same suit, although they don't have to be in consecutive order – for example, Q-10-7-3-2 (All one suit – such as Clubs). If you come up against a Flush while holding one yourself, the player with the highest card will be the winner. For example, if you had K-9-7-4-2 of Spades and your opponent had Q-J-7-4-2, you would win the hand, as the King would rank as the highest card.
It’s impossible, due to the five cards in a hand and the community cards, for two players to hold a Flush with a different suit. With that in mind, a Flush is not only a powerful hand, it’s also usually easy to know if you are ahead or not against an opponent.
Holding the Ace High Flush in any suit is sometimes referred to as the ‘Nuts’ or the ‘Nut Flush’. If the board is not paired – that is there are no cards of equal value – then usually, you aren’t going to be scared of anyone with this hand unless there is a very obvious Straight Flush on the board. Even in those circumstances, the odds of your opponent actually holding the cards to have you beaten are slim.
Dangers can arise however, when you hold a Flush with less than the Ace, especially with a situation where there are four community cards with the same suit rather than three. In this circumstance, your opponent only needs to hold one card of the suit which is higher than yours even if you have two of the same suit in your hand (as the best 5 cards count).
This is yet another example where playing low value cards before the flop, even if suited and connected, can get you into trouble. A Flush might be one of the best poker hands but, it isn’t unbeatable.
A Full House is when your hand consists of three cards of the same rank, plus a Pair of cards of another rank – for example, 6-6-6-4-4 or 10-10-10-2-2. The ‘Set’ part of the Full House is what’s important here but, when two players have an equally ranked ‘Three-of-a-Kind’, the highest ranked Pair wins instead.
As with the Straight and the Flush, the Full House, whilst a powerhouse of a hand, requires that you read the community cards correctly for possible problems. For you to hit a Full House, you are going to need one of three scenarios;
The first type is a problem because there is an obvious Four-of-a-Kind opportunity for your opponents and also blatant Full House for anyone who went into the hand with a pair – low Pairs in your hand are now going to make you very nervous.
Whereas, with the second format, Four-of-a-Kind is much less likely and if you hold the 10-7 you will feel pretty comfortable – only a player with 10’s is going to have a bigger Full House. If your opponent is weak in either scenario it will kill the betting stone dead and you won’t get much payoff despite winning the hand.
The third option is the one where usually, the biggest pay-outs occur. It will appear highly unlikely to your opponent that you hit a low Set (the 3-3 plus a 3 in your hand) as that would be a very loose starting hand required to hit it. It’s also a spot where you can pick off loose players who will over bet hands like A-3 which they shouldn’t have been in the pot with and will now cause them issues as they’ve made trips and think they are strong.
A Four-of-a-Kind consists of four cards, all of the same rank (for example, 4-4-4-4-X) NOT in the same suit. In the case of two players having a Four-of-a-Kind, the one with the higher set of four cards ranks higher.
For example, if one player has 6-6-6-6-3 and another has 4-4-4-4-3, the player with the Sixes wins, as six is the higher number. In the case of two players with Four-of-a-Kinds of equal ranking, the player with the highest 'kicker' (i.e. the 'spare' or 'side' card) wins.
Though it’s ultra-rare for two different Four-of-a-Kind hands to occur, when it does, you are likely going all in and losing everything if you come out on the wrong side.
Realistically, you are not usually worried about the strength of your hand when holding Four-of-a-Kind, it creates such obvious boards to opponents the challenge is instead, actually getting someone to bet into you.
With a Pair in your hand and the same Pair on the board is your best chance, as that leaves three spare community cards for your opponent to hit a strong hand worth raising into you with – hopefully a Full House, which they will be very unlikely to throw away, allowing you to take their whole stack.
With a Set on the board and one matching card in your hand, it’s straight forward – your opponent either has or makes a separate Pair for a Full House and bets it hard or, they do nothing till the river. You bet, and they likely fold in that last instance.
Pay attention to bet sizing here, a small ‘value bet’ might induce a bluff from your opponent or a call from someone holding Ace as a kicker to the Set in the community cards which is extra chips for you when you win.
When four equal cards are on the board, it can be challenging, as only your highest ‘other’ card is going to help you against the opponent, which people will exploit if they think you are weaker than an Ace, essentially when this happens it’s a giant game of chicken.
The Straight Flush ranks second in the list of poker hand rankings, beaten only by a Royal Flush. The Straight Flush differs from the Royal Flush in that the cards aren't all of the royal or ‘broadway’ variety though, they are still in sequence. A Straight Flush is therefore five cards in the correct order, all in the same suit – for example, 10-9-8-7-6 (All Hearts). This is a very strong hand in principle and one of the best overall poker hands however, it isn’t by any means perfect.
Exactly the same problem affects the Straight Flush as affects the easier pure Straight. If you catch the bottom end of a Straight Flush, say 3-4 Hearts in your hand and 5-6-7 Hearts on the board – what happens if your opponent holds 8-9? (Answer – they win big).
Further, as with the simple Flush, if there are four community cards which could make up a Straight Flush, there’s an increased chance your opponent comes over the top of you with the one card at the end.
Players agonise over situations like these. As a beginner, don’t let it phase you – you are hardly ever folding this hand and the likelihood of these scenarios where you are beaten is tiny. Concentrate on staying calm and trying to let your opponent bet as much as possible before calling, pushing him all in if he isn’t already then showing down and raking in the chips.
No - the Royal Flush is the best possible hand in poker and is unbeatable. This hand consists of the royal/broadway cards; Ace, King, Queen and Jack, joined by a 10, all of which have to be the same suit. It’s a statistical anomaly when it occurs with odds of nearly 650,000 – 1 against. In more than a million hands of poker as a player – it’s a hand I’ve never made myself in a real money game.
Although the Royal Flush is unbeatable, it’s also very hard sometimes to get paid off on because the board becomes very scary for your opponents. If there is a 10-Jack-Queen of Hearts in the community cards and you were betting heavily pre-flop, other players are going to be terrified that the Ace-King of Hearts is in your hand.
If you are playing semi-connectors such as A-Q or K-J from late position, the hand can then come as a surprise to an unwary opponent and you will make money. Hopefully, the other player(s) make Full Houses, or a Straight Flush underneath your Royal Flush and are tempted to risk it all. Also, they might well believe you are bluffing if you are betting in a way that represents this hand.
The recommendation is to slow play this hand for all it’s worth and also, if playing live rather than online, check the rules in your casino with the dealer at the end of the hand. Many casinos offer a progressive or flat Jackpot reward on poker which pays out when a player hits a Royal Flush – It’s that rare!
After reading through this article you should have a decent understanding of the different hand rankings, best poker hands and some beginner tips on the situations you may find yourself in with them.
To truly master this as an automatic thought process there is no substitute for practice. Fortunately many of the best poker sites have freeroll and low entry fee tournaments (as low as 1c) which will allow you to play in real time with real players and hone your skills one piece at a time with little risk.
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