Kicker TroubleWith communal cards that belong to everybody, it’s not unusual for two Hold’em players to have an identical hand except for the unpaired side card. It’s that all-important side card, or kicker, which often spells the difference between winning and losing.
If the flop contains either an ace or a king when you’re holding A-K in your hand, you’re guaranteed to have the highest possible pair with the best of all possible kickers. But if you’re holding A-2 instead of Big Slick, you’ll either flop a pair of aces with the worst possible kicker or a pair of deuces that seldom figures to be the best hand, regardless of the fact that its side card is an ace. It’s the strength of the side card that propels A-K up into the “premium hand” category, while consigning A-2 to that group of horrid, troublesome hands usually better off mucked as early and as inexpensively as possible.
Breaking it Down
Suppose you’ve been dealt A-Q and I have A-5. If the flop is A-4-4, we’ve each made two pair, and if things ended right here, you would win based on the strength of your kicker. After all, A-A-4-4-Q is a better hand than A-A-4-4-5.
This may resemble a photo finish at a horserace because determining which hand wins requires going all the way down to the fifth and final card, but in reality, I can only win by catching a five on the turn or the river. If I did, my A-A-5-5-4 would beat your A-A-4-4-Q, and you might walk away muttering to yourself about how unfortunate you were.
I was a longshot because your hand dominated mine and I had to catch one of the three remaining fives in the deck in order to put a bad beat on you and win the pot. No other cards in the deck could have helped me win, though there are a few that would force a tied hand and we’d wind up splitting the pot. If, for example, a king were to appear we’d both have A-A-4-4-K, and the communal king would obviate your previously superior queen kicker. Because it’s shared by both of us, we’d each have an identical hand and the pot would be chopped neatly in half.
Sometimes the kicker comes into play even when there isn’t a pair on board. Suppose the board read A-9-8-7-2 at hand’s end. With your A-Q, you’d hold A-A-Q-9-8. With my A-5, the best hand I could make from my two private cards and the five board cards would be A-A-9-8-7. My five is so pitifully small that it wouldn’t even play, and your pair of aces with a queen kicker would capture the pot and in the process, my pair of aces with its sorry kicker would be kicked to the curb, right where it belongs.
But when it comes to winning the pot instead of splitting it, all I have to hope for are those three remaining fives in the deck unless I am amazingly lucky and catch a miraculous straight or flush and beat you that way—but those hands come around so infrequently that you’re free to ignore them.
Weighing the Options
Most savvy players routinely throw away two-card holdings with weak kickers. With a poor kicker, you’re never quite as sure how you stack up during the play of the hand. As a result, you’re frequently relegated to passive play. Even when you win with a hand like A-5, you’ll probably rake in less money than you would have won with a hand like A-K, which is the kind of hand you can aggressively bet or raise all the way to the river.
Although never desirable, weak side cards are worse with an ace in your hand than they are with any other card in the deck. Here’s why. Many of your opponents love aces and will eagerly play any ace they are dealt. They won’t do that with any other card.
Hands like K-3 or Q-5 are seldom played. Even the weakest players in the game learn to throw these hands away—but some of these same opponents will play hands like A-5 and A-3 regularly.
If you play a weak king and are fortunate enough to catch a king on the flop, you stand a pretty good chance of being the only player holding a pair of kings. Your chances are even better if the pot was not raised before the flop—thus minimizing the likelihood that anyone was dealt an obvious raising hand such as A-K, K-Q, or K-J.
But when you play a weak ace, the implications can be horrific. You’re likely to find that someone else holds an ace too. And while his kicker might be weak, it’s still probably better than a trey or a deuce. Even if you jump into the pot with a middle-of-the-road kicker like A-7 or A-8, you won’t have any idea whether yours is the best hand.
Facing the Inevitable
That’s kicker trouble. It’s an occupational hazard of poker players that you can’t ever avoid completely unless you set out to play pocket aces, pocket kings and nothing else. And if you tighten up that much, the ailment is even worse. Kicker trouble eventually catches up to everyone. Even the very best players run into it every now and then. But you can minimize the chances of kicker trouble striking you. If you’re playing A-Q, the only way you can catch a deathly case of kicker trouble is if your opponent is holding A-K, and there’s a lot less likelihood of that happening than if you decide to play A-3 or A-4 and run into another player who was fortunate enough to be dealt an ace too.
When it comes to Texas hold’em, bigger is usually better, and that’s something worth remembering when you’re trying to duck a bad case of kicker trouble.
By Lou Krieger