Poker Hand Rankings
Whichever form of poker that you decide to play – be it Texas Hold’em, Omaha, Seven Card Stud or even the “funky” games like Chicago (High or Low), Crazy Pineapple and Follow the Queen – there is one thing that is consistent. The objective to build the best (or, in some cases, worst) five card hand is what determines who wins the pot. Therefore, the biggest thing to learn if you’re going to play poker is…what beats what?
This isn’t quite as easy as you might think. Over the history of the game of poker, there have been changes to the ranking system of hands. In the beginning, the 20-card deck provided for only eight different hands to be made. When the 52-card deck was introduced, it opened the possibilities for not only more hands but for more players to make hands and introduced a new ranking to the list. Thus, it is important to memorize the rankings of hands, from the worst hand to the best, so that you aren’t caught unaware of “what beats what” at the poker table.
This is as easy as it sounds. In making your five-card poker hand, “high card” indicates that you have absolutely nothing and are depending on the strength of the highest card in your hand to win the pot. Most of the time, this is going to be an Ace of some sorts, but there are occasions where a King or even a Queen might be used.
More often than not, you’re not going to win much with this hand. There have been times, however, when a “high card” situation wins on a massive scale. In 2013, Ryan Riess was able to defeat Jay Farber for the World Series of Poker $10,000 Championship Event and become poker’s world champion. His winning cards? An Ah Kh that stood up over Farber’s Qs 5s to win poker’s greatest title with only Ace-high.
The most common hand in the world of poker, one pair is when you have two of a certain rank of cards – say a pair of eights or a pair of Kings – as two of your five-card poker hand. Of course, the bigger the ranking, the better the pair. Pocket deuces are the lowest of the “one pair” hands, with pocket Aces being the highest. Depending on the game, holding a pair early in the play of a hand is critical to being able to move forward.
For Texas or Omaha Hold’em, having a pair at the start – a “pocket pair” in Texas Hold’em or two pocket pairs in the case of Omaha – allows the player to start from a position of strength, especially if they have pocket Aces. If you have such a hand in Stud – be it “gated” (one in the hidden “hole cards” and one up card making a pair) or “hidden” (both cards making a pair in the hole) – you can at the minimum see Fourth and maybe Fifth Street. One of the games where a pair is bad is Razz (where the object is to make the worst hand), but that’s a rare bird.
If you can make two pair in the game of poker, you usually are in a good spot. Two pair, like its little sibling one pair, is exactly what it says – two cards of the same rank twice, such as Aces and eights (A-A-8-8-x) or Kings and Queens (K-K-Q-Q-x). The normal way to present two pair is by calling the high pair first (“Aces up” or “Kings up” in the above examples).
Two pair is worthy of taking to the battle, but it is still a bit on the weak side. In Texas or Omaha Hold’em, it can fall victim to a player who makes trips (a singular card in the hand that catches two on the board), such as an 8-7 catching on an 8-8-x-x-y board. Many a player has been caught in thinking their two pair is good when someone is sitting on a third of a rank that gives them those trips. In Stud, it isn’t uncommon to see two players making two pair; it then comes down to whose two pair is bigger (in Aces up versus Kings up, the Aces win).
Three of a Kind
If you can make three of a kind in poker, you’re going to win a predominance of your hands. Three of a kind – three cards of the same rank – can simultaneously be very powerful and very sneaky. In the game of Texas Hold’em, there is an 8-1 chance of hitting a set on the flop (one time out of eight you’ll hit a card to match with your pocket pair), making “set mining” (the act of playing a pocket pair and looking to hit a set) a sneaky and profitable approach.
In the other variations of poker, three of a kind isn’t quite as strong. In Omaha, it can be the best hand you might make (in Omaha, you always want to have options for improving your hand after the flop) and could be run down by players with a straight or flush draw. In Seven Card, it also is susceptible to being caught by a player building a hand and Razz…well, by now you know, if you’ve got three of a kind in Razz, you’re playing the wrong game!
Making a straight in the game of poker is one of the harder things to do. The straight – whether it is Broadway (an Ace high straight), the “Wheel” (a five-high straight, 5-4-3-2-A) or any five sequential cards of any suit in between – cannot be made without a bit of an expenditure. In Texas or Omaha Hold’em, it takes sometimes playing cards that wouldn’t be thought of as “strong” – say suited connectors (8-7, for example) or gapped connectors (K-J) – and catching a great board. The odds of hitting a straight on the flop in the Hold’em games is 76-1 when holding connecting cards, so often you’re going to have to play the entire way to the river to make your five-card hand.
The straight is very strong in all forms of poker, but it can be sniffed out in Seven Card easily. With four up cards giving a great deal of information for your opponents, it isn’t going to sneak up on anyone that is paying attention. There is also the potential for players to be going for different ranks of straight, making the path to determining a winner an expensive proposition.
This is one of the hands that wasn’t a part of poker in its original form. With only 20 cards in the game, there was no way for players to make a flush (except, of course, for the straight flush, which almost never happened). It wasn’t until the deck was expanded to 52 cards – deuces through Aces – that the flush was inserted into the hand rankings for poker.
But why is it ranked over the straight? Because it is harder to make a flush than it is to make a straight. If you’re holding two of the same suit, you need three more to make your hand, a 118-1 proposition on the flop. If you even get two on the flop – making for a four-flush – you still only have a 3-1 chance of picking up the flush on the turn or river.
As you can see, the cost of chasing a flush can be a significant one. But when the flush does come home, it can be one of the more profitable plays in the game. Thus, you will see some players who will chase these outcomes – for better or for worse.
Making a full house – three of a kind with a pair, such as A-A-A-K-K – is cause for celebration for any poker player. From the statistics above, however, it is an occurrence that doesn’t come about very often. First you must either catch a set (remember that 8-1 chance?) or make two pair and then have one of the pairs catch another card. The odds of that two pair becoming a full house by the river is roughly 6.5-1 (the odds increase to 3-1 if you flop a set and are looking to make a full house by the river).
The problem is that a full house can be sniffed out fairly easily. Skilled players will see a raise or simply a call and their antennae will rise as the possibility of a flopped set or “boat” (another term for a full house) becomes apparent. Unless someone makes a strong hand against you – say a flush or straight, winning hands most of the time – there is the great potential that, if you play the full house too aggressively, you will lose your opponent before extracting a big stack of chips from them.
Four of a Kind
When you make four of a kind – use all four cards of a certain rank, such as A-A-A-A-x – you are virtually guaranteed to win the hand. That doesn’t always mean that you’re going to win big, however. When a player makes four of a kind (approximately 4100-1 on the flop), you need to have your opponent also make a hand – at least two pair that becomes a full house by the river is a dream scenario – to really get paid off for your four of a kind.
The straight flush is the epitome of poker and the most difficult hand to make. The odds of making a straight flush are 72,193.33-1, not astronomical odds in the overall scheme of things but extreme enough that you aren’t going to see it every time you sit down to the tables. Some people add in the “royal flush” (simply an Ace-high straight flush) as another ranking above the straight flush, but the chances of both occurring in the same hand is so extreme – 46,906,607,627-1 (it is 659,739-1 that you will make a royal flush) – that having separate rankings for them is a redundancy. Simply put, if you make a straight flush, you’re definitely going to win the hand – the question then becomes how MUCH can you win with it!