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Learning Poker Hand Rankings

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At the recently completed 2016 Poker Tournament of Champions, eventual winner David Chiu stunned the capacity crowd by folding the second-best possible hand in Texas Hold 'em, when the pattern of betting convinced him that his opponent held the best possible hand. David turned out to be correct; his opponent did have the best possible hand, and said after the victory that this amazing fold (called a "laydown" in poker parlance) made possible: "We have a saying in poker. The second-best hand doesn't win the pot."

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Although beginning poker players probably shouldn't be focusing on when to fold the second-best possible hand, David Chiu's amazing professional play serves as a good reminder of a basic poker principle: Everything is relative. Don't bet merely because you think you hold a good hand. Try to consider how good that hand is, relative to the other hands you see. Many beginners ask me questions like "What is a good hand in Seven Card Stud?" I tell them "It depends on the situation. Four Kings sounds like a great hand, but if your opponent has four Aces, getting four Kings could be the unluckiest moment of your poker career!" So let's start at the beginning, and look at the different possible hands in poker.

Note that while some poker games deal you more than five cards, in all games you must select your best five cards to make your hand. So, for example, in a game like Seven Card Stud, if you hold two Kings, two Jacks, two Tens, and a Seven, your hand is K-K-J-J-10. Your third pair doesn't matter, because you can't use six cards in your final hand. So even though it might not seem fair, you and your "three pair" would lose to an opponent who only held two pair, if his two pair were, let's say, two Aces and two Threes (A-A-3-3-8), because when multiple players have two pair, the player holding the highest pair wins. That said, the ranking of poker hands, starting with the lowest and working our way up to the best, is as follows:

1) High Cards. If no one has anything better, a single high card can win a hand, or if two people have the same pair, the player holding the highest other card wins. The cards are ranked, from highest down to lowest, A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2. Note that unlike many other card games, the suits (spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs) do NOT matter in a poker end-of-hand showdown. If two people have the same highest high card, you look at the next highest card in their hands. For example, A-Q-2-3-4 beats A-J-10-9-8, and 10-9-8-6-3 beats 10-9-8-6-2)

2) One Pair. A hand that contains a pair beats a hand that does not contain one (unless the non-pair hand is a straight or a flush, described below). So a hand full of small cards like 2-2-3-4-5 beats a hand that looks impressive, like A-K-Q-J-9, because that A-K-Q-J-9 hand is just a bunch of individual cards. The pair of twos wins. If both players have one pair, the player with the higher pair wins, regardless of the other three cards; for example, 7-7-2-3-4 beats 4-4-A-K-Q. If both players have the SAME pair, the next highest card decides the hand, for example, J-J-8-4-2 beats J-J-7-6-5. Similarly, J-J-8-4-3 would beat J-J-8-4-2.

3) Two Pair. Any hand containing two pair beats any hand containing one pair, for example, 2-2-3-3-6 beats A-A-K-Q-J. If both players have two pair, the hand containing the higher pair wins, for example K-K-8-8-6 beats Q-Q-J-J-10. If both players have the same top pair, the second pair decides it, for example K-K-8-8-6 beats K-K-7-7-Q, and if both players have the same two pair, the fifth card decides it, for example K-K-8-8-7 beats K-K-8-8-6.

4) Three of a Kind. Any hand containing three of a kind beats any hand containing two pair, for example, 2-2-2-4-5 beats A-A-K-K-Q. If two players each have three of a kind, the higher three of a kind wins, for example 7-7-7-6-2 beats 5-5-5-A-K. You might think that you'll never see a situation where two people have the same three of a kind (that is, 4-4-4-A-K opposing 4-4-4-3-2, because there are only 4 Fours in a deck, but actually it can happen in two different ways. The most common is in a "community card" game, like Texas Hold 'em, where some cards belong to all players (see the discussion of Texas Hold 'em rules to understand this better). You could also see it in a home game that employs wild cards. In either case, the 4-4-4-A-K hand would win.

5) Straight. Any five cards in sequence defeat three of a kind, or any lower-ranked hand. For example, 2-3-4-5-6 beats A-A-A-K-Q. In the event that two people hold a straight, higher straights beat lower straights, for example, 9-10-J-Q-K beats 3-4-5-6-7. Note that the Ace can play at either end: A-2-3-4-5 is a straight (the lowest possible straight), and so is 10-J-Q-K-A (the highest possible straight). But the Ace can't play in the "middle" of a straight, that is, a hand like Q-K-A-2-3 is not a straight. It's just a five card, Ace-high hand.

6) Flush. Any 5 cards of the same suit, for example, the 2-3-5-8-10 of hearts, defeat any straight or lower hand. If two people have flushes, the flush containing the highest card wins, for example, A-10-8-6-5 of hearts beats K-Q-J-9-7 of spades. If both flushes contain the same highest card, the second highest card decides it, for example, K-J-4-3-2 of diamonds beats K-10-9-8-4 of spades. If the first two cards are equal, the third card decides it, and so on. It's important to remember that suits don't matter: if one player holds A-K-10-9-8 of diamonds and another holds A-K-10-9-8 of spades, they split the pot.

7) Full house. Three of a kind and a pair, for example, K-K-K-7-7, beats any flush or lower-ranked hand. If two people hold full houses, the full house containing the higher three of a kind wins, for example, Q-Q-Q-2-2 beats J-J-J-A-A. Just as we saw when examining three of a kind, you won't see situations like Q-Q-Q-2-2 opposing Q-Q-Q-6-6, unless you're playing a community card game like Texas Hold 'em, or with wild cards, and by now you can guess that in such situations, the higher second pair decides the hand.

8) Four of a kind. Four of one card, for example, 5-5-5-5-6, is a VERY powerful holding, unless you are playing in some kind of game with a lot of wild cards. If two people hold four of a kind, the higher "quads" win, for example, 5-5-5-5-6 beats 4-4-4-4-A. It's also possible to see identical four of a kind hands oppose each other, in community card games or wild card games, and if so, the fifth card decides the winner.

9) Straight flush. A very rare hand, unless many wild cards are being employed. Five cards in sequence that are also the same suit, for example, 5-6-7-8-9 of diamonds, would be a straight flush, and it beats four of a kind or any lower-ranked hand. Just as with regular flushes, suits are irrelevant: 5-6-7-8-9 of diamonds would split the pot with 5-6-7-8-9 of spades. Some people like to say that a Royal Flush (10-J-Q-K-A, all of the same suit) is a better hand than a straight flush, but technically, a Royal Flush is just the best possible straight flush. Don't spend too much time worrying about this distinction. Unless you're being cheated (like in the scene in the movie Honeymoon in Vegas), you will probably go your entire life without seeing a Royal Flush beat a straight flush.

10) 5 of a kind. This hand is only possible in a game employing wild cards, for example, J-J-J-J-wild card is five Jacks. Wild card games are not played in casinos, only in home games, so if you are going to play in a home game, make sure they are following this rule. "Traditionally," if any such word can be applied to the many bizarre variations of poker found in home games using wild cards, five of a kind beats a straight flush or royal flush. It really doesn't matter which rule your home game uses, as long as you know the rule before you start play. If everyone in your home game agrees that a straight flush beats five of a kind, BEFORE the game starts, the game is fair because the rules are the same for everyone. Arguing about it in the middle of a hand is, for obvious reasons, an uncomfortable situation. Even in wild card games, there is no such hand as "six Jacks," and so you don't have to worry about whether six Jacks beats five Aces. Someone with four Jacks and two wild cards has five Jacks. A poker hand is always limited to five cards.

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