The most important lesson in this game is to understand the strength of poker hands and their ranking. You won’t get very far if you don’t know which hand is beating which other.
A poker hand is made up of the five best cards available to you. For example, on the river in a hand of Texas Hold’em you have a choice of seven cards and you can choose any combination of five cards to make the best hand. This is also true if the two pocket cards are the worst, so you can “play the board” which means that your best hand is made up of the five community cards.
The following is the ranking of the combinations from strongest to weakest. If you have the same combination as your opponent, the higher cards win.
Poker hands in order
The strongest hand in poker is the royal flush. It consists of the Ten, the Jack, the Queen, the King and the Ace of the same suit, for example Spades.
The second best hand is the straight flush. It is made up of five consecutive cards of the same suit. If two players have a straight flush, the player with the higher card wins.
The square is made up of four cards of the same rank, for example four Kings. If two players have a square, the one with the higher square wins. If they both have the same square (which means it is obtained from 4 community cards), the value of the fifth card determines the winner. A poker hand is in fact always made up of five cards.
A full house is the combination of a pair and a set. If two players have a full house, then we compare the sets first. Whoever has the highest wins. If the two sets are of the same value, then the height of the pair determines the winner.
Five cards of the same suit / family (Spades, Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs), give a flush. If two players have a flush, the player with the higher card wins.
Five consecutive cards form a straight. If two players have a straight, the player with the higher card wins.
Three of a kind
A set is made up of three cards of the same rank. If two players have the same set, the value of the fourth or even the fifth card determines the winner since a poker hand is always made up of five cards.
A double pair is of course made up of … two pairs. If two players each have double pair, then the rank of the highest pair designates the winner. If they have the same high pair, then we compare the low pair. If again they have the same pair, the value of the fifth card determines the winner.
A pair is made up of two cards of the same rank. Since a poker hand is always five cards, the pair is accompanied by three other cards, called acolytes or “kickers”. If two players have the same pair, we compare the kickers, starting with the highest.
If you can’t even make a pair, then it’s your highest card value that matters. If two players face off at showdown without either of them having a pair or better, the player with the higher card wins.
Understanding the strength of a poker hand
One of the most important skills in poker is being able to determine whether your hand is strong or not because there are a lot of factors involved.
The number of players is one of them. If a lot of players have voluntarily chosen to play the hand, you must imagine it is because they have strong hands.
On the other hand, if only two players are involved in a hand, it is less likely that this will be the case. A pair of aces, for example, is a very good poker hand against a single player, but against four players its value drops dramatically.
The playing style of your opponents is also an important factor. If they are “tight” and therefore play few hands, then you can expect them to have a strong hand when they play. If they are “loose” and therefore play a lot of hands, then the relative strength of their hand is that much less.
The community poker cards will determine the potential number of possible strong hands. If you have a set but there are four cards of the same suit and four cards that can be a straight, then your hand’s strength decreases. This is called a “wet” board. Likewise, if the board consists of non-consecutive cards and the flush is impossible, your hand strength increases.
The number of tokens in play also plays an important role. In a tournament where the stacks are shallow, it is not unusual for players to pledge their money with weaker hands to avoid “blinding away”. However in cash games, where the stacks are deep, you are unlikely to see this sort of thing.
Understanding these complex decisions requires a lot of experience. Until then, you can greatly improve your skills in this area by playing only with the best hands.
Starting Hands Chart: which hands should I play?
The Starting Poker Hands Chart
The Starting Hands Chart tells you what cards to play, and how. Print it out and you’ll always know what to do before the flop.
Because each variant is different, we have starting hands charts and strategies for each one. Below is an example of our starting hand charts for No Limit Texas Hold’em.