Poker Strategy

What Beats What

The first step in getting your feet wet in the game of poker is understanding the rank and suits of the cards and how they combine to make hands. The following is the hierarchy of poker hands, from worst to best. Poker changes from one table to the next, but the following is indisputable: 

  • High card: If you do not have anything in your hand, then your best hand is the highest card in your hand. For example, a King-high means that nothing in your hand matches with anything else, and the King is the highest card in your hand. Usually, an Ace is considered the highest card. If a King-high hand showed down against an Ace-high hand, the Ace would take the pot.
  • Pair: Two of your cards are the same, like 2 Jacks. If two hands are showing down pairs to win a pot, the pair with the highest rank (numerical value) wins. For example, a pair of fours would beat a pair of threes.
  • Two pairs: Fairly self-explanatory. In this hand, the player has both 2 Jacks and a pair of 2’s to make Two pair. It he had to show down against a single pair or high card, this hand would win. Against trips or better, this player is out of luck. If two players were showing down and they both had two pairs, the player with the highest pair would win the pot. That is, if player 1 is holding AA33K, and player 2 is holding QQKKA, player 1 wins. If they both had a pair of Aces, the next highest pair will win the hand. In the unlikely event that both hands have the same two pairs, the fifth (kicker) card will determine the winner. If the hands are identical, they will split the pot.
  • Three-of-a-kind: Three of your cards are the same rank. Like the 3 two’s in this example. This hand will beat two pair or worse, but lose to a straight or better. As with all hands, the higher ranked three-of-a-kind will win in a showdown. If the trips are the same, the kicker cards will determine the winner. This hand is also called a set.
  • Straight: All five of your cards are in numerical sequence, regardless of the suits of the cards. If there are two straights at the table, then the one of a higher sequence is the better hand. In most poker variations, a straight can only be made with all five cards. Four card and three card runs have no value.
  • Flush: All five of your cards are the same suit. They do not have to be in any sequence, they just have to be of the same suit. The flush with the highest ranked card will beat another flush. One suit has no more value than another, if two Queen-high flushes showdown, the pot would be split. Usually, an Ace is considered a high card.
  • Full House: This is a powerful combination of a pair and a three-of-a-kind. Also known as a ‘boat’, this hand is seldom beat in game without wild cards, and subsequently it doesn’t show up all that often. If two full-house’s showdown, the hand with the higher trips will determine the winner.
  • Four-of-a-kind: Four of your cards are the same. Like any other hand, the higher the rank, the better the hand.
  • Straight Flush: All five of your cards are the same suit AND they are all in sequence. Again, a straight flush of a higher sequence is the better hand and no suit is better than the other. This is the top of the pops. A true uber-monster-hand, rare as a Sasquatch, and twice as mean. You’ve likely heard of a Royal Flush, which is just a straight flush of 10JQKA. You may go your whole life and never see a natural straight flush in a regular 5 card game. In the unlikely event that two Straight Flushes of equal value showdown, chop the pot and spend the money on bottled water and duct tape. The apocalypse is here, and not even Tom Ridge can save us.

Knowing what hand beats what hand is a large chunk of the game. The sequence of betting rounds in a game is difficult to master but relatively simple to learn. The different types of games played require time to learn but are still easily categorized. The table of what-beats-what, however, is a big step towards understanding poker. You can follow a round of betting by watching it. You can learn a poker game by listening to the rules or watch it being played. But, this isn’t worth much until knowing what will happen when all players throw their hands down to determine who wins. 

Learning the table of what-beats-what is the first essential. Knowing it by heart comes with time. At this point in the lesson, you may wish to write down the table of what beats what for future reference. Most quality decks of cards will come with that popular generic card explaining the ranking of poker hands. For now, it’s enough to know that there are hundreds of poker variations, but in virtually all of them, the table of what beats what never changes. It is a staple of the game.