The fear of being kicked

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2008) in Casino Player.

It’s one of hold ’em most painful laments: “I was outkicked!”

A kicker in hold ’em is the lower-ranking of your two starting cards, assuming you don’t hold a pair. Unfortunately, the fear of being outkicked or “dominated” has led to the publication of a great deal of weak hold ’em advice. Yes, if you barge into pots holding ace-jack in early positions against conservative opponents, you’ll often be pummeled by opponents holding ace-king and ace-queen.

If you don’t pair your jack or make a straight or a flush, you’ll have a tough time betting your way out of trouble. Worse, if an ace flops, you’re likely to call or bet your way to the final river card, only to be outkicked and lose the showdown. You’ve been dominated.

Likely to dominate

This truth has led to strategies heavily weighted toward striving seldom to be outkicked. But the fact is, from middle positions against typical too-loose opponents, your ace-jack or ace-10 is more likely to dominate than to be dominated — more likely to kick than be kicked. That’s because weaker opponents — the kind you should prefer — play too many hands. Not only are they likely to play hands such as ace-9, ace-8, and often just about any ace, they also play many inadvisable hands without any ace at all.

In that environment, you’re not being prudent by avoiding being outkicked. You’re losing more opportunities for profit than opportunities for avoiding losses. Quite simply, you’d average bigger wins in the long run if you took more chances, rather than following the advice not to be dominated.

Avoid the irrational fear of domination in hold ’em. Sometime you will be dominated; sometimes you won’t. In poker, you’re always taking chances, and — as long as you make long-range profit your main objective — there’s nothing weak or embarrassing about being outkicked. If it happens, it happens.

Not enough

Keep in mind, however, that you won’t be able to bet as confidently when your kicker is questionable. So you might lose more wagers when you’re outkicked than you might win when you hold a dominating kicker. That point should be weighed on the side of the “try never to be dominated” argument. But it isn’t enough to make the advice to avoid playing aces with medium kickers correct.

It’s true that ace-jack is often unprofitable from an early position in a full-handed game. Fine. We all know that. But the fear of having a less-than-perfect kicker has grown to a full-fledged phobia that keeps many serious players from earning extra profit.

Show caution in early positions, yes. Beyond that, observe how loosely opponents play. As long as you’re 10 to 20 percent more selective about the quality of your starting hands than they are, you’re probably doing it right. Don’t let the fear of being kicked ruin hold ’em’s dance. — MC

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Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


3 thoughts on “The fear of being kicked”

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  1. I’ve got to admit: this flies in the face of so much poker advice regarding A-8, -7, -9. How would/when would you play these particularly if unsuited? I routinely pitch them if unsuited in early-mid but might keep if suited in a bigger pot.

    1. My advice doesn’t mean that you should play aces and kings with weak kickers out of position. It just means that the fear of a higher kicker is often exaggerated when you’ve already decided to that it’s profitable to play. Keep in mind that if you are against a higher kicker, then you’re apt to lose more money. This advice is only meant to caution against folding automatically in some situations in which it’s actually profitable to continue the pursuit.

      You should almost never be playing those hands you describe (A-9, A-8, A-7) from early positions.

  2. Thanks again Mike,  always love reading your thoughts on the game, even from way back in the magazine form of  'Cardplayer' in the 90's when then your articles of  '7 card stud' always got my attention ..
    However back to holdem and i find with a hand like AJ, A10  or AQ for that matter,(position depending, or stack sizes) they  are  good raising hands pre-flop but can be  bad calling hands to raises or especially  re-raises ~ Mainly in my mind, i'm thinking already of 'kicker' problem or big pairs .. That said, I'm not really a cash holdem player, more '7 stud' for cash games but for   tournaments yes holdem , 
    Many thanks again for all you articles, love your style ~ good luck.

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