Mike Caro poker word is Kicker

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

If you’ve been visiting my columns recently, you already know the rules. I get to ask my own questions and then answer them. This method avoids the anguish of real-life interviews. That’s when I frequently have to abuse a question that doesn’t interest me or you by uttering some polite words as a vague starting point. Then I refashion the question to say what I want.

That’s a waste of our time. You’ll like these questions better. Last time we talked about “attitude,” which was Today’s Word of two weeks ago, and we left off with question 90. So, it’s on to question 91 and our new word: “Kicker.”

Question 91: Could you define “kicker,” so we all understand what element of poker you’re addressing?

You’re wasting everyone’s time with that question. Maybe you, as a journalist, don’t know what a kicker is, but most poker players do. Just to humor you, the term originated in draw poker. Sometimes when you draw to a pair, you keep an extra card, drawing two new ones, instead of three. Largely, this is done for deception, hopefully causing opponents to fear that you hold three-of-a-kind, but — additionally — keeping a high kicker often helps when you catch a card of that rank and make two large pair. You can even keep a kicker when you already hold three-of-a-kind, drawing one, instead of two. That’s almost always done as a trick to make opponents think you only have two pair or are drawing one card to a straight or flush.

Okay, now let’s talk about hold ’em. You only receive a two-card starting hand and you don’t get to replace cards, hoping to improve. The term kicker has come to mean the lower-ranking of your two cards. That’s strange, don’t you think? Originally, in draw poker a kicker, was usually a higher card kept when drawing to a pair — especially an ace. Anyway, if you start with ace-jack in hold ’em, it’s usually the jack that’s considered the kicker, because players are thinking in terms of making a pair of aces and hopefully encountering an opponent with, say, a 10 kicker. When this happens, you’ve outkicked your opponent.

Of course, you could argue that the ace is the kicker, because if both you and your opponent make a pair of jacks, the ace becomes the dominating kicker. Notice that I said “dominating,” and that’s important, because a lot of hold ’em advice these days deals with domination, focusing on what kicker you’re holding.

Question 92: Well, that’s a pretty long answer to a question you told me was a waste of time. If you’re so smart, answer this: Is the advice you read about domination usually right?

Well, I believe that the advice to always try to dominate at hold ’em by holding a high kicker is flawed. The intent is good and based on sound theory. But many players and some experts seem too obsessed with the quest to avoid being dominated — to almost always dominate.

It’s sort of like telling a guy not to go outside in a thunderstorm to rescue a $20,000 sack of money that’s about to blow away, because he’s in danger of being struck by lightning. Avoiding lightning is, of course, rational. But the risk probably isn’t enough to overwhelm the reward of salvaging $20,000.

Let’s use ace-jack in hold ’em for this example. We know from experience and from careful analysis of millions of hands simulated on computer that entering a pot from first position in a nine-handed game is unprofitable. Actually, it isn’t always unprofitable, and there are situations when opponents are so loose that you can argue in favor of playing the hand. But that’s rare. The reason it’s usually unprofitable to play ace-jack in an early position is because sensible opponents are selective about the hands they play, and if they call or raise while holding an ace, their kicker is usually going to be a queen or a king, giving you an uphill battle.

Ace-jack is, indeed, a hand that can easily be dominated. But wait! I part with traditional advice when it comes to middle-, even early-middle, position against loose opponents. Here’s where I believe that many opponents will be playing aces with any kind of kicker against you. And don’t forget, your ace by itself is powerful in such circumstances, because loose opponents will be playing most of their hands without holding an ace at all.

Whittle it down and you can see how throwing away a lot of hands for fear of being dominated can cost you money. That’s because, against loose opponents, even when they’re holding aces, you’re more likely to dominate with ace-jack than to be dominated. In such circumstances, if you fold routinely, you’re sacrificing profit. And I’d extend this argument beyond ace-jack and say that you should play ace-10, ace-9, and other aces more often than is commonly advised. That’s assuming you’re not in an early position and your opponents are loose and unaggressive.

Question 93: So, are you saying that if your kicker will be better more than half the time, you’re in a profitable situation?

Not exactly. Keep in mind that if you bump against ace-queen or ace-king with that ace-jack or ace-10, you might get pummeled, especially if no one pairs or the board shows an ace. But when your medium kicker dominates, it may be harder to win as many bets, mostly because you won’t have the confidence to be aggressive for fear of being outkicked.

So, that’s an argument in favor of trying not to be dominated.

Question 94: You seem to be arguing both ways. What’s the bottom line?

The bottom line is that you have to take risks to maximize your profit in hold ’em or any other form of poker. I believe the advice to fear domination in hold ’em is overstated. Avoiding lightning is wise, but don’t let the fear keep you from taking sensible chances in your best interest. — 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.


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  1. i was disappointed in this column…
    when you said kickers weren’t important i thought you were finally gonna go off on guys with no vowels in their name that made it into the NFL. still like your poker advice though.

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