Figuring the Nuts in Texas Holdem

Figuring the Nuts in Texas Holdem

One of the first skills you must learn in Texas Holdem poker is the ability to read the cards on the board and figure out the best possible hand, known as “the nuts”. To players who have been at it a while, this is something done automatically and constantly, but to new players it is often overlooked or done incorrectly. It’s a basic skill that all players need to know, and it’s easy once you know how. For the purposes of this discussion we will assume you know the ranking of poker hands from royal flush on down. If you don’t, then go learn because you won’t get far without it!

Before we get into the details, let me point out a few things that are often overlooked by beginners:

First, the best possible hand will usually change as additional cards are revealed. What may be the nuts right now may not stay the nuts when that next card hits. Always be sure to recalculate the nuts after every bit of new information. Better yet, once you’re comfortable with figuring out the best hand, try to stay one step ahead and think about those cards that may hit the board and how that will effect the current nuts. We’ll talk about this again later.

Second, don’t always assume that some player has the nut hand. You’re figuring out what the best possible hand would be in order to keep your play in perspective, but that doesn’t mean someone has it. The more players that are still in the hand, the more likely it is that someone has the nut… but you can’t assume that every flop with two deuces means you’re now up against a four of a kind. Knowing the nuts just lets you know what to look out for.

Third, realize that more than one person can have the nut hand at the same time. If there are four queens on the board, anyone with an ace has the nuts… or if that ace is on the board then everyone has the nuts. Just because you have a nut hand doesn’t mean someone else can’t tie you.

Fourth, in Hold’em, once all five cards are on the board, the nuts will always be three queens or higher. If you’ve figured out what you think is the best possible hand and it isn’t three queens or better, then look again because you missed something.

Lastly, always remember to take your hole cards into consideration when calculating the nuts. If you have a specific card that would be necessary for the nut hand, then obviously that hand is not possible. An example of this would be if you were holding the king and seven of spades when the five, six and eight of spades are on the board. The straight flush will look like the nuts to everyone else, but because you have the seven in your hand, you know that isn’t possible… the nut hand would be the ace high flush.

Okay, let’s move on. In Hold’em, as you hopefully know, each player gets two cards face down at the beginning of the hand. At this point, the nuts are simple: pocket aces. Any player who holds these cards has the nuts right now. Play long enough and you’ll even see a hand where two players have pocket aces at the same time, in which case both have the nuts. Anyone with anything other than pocket aces should know that it is possible (although not necessarily likely) that someone has a better starting hand than they do.

Once cards start hitting the board, it gets slightly more complicated. Usually the best thing to do is to go down the hand ranking list in your head and check if that hand is possible, starting with the royal flush. There are, however, a few shortcuts that people use to eliminate certain types of hands. The ones that are the easiest to remember, and will help you the most in the beginning, are simple:

Check for a pair, three of a kind, or four of a kind on the board. If none of these are present, then you can eliminate all four of a kinds and all full houses. Without at least a pair on the board, these hands cannot be the nuts.

Check for three or more cards of the same suit. If there are not at least three cards of the same suit, then you can eliminate all straight flushes and flushes. Without three suited cards on the board, these hands also cannot be the nuts.

If you’ve eliminated straight flushes, four of a kind, full houses and flushes, then you have only two possible hand types left that would make the nuts: straights and sets. (In case you haven’t seen the term before, “set” is just another name for three of a kind.)

Check for straights. Straights are sometimes tricky because the same cards can often be used to make more than one straight. When you check for a possible nut straight make sure you have found the highest one possible. The best method for this is often to look at the three highest cards on the board and see if they have two or less gaps between their ranks. If they do, then you can make a straight using them. If there are exactly two gaps, then the straight will be as high as the highest card. If they have one gap, then the nut straight will be as high as the card one rank above the highest card on the board. If all three cards are consecutive, then the nut straight will be as high as the card two ranks above the highest card on the board. Obviously, once you hit the ace, then you’re looking at an ace high straight as the nuts. A few examples would be:

Cards on the board:.............Highest possible straight:

- 9TJ (no gaps).........................9TJQK

- 568 (one gap).........................56789

- QKA (no gap, ace high)................TJQKA

- 236 (two gaps)........................23456

If, after checking the three highest cards you find no straight possibility, discount the highest card and add in the next lowest then check it again. Continue until you find a straight or have checked all the cards on the board. If there’s anything you should practice when looking for the nuts, it’s finding the highest straight.

If you’ve concluded that there are no hands possible that are at least a straight, then take the highest card on the board and add two of them. That three of a kind is the highest possible hand right now. Remember to recalculate the nuts once another card hits the board!

Those simple steps: check for a pair or more, check for three or more suited cards, then check for straights, will get you through most hands. If, however, you do face a pair or more, or several suited cards, you may need to go a little deeper and there may be a situation or two that gets a little trickier. Let’s break them down one at a time:

- Four of a kind on the board: If the board has an ace, then the board is the nut hand. If not, any ace makes the nut hand.

- Three of a kind on the board: Four of a kind is now the nut hand, and the kicker doesn’t matter like it did in the last example because only one player can have the four of a kind.

- Two pair on the board: Four of a kind, using the higher of the two pair, is the nut hand except for the rare case where you hold one of the cards necessary. Then the second pair’s four of a kind is the nut. If you hold one of each, then you need to figure out the highest possible full house. To do this, simply take the highest card on the board and imagine three of them, with two of the next highest on the board. This may mean that a non-paired board card is used in the full house, so be careful. An example would be 99JJA on the board. If your hand is J9, then you don’t have the nuts and no four of a kind is possible. The nut hand would be AAAJJ.