The Nuts

Poker Concepts, Strategy

August 22, 2007

You’ll often hear poker players discussing “the nuts”, but what is it? The simple definition is that the nuts is the highest ranking hand that anyone can hold at a given time. The concept applies to all forms of poker, but is most meaningful in community card games like holdem and especially Omaha. It turns out the nuts are a more complicated subject than you might think at first glance.

In draw forms of poker, the nuts are rarely discussed. That’s because under normal circumstances, the nut hand is always a royal flush, and it’s extremely unlikely at any given time that anyone holds one. However, occasionally a situation arises where another hand is the nuts. For example, if Bob holds KhKcKsKdAh, his hand is NOT the nuts, but neither is a royal flush since no one can make one without a king. So the nuts is a straight flush, queen high. Interesting trivia, but not that useful to know because if anyone holds any of these monster hands, they’ll simply assume they’re good and play the hand as such. Sure, if two monsters are out, someone is in for a bad beat. But it won’t affect how the hand is played.

This brings up the concepts of the near-nuts, a hand so good that you’re willing to go broke assuming it is the best hand even when you have no ironclad proof that it is. Bob’s kings above could be said to be the near-nuts. The concept of the near-nuts usually occurs only in PL or NL games, because in a limit game the massive amount of bets that can occur before stacks are exhausted means that you may not want to go broke even with a monster hand if it’s not the nuts. I’ll discuss why this is in another article.

One interesting fact: in lowball draw, it’s very possible to hold a hand that significantly changes what the nuts are. For example, in Kansas City Lowball, if you hold a hand with all four 2’s, they best hand anyone else can hold changes from a 7-5 wheel to a 8-6, which isn’t even a particularly good 8, and is not a hand your opponents will want to back with a lot of money. This makes quad 2’s a very good snowing hand in KCL.

In stud poker, the concept of the nuts changes somewhat, and is usually replaced by the analogous idea of a board lock – namely the knowledge that no matter what your opponent has in the hole, he can’t beat your hand. One point worth mentioning is that the nuts is only a current thing – it’s no guarantee that someone might not hold a hand that can outdraw you if there are cards to come. This applies to all forms of poker except draw (where the nuts doesn’t change from before to after the draw except in truly strange circumstances). Not that it’s almost impossible to have a board lock in stud by 7th street because concealed quads become a possibility, so usually only a straight flush can be said to have a lock. This is similar to the situation in draw. However, it’s fairly easy to have a lock on earlier streets in stud.

In community card games, the nuts become far more important for two reasons. First, the hand that’s the nuts changes depending on the board. For example, in holdem, you are always playing 3,4 or 5 cards from the board. This means that the range of hands you can make is radically reduced after the flop. Consider that it’s impossible to make a royal flush unless three cards of rank T or higher and of the same suit are on the board. Otherwise, no royal flush is possible. Similarly, it’s impossible to make quads or a full house without a pair on the board. And you can’t make a flush without 3 cards of the same suit. A straight requires 3 cards with of different ranks with no more than 4 ranks of difference between the high and low card in the group. As an interesting note, the lowest possible holdem hand that can be the nuts is trips of the highest rank on the board. A second reason that the nuts become more important in community card games is that it’s fairly common to hold the nuts – at most 2 specific cards in the hole are required, as compared to 5 specific cards in draw. This means that correctly playing the nuts becomes an important topic.

In Omaha, holding the nuts and drawing to the nuts takes on even greater importance. Since it’s so easy to make a hand with 4 hole cards plus community cards, made hands less than the nuts are often beaten, and draws to less than the nuts are often drawing dead. Another situation that occurs frequently in Omaha, but which is rare in holdem, is that the nut hand is often not a favorite to win the hand on the flop or turn. Furthermore, it’s common for one person to hold the nuts (usually a straight) and another to hold the nuts plus a draw to a higher hand (often a flush). This can occasionally happen in holdem, but it’s a regular thing in Omaha. The person who has the redraw is on a freeroll (and the other guy on a negative freeroll) on all future bets because he can’t lose, but can win if his draw comes in. To this end, its often correct to fold a nut straight in pot limit Omaha when you believe someone else has the straight plus a draw. This is probably the only form of poker where you would fold the nuts. Omaha has also developed terms such as the “immortal nuts” to describe hands that are not only the best possible hand right now, but have the best possible draw.

Now you know all about the nuts.

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