What Is the Nuts in Poker?


The nuts is one of the most controversial poker terms because of the various interpretations that different players have. Two players could be holding two different cards and see them as the nuts at a particular street. That’s why despite being a popular poker term, many people still get confused with what it really means.

The term nuts means the best hand, which is open for various interpretations. “The nuts” or “relative nuts” changes at street level. On the other hand, some players think it’s the unbeatable hand, which we also call “absolute nuts” or “stone-cold nuts”—the best possible combination in the game.

nuts in poker
There are a few different meanings of nuts in poker.

With so much discussion and controversy revolving around the nuts, the explanation for it can’t be that simple, right? So, let’s discuss everything about it in great detail. We’ll even cover the least known rule in professional poker that has something to do with stone-cold nuts.

The History of the Nuts

The most common apocryphal folk etymology of “The Nuts” is that it originated from the historical poker games in America. When a player bets everything that he has in his possession, he should place the nuts of his wagon’s wheel—literally the nuts that hold the wagon and wheel together— on the table to be sure that he can’t flee if he loses.

To this day, a player would only make such a bet if he thinks that he holds the best possible hand. Unless it’s a part of an elaborate strategy, a player won’t go all-in if he doesn’t think he can beat all of his opponents. It’s how we came up with the term “nuts” in poker, which is still widely discussed and misunderstood.

In simple terms, the nuts means the best hand in any given street or game. The best example of the nuts is a royal flush—it’s the absolute nut in any game. However, the nuts can also refer to other combinations of cards that no other hand can beat. When a player has the nut, it’s safe to assume that the worst that could happen is a tie with another player.

Nut Hand: The Most Misunderstood Term in Poker

There’s been so much discussion on what the nuts really is, and players are still debating about it on several poker forums. Some say that having the nuts is impossible until the game reaches the river because you can’t have the best hand with only four community cards in play. As we’ve witnessed in a lot of games, the river card can have so much impact on the game that a much weaker hand ends up beating the nuts on the turn.

For others, a player can wake up to a nut hand as early as pre-flop. However, it’s still too early for it to be the absolute nuts because a single draw at any street could drastically change its strength. Both are correct interpretations of the nuts but have very distinct meanings.

In between these two interpretations are even more interpretations that only add up to the confusion on what the nuts really means. The reason is that there are games where a player holds the nuts but could still tie with another player. If you’ve played enough games, you also know that there’s a considerable chance for community cards to complete a hand that ends up being the nuts of the game. 

Despite all of those interpretations, there’s only one unambiguous meaning to the nut hand: you can’t lose if you have it.

It can be a confusing topic for anyone because of the various interpretations that different players have about it. So, to make it easier for you to understand what a nut hand really is, let’s start by discussing the nuts at street level. 

Nut Hand at Street Level

Nut hand at street level isn’t the official name for it, but let’s use it for discussion. We’re calling it the nuts at street level because if you wake up to a pocket ace, there’s no other possible hand that can beat it, aside from another pocket ace within the game.

To demonstrate a nut hand at street level, here’s a pre-flop scenario:

  • Ben wakes up to a pocket aces
  • James draws a strong A♠ J♠
  • Chris wakes up to 10♣ 9♦
Nut hand preflop in poker.
AA is a clear favorite to win preflop. But postflop things can change very fast.

Clearly, Ben has the best hand in play; therefore, he has the “nuts on pre-flop.” Although it’s possible to have his cards in a tie with another player, which is already a feat on its own, there’s no way for AA to lose pre-flop. However, since it’s still early in the game, the nuts can change.

Here’s a flop scenario to show you how easy it is for the nuts to change: the dealer draws the flop and gets 8♠ 6♥ 7♠.

With the flop now in play, the nut hand switches to Chris with a straight 10 high. At this stage of the game, there’s no possible combination that could beat his hand. The worst that could happen in a straight 10 high for this round is a tie with another player.

Nuts changed on the flop.
Nuts has already changed on the flop. But it could easily again change on the turn on river if the spade hits.

However, since there are two streets left in the game with a potential for James to draw a flush, Chris still doesn’t have the “absolute nut.” Although still strong, Ben’s pocket ace is no longer the nut hand because flop doesn’t have anything to support it.

The nuts can change at any street, and you’ll see it with this turn card scenario: the dealer draws K♠ for the turn.

This draw is what James needs to get the “absolute nut” because it gives him A♠ J♠ 8♠ 7♠ K♠—the best possible hand in the game. Regardless of the hand that other players have and whatever the river card is, there’s no way for a flush ace high to lose in this game. The only possible better hand Ben could have is a trip ace, while the best combination Chris could have is a straight jack high, both of which is lower than a flush ace high.

We call it the nut hand at street level because, as demonstrated, the nuts changed three times throughout the game. Each hand is the best at a particular street but didn’t hold up when the dealer draws the community cards.

Aside from the nuts at street level, there are other types of nuts that you should know when playing poker. Keep this scenario in mind as we go through this article because we’ll use it to determine the nuts that each player had while in the game.

Different Types of Nuts in Poker

Since a nut hand refers to the best hand in the game, it’s open to various interpretations. We can interpret the “game” as the street where the hand is the strongest in play, while others refer to the game as having all community cards in play up to the river. We need to familiarize ourselves with the different types of nuts to avoid confusion and be sure that we’re referring to the same thing when reviewing a particular game.

Here are the different types of nuts that you should be aware of when playing poker, which could help you perform better and strategize against your opponents.

The Nuts

The nuts is the general term that we use to refer to a hand that beats or ties with any player. In our scenario, all three players had the nuts but lost it due to the community cards. Although two or more players can have the nuts, it’s impossible to beat it on that street.

We can also refer to it as a complete hand that no other player could beat but could lose on the next street. However, when watching professional poker games, the nuts only means one thing—a hand that is impossible to beat or tie with another player. 

So, whenever you hear the word nut hand or the nuts, it only refers to a strong hand that another player can’t beat at any given time. However, it can change as the game progresses, which could result in another type of nut hand.

The Nuts of the Street

This nut hand is the weakest type of nuts that a player could have because it’s possible to beat it as the game progresses. It’s the best hand on street level, but could instantly change after the flop, turn, or even at the river with backdoor draws.

The nuts on the street, especially in the early game, change so often that we barely pay attention. However, since it’s the best hand at that stage of the game, it can significantly alter the strategy that a player uses. 

In our example above, Ben has all the reasons to exploit his pocket ace at pre-flop because no other pocket hand could beat AA. It’s a strong card and is enough for him to see the river, but with our example, he may be less motivated to call a raise from another player.

Chris flopped a straight, and he has the nut hand because there’s no possible combination that could beat a straight 10 high on that street. He has more motivation to see the river, and would easily call an all-in from James, who has the stone-cold nuts by the turn. However, as soon as the turn card K♠ shows up, Chris knows that he no longer has the nut hand because even a very low spade suited pocket card trumps his straight 10 high.

Nuts on the street has a massive impact on a player’s psyche, but it’s the weakest. Although temporary, we can still consider it as the nut hand at that stage of the game.

Relative Nuts

Relative nuts in poker.
Example of relative nuts. We have relative nuts on the flop already.

Relative nuts is when a player holds a “complete hand” that is impossible to beat but could tie with another player. A good example of this is when a player has the best possible hand at showdown.

Regardless of what the opponent’s hand is, we can’t lose. The worst thing that could happen with our hand is to split the pot with another player.

Board Nuts

It’s not always the player who gets the nut hand. In some cases, the nuts favors the player who had a strong pre-flop but loses it after drawing the community cards. In our scenario, if the dealer draws 10♦ J♦ Q♦ K♦ A♦, it trumps any combination possible that a player could have. It saves Ben and Chris from a potentially deadly round because all three players split the pot.

Board nuts refer to a “full board” hand, which ties all the players, regardless of their hand. It’s another type of nuts that people rarely talk about because it voids the game, and there’s really nothing to review, except for the bets that players made and the drivers behind their decisions.

royal flush on the board is an example of nuts on the board
Royal flush on the board means that all players that get to showdown will split the pot.

Absolute Nuts

When you have a complete hand that is impossible to beat at any point in the game, you have the absolute nuts or stone-cold nuts. In our example, James has the absolute nuts because there’s no other combination that could beat a flush ace high. It’s also impossible for another player to tie his hand because he has the A♠.

A player can have the absolute nuts as early as the flop as long as the turn and river card won’t affect his hand. The best example of early stone-cold nuts is flopping a royal flush. It doesn’t matter what the turn and river card is; it’s impossible to even tie with a royal flush at any given time throughout the game.

Why Is Nuts Important?

The absolute nuts is what many players accept as “the nuts” in the game, but it depends on how a player interprets what the nuts really is. Although it’s the most misunderstood term in poker, understanding what nuts mean can take your poker strategies to a whole new level. It’ll also help you understand the rationale behind your opponents’ moves, which could impact how you make your decisions.

Besides improving your decision-making when playing poker, there’s another reason why you need to know what a nut hand is, which could save your bid for a WSOP bracelet. When playing professional poker, there’s an unspoken rule that is directly related to having the nuts. 

The Unspoken Rule When You Have the Nut Hand

We’ve talked about the impact of having a nut hand in a player’s psyche, but there are times when a player uses slow playing to create an impression of a weak hand. You can also do this strategy when you have the nuts. However, there’s no reason for a player to check the nuts on the river if it ends the game. Professional poker tournaments frown upon this practice and even penalizes players for it.

If you have the nuts—and you should know that you have it—there’s no way for you to lose, so you should take advantage of it. Failure to display justifiable aggression even with the nuts can only mean one of two things: oversight or collusion. A player who has the stone-cold nuts or relative nuts can’t check if it’ll end the game.

One of the most well-known cases of checking the nuts on the river during a tournament is from a match between Mikalai Pobal and Joni Jouhkimainen. Here’s a quick video that shows how such oversight can still happen even on a professional level:

YouTube video of checking the nuts on the river.

There’s no reason for a player to use slow playing when he’s the last to move before the game ends. Therefore, he should make a reasonable raise even if the other players check on the river. If you have the best hand in the game, and you’re the last to move before the game ends, you have to make a bet.

However, there’s an exemption to this rule; when the player who has the nuts is the first to move, he can check. It’s normal for players, even professionals, to check the nuts on the river when they’re first to move. This move aims to bait another player into a check-raise. It’s a strategy that creates the impression that a player, who has the nuts, has a weak hand.

A player, trying to get a check-raise, is building the pot at the river without intimidating his opponents. If you do this, then there’s nothing wrong about checking the nuts on the river. 

Conclusion

The nuts can be confusing for anyone, especially with the various interpretations that different players have. It could mean the best hand at a particular street, in the game, or throughout the game. However, having the nuts only means one thing—you can never lose if the game ends by the time you have it. Here are the different types of nuts that you’ll encounter whenever you’re playing poker:

  • The Nuts 
  • Nuts in any street
  • Relative nuts
  • Board nuts
  • Absolute nuts

These types are what you’ll encounter when playing poker. However, when watching, or playing, WSOP or other professional poker tournaments, the only nuts that they’ll officially recognize is the absolute nuts or stone-cold nuts.

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