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A Look at House Rules: The Joker

  • Linda GeenenLinda Geenen
A Look at House Rules: The Joker 0001

If you jump into a game in your favorite card room and look around to see a table full of jokers seated with you, it should be a very profitable day. They’ll keep you entertained and happy as you stack their chips.

But what if there’s a joker in the deck? It’s a whole new ball game and we’ll give you a bit of background on house rules regarding jokers to keep you well informed as you play your way through the long and adventure-filled winding road of poker.

The “Bug”

Most of us remember playing card games as kids with jokers where they functioned as fully “wild cards” — that is, they could be designated as any other card in the deck. But there is also a common use of the joker that is limited in which the joker is sometimes referred to as the “bug.” In that case the joker plays as a wild card but only in the following three instances:

  • The joker is a stand-alone ace and will also play with other aces to make pairs, trips, quads, or five-of-a-kind.
  • The joker completes a straight by fulfilling the rank of any card needed.
  • The joker completes the fifth card of any suit requirement for a flush.

It’s easy to remember this limited role of a joker if you follow the old standard: aces, straights, and flushes.

By the way, you may be curious as to whether five aces would beat a royal flush. (Keep in mind the only way these two hands could surface in the same hand would be in a game where community cards are shared by the players.) That ruling would be an individual house decision since both require five exact cards to complete the hand.

The Surprise Joker

In most casino poker rooms you’ll never encounter a game that uses a joker in the deck, but if you do — and the joker is not part of the game format — make sure you stop the game immediately if it’s one of your hole cards and report it to the dealer. If you try to continue with the hand, your hand will be declared dead because the deck is fouled. Check our article on fouled decks for more information.

What happens if a joker is dealt in a game where a joker isn’t used in games that use community cards?

  • If the joker is dealt face-up, it’s simply replaced by the next card on top of the deck.
  • If a joker is dealt face-down, it’s replaced by the top card of the deck after the final card is dealt on the initial dealing round.
  • If a joker is dealt among the community cards, it’s treated as if it were nonexistent and replaced by the next card on the top of the deck.

Games with Jokers (Draw and Stud)

In an “ace-to-five with the joker” draw game, the best hand is a wheel (5-4-3-2-A) with the joker playing as any rank needed to complete the hand. If a card is exposed before the draw, the card is not replaced if it is a joker or a wheel card. Once the draw begins, any exposed card is replaced. (See our “A Look at House Rules: Exposed Hole Cards” under the section “Hole Cards Exposed by the Dealer” for examples of how exposed cards are replaced.) Note: straights and flushes have no bearing on a hand of ace-to-five with the joker.

The joker from a deck beautifully illustrated by Paul-Emile Becat for a limited edition set produced by the French playing card publisher Editions Philibert in 1955
The joker from a deck beautifully illustrated by Paul-Emile Becat for a limited edition set produced by the French playing card publisher Editions Philibert in 1955

Five-card stud is very uncommon in casino poker rooms, but if it is spread with a joker, the standard procedure of the joker playing only in aces, straights, and flushes would apply. If a player’s down card were exposed during the deal in five-card stud, it would simply be his or her up card and on the second round of cards, that player would receive that card down — in other words, exposing the joker wouldn’t affect the hand other than to alert everyone at the table that a very powerful card was in play.

Home Games

Many home games use wild cards because, frankly, if poker is played correctly, it can be boring. Wild cards add a lot of gamble to the game and can change your whole approach to a winning strategy. Jokers are one of the wild cards that may come in to play in your favorite home game with a variety of other cards thrown in the mix, like deuces or one-eyed jacks. In some games wild cards are determined during the deal and even those can change as the deal continues. You never know what kind of crazy variant you might encounter if the host of a home game is particularly inventive.

Here is a site that can help you get a feel for poker variants that use wild cards with an explanation on how they are used in the play of the hands. Our suggestion is that unless you are really comfortable with your poker-playing skills and card-reading ability, proceed with caution when it comes to games that use wild cards.

Online Poker

An internet search of online poker with wild cards usually turns up results describing casino games where you are playing against the house instead of games where you are pitted against other players just like you. To our knowledge none of our favorite online poker sites such as Full Tilt Poker, PokerStars, or 888 Poker offer online poker games with the joker or other wild cards. If you know of one, please leave us a comment.

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