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Many sources explicitly list Royal Flush as the highest poker hand (example). This seems unnecessary - it's the highest hand anyway as the highest Straight Flush. When presenting a ruleset, unnecessary is harmful (e.g. it gives new players more to remember). So is there a good historical or game-mechanics reason why we often treat the Royal Flush as a special case?

ADDENDUM: Several answers have pointed out that video poker pays out more for royal flush than other straight flushes. Could this be the historical origin I'm looking for? While the term "royal flush" appears in dictionaries long before video poker existed, no one has yet provided evidence that the silly presentation of royal flush as the highest hand in a full ranking of hands existed before video poker.

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    I post this question because I just had to disabuse someone of the idea that Four of a Kind came between Royal Flush and Straight Flush in Texas Holdem. This wouldn't have been needed if they'd never heard the words "Royal Flush"... May 9 '16 at 20:03
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    I edited your question to make the links readable. Feel free to further modify those links, but please don't make every other letter of a word a separate link.
    – murgatroid99
    May 9 '16 at 20:14
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    I wouldn't be surprised if it was to emphasize the distinction between royalty and the plebes.
    – Hao Ye
    May 9 '16 at 20:21
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    By the way, we have a Stack Exchange dedicated to Poker. I'm not totally sure what differentiates it from this site, or whether you would get a better answer there, but I thought I should mention it.
    – Rainbolt
    May 9 '16 at 22:39
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    So far on Poker SE I've attracted only one responder who seems both hostile and wrong. I think I'll stick with this community :) May 10 '16 at 6:21
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There are a number of different hands that have a specific name. For example, A-2-3-4-5 is called a Wheel. The Royal Flush obviously gets its name from being the highest hand, and specifically having royalty in it (although one could argue so does a King high.)

As for the mistake of ranking of Straight Flush being lower than 4 of a kind, this is easily dispelled by looking at the math behind them. There exist only 40 straight flushes (of which 4 are Royal) and there are 624 unique hands that rank as four-of-a-kind.

One reason for it persisting would be in Video Poker where a Royal Flush tends to pay out significantly higher than the other Straight Flushes. This doesn't answer the question about how it managed to still exist before Video Poker was around, though.

I have had it conveyed to me recently that it's listed separately potentially due to wild-cards and how they affect the math - that perhaps a straight flush is not as difficult to acquire anymore where a Royal flush is. However I have not had an opportunity to run the math on it. I would welcome an addendum if someone does.

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  • Do we care about card order for four-of-a-kind? It seems like there should only be 13 four-of-a-kinds.
    – SocioMatt
    May 9 '16 at 20:18
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    I think he's talking about the number of hands that contain a four-of-a-kind. Each one also contains any one of the other 48 cards.
    – murgatroid99
    May 9 '16 at 20:19
  • +1 for the bit about Video Poker, though as you point out there's a rationale that predates that and I'd love to hear it May 10 '16 at 6:25
  • This may not be suitable for an answer, but rather a hypothesis: Since Royal flushes are the highest hand, and are incredibly rare, they are memorable. Often people try to remember how many royal flushes they have gotten, which would be dulled if the royal flush was lumped with the straight flush. Oct 28 '17 at 19:10
  • Well this still isn't a complete answer, but my bounty did not attract a better one so it's yours. Nov 3 '17 at 15:03
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In modern times (since 1980), this is likely because a Royal Flush pays substantially higher in video poker than a Straight Flush. While payouts vary by machine, it's common for a Royal Flush to pay 800 - 1000 times the stake, where a (non-royal) Straight Flush only pays in 40 - 90 times the stake.

For player-on-player poker variants, a Royal Flush is not actually a different hand category from a Straight Flush, and many hand ranking lists (such as Wikipedia's) do not list it separately.

Poker is full of slang; there are an especially high number of poker terms for various "best hands". The best hand possible in a particular situation (such as given a set of community cards) is kowns as "the nuts". A pair of aces as hole cards in Texas Hold'em is the statistically best pre-flop hand, and so has a whole pile of nicknames (Rockets, American Airlines, Bullets, etc.). An Ace through 5 straight is the best hand in some variants of lowball poker, and so has picked up the nickname the "Wheel". Naturally, poker has a nickname for the best hand in the game as well, i.e. the Royal Flush.

Merriam-Webster lists the term Royal Flush as originating around 1868, but doesn't list a source. However, it is worth noting that the term "Royal Flush" is prevalent enough to have made it into Merriam-Webster, where terms like "wheel" or "rockets" are not. Given this, I would speculate that some hand orderings list Royal Flush as a separate hand category from a Straight Flush to prevent confusion on behalf of the players who are aware of the Royal Flush as a poker hand (and thus expecting it to be listed in a hand ordering).

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  • Yeah, I'm not at all surprised that the term "royal flush" exists; the issue is just that it frequently unnecessarily appears in the hand rankings. For comparison, wouldn't you find it really weird to see a hand ranking that went "... flush > straight > wheel > three of a kind > ..."? even though this actually makes more sense than including royal flush, since aces acting as the low card in a straight is a special case that's worth pointing out explicitly, unlike the royal flush which is not truly a special case. Aug 2 at 15:49
  • @BenjaminCosman There is a substantial difference in prevalence between the terms Royal Flush and Wheel. You will notice that Royal Flush appears in Miriam Webster where Wheel (in the Poker sense) does not.
    – Zags
    Aug 2 at 17:12
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    If a term is in common usage (so much so that it's actually in the dictionary) then it makes a lot of sense that it should be called out in the rules. Otherwise you have to deal with the endless "Yes, but where is the 'royal' flush?" questions.
    – John
    Aug 2 at 19:53
  • As mentioned below my original post, a couple times I've seen the problem with presenting royal flush separately: you have to deal with people who think that something comes between royal flush and straight flush. This may well be a much rarer problem than the "where is the 'royal' flush?" alternative, but I think it's a more insidious problem because the "where is the 'royal' flush?" person knows they are confused so they ask and it is quickly fixable, while my "4 of a kind beats straight flush" person may not know until the worst possible moment: a game where the difference matters. Aug 3 at 3:55
  • @BenjaminCosman New players have confusion as to the order of hands quite frequently. Many new players I've played with cannot remember the relative ordering of a straight, a flush, and a full house (and have seen a few hands go horribly wrong for players who were confused about this). This is why an order of hands reference is important. I agree that including a royal flush in a hand ordering adds unnecessary complexity. When I'm teaching the game, I use hand order references that don't have a royal flush as a separate category (ex. boardgames.stackexchange.com/a/53389/9999).
    – Zags
    Aug 3 at 14:31
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I would think this has something to do with the fact that a straight flush has multiple card combinations per suit to achieve it, making it more common (2, 3, 4, 5, 6/ 8, 9, 10, J, Q etc...) and the Royal Flush only has one card combination per suit (A, K, Q, J, 10).

The Royal Flush could be a straight flush also in theory, (I understand this is where your confusion lies) but the fact it has all of the Royalty cards in it, makes it a one of a kind "straight flush" in the suit. It also stands to reason that it is a lot more valuable of a hand than a normal straight flush as it has all of the highest value cards in it.

The only real supporting evidence for the origin of the name Royal Flush is literally only in the dictionary. It states that a Royal Flush is made up of the top 5 "honors" of any suit. To me the word Honor further suggests Royalty. The fact that Royal figures (King and Queen) are in the line up of a Royal Flush is the best suggested evidence of its origin.

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