Thursday, January 12, 2012

Overplaying Top Pair Hands

Overplaying top pair hands in poker
This past year has been interesting in that I have started coaching for the first time ever. I think I have coached somewhere in the neighbourhood of 30-40 people.

There have been of course a wide variety of different skill levels. Some have been total beginners. Some have been very solid players. And everything in between.

But all of these people sought my services because they were struggling for one reason or another. And after having worked with this many people I have been able to notice many common trends.

The first of which is a general proclivity to spew or tilt more than they should. It is very difficult to "fix" this issue as a poker coach. We can go over the hands and agree that there is bad play from tilt going on and I can lecture on about the importance of staying disciplined in these spots.

But the truth is that at the end of the day it is up to the student to make those adjustments at the table. And I make some of these same mistakes from time to time when I play as well so I would be a complete hypocrit to try and tell them that they must play perfect at all times. As long as you are human, you are going to tilt. I try and tell students to just focus on getting a little bit better over time in this regard. There will always be spew to some extent.

However, another common area of concern that I have noticed is overplaying top pair hands. This is a frequent issue that I have seen to some degree across all skill levels and unlike spew or tilt is something that I can easily discuss and try to fix with them. Now what kind of top pair hands am I talking about?

I am mostly talking about TPTK (top pair top kicker) and TPGK (top pair good kicker) hands on dangerous boards or in situations where you are likely to only get action from better and fold out worse. I am just going to dive into a couple of examples here to hopefully better explain this. Both of these hands were played recently by a current student of mine.

Example #1

NL10 6max

Effective Stacks are 100bb.

Hero opens to 30c from the CO with,


A 15/11/1.7 (702 hands) nit with a 3% 3bet makes it 90c to go from the button. 

A 9/5/1.9 (378 hands) supernit cold calls from the BB.

Preflop Analysis

I would actually prefer that we just fold preflop here. If the cold caller in the BB was a fish I think a call would be fine. But when it's all tight regs involved I think our hand plays very badly against their range. That is we are often dominated when we make a pair. And I don't think they ever have anything in their range that we dominate such as,

A9, A8, KT, QT

Also, since they are reasonably competent players they aren't going to spew off a bunch of money with worse hands anywhere near as often as a fish would. So OOP (out of position) I would just fold here. I don't advocate calling 3bets OOP very often as is.

Things change a little bit when it is multi-way, but I would much prefer that there be a fish in the hand. When it is only regs, I would only call here most of the time with a hand like a pocket pair that stands to definitely be the best hand (barring the incredibly rare set over set situation) should we hit.

Hero calls in this example however.

The flop comes,


The BB checks and Hero leads out  for 85% of the pot.

Flop Analysis

I am not a big fan of donk betting (leading into the preflop raiser) very much in general. And this is also something that I have noticed some of my students doing way too much in my opinion. But that is a subject for another blog post and I don't want to get into that right now.

In this spot here, I think donk betting is an especially poor choice. I don't like the sizing either. The main reason why I don't like leading here is because this is a situation where if we get action, it's probably only from better hands.

We already determined that the preflop raiser (the button 3bettor) is fairly tight. I mean he has pretty standard full ring stats and this is a 6max hand! His overall 3bet% is 3 and his 3bet from the button is 4%. This is already quite tight for full ring. This is very tight for 6max.

If we quickly open up Pokerstove we can see that a 3% range looks like this (the hands in purple),

Overplaying Top Pair Hands
And a 4% range looks like this,

Overplaying Top Pair Hands

Now Pokerstove distorts things a little bit when you plug in ranges because they include more pair hands than most people normally would but I think you get the idea here. This guy basically only has big aces and big pairs in his range.

So when we lead out for near pot here in an already bloated 3-way, 3bet pot we basically make one of two things occur.

  • He folds his big aces
  • He calls or raises with his big pairs

So anytime we get action it is from better hands. And we force him to fold all of the hands that we are a big favorite against. What's worse is we even take away his ability to make a cbet with these hands and at least put some dead money in the pot. And sometimes he might spike an ace later in the hand and get himself into all sorts of trouble versus our two pair as well.

So it is a lose/lose situation for us to lead out here. The play that I would recommend is to check/call or check/fold. Poker hands often play out like a domino effect and this exact sort of situation is why I advocated simply folding preflop.

By making a mistake in calling preflop we allow ourselves to get in a difficult situation like this. If we check and he cbets he could be doing this with his big ace hands which we beat but he could also be value towning us with his big pairs. Worse yet, we are OOP in a bloated 3bet pot and it will be very expensive to find out which one it is.

Since the opponent here is quite passive and there is another player involved, I actually don't expect him to cbet all that often with his big aces anyways. So I would probably just check/fold in this spot.

Button calls on the flop.

The turn comes,


Hero bets near pot.

Button shoves for a small amount more and Hero calls.

Turn Analysis

I would definitely advocate just shutting down at this point and not putting another penny in the middle. As I said before, I think the button's continuance range on the flop is almost unequivocally only hands that beat us. If we don't improve on the turn I think we are just value betting for him by barreling here.


The river comes,


Button shows A♥A♦

Hero mucks.

Example #2

NL10 6max

Effective Stacks are 100bb.

Hero opens to 30c from MP with,


A 20/7/0.5 (16 hands) virtual unknown calls from the CO.

An 18/15/1.4 (432 hands) TAG calls from the BTN.

Preflop Analysis

Not much to say. Everything is very standard.

The flop comes,


Hero cbets about 85% of the pot.

Both villains call.

Flop Analysis

I think the cbet here is very standard. However I think the sizing is a little bit less than optimal. I would prefer a smaller cbet here of around 60% of the pot. This is a very dry board with an ace on it. Both of these players appear to be reasonably competent so far and so I don't expect to get too much action from worse hands. I expect them to fold with almost the same frequency whether we cbet 60% or 85% here so this just allows us to save a little bit when they actually do have a monster.

If one or more of the villains in this hand were fish I think the larger cbet sizing is excellent. This is because these types of players absolutely will continue will all sorts of worse hands and we just want to start building as big of a pot as possible.

When you make a big cbet and get called by two relatively tight decent looking players on a very dry board like this one, the alarm bells need to go off in your head.

The turn comes,


Hero bets again for 85% of the pot.

CO folds and the BTN goes all in.

Turn Analysis

So as I said, given the flop action I think we really need to be careful here on the turn. I would actually not recommend betting here again into two players. And if I was to bet I would definitely make it smaller now, 60% of the pot. And this follows a similar line of reasoning as on the flop.

My preferred course of action here would be to check/fold versus any reasonable size bet (50% of the pot or more). I do not expect a decently tight player to be floating a near pot sized bet on the flop here with light holdings and then make a good sized bet on a turn card that changes nothing. And I especially doubt that that will be the case when there are two of them.

I expect that one of them will often have a hand that beats us (AK or two pair+). And one of the only actual draws,


got there. Even though I don't expect either of them to have that hand in their range very often, it is worth noting. So I would not advocate barreling the turn here. But when we do and especially when it is a big bet and one of them comes over the top, it is the nuts every single time.


Hero calls and both players are all in.

The river comes, 


Button shows 5♠5♦

Hero mucks.

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Overplaying Top Pair Hands


  1. Great article Nathan.The blog is getting better with each one.

  2. Great post Nathan. This is something I definitely need to improve on too. I seem to grind a good profit only to make a similar mistake as this, get a few bad beats and then the tilt sets in !!!!! And the profit is gone and more too, so it was all for nothing.