How to Play Top Pair in Limit Hold'em

PokerStars 5/10 Hold'em (6 handed)

Preflop: Hero is BB with J?, A♦.
2 folds, CO raises, 2 folds, Hero 3-bets, CO caps, Hero calls.

Flop: (8.40 SB) 9♣, A♠, 4♥ (2 players)

I want to look at this hand in a vacuum, which is why I'm not supplying any reads. This hand is a good example of a "way ahead/way behind", or WA/WB situation. What that means is that if our hand currently is best, then our opponent has very little chance of outdrawing us (probably no more than three outs) and if our hand is currently worst, then we are the ones who have very few outs to improve.

Barring any reads, we should at least be careful enough to give the other players some credit for being able to think. Maybe not Einsteins, but we shouldn't presume that we're playing against untrained monkeys, either. So against an opponent who's somewhat aware of his surroundings, what is he thinking about the situation right now? What range of hands can he have? Well, when players cap preflop they tend to have a huge hand. He did cap in position though, so that opens it up a little bit, but generally speaking we're looking at a big pocket pair or a big ace, i.e. TT+, AK/AQ, against a tight opponent. Against a wilder opponent, we'll see a lot more hands - some people cap any pocket pair, for instance, and even A-x. Given that, how should we act on this flop? Does he like seeing that ace on the flop, or did he just realize that he's screwed?


Given that betting was capped preflop, betting out here isn't really a "donkbet." It's more of a "fifth bet." When our opponent raised the first time, his range may be very wide. When we 3-bet him, we said "hah, I have something, too!" and then he capped, seemingly saying "I fear nothing." Our range, in his eyes, is still defined merely as "I have something." If we bet out here, we're picking up where we left off before the flop and we further define our hand, this time much more narrowly.

What's the upside to betting? Getting more money in the pot with top pair, third kicker, of course. Our villain is not going to fold KK immediately on the flop, so we get another bet in right away. In fact, it's not unheard of that people will raise with KK here, because they think that it's the "aggressive move." Whatever. But generally speaking, the upside to betting is that against most hands, we're putting in a winning $5 here, and our villain will call almost always. KK will even often call down.

The downside then, what's that? We're handing over the steering wheel to our opponent, is the problem. This, I believe, is a common misconception: That by betting out, you're "taking control" of the hand. Out of position, this is not true at all. By leading this flop, we're giving our opponent lots of options to play well against us: We're essentially telling him we have an ace. If he has AK, he's going to put in a raise somewhere, but not necessarily on the flop. He may opt to wait for the turn. If he missed the flop completely (and was getting out of line with KQ, for instance) he's getting away cheap by folding. Or if he's a smart player holding TT and realizing that we'd never 3-bet preflop and lead this flop with a weaker hand than he has, so he's now drawing to two outs - he may again choose the cheap option of folding.


Is checking better? It has the benefit of not revealing our hand quite yet. We may induce a bluff from our opponent, making him bet with an overplayed KQ, hoping that we have a small pocket pair and will fold now that there's an ace on board. The smart player with TT I mentioned above may bet, afraid to give a free card to us in case we hold KQ. Also, the board is drawless. The only four hands we're realistically behind to are AA, AK, AQ and A9. A9 is a bit of a stretch given that he capped preflop, but these players do exist, and they're not that rare. If he checks behind and we end up giving a free card, it's not the end of the world. Some rare times, it's going to be a weirdly slowplayed AK that checks behind on this flop and it's actually we that get a free card to beat him. But checking does give a free card, and we do have a very strong hand.


What conclusion? Neither checking nor betting seems to be overwhelmingly good options. By betting, we give our opponent the chance to trap us and by checking we risk giving a free card in a large pot - even if it is unlikely that he has many outs. That's quite a dilemma; how do we determine what to do when both options seem to be roughly as good or bad? Often, we fall back on a read we have. Against very aggressive opponents, we seek to trap him, often by going for a checkraise on the flop. Against very passive opponents, we might bet because he will call down with, for instance, QQ but not bet it himself.

But barring any reads, how do we determine our course of action? We look at the bigger picture.

The bigger picture in this hand is this: We have a hand that's either clearly best, or hopelessly behind. We're out of position. It's a big pot. If we know nothing about our opponent, getting into a raising war with a hand like ours - which gives implied odds but doesn't get it - means that we'll lose a lot when we're behind and win a little when we're ahead. As weak as it may feel, I believe that getting to showdown cheaply is a good idea for this hand. I suggest checking this flop, and calling down if he bets. If he bets the flop, but checks behind on the turn, we should consider betting the river. Very few people will bet AA/AK on the flop and then "miss" the big bet on the turn, so our hand is likely best if that happens, and we are often going to be looked up by KK.

It feels weak, I know. I'm never happy when I take the passive line against an opponent who then shows down AT and I realize that I've missed out on at least one big bet - but it's often the sensible thing to do because hands that are simultaneously weaker than ours and willing to give action, are few and far between. So in essence, when you're not sure what line to take but your hand isn't vulnerable, going passive doesn't have to be awful. In fact, if we could somehow prove that in this situation we will show an expected value of exactly 0 regardless of if we check or bet - and I think a strong argument can be made for it being at least close to zero in both cases - then checking is definitely better. No sensible poker player should want to increase his variance without getting any money for it.

Example 2: QTo and a Free Flop

Villain in this hand is 57/26/1.55, which doesn't make him a full fledged maniac, but not far from it - he's very loose and very aggressive. An additional interesting stat that I want to share is WTSD (see the Introduction if you don't know what that is), which in his case is 38% - very high for a player who sees most flops. My notes on him read:

"Very aggressive.
Raised Q9s from BB with two limpers. Did however check a completely missed flop.
Donks flushdraw in three-way pot. Got raised, missed the turn and check-raised heads-up.
Slowplays trips heads-up against preflop raiser, but donked turn. Possibly because he was afraid of the straightdraw.
Now confirmed: He donks in fear of giving free cards to draws."

Now, before we get to the actual hand, let me say a few things about the notes I take. First of all, my notes are of course in Swedish not English, so this is a translation. Secondly, I don't actually write them as the "mini essay" as I have here; I naturally use a lot of abbreviations and some words and phrases that probably only I know what I mean by. What you see here is how I interpret my own notes.

Thirdly, and now we get to something important: My notes are pretty specific, and with the exception of him raising Q9s from the BB, I focus on postflop moves. If you're using PokerTracker and some kind of HUD, then it makes little sense to take notes of someone that raises T9o preflop, if this is standard for him. What else do you think a stat of 30% PFR means? It means he raises hands like that, and you don't have to waste time jotting it down. The more interesting bit of information is how he handles that T9o postflop.

Having gone through that lecture, let's move on to the hand.

PokerStars 5/10 Hold'em (5 handed)

Preflop: Hero is BB with Q♠, T♣.
3 folds, SB completes, Hero checks.

Flop: (2 SB) 8♦, 2♣, T♦ (2 players)
SB bets, Hero...

Free look at the flop, and we find ourselves with top pair, decent kicker and a historically proven aggressive player who donks when he fears draws as well as when he's drawing. In this case, he's not so much "donking" as just betting though. No one raised preflop, so this pot belongs to anyone at this point. In fact, if he had checked to me I probably would have bet with many hands worse than what I have now. What does it mean when he bets?

It can really mean anything at all, except he's unlikely to have a strong preflop hand like AQ/KQ or a big pocket pair. But in terms of how weak his hand may be, we're moving all the way down to 32o. Given this, we can be almost certain that we're ahead now. What are our options?


No, get real. Admittedly it's a small pot and we have what will often be a marginal hand, but he will play any two before the flop in this situation, and he will bet most of those hands since we checked behind him PF. Our hand absolutely crushes his range; folding is borderline criminal.


If we're calling when we're almost certain that we have the best hand - and we should be - then we should have a clear plan of what we're hoping will happen on the turn. For instance, calling might be okay here if we're up against someone who's a compulsive bluffer but will give up if he's raised. Against such a player, we may consider calling and hope that he bets again on the turn. Slowplaying a vulnerable hand - and ours certainly qualifies - is generally speaking a no-no, but if it's our only chance of getting value out a player in a small pot, it may be worth it. However, this is not a player who has shown to be giving up very often (I refer back to the fact that he goes to showdown almost 40% of the time) so calling to avoid scaring him off is not a good reason.

What else could we be hoping for when we're calling? We might be saving money if we're up against a monster, I suppose. But seriously, what monster is lurking under the bed? The strongest hand he could possibly have given his stats and aggression is T8. He'd have raised any pocket pair, so he "shouldn't" have a set (never say never, but we have to be realistic as well). But no, calling seems to have very few upsides against this opponent on this board.


So what if we raise with our actual hand? The downside is that we're telling him we have something, so according to the Fundamental Theorem of Poker, we're equipping him with knowledge of our hand thus allowing him to play better against us. But wait - are we actually giving our hand away?

Look at it from his point of view. There's a ten and an eight, both in the same suit here, and I checked my option in the big blind. My range of hands, while wide, at least seem to exclude big pocket pairs and AK/AQ. I may well, on the other hand, be raising with a draw such as a flushdraw or a straightdraw. You think this sounds far-fetched? It isn't. When I raise a pair on a two-flush flop, I very very often get raised by naked aces who are "protecting against the flushdraw." It seems that everyone has read Ed Miller's book (and misunderstood it) so they all presume that when someone raises a flushdraw flop, they have to have the flushdraw.

Will he call? He certainly will, with just about any-two. Our plan for the rest of this hand should be to bet until he raises us, and then get to showdown. This guy, according to the read presented, will raise with air on the turn very often so we should never fold this hand, but we can't go into call-down mode just yet. Top pair heads-up in position against a player holding almost any-two is virtually a monster.

Also, and let's not forget this, we should be looking to get money in with the best hand, here. A lot of the time, he will have at least one overcard (but rarely two, since he raises so frequently) to our pair and while we're not technically "protecting" it - he will always call - we are denying him the appropriate odds to call our raise. So when he does, we profit.


Sometimes decisions are easy to make, and this is one of those situations. Raising here seems trivial, but I do notice a lot of people getting confused over why exactly this decision is trivial. It's not because we have top pair, it's because we have top pair against this particular opponent on this particular board in position. It's important to make the right decisions for the right reasons.

Example 3: JJ on a Ragged but Drawy Flop

We have no reads on villain.

PokerStars 3/6 Hold'em (5 handed)

Preflop: Hero is Button with J♥, J♦.
UTG calls, 1 fold, Hero raises, SB calls, 1 fold, UTG calls.

Flop: (7 SB) 6♦, 2♣, 7♣ (3 players)
SB bets, UTG folds, Hero...

Now, before you automatically mash the raise button, consider first why you think it's the best move. Take a second to think about what your opponent may have and try to come up with a plan for how you want to play the rest of the hand. For the record, I think raising is almost always the correct play in this situation, but the "why" is usually more interesting than the "what" anyway. So.

You're in position. The pot is three-way. The player in the first position lead out (donked) into the field on a two-flush, two-straight type ragged board, after having cold called a button raise from the small blind before the flop. What kind of hand fits?

With an unknown villain, it can be a lot of hands - virtually all of them - but based on experience, they're more likely than not to be found in one of these three categories:

  • A small/medium pocket pair. Something like 44 or even 99. He bets because he figures that that flop didn't help anyone and in that case his small pair is best.
  • A straight and/or flush draw. He's Miller Generation, e.g. he read in Small Stakes Hold 'em that it's +EV to pump strong draws on the flop, so he hopes that by leading into the field he'll get lots of callers and maybe even a raise behind him.
  • A hand like K7 or A6, and "betting to protect" his hand. He sees the straight and flush draws and figures he should avoid giving a free card.

Very rarely will you be beaten on this flop. Some rare times, it's a flopped two pair (e.g. 76) or a set that's being unusually straightforward, but generally speaking, people slowplay flopped monsters, and unless you know otherwise, you would probably do best to treat your opponent as a standard player. You have him crushed.


But having someone crushed isn't a good enough reason to raise. Getting the most value out of him with the best hand, on the other hand, is. So what are the arguments for raising?

  1. For value. You strongly believe you have the best hand, and he's going to call with most hands that he bet with. Get him to put in an extra bet right here, right now.
  2. You're not going to make him fold a worse hand very often. The only hands you'll shut down are hands that weren't going to put in any more money anyway; you won't "lose your customer" by raising.
  3. There are a lot of scare cards that can come on the turn that may force you to slow down. Any queen, king or ace is going to look potentially dangerous, and any club, T, 9, 8, 5, 4 and trey completes one of the draws out there. Also, since he may be doing this with just a pair, every 7, 6 and deuce is also a potential problem for you. The only card you'll feel completely safe in seeing is one of the two remaining jacks! Now, this is not a reason to be completely paranoid and stop betting no matter what comes on the turn (unless it's a jack) but I'm trying to make a point: You're not going to be thrilled about the turn card. Raise now, when you're still happy.

Incidentally, the third reason for raising doesn't apply at all as much if your hand had been the black aces instead of the red jacks, because you are a lot less likely to make expensive mistakes on the turn with A♠A♣.


Calling, then. Should you just call? Very rarely. In fact, never. There's no good reason to call here at all, unless you know that your opponent is the kind who will only donk with flush draws and that he will bet the turn unimproved as well. Yes, these players exist. In that case, you could consider calling now and raising the turn, since he will be forced to call two big bets with nothing but a flush draw, and you can put in the minimum when you know you're losing. It's an elegant play, but it has no business against an unknown opponent with a hand as vulnerable as jacks.

I won't even go into folding.

Then what?

So you raise. Now, like I said, you should have a plan for what you will do once you've raised. Against an unknown opponent, you should probably give some credit to him for having a hand if he makes it three bets when the action comes back to him. I'd still believe I have the best hand, though, but I would now seriously consider slowing down. With this hand, you want to get to showdown (or win uncontested) but if you think there's a risk that you're actually beat, at least try to get there cheaply.

If your raise is just called, you should bet any turn. If the turn is a really nasty card (e.g. a club or an ace) and your turn bet is called, I'd consider checking behind on the river. Busted draws won't pay you anyway.

If your raise is just called, and your turn bet is checkraised, you should probably call down, regardless of what the turn was. With a better read on your opponent, you might be able to make an expert laydown, but there is no turn card that is scary enough that I don't think it will be at least neutral EV to call down getting 4.5:1 effective odds (6 small bets preflop, 4 small bets on the flop, 1+2 big bets on the turn - your bet and his checkraise - makes for 8 big bets, he will put in another one on the river, and it'll cost you a maximum of two BB to call down).


You must raise. A lot of things can still go wrong in this hand, but right now you must feel very certain about what the right move is.

Next - Part III - Draws

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