How To Play Overcards in Heads Up Limit Poker

Villain in this example is 76/16/1.11; He plays virtually every hand, but has roughly the same raising requirements as a good player does. His postflop aggression factor, coupled with his VP, is basically through the roof. This is a player who will raise with very mediocre hands postflop.

Poker Stars
Limit Holdem Ring game
Limit: $5/$10
6 players

Pre-flop: (6 players) Hero is Button with K♥ A♥
UTG folds, UTG+1 calls, CO folds, Hero raises, SB folds, BB calls, UTG+1 3-bets, Hero caps, BB folds, UTG+1 calls.
Flop: 4♦ 9♣ J♠ (10.4SB, 2 players) UTG+1 checks, Hero ...

So what's the move here?

Well, let's make a few things clear:

1. Who is our villain? It's a guy who's as loose as they come, and he seems decently aggressive to boot. This is NOT a typical opponent.

2. What do we know about his range? Well, he limp/re-raised preflop. Some people do that with monsters. Some people do it with any hand they figure might be best heads-up (often pocket pairs, sometimes hands like AJ) and some really wild players do it with virtually any hand that they've limped and that now got heads-up; they think it's fun. His stats suggest that he will play any-two, but given that the did limp-reraise we should probably at least narrow it down somewhat. I'm going to say that he would do that with any pocket pair, any suited connector JTs and up, any ace with a nine or better kicker, and KQ. That's pretty wide, but is often actually not wide enough. In this case, I'm probably erring on the side of caution, however.

3. How does our hand fare against his range on this flop? A lot of hands he has fit in with that J or 9 one way or another. In fact, this is a really bad flop for us, because if he has an ace, he - with the range we gave him - have to have specifically AQ or AT, otherwise he's ahead of us (or splitting with AK). We don't even have a backdoor flush draw.

4. What would it look like we're holding? This is a tricky question. We can't expect a player this bad to actually pay attention to anything we do, but even the very worst usually pay some kind of attention when the betting gets capped. We've told him we have a huge hand and unless we've been seen raising with trash recently, I don't think he has any reason to doubt that we do. Unfortunately, using PokerStove and feeding his range into it, we find that he's actually a 2:1 favorite over us on this flop.

5. What's the pot like? One of the most important considerations in poker is the size of the pot. The larger the pot, the more actively we must try to win it.

So what should we do?


The pot is big, so we should first and foremost consider betting; it's the default play in big pots. Going back to the Fundamental Theorem of Poker, what mistakes might our opponent make if we bet, and how bad is our mistake to bet if we actually have the worst hand at the moment?

Although it will happen very rarely, there IS a chance that our opponent's range is wider than we've given him credit for, and he completely missed this flop. If that's true and he simply folds a hand like Q5s, then he's - unknowingly - making a mistake. He has six outs to beat us, and he's getting 9:1 on a call. We should be very happy almost regardless of what he folds, the few times that he will.

What if our hand is worst? If he gives us credit for a monster, he might simply call with a hand like 6-6 (this kind of player does not fold a pocket pair here, virtually for certain). We only have 25-30% equity against medium pocket pairs, so most of the money going in on the pot will never make it back to our pockets, unfortunately.

Will he call with a worse hand than ours? He certainly will. Very rarely will he be able to fold AQ, AT, KQ or QT on this flop (although QT is basically a coin toss against our hand) so that's good. His really strong hands, QQ+ and sets, he will probably checkraise and we'll know something about his hand when he does. Be warned that this kind of player may well checkraise with QJ as well, so while we may want to slow down if we get played back at, there's no way we're folding on this flop. We may have to leave the option open for the turn, though.


Since we're likely behind, we need to also consider checking. Upsides to checking here is that the majority of the time that we're behind, we're getting a free card to outdraw him. Getting a free card in a big pot with the worst hand is very good for us. This is really the only big upside to checking, and I think we should have more upsides than just this one to warrant it, because there are some not-good downsides in play here:

We are basically turning our cards face-up for the rest of the hand. What hand caps preflop but then checks behind on the flop? AK that didn't improve. Sure, sometimes it will be JJ that flopped a set and stupidly tries to slowplay in a big pot, but unless our opponent is not paying attention at all, he's gotta think that the chance of us having AK is enormous if we check. We're fighting a battle of mistakes when we're heads-up on the flop, and reducing our range that much is usually a really bad mistake. We can opt to take a free card on the turn if we get a turn that warrants it (a ten or a queen comes to mind), and checking the turn may even induce a bluff from a hand we can beat, on the river. But checking the flop is, by any standard I can apply to this problem, not good.


This is a curious hand, with a potentially curious suggestion on my part: I state very clearly that we're likely to be behind to his range, and I still suggest that we bet. The key element here is the size of the pot combined with what we know about our opponent. With a hand as "good" as ours against this guy, we should really be looking to get to showdown though, since he will play a lot of hands, and 25% chance to win a big pot isn't something to give up easily. By betting, we're giving ourselves the option of checking behind on the turn and getting what's likely the cheapest possible showdown. Checking the turn, however, is not an automatic decision; but this is not a discussion on turn play.

Example 2: AQo on a paired board

Again, our villain is really loose, but this time he's a lot more passive: 60/7/0.61. The only hand I've seen him raise preflop and showdown was AK, so the 7% preflop raises probably constitute real hands. He goes to showdown 32% of the time, which is a whole lot given that he sees 60%+ of flops. I don't think he pays attention to anything other than his urge to see the next street.

Poker Stars
Limit Holdem Ring game
Limit: $5/$10
5 players

Pre-flop: (5 players) Hero is Button with Q♦ A♠
2 folds, Hero raises, SB folds, BB calls.
Flop: 5♦ T♠ 5♠ (4.4SB, 2 players) BB checks, Hero...

Another missed flop, but this flop is a whole lot better for us than the one in the previous example. Looking at the "texture" of the board, there are a few key differences between the two hands:

This board is paired. Whereas an unpaired board that misses us has three cards that may have paired our opponent's hand, a paired board has only two. Or more accurately, an unpaired board has nine cards that we have to "dodge" in our opponent's hole cards, a paired board has only five. Based on this alone, this flop is almost twice as good as the last one!

We have a backdoor nut flush draw. Backdoor flush draws don't come in often (about 5% of the time) and our hand won't be disguised at all if we hit, but they still add value to our hand.

Let's look at the same check list as before:

1. Who is our villain? He's a loose, showdown happy guy. He's not very aggressive.

2. What do we know about his range? It's very big. It's a bit unlikely to be a premium hand, since he has shown himself capable of raising with those, but some players don't like to raise from the BB even with hands like QQ. But really, out of the BB, he will play any two.

3. How does our hand fare against his range on this flop? We're a big favorite. If he does indeed play any-two from the BB (and we have every reason to believe he does) we're close to a 2:1 favorite on this flop, which is about as much as we can hope for when missing.

4. What would it look like we're holding? I don't think he's really aware that he has an opponent in this hand, so I don't think he thinks much about our range at all. Trying to think on the second level (zeroth level: what do I have?, first level: what does he have?, second level: what does he think I have?) is a waste of time against players who don't themselves think on at least the first level. In fact, it's worse than a waste of time, it can actually lead to worse decisions than not thinking about it at all.

5. What's the pot like? Four small bets isn't something to be all that excited about. Against a passive player, we should look for reasons to fold if we get played back at. This is a small pot, and a small pot is a good reason to fold if we run into resistance.

So what should we do?


A key difference between this hand and the previous one is the size of the pot. This is a small pot, the last one was a big one. In a really big pot, our opponent would be correct to call a single bet here with any two cards. In this really small pot, he will only be correct to call with a hand that's actually better than ours. Why is this so important? Because when we bet the flop in the last hand, we were rooting for our opponent to fold. Now we're rooting for him to call with a worse hand. It's really unlikely he will fold a better hand than we have (very few people fold a hand like 2-2 on a paired rag board), but it's not far-fetched at all to think that he will call with a lot of hands that are worse than ours. J9, A-x, K-x, Q-x... We know that he's loose, and the best way to exploit that mistake in this hand is to bet and hope that he calls with a worse hand.


We missed the flop, after all. If we take a free card, it's possible that it will give us a queen or an ace and produce the winning hand over a holding like JT or a pocket pair. This, however, is only correct if we're likely to be behind. Are we likely to be behind? No, we're not. Someone who will happily (well, I guess I technically don't know that he does it happily) pay to see 60% of flops on average in all positions must be likely to be playing any two cards from the big blind. If he plays any two cards, we're about a 2:1 favorite over him, with two cards to come. Don't get me wrong, checking isn't a hugely expensive mistake - but it's a mistake. Giving him a free card to beat us is bad and all that, yada-yada. But that's thinking like a tournament player. A cash game player should be more worried about profit, and that's the reason to bet. We're missing out on some money by failing to bet! We're reasonably sure that he will call with worse hands, and we're reasonably sure that we're ahead of his range. We must bet, and take those fractions of a bet away from him!


We really need to bet here. This has nothing to do with "protecting our hand" in its most common usage. This has to do with us making sure that we exploit the mistake a loose opponent makes the most: Calling with the worst of it. Because the pot is small, he cannot profitably call with very many hands here, but he still will. Just because we missed the flop doesn't mean that he didn't, too. Especially when the flop paired. If our hand was best preflop, it's likely still is - and our villain will pay us off another small bet. Take his money.

Example 3: AKo against a decent opponent

The first hand example was AKs against a very, very loose opponent. This time, we're up against someone considerably tighter. In fact, with 6-max standards, this guy is squeaky tight. He's very aggressive when he does enter a pot though, but his preflop hand selection looks a lot more like "by the book" with full-ring measurements. His stats are 17/12/3.4. Notice the through-the-roof aggression factor. Most solid players are around the 2.0-mark. This guy does not like to call; he wants to raise or fold.

Poker Stars
Limit Holdem Ring game
Limit: $5/$10
6 players

Pre-flop: (6 players) Hero is UTG+1 with K♣ A♠ UTG folds, Hero raises, 3 folds, BB 3-bets, Hero calls.
Flop: J♣ 7♠ 9♦ (6.4SB, 2 players) BB bets, Hero...

Well, here we are again, staring at a missed flop. You may disagree with me not capping the betting preflop with AKo, but there were a couple of reasons for that. One is that I don't always cap preflop with AK against solid players. It's partially a way to mix up my game a little bit, but in this case, it has more to do with the fact that the guy in the big blind 3-bet me. If it had been the button - or if I myself had opened from the button - things would have been different. I was just 3-bet by a very tight player from the big blind when I opened from middle position. People don't generally 3-bet without very strong hands from the big blind (unless it's a blind steal situation, which this isn't) and squeaky tight players do it even more rarely. I have reason to believe I'm up against a real hand. I think his range is JJ+, AQo+, give or take a few hands. I think we're ready to move on from the check list employed in the first two examples now, so let's just look at our options:


This wasn't even an option in the first two cases. Is it in this hand?

Well, an argument can be made for it. Part of our problem in this hand is that there are few holdings in his range that we're actually ahead; rather, there's one: AQ. We split with AK, but given that we have one of the kings, that hand is even less likely than AQ. The rest of the time, he either has us in bad shape (QQ), or he has us crushed (JJ, KK and AA). That said, even with the likelyhood of being behind, we need more than just "we're probably behind" when we're being offered better than 7:1 on the flop. We must be almost dead certain we're behind to one hands that crushes us if we are to fold here - and I'm not that certain.


The aggressive option. As I said above, we're not ahead a majority of the time here. But that doesn't automatically make raising a bad play since there are fringe benefits to be reaped even when we're behind. So what's the deal in our case? What benefits do we have from raising all those times that we don't have the best hand (since clearly raising is great if we happen to be up against AQ)? This pot is getting big. Remember, folding is mostly out of the question. By raising now, we're investing an extra small bet into a 8 SB pot - it will be 8 small bets after we call and before we raise, so to speak - for the following two Good Things:

1. We may get an inkling of what kind of hands we're up against. He will probably 3-bet us with most hands that beat us, but perhaps not AQ. Perhaps not AA or JJ either, as he may opt to checkraise us on the turn with those two particular hands. Why is that good for us? Because...

2. ... We may choose to take a free card on the turn the times that he just calls. In a pot this big and with a hand as strong as ours - even if it IS often behind - we don't want to give up without seeing the river, at least not always. AK is a powerhouse in six-max, and while it's not a hand that we should always go to showdown with, we should at least try to get close to a showdown. We may have as many as six outs in a big pot (against QQ) and it'd be a pity not to let that get a chance to materialize on the next two streets.

Also, we haven't said much to him about our hand yet. Most players will cap with AK in position preflop, but we didn't. When we raise and then just call his re-raise, we're not being more specific than just "I have a decent hand." By raising here, we're telling him - admittedly a lie - that this flop connected with our hand in some way. He might believe that; this board will connect with a lot of hands that are worth raising but not capping.


So folding is out of the question and raising looks like it may have some upsides. What about calling?

Well, while raising may give us the benefit of seeing the river for only two small bets, the operative word is still "may." If we raise now, we may get 3-bet and end up being forced to either pay three small bets and one big bet to see the river, or we may end up calling three bets and folding on the turn. Three bets without even seeing the river sounds like a failure to me. Of course, calling doesn't narrow down his range much, so that particular benefit we're still missing out on.

But here's another argument against raising: This flop is somewhat coordinated. A lot of hands in our range will have a straight draw + overcards, stuff like AT, KT and QTs. I sometimes raise JTs from middle position, so if he's picked up on that, he definitely knows that I may have a decent hand here. Do you understand why the coordinated flop is an argument against raising in this case? It's perhaps not obvious. The standard lesson that most learn when they start out is that they should be protecting strong hands from possible draws, and here I'm suggesting that specifically because of the draw heavy board, raising may be bad.

The problem lies in the fact that we're playing a guy who knows something about what he's doing, and he's very aggressive. If we raise, he will realize that a lot of the time we're actually semi-bluffing with an AT-type hand, and he will simply make it expensive for us by 3-betting and lead the turn. Because the board is coordinated, our attempt to raise to steal initiative will be taken at face value a lot less often. He may even decide against slowplaying JJ if we raise, because he wants to protect his hand against possible draws.

The downside to calling is of course that it fails to extract value from worse hands. He will definitely call a raise if he has AQ. What we should consider when we talk about "failing to extract value" is how dangerous giving a free card actually is in this spot. The answer is, "not very." If he has specifically AQ, his best chance of beating us comes from turning a queen. That's only going to happen about 6% of the time, so we don't have a whole lot to worry about there. Besides, if my range estimate is correct, AQ accounts for "only" 30% of his range of hands* meaning that the combined chances of him both having AQ and outdrawing me on the turn are less than 2%. I shouldn't worry too much about it.


There's a very good argument to be made for just calling here. Given our opponent's aggression, the fact that we're behind just about half the time and factor in that we're in position and therefore can make better decisions than him on later streets, raising probably sets us up for more pain than gain. If our villain had been much more loose and aggressive, raising would have been much better since we would have had a much better chance of being ahead of his range. Here, however, we're up against a tight and aggressive player, with a hand that we're realistically only still in because of the size of the pot.

* Remember, I have one of the aces and one of the kings. That leaves 12 ways for him to make AQ, 9 ways to make AK, 6 ways to make QQ, 3 ways for KK and 3 ways for AA, for a grand summary of 12 + 9 + 6 + 3 + 3  = 33 possible hand combinations. 12 out of 33 is roughly 30%.

Example 4: Defending the Big Blind and Missing with QJ

Poker Stars
Limit Holdem Ring game
Limit: $5/$10
6 players

Pre-flop: (6 players) Hero is BB with Q J♣ 3 folds, Button raises, SB folds, Hero calls.
Flop: 2♠ 4♠ 7 (4.4SB, 2 players) Hero checks, Button bets, Hero...

My last example is relatively short, but it's a very common scenario. I won't give you the read this time, because I think we can discuss our way through this without knowing exactly who we're up against. We clearly can't fold the big blind from a button opening, almost regardless of who sits there, though. Getting 3:1 (and then some) we really need to at least look at the flop.

This, unfortunately, was not the flop we were hoping for. We were hoping for a top pair or a straight (-draw) kind of flop, and this wasn't it. Instead, we're looking at weak overcards to a rag flop. There are three defining traits of this hand:

1. It's a small pot.

2. We're out of position.

3. We can't go to showdown without improving our hand.

I know that there's a chance that our hand is actually still best. A lot of players open from the button with 98 and other similarly weak hands. Some open even lighter than that. But the combined chances of him either having a bigger hand than ours (and that's hardly difficult - any king, any ace, any pocket pair, any seven, any four, any deuce) or outdrawing us or even simply forcing us to fold by betting three streets when we don't hit makes this a really, really bad situation for us.

We can't continue every time we suspect that our opponent is stealing, because this is limit not no-limit, and the option of outplaying him by using larger bets doesn't exist. And with a pot this small, we're not even getting proper odds to take even one card off. If we could peak at his cards and see that he had a hand like 99 or A7, taking one off could be worth it because we'd be able to extract a decent amount of money from our implied odds when we hit a queen or a jack on the turn, but as it stands right now, the risk is just too high that our hand is either hopelessly behind already (AA, KK, QQ, JJ, any set, AQ, KQ, AJ, KJ) or that we won't get paid off when we actually hit our out. We have reverse implied odds in this hand, and that absolutely sucks.

Also, and don't underestimate this, there's a flush and straight draw on this board, but they're not available to us. Sure, our villain won't have A5 or two spades very often, but he will have it sometimes. And we don't have a queen or a jack in spades, so even if our hand is not dominated, we still won't be very happy to pair up at the same time that the board turns three of a flush.

No, as much as it hurts to lay down a hand that may well be best, when the pot is offering us 5:1, I will have to quote Inspector Closeau: "Zis is not ze time, Cato." Fold. The pot is small, so who cares anyway, right? Just fold.

In Closing

Playing overcards is never easy, because it's a situation where we're in the limbo of being either ahead with a fairly small margin, or we're behind and have a draw that may be dominated. In short, it gets expensive if we don't play these situations properly. Of course, immediately folding any flop that doesn't hit us is a recipe for disaster as well as any opponent with at least one functional eye will pick up on this very quickly and simply bet every flop that we're in and yield whenever we play back. That won't work.

So we need to carefully navigate the waters when we have such a fragile hand. Sometimes, it's best to be aggressive. Sometimes passive. What's so interesting about playing overcards is how common these situations are, and how difficult they still are. And if they're difficult, they are - by definition - the place where most of the mistakes take place, and our job is to spot those situations and be the players that make the most of it. There's tremendous profit to be made in exploiting a systematic mistake of our opponent like always peeling the flop with just overcards. Similarly, being able to make better guesses as to when to fold and when to continue than our opponents is a way of denying them the same profits that we take from them.

Next - Part II - Top Pairs

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