Finding ourselves with good hands is always a mixed blessing for poker players. Obviously, we want to be dealt good hands and we want the board to treat us kindly, but there’s still usually work to be done if we’re going to make these opportunities pay (literally), and there will also be times that require us to back off if it seems that our hand is strong but perhaps not strong enough.

Much depends on this or that factor, and what determines how we elect to continue fighting for a pot often comes down to our ability to read both the hands we’re up against and the type of player, too. One of those common scenarios where such considerations are particularly relevant is when we hold top pair or an overpair. Even when we think we’re ahead the path to winning the hand is never going to be straightforward in that only when we see the virtual chips making their way to our stack can we relax. It’s even more complicated when the opposition shows aggression, and it can be unsettling when, sitting with A♠ K♥ on a Flop of A♣ 8♥ 4♣, for example, the proverbial spanner is thrown into the works in the shape of our opponent surprising us with a check-raise. It would be helpful to consider now, in advance, how we should go about analyzing this situation. The reasons why this is more than just a useful exercise should be obvious as it’s clearly helpful – and a great confidence-booster – to know before we sit down how we intend to handle the numerous classic scenarios we’re presented with. But, in this specific case, it’s even more important because the most common action here is not the most accurate, practical one. Most will take the easy, least committal option at suddenly being under pressure, namely calling and reassessing when the Turn comes. Effectively sitting on the fence like this lacks clarity. First, it merely leaves us in the same situation should the Turn not meaningfully change the board. What would we do when the next bet is fired at us? Secondly, we have an opportunity to stamp our own authority on the hand that, quite possibly, we should anyway be in charge of. Instead of blindly calling we need to have a well-defined plan of action at our disposal.

Our play will be in no small part determined by what kind of opponent we’re up against, and how much we can deduce about what’s behind their aggression. If, for example, a usually quiet, passive player check-raises us in the above situation, what does this mean? First, we should take such a move seriously and, if we call and they fire again on the Turn, even more seriously.

There will be others who make the same play, and for the wrong reasons. Inexperienced, weaker players tend to overestimate their prospects when pairing an Ace, and this is exactly the kind of scenario where they can’t help but set up a check-raise with, for example, AJ. And such players are rather conspicuous because they do this whenever they can and, as is often the case in poker, continue to carry out the strategy because their selective memory has focused too much on the pots they won. This is another reason to always observe the action, even when we’re not involved in hands, as potentially profitable opportunities would otherwise go unnoticed. In this case, with our AK, we would have an overly keen opponent holding AJ totally dominated. There are two ways to exploit these players, the most aggressive being to extract some value by upping the stakes with a 3-bet. The alternative is to simply call, thus inviting them to donate more chips with their continued aggression.

Passive players suddenly waking up and ambitious overplaying their hands are reasonably easy to read and therefore deal with, but it’s a different and difficult matter if an aggressive player gets aggressive. When someone is betting and raising a lot as part of a deliberately uncompromising battle-plan aimed at putting their opponents under pressure, they could be turning up the heat for all manner of reasons. Even if we can usually identify this or that player, appreciate their ranges, and do a good job of putting them on hands, these tasks are much more problematic with aggressive players. Consequently, we find ourselves with an ostensibly decent hand, but facing a check-raise and, to exacerbate the problem, being challenged by an aggressive player. But we can use this to our advantage. It’s not straightforward, of course, but that doesn’t mean we’re not necessarily in a good position! It’s just a matter of taking a line and sticking with it – because poker is a game that can deprive us of information, sometimes we have to be prepared to take a leap of faith and grab the proverbial bull by the horns. So, given that a very aggressive player’s range is going to feature more bluffs and draws than usual, we can very feasibly fight fire with fire in this example. There’s a good chance we’re going to catch them bluffing, and if they‘re over-playing a draw, they need to hit.

Conclusion

Having top pairs and overpairs is always going to be a mixed bag, and with so many possible routes the hand could go, we need to be flexible in our thinking. When we’re faced with aggression this is even more evident, and it will pay to be prepared beforehand in terms of already being aware of how our reacting to such play depends on who we’re being challenged and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Sometimes we have to back down, other times there’s an easy target to exploit and, additionally, it can boil down to simply having faith. Note that none of this is possible without being in the habit of closely observing the opposition!

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About the Author

AngusD

AngusD switched from pro chess to poker two decades ago and has been professionally involved in the game on numerous levels since the very beginning of online poker, including playing as a poker ambassador both online and at major festivals around the globe. He has written much about the game over the years, and brings to YPD a wealth of experience in all aspects of the poker industry. Meanwhile, his many years on the pro chess circuit (he’s an International Master and prolific author) afford him an interesting perspective on the psychology of poker.

Latest changes

The last changes of the page “Thoughts on Top Pairs” was made by AngusD on June 30, 2021