A look at playing top pair, top kicker

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There’s such a profound difference in cash games vs. tournament play with top pair-top kicker. In tournaments, after the flop, betting top-top on a mixed board (three suits and few draws) is a relatively easy play. Cash-game play is much more difficult. Don’t get me wrong; top-top is still a betting hand, but this hand has a different effect on play in cash games. Let’s play a hand and examine why.

You’re at a nine-handed $2-$5 no-limit hold’em table where the buy-in is $200-$500. You buy in for $500, or 100 times the big blind. The table is a mix of loose-aggressive and tight-aggressive players. You’ve been playing for 30 minutes and have a decent read on the players. The stacks vary from about $200 to $650. This is an important factor that most players seldom appreciate or understand. We’ll get to that a little later.

You’re in the cutoff seat and you’re dealt {a-Hearts}{k-Hearts}. The under-the-gun player limps for $5 and the next two players fold. Then a player raises to $15, the next player folds and you call the $15 while the button and small blind fold. The big blind calls, as does the first limper. There are four players to the flop and the pot is $62.

You’re last to act for the rest of the hand. The first to act after the flop will be the big blind with $210, followed by the limper ($275), the preflop raiser ($650) and you, with $485. Again, stack size is important in every hand of a cash game.

The flop: {a-Diamonds}{10-Spades}{9-Hearts}. This is a great flop for you. … or is it? You have top pair and top kicker. The big blind bets $25 into a $62 pot. The preflop limper calls and the preflop raiser folds. The pot is $112 and it’s your turn to act. You decide to try to win the pot now with a large bet since you don’t like the fact that the big blind bet and he was called by the first limper. You also don’t like the 10-9 on board as one of the players may be drawing to a straight. You raise to $150. The big blind calls and the limper folds.

What a curious call. If the big blind were on a draw he would only be getting a little more than 2-to-1 pot odds, plus his stack has just $60 left; why not shove? Most draws require at least 3.5-1 to make a call. Why would a player take less, and not shove the remainder of his stack? The pot is $387.

The turn is the {4-Clubs}. The big blind goes all-in and the pot is $447. You make the call for a $507 pot.

The river is the {3-Hearts}.

Let’s look at the blind’s possible holdings after the flop: a set of aces, 10s or nines, A-10, A-9 or 10-9 for two pair. Six holdings that could beat your top-top, plus drawing hands are so prevalent after the flop.
The real crux of the problem for the A-K suited was his calling of the raise preflop and not showing any strength, which allowed the big blind (after the small blind folded) to enter a pot of then $42 for an additional call of $10 or 4.2-1 pot odds.

The next big problem for top-top is after the flop when the big blind bet $25 and the next to act called. At this point the top-top player should’ve realized both players really liked their respective hands.
What I would’ve found most disturbing if I were playing the hand is that with only $210 in the big blind’s stack he was willing to play a big pot by his lead-out bet, which would make him most assuredly pot-committed if there were a raise. The old motto of big hand, big pot, big commitment still holds true in all poker games.

The big blind won the pot with three nines. Top pair after a flop when no one improves will only win you small pots. When opponents hit the flop your whole stack is in danger.

— Antonio Pinzari has been playing poker professionally since the ’70s.