The Top Pair Illusion

published on 11/28/05 at 7:22 pm

Probably the most common and costly mistake amongst rookies is over betting the top pair. Top pair with the community cards is one of the greatest illusions of hand supremacy possible. This is never more damaging than when an opponent slow plays a pocket pair and flops a set.
Preflop raises notwithstanding, there is often no real way to know what your opponent has until it’s too late. Even worse can occur if you happen to hit a set on the turn, or worse, the river and think ‘ha-ha, I have him now!’ This can spell disaster for anyone, since even a lower pocket pair still has you beaten because it becomes a full house. Second worse, and nearly as dire is flopping two pair at the same time your opponent flops a set. You’re going to need a lot of luck to escape from either of these situations with much of your stack intact.

So what possible strategies can you employ to avoid such situations? Personally, I employ a means of budgeting, much I am prepared to spend on any given hand based on my betting and that of my opponent. It also requires you to have accurately assessed your opponent to determine what could possibly lead them to call with what you perceive to be an inferior hand, but which they obviously do not see that way.

Take the following scenario:
Your hole cards are AhKh. You bring it in for a 4 x BB raise and get two callers. The flop comes; 8d, Kc, 4d. You bet pot thinking so far so good. One drops out but the other calls. The turn comes 2s. No help to him there, surely! You bet again. This time he reraises you. At this point you can probably eliminate betting a flush draw on the come, so what on Earth can he be betting that he thinks is so damn good? Maybe he has KQ suited diamonds and is trying to sweeten the pot for the flush draw coup with top pair and strong kicker in tow. You call down the turn raise and the river is a 3 of spades. The flush coast is clear, there’s a possible straight on the board but there’s no way he was betting that anyway and you still have the top pair with the best possible kicker. He can’t have two pair because he called a 4 x BB raise and there is no way anyone in their right mind would call that with K 8, or even worse any of the other possible combinations. He may have called with A5 but you have assessed this guy before hand and he wouldn’t call 4 x BB with that, and besides, he wouldn’t have called down the subsequent raises in any case. He bets heavy post river, but not his entire stack. Just a tantalizing amount, small enough to call but big enough that you are reluctant to raise. You sit a moment or two, replaying the hand and call the final bet triumphantly raising your AK only to stare down pocket 8s. The coup is complete and you are left to wonder how you could have avoided it.

There are a few ways you can play this, all but one of which involves chucking your hand away in spite of your belief that you have the best of it. The trick here is to realize that better opportunities exist around every corner if you are patient. By all means bet the hell out of your hand pre flop and on the flop, but if you get called or reraised SLOW RIGHT DOWN. The tendency is to rush in thinking you have him covered and he is just being silly. Take all the time allotted to you and try as best you can to minimize any major damage through impetuousness. So many times we allow the money to drain away quickly through ill-considered calls. If you watch many of the pros you will notice one common theme amongst many, if not all of them. When under the pump they SLOW DOWN and think. You can see them playing the hand through in their mind over and over trying to figure out what possible miscalculation they could have made.

I remember watching John Juanda during a WPT event. He was in the small blind with Gus Hansen to his right. Gus is a notorious bluffer and best known for his willingness to play any two cards. Gus raised double the blind from the button. John had A 5 off suit in his hand, and thinking Gus was playing games quickly called trying to catch him stealing. The flop came 8, 8, 5 and John immediately bet into the pot thinking he would take it easily with Gus obviously nipping. Gus just called and they went to the turn which was a K. John bet again figuring Gus couldn’t have a K because of what a stealing bluffing bastard he was. Gus just called again. This was betting out of character for the normally aggressive Gus. Now John was starting to get worried, and as if sent from heaven to ease his mind, an ace hit on the river. Surely NOW John had him. He checked the river waiting for Gus to try and steal it and right on cue Gus pushed all his chips into the pot. Dazed and confused, John sat there trying to figure out what had gone wrong and how he could have been so badly wrong. What on Earth was Gus playing? Was it not a bluff afterall? After several minutes deliberation John threw away his hand. At the time he didn’t know it, but Gus had tried to steal the blinds with 8 7 off suit and flopped a set. The major points about this hand were two fold. Firstly, John decided to survive to fight again in spite of a belief he had the best of it, and secondly the hand took more than 10 minutes to play. Instead of rushing in John gave himself enough time to redecide and his decision proved the correct one.

I trust in future you will at least think twice before charging in with top pair. Or if you are like John Juanda, you may think 3 or 4 times about every difficult decision you find yourself making. And if you are going to lose your money in this manner anyway, at least get your money’s worth and take more time to lose it. Who knows! By the time you have made the decision to spend it you may manage to confuse yourself enough to think about it one more time. And if you smell a rat, be prepared to check down your top pair and chuck it away if you get any heat whatsoever. The chips are far more useful to you in your stack than anyone elses.

Crazy Snake is a professional sports handicapper and amateur poker player. He has made a profit year after year through his knowledge of Aussie Rules Football, NFL, tennis, and golf. He is a senior writer for

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2 Responses to “The Top Pair Illusion”

  1. Gunfighter333

    Dec 8th, 2005

    Just checkin’ in. Heading home after a suckie night of runnin’ bad and getting sucked out by Shit-heads. I don’t like being down. Later, bubba.

  2. suh-ka

    Dec 15th, 2005

    I like getting sucked out by Shit-heads.

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