Poker illusion regarding overcards in hold ’em

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2002) in Poker Digest. The original title was: “Sure you can play overcards in hold ’em — But that ain’t all.”

Don’t move. Don’t breathe. Stop everything you’re doing. Please lend me your mind for a few minutes. If you play hold ’em, but haven’t really mastered it yet, I want you to read this column, which is based on one of my recent lectures.

Mom once told me that when I was three, she would brag that I could look at a letter on one side of a wooden block and announce what was on the opposite side. While that wasn’t enough to get me written up in scientific journals, it must have been a pretty good parlor trick.

I don’t remember doing that, but I’ll take Mom’s word for it. What I do remember, from back when I was very young, is that my grandpa used to fool some other little kids by asking them to play a guessing game. He couldn’t trick me, though, and I was proud as proud could be that he couldn’t. In a few minutes, my grandpa will never be able to trick you, either – and we’ll both be proud.

The way my grandpa used to trick those little kids was to show them a shiny new nickel. He’d tell kids that he was going to hide the nickel in one of his hands and that if they could guess which hand, they got to keep it. Grandpa would put his hands and the nickel behind his back. He’d take a couple seconds and bring both hands back in front of him for a kid to see. “Point to the hand with the nickel in it,” Grandpa would command.

Well, most of the time, one of those hands looked larger, because Grandpa wouldn’t grasp as tightly and his knuckles extended further than the ones on his other hand. Grandpa’s biggest looking hand was the one the poor kid usually chose. It was empty. It was an illusion.

The hold ’em illusion

Here’s the same illusion as it happens in hold ’em. If you’re a serious player, you probably already realize that sometimes you can call a bet with nothing more than two unpaired cards that are higher than the flop. That happens when the pot is large and there aren’t too many players contesting. You’re gambling that a card of one of your two ranks will come on the final two board cards, giving you a commanding pair that will win the pot. We have a term for this — calling with two overcards.

And that advice is correct. You should often (but certainly not always) call with two overcards in that circumstance, otherwise you’ll be surrendering far too many pots to aggressive bettors.

Fine. Now let me tell you a story. About four years ago I was teaching a Level II Beginner’s class for Mike Caro University of Poker at Holywood Park Casino. A student who was advanced for the course came up to me during the break and said that since I was advising to sometimes call on the flop with two overcards, shouldn’t I advise at the same time that you can also call with just one overcard if you have a straight draw.

And, of course, I do teach that you should often call with such hands, but I don’t dare lump those complex situations with the simple concept of two overcards at a beginning level. But maybe I should, because a single overcard and a straight draw, even an inside straight draw is more powerful and profitable than two overcards.

My student had asked an appropriate question and made a powerful point. But, I warned him that there are things to know about straight draws that made them different from each other, depending on the exact cards and situation. I promised to tackle that in a more advanced class.

But, let’s talk about it now. When you play two overcards, you’re hoping to catch one of six remaining cards of either one of the ranks. If you hold an ace and a queen and the flop is 10-6-3, then you can connect for a commanding top pair by catching an ace or a queen. There are three of each remaining in the deck, right? A total of six cards.

But if you have an ace and a 6 and the flop is 7,4,3, then you can catch any of three aces to make the biggest possible pair and any of four fives to make a very powerful inside straight that’s unlikely to be either beaten or tied. That’s seven cards, instead of six, that can save you.

It gets better

But it’s even better than that for the single overcard and the inside straight draw. You have hope of pairing your smaller card and having that pair be meaningful in winning the pot – either on its own or by adding to it. With the ace-six, you can pair that six, in addition to catching an ace or a five – and even though it probably won’t be enough to win, it’s at least an extra bonus, and the long-shot possibility has some value. With just the two overcards, the ace-queen, you had just the six main chances and no extra ones. With the ace-six, you have seven (count ‘em, seven) main chances and three extra long-shot chances. Plus four of main seven chances provide you with a powerful straight, not just a pair.

If you’re beginning to think that you should play the single overcard with an inside straight draw more often than two overcards, you’re right. Anytime you would even consider playing two overcards, you should be eager to play a single overcard and a smaller card providing an inside straight draw. And, of course, we’re not even talking about a single overcard with another card that provides an open-end straight draw – that’s much stronger still, but more obviously strong, thus no illusion of the hand being weak.

Now, there are a couple things to keep in mind that are beyond the scope of today’s topic – things we might talk about in the future. One is that not all overcards are equal. Aces rule, for sure. Another is that you can have both an overcard and an inside straight draw using just one card from your hand. The remaining card could be a deuce out of straight range, and you’d still have better prospects of drawing out on an opponent than you would if you held just two overcards.

Also, keep in mind that a lower straight draw is usually more likely to hold up than a higher one. A higher straight is especially dangerous when you hold one card at the low end. Then someone can hold a single card to make the high end. For instance, if you hold K-6 and the flop is 10-9-8, a seven will provide a straight for you. But wait! That’s a dangerous straight, because, if that seven appears, then anyone holding a single jack will beat you. But if you hold A-2 and the flop is 6-5-4, you are less worried about having your straight beat if a three appears. That’s because an opponent is less likely to hold a seven than a jack.

So, not all straights are equal, and in fact, the best card you can hold is an inside rank when both extreme ends of the straight are already present. This means a hand such as ace-8, when the flop is 9,7, and 5. Visualize it – you have ace and 8. The flop is 9,7,5. If any of four sixes flop, you’ll make your straight, and it’s unlikely that anyone would hold a 10-8 to beat you or even an 8 to tie.

Remember, sometimes in hold ’em, you can choose to play a single overcard and an a card that gives you an inside straight draw when two overcards wouldn’t be strong enough. In fact, you should just about always play that single overcard and inside straight draw whenever calling with two overcards would be a close decision. (A rare exception may be when, if you connect, you’ll hold the low end of a fairly high straight that can be easily beaten by a single high card.)

Grandpa’s illusion makes players choose overcards

Strangely, though, I believe many players prefer the two overcards. They see a single overcard as being too weak. And they see an inside straight draw as being too weak. They don’t realize that the combined power can be considerably stronger than two overcards, because you have more chances of connecting, and the straight is more likely to hold up than an overcard.

In my mind, the illusion of the two overcards being bigger than one overcard plus one small card providing an inside straight draw is the same illusion as when my grandpa let his knuckles bulge out to make the empty hand seem more inviting. The same thing happens in hold ’em, where you can choose which hands you play after the flop. Many players choose to play two overcards, but not to play one overcard and a small card that provides an inside straight draw.

That’s the wrong hand to choose, and that’s my grandpa’s illusion. Don’t let my grandpa fool you anymore. Sure, you can sometimes play just two overcards, and that hand will sometimes have the nickel. But the hand that’s more likely to have the nickel is the one that doesn’t look like it – one overcard with the inside straight draw. Choose to play that hand anytime two overcards would be a close decision. — MC

Mike Caro

Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.

2 thoughts on “Poker illusion regarding overcards in hold ’em”

1. Mike – another great essay. But- paragraph 4 of “It gets Better”- last sentence- you should substitute “more”, for “less”. The title for the essay is “Poker illusion regarding overcards”. The best – Nelson

1. Hi, Nelson —

Thanks for the feedback. If you’re talking about the sentence, “That’s because an opponent is less likely to hold a seven than a jack,” then actually it is what I meant to say.

However, I noticed broken formatting at the top and fixed it. When we updated the theme a month ago, several hundred entries were mangled near the top — including this one. We’re gradually repairing them.

Straight Flushes,
Mike Caro