Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2010) in Poker Player newspaper.
We’ve just added the updated Michael Wiesenberg / MCU Official Dictionary of Poker exclusively to the Poker1.com web site. You’ll probably want to bookmark it, because it’s the most compelling reference of its kind.
Here’s how he defines today’s word:
overpair (n) In hold’em, a player’s pair higher than any card among the community cards. For example, you start with J-J, and the flop is 9-5-2.
So how should you play an overpair in hold ’em? It’s not as obvious as it may seem, and that’s the topic for this self-interview.
Question 1: Are all overpairs about equal in value?
Some players seem to treat them equally. But, obviously, the higher the rank, the more likely you are to win. One of the key mistakes is falling in love with a medium pair like 8-8 when 7-3-2 flops.
I’ve even seen top pros call huge no-limit bets or make substantial raises in this situation against solid opponents who seldom bluff. That’s suicidal. What are they thinking? I’ll tell you what they’re thinking, and it isn’t pretty. They’re thinking, hey, my opponent probably didn’t start with a big pair, so my pair is either higher than theirs or they have just two overcards and need to connect in order to beat me.
That assumption is true. If you could just show your cards down and determine a winner as soon as the flop appears, you’d likely win. But that isn’t how poker works. There is now a betting round, followed by another, and another. Opponents are only going to be betting if they’re bluffing, speculating, or believe they have an advantage.
It’s true that an opponent holding A-K or A-Q might bet in an attempt to take the pot without a fight. An opponent might reason that even if unsuccessful, he’ll still have the higher overcards or an opportunity to draw out by pairing. But bets justified that way are apt to be small. Few opponents will make large bets with overcards.
All kinds of things are possible when an opponent bets into a tiny flop — a straight or flush draw (if the flop makes that possible and if the player is in a late-enough position to justify small cards, in the case of a straight try), a medium three-of-a-kind, a small three-of-a-kind (unlikely except against late-position players who got in cheaply to see the flop), two pair (also unlikely with a small flop), or an overpair. (For this discussion, I’m excluding flops that provide opponents with chances of having already connected for a straight, a flush, or a straight flush.)
That final possibility, “an overpair,” is monumentally important. If you hold that 8-8 with the described pot, you have the lowest possible overpair. Although it depends on the situation and the traits of your opponents, when players bet into a small-card flop because they believe their hands are strong enough, the chances of an overpair are sometimes greater than all other possibilities combined. That’s why the rank of your overpair matters; you might be against another overpair.
So, when three small cards flop, pairs barely higher than the best rank aren’t as good they they may seem. But huge pocket pairs are very profitable, especially if undercards on the flop are high-ranking. This means it’s more likely that opponents played the cards necessary to make big pairs inferior to yours.
With overpairs, size matters.
Question 2: Do you want a call when you bet an overpair?
Usually you want a call only with kings and aces – and sometimes only with aces. With lower ranks, the likelihood of opponents holding higher cards and pairing makes it more profitable to take the pot immediately than to fight until the showdown. With medium overpairs, you usually should make small bets and hope not to be called.
Question 3: How likely is an overpair to win?
That depends largely on the space between the rank and the ceiling. What I mean is that a pair of aces is the ceiling; pairs don’t get any larger. But if you hold a lower rank than that, there’s a possibility for opponents to have a better pair already or to make one on the turn or river.
A better question – and one you should always ask yourself before betting – is, “How likely am I to be called with a worse hand?” If you make a large bet with a small overpair after seeing a tiny flop, usually the answer is “not very.” Most times that you’ll get called, you’ll lose. So you usually should bet just enough to make an opponent likely to fold overcards, and not much more.
Question 4: Could you provide an example?
Okay. You’re in a no-limit hold ’em game with J♦ J♣. The blinds are $50 and $100 and you start the betting in a middle seat by making it $200 to go, doubling the big blind. Only the player on the button (dealer position) calls. The pot is now $550.
The flop is 10♠ 6♥ 2♣. You bet $300. Your opponent raises $700, for a total of $1,000. Many serious poker players instinctively call. Some even move all-in, feeling they have the best of it. Actually, you should normally fold – the exception being against opponents who frequently bluff.
If you give your opponent credit for having called with a sensible hand, then the only non-bluffing one you can beat that could justify the raise would be A-10. The other raising hands after this flop are trips (10-10-10, 6-6-6, or 2-2-2), A-A, K-K, Q-Q, and J-J. Maybe you can factor in a bit for a player trying to leverage 9-9, 8-8, or 7-7 (hoping you didn’t pair tens) or for him firing away with two high ranks on speculation. Put it all together and your prospects are bleak. Yet most players call – and sometimes re-raise.
Those mistakes are made because players trick themselves into not thinking logically. The mistake has to do with getting caught up in the magic of the moment and believing that because the flop has been kind to you, it must have been unkind to your opponent.
And although this advice has been targeted at overpairs and unpaired flops, similar cautions apply to flops that include a lower pair than yours.
Question 5: Finally, would you summarize the main concepts regarding the play of overpairs in hold ’em?
Saying you “got beat with an overpair” sounds silly, because it doesn’t describe the rank of the overpair or the flop. The size of the pair matters; the ranks and suits on the flop matter. Some overpairs are commanding. But many are just plain scary and you should hope to bet small and win instantly when you hold them.
Finally, avoid making the mistake of thinking that flopping a slight overpair to a small flop puts you in command. It doesn’t. It means you’re likely to have the best hand unless you meet resistance. Against resistance, beware! You probably don’t have the best hand.
Question 6: Is that it?
That’s it. — MC