McHaffie: MCU lesson 095 / Top Pairs

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Poker Player newspaper in 2007.

This is part of a series by Diane McHaffie. She wasn’t a poker player when she began writing this series. These entries chronicle the lessons given to her personally by Mike Caro. Included in her remarkable  poker-learning odyssey are additional comments, tips, and observations from Mike Caro.

Diane McHaffie index.

Diane McHaffie is Director of Operations at Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy. She has traveled the world coordinating events and seminars in the interest of honest poker. You can write her online at

Diane McHaffie

Lessons from MCU

— With bonus content by Mike Caro (pending) —

Lesson 95: Top Pairs

As I play hold ’em more often online I run into various scenarios in which I find that I need to consult Mike or his teachings. One of those instances was trying to decide whether to bet or check when I flop a top pair?

In my research, I discovered that not all top pairs are considered in the same light. If you hold an 8 of clubs and a 6 of spades and the flop is 8 of diamonds, 4 of clubs, and 2 of diamonds. You hold top pair, eights with a six kicker. Not bad.

Actions vary

Ah, but if you hold an Ace of spades and a king of diamonds, and the flop is king of clubs, ten of hearts, and four of spades. You hold top pair, kings with an ace kicker. Quite different than a pair of eights without a strong kicker, wouldn’t you say? So, your actions are usually going to vary from one top pair to another.


You should consider two things when you’re trying to determine how big your “top pair” actually is. How high does your top pair rank? What size of a kicker do you have? You also need to keep in mind whether straights or flushes will figure in.

If you are the first to act in a limit hold ’em game, and you flop a small or medium pair, without a large kicker, you usually should bet instead of check, if no one has raised before the flop. This isn’t a time to try being misleading and check. You want to attempt to reduce the number of opponents that you are going to be up against.


Those opponents could be holding higher cards than you. So, if they believe you hold something impressive and fold as a result, that is to the good. You have to be assertive, as you are in a rather tenuous situation. Hopefully, by taking this forceful move you can eliminate some of your opponents, particularly those holding better cards. If you check, it gives your opponents a chance to get a free card and that card could be tragic for you.

Suppose the person sitting to your right is an aggressive opponent that bets frequently and, because you were in a blind position this hand, has the luxury of being the last of several players to act? This isn’t an ideal betting situation for you. In that case, you should probably check when you’re holding a smaller pair with a small kicker. Then if the last opponent insists on betting into a weak flop, you can raise and probably chase out any other players. After that it’s you and the aggressor head to head, assuming he calls.

The circumstances will be different if you flop top pair with an imposing kicker. You’re sitting pretty with less to fear. The next two cards shouldn’t have you shaking quite so bad. See, when you hold a large top pair, there is less of a chance that a higher rank will fall and harm you, especially if you hold an ace with a king kicker. Your main fear often will be a straight or a flush.

Different scenarios

If you’re first to act with a great top pair and a high kicker, Mike says that he will bet most of the time, but he will occasionally check to be deceptive. There are different scenarios, of course. For instance, if you’re playing heads-up in a limit hold ‘em game and your opponent bluffs frequently, you might consider checking and then calling. This has the potential to be a profit-making circumstance. Let him bluff away his money.

You’ll find that when you have a big pair, with a big kicker you can afford the comfort of choices. When you have a smaller pair with a little kicker, your choices are fewer and you should probably bet to try to discourage your opponents. — DM

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