Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2006) in Poker Player newspaper.
One of the hardest lessons for hold ’em students is that they can sometimes call bets on the flop without a pair, even if they don’t have four cards to a flush or an open-end straight draw. It’s dangerous to teach.
Beginners need the patience to wait until they have an edge. Fine. Then you explain that they can often call bets with just two cards higher than the board. It gives them all kinds of ideas. Bad ideas. They begin to imagine that there’s good in all hands, and they begin to lose discipline.
Sometimes I think I’d rather not tell beginners that they often can call with just two overcards. But withholding that information would be a disservice – especially in limit hold ’em games. You see, there are too many flops when neither you nor an opponent helps. You just can’t afford to routinely surrender just because you didn’t make a pair, otherwise an astute foe will always bet and run your stack of chips right down to the cloth.
So, yes, you can call a bet on the flop with two overcards. A single overcard and an inside straight draw can be even better, but many players who are quick to call with two overcards (especially large ones) routinely fold that hand. In some ways that’s wise, because two large cards can often supply a kicker for a potential pair that dictates a win. Pairing the lone overcard with a small inside straight draw may leave you out-kicked. But lots of times, the single overcard (especially a ace) and the gut-shot straight attempt is better. Here’s a lecture I gave on the subject about eight years ago…
Better than two overcards
When I was very young, my grandpa used to trick 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, we’ll be done with today’s lesson, and 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 hold out before them a shinny nickel. He’d tell a kid that he was going to hide it in one of his hands and that if that kid could guess which hand, he got to keep the nickel.
But here’s where the guessing game got goofy. Usually, grandpa would put both hands and the nickel behind his back. He’d take a couple seconds and bring both hands back in front of him for the kid to see. “Point to the hand with the nickel in it,” Grandpa would say. 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.
Here’s the same illusion as it happens in hold ’em poker. 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 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 at Mike Caro University of Poker. 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.
That’s why we’re talking 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.
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.
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 lesson – 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, since we’re mentioning other considerations that we won’t detail today, 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. 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 very unlikely that anyone would hold a 10-8 to beat you or even an 8 to tie.
And keep in mind that you can have two overcards plus an inside straight draw, but that’s not what we’re discussing. We’re talking about times when you don’t have two cards higher than the flop. There are plenty of twists and turns and things to talk about, but we’re just focusing on one thing today – that a single overcard with another card providing an inside straight draw is better than two overcards, despite the fact that many players instinctively play only the two overcards.
So, 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 always play that single overcard and inside straight draw whenever calling with two overcards would be a close decision.
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. Repeating: It’s a fact that 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 wrong, 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.
This is “The Mad Genius of Poker” Mike Caro and that’s my secret today. — MC