Top pair with a dud kicker is undoubtedly one of the more difficult hands to play well in a poker cash game. It’s a complex hand that requires attention to detail in most spots, with the potential to make or lose a great deal of money. Strong players are able to extract value from it, but weaker players can get themselves into hot water very fast if they don’t think things through.
This is the kind of challenge that sets poker apart from purely chance-based online casino games, but it’s worth the effort to learn how to do it. Take a look at how to play this tricky hand in cash games.
The Nature of the Beast
So what’s the big deal about top pair weak kicker (TPWK)? Imagine yourself in the following situation. Your hole cards are an ace and 6 off-suit and the flop comes ace–9–2 (unsuited.) Now you have the strongest possible pair, but your weak kicker makes your hand vulnerable to any other player holding an ace. At the same time, your hand is too valuable to simply fold.
What to do? As with most poker game scenarios, it’s all about knowing the advantages and the limitations that any given type of holding can confer. In this case, your weak kicker means that it’s seldom wise to play aggressively. Instead, it’s usually correct to play defensively and give your opponents the chance to make mistakes.
Top pair weak kicker isn’t necessarily a worse hand than top pair top kicker. With a strong kicker, of course, you stand a better chance against an opponent who also has the strongest pair. What a weak kicker gives you is the means and motive to catch bluffs. As a result, the most correct play with TPWK is usually to put it in your checking range. This allows the pot to grow and gives you the opportunity to take advantage of your opponents’ air hands, which there will always be a certain percentage of unless you’re facing complete nits.
The way to take advantage of opponents when you have TPWK is to induce them to bluff and catch them when they do. Say you’re in a six-max cash game and you’re dealt king–6 (hearts) in the small blind. Kickers don’t come a great deal weaker than that, but you’re not going to waste that ace, so you raise to 3BB. The big blind — a player you know to be aggressive — calls and then the flop comes king of spades, 9 of clubs and 4 of clubs.
With your hand, you don’t want to bet multiple times and run the risk of getting involved in an insane pot, so it’s correct for you to play it slow and check. This helps to control the pot, so it doesn’t cost too much to get to showdown, where you’ll have a decent chance of having the strongest hand unless the turn and river are disastrous. At showdown, sometimes your opponent will have the strongest hand, but sometimes they’ll be holding air, in which case your high pair will take them down.
Play It Fast
There are exceptions to every rule in poker, so it’s no surprise to learn that it sometimes pays to play your hand fast when you have TPWK. This is usually when your pair isn’t very high-ranking, so you’re at risk of being outdrawn. This is when you have to guard yourself against passive players. The reason is that these opponents seldom bluff and, instead of trying to make you fold, prefer to check along in hopes of seeing the next street for free. If you allow them to do this, you’ll lose the chance to realize value while making yourself more and more vulnerable to overcards in their range.
Say you’re in cut-off position and you open raise with 8 of clubs, 7 of clubs. A passive opponent calls from the big blind, the flop comes 8 of hearts, 6 of diamonds, 2 of spades and your opponent checks. This is the moment to bet in the hope that you’ll get a street of value.
Of course, you could play it safe and check, but what if a Broadway card (10, jack, queen, king, ace) shows up on the turn? You might find that you’ve given your opponent the chance to outdraw you instead of making them fold to your bet. That’s what’s known as snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Don’t let it happen to you! Shut down those passive players as soon as you get the chance.
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