Since top pair is the most common “value” hand you will make after the flop, it is important to fully understand how to play it. Despite the frequency with which you make top pair, most amateur players misplay this holding on a regular basis. It is important to realize that all top pairs are not created equal.
For example, Kh-Qh on a Ks-8c-3h board is much stronger than 9d-6d on a 6h-5h-4c board. If, in your mind, you think both of these hands are equally strong, you will make gigantic errors that cost you a lot of money in the long run.
Suppose someone with a 100 big blind stack raises to 3 big blinds from middle position, someone calls from the button, and you call with Qh-Th from the big blind. The flop comes Td-7c-5s.
You must first decide if you should check or bet. While you may think that you should either always check or always bet in this situation, your play should depend entirely on how you expect your opponents to react. If you think they will play in a straightforward manner, raising with better hands and calling or folding with worse hands, leading is an excellent option. If you think your opponents will make your future decisions tricky by not playing in a straightforward manner, you should probably check.
If you check, the initial raiser bets, and the Button folds, you should either call or check-raise, depending on how you expect your opponent to react. If you think he will fold most worse hands to a check-raise, which will usually be the case against most competent opponents, calling is vastly superior to check-raising because check-raising will result in your opponent playing well. You never want your opponent to fold when he is drawing thin. By calling, you give him the opportunity to make additional mistakes on future betting rounds. If you think your opponent will assume you must be semi-bluffing when you check-raise, perhaps because he thinks you like to call with your marginal and strong made hands, check-raising becomes an excellent option because it will extract a huge amount of value from your opponent’s marginal made hands. Of course, you need to think about how you will proceed if your opponent re-raises your check-raise.
If you check, the initial raiser bets and the other player calls, you have to figure out if you should call, fold, or check-raise. You should usually call unless you have specific reads about your opponents’ tendencies. If you are confident that at least one of your two opponents has a strong hand, you should fold. For example, if one or both of your opponents happen to be overly tight, you should certainly fold because you are probably already crushed and if you aren’t, both of your opponents likely have a large number of outs. If both of your opponents are overly active, meaning they could have anything, it is probably smart to check-raise to an amount that worse made hands can realistically call. Notice that check-raising to a huge amount is not a good idea because it allows your opponents to easily play perfectly; continuing when they have you beat and folding when you have them beat. If you are unsure where you stand, calling is probably best.
Notice how all of this thought goes into playing what most players view as a mundane top pair situation. Imagine if instead of Td-7c-5s, the board was Td-7c-5d. The presence of the flush draw will make your opponents assume that you have a decent amount of draws in your range if you decide to take an aggressive line, completely changing the situation.
While you should probably play the hand with the Td-7c-5d flop as outlined above, you now have to consider the fact that everyone has some amount of flush draws in their ranges. This greatly complicates things because your opponents may now assume your aggressive lines could also be semi-bluffs instead of mostly value bets.
As you can see, this is a tough situation. I strongly suggest you spend a significant amount of time away from the table formulating how you should go about playing this, and all situations, based on your image and overall game plan. If you are not constantly thinking about all of the intricacies that go into a hand, you will make costly errors in the long run, costing you a lot of money.
If you want to more information about how to master playing top pair, I strongly suggest you check out my advanced webinar, The True Value of Top Pair. I discuss numerous situations that will make it clear when to go for maximum value and when to pot control. If you learn to play this common situation correctly, you will see an immediate increase to your win rate. Check it out and let me know what you think on twitter @JonathanLittle. Be sure to check back next week for another educational blog post. Thanks for reading!