Stop Overplaying Your Overpair

When I first began sitting at $1/$2 cash games I had plenty of experience playing tournaments and thought it would be easy money. I was wrong. Cash is a completely different monster, and unless you learn to adjust your game you’ll get eaten alive. Here’s a rundown of a hand I played the second time sitting at a cash table. I’m using it to illustrate the dangers of overplaying an overpair, and more broadly the dangers of playing a hand in a way that can leave you broke holding a medium strength hand.

$1/$2 cash game at Bally's Atlantic City, 6 handed (full ring table with a few players sitting out), I’m on the button with 150 big blinds, everyone else has roughly similar stacks.

The elderly tight passive player in the cutoff with around 125 big blinds raises to $7 (a smallish raise for a cash game) and I look down at Q♣Q. I three-bet to $25, and get a call from the small blind. The action folds around to the cutoff, who calls. Pot is $77.

Flop: 2♣510

This is a pretty safe flop for my overpair. I’m only beaten by a set, and two pair / drawing hands are extremely unlikely on this board. Action checks to me, and I fire out a $40 value bet. The small blind folds, and told me after the hand he was set mining with J♣J. I should note here this is a somewhat strange line, as set mining makes more sense against more than three players in a cheaper pot. But if I take him at his word that he's using the jacks to set mine (meaning he believes it is likely someone has a higher pocket pair) his fold on the flop makes sense as his overpair is way behind and very unlikely to improve. To be clear, I would probably call the flop bet in his spot and at least see what happens on the turn as my opponents could just as likely have a few high cards that missed. The cutoff calls. Pot is $157.

Turn: 2♣5103♣

Another fairly safe card. I think I need to get value from the cutoff if she’s got something like A10 or JJ and charge her to see another card if she’s drawing with a hand like A♣X♣ or AK. She checks, and I fire out $85. She calls, and the pot is $327.

River: 2♣5103♣A

A terrible card for me. After some thought, my opponent shoves her last $100. I’m nervous my opponent has a set or ace, but I’m getting over 4 to 1 on my call. I call, and my opponent turns over K♣K. I'm beat even if that ace doesn’t hit the board (and certainly would call this bet with any river card given the pot odds).

So what went wrong? A lot, and we will get in to that in a second. But the biggest problem is I'm playing a small pot hand like a big pot hand. What does that mean? Small pot hands are holdings like top pair top kicker, overpairs, and weaker two pair type hands. Big pot hands are top two pair and sets (when there are no likely straights or flushes on the board), straights, flushes, boats, and better. This is a broad generalization and dependent on dozens of other factors, but let’s use it as a starting point to explore a better way to play this hand:

The tight player in the cutoff raises to $7. My raise to $25 with Q♣Q to try and isolate the cutoff isn’t necessarily wrong, but do I really need to raise that much to accomplish it? Probably not. A raise to $20 works just as well. With this raise and calls from the small blind and cutoff, the pot is now $62. I should also think very broadly about which type of hands are calling my three bet here.

Flop: 2♣510

Action checks to me, and instead of firing out $40 I make a reasonable half pot value bet of $30 as I don’t have any draws to charge. I should also point out my initial assumption that I’m only getting beat by a set is fatally incorrect. Small blind folds, cutoff calls, and the pot is $122.

Turn: 2♣5103♣

The turn is always the point at which a hand can get away from you if you’re not carefully thinking about pot commitment and hand strength (your own and your opponent’s). As I said before, my thought process here is I need to get value from the cutoff if she’s got something like A10 or JJ, and charge her to see another card if she’s got something like A♣X♣ or AK. Let’s explore each of these thoughts individually.

Of course I would like to get value if she’s got A10 or JJ (or something like 99 or 88). But I'm not considering other possible holdings like 22, 55, 1010, KK, or AA. All of those hands beat me and can check raise me if I bet, putting me in a very uncomfortable situation. Although I consider the possibility she has a set, I completely discount her having KK or AA because most players don’t play these hands the way she does pre-flop. If she does indeed have A10 or JJ she might not call a river value bet after calling a bet on the turn (and certainly won’t call two bets with 99 or 88), so delaying my value bet until the river isn’t necessarily costing me a street of value. It’s much safer to get value after the river card hits and deny her the opportunity to check raise me on the turn when I’m behind.

Players tend to get antsy when there’s a flush draw on the board, and feel the need to charge players to see another card on each and every street regardless of the pot size and number of players in the hand. But remember that my opponent needs to have the flush draw AND the card has to hit. The odds of this are very small against one opponent with just one card to come. While a healthy bet to force out flush draws on the flop makes sense against multiple opponents, it’s not really necessary against one opponent on the turn. The other drawing hands I’m scared of that might hang around are AX type hands, especially AK. But many players would fold these hands after the flop, and even if she continues she only has three or six outs. Betting to charge a flush draw or overcards isn’t really necessary in this spot.

By checking here I’m controlling the size of the pot with my good (but not great) hand, and can decide whether or not to call a bet on the river or make a value bet if she checks to me. Either way, the pot remains manageable at $122 and I can make more effective (and less expensive) decisions regardless of the river card and her action.

River: 2♣5103♣A

This looks like a bad card for me, but is actually a worse card for my opponent. Even if she is planning on value betting the river she will probably check. I would then check behind with my hand as I’m only getting calls from better hands and folding out hands I’m beating. Ironically, my opponent has the one hand beating me that might actually fold to a solid river bet in this situation (but keep in mind she also might find a call with K♣K).

Just for argument’s sake, let’s say the river comes down a blank. In that scenario I’m calling most of my opponent’s river bets, and if she checks to me I will make a small value bet of my own (and probably get a call). Note that even in the ‘worst case’ scenario of 1) a blank hitting the river, 2) my opponent checking to me for a third time, and 3) K♣K calling my small value bet of around $45, I’m still losing less than a third of my stack on this hand.

In conclusion, I need at least a set to play the hand the way I did. I get pot committed on the turn and give myself no feasible way to get away from the hand on the river. Some final thoughts:
1) Always weigh the need to extract value against the benefit of removing a street from action, especially if checking down a street prevents you from getting pot committed with a medium strength hand.
2) Never completely rule out a possible holding just because it doesn’t conform to the way you’re ‘supposed’ to play your hand pre-flop. Usually this works the other way (players calling three bets with junk), but from time to time tight passive players will play premium holdings in unexpected ways.