Outkicking the Competition
I was sitting at a $1/$2 cash table at Bethlehem Sands a few months ago and kept winning pot after pot against the player to my right. Not big all-in pots, but the small $30 - $70 pots that are the bread and butter of winning cash game players. He eventually said to me in frustration, “you’re so damn lucky, you have me outkicked every single time.” I just smiled and agreed with him, knowing luck has nothing to do with it.
Dan Harrington, one of the tightest players around, discusses the five ‘trouble hands’ in his Harrington on Cash Games series: KQ, KJ, K10, QJ, and Q10. These are the non-pair hole cards that contain 10 or above but not an ace (J10 is in a separate category for a variety of reasons, namely its unique ability to hit the nut straight four different ways). These hands can actually be quite profitable, but I have to pay attention to the table conditions and react accordingly. Harrington generally advises players to only play these hands pre-flop in position and suited, and to play them strongly post-flop only with two pair, trips, flushes, and straights (or draws to flushes and straights when you can make decisions based on your actual and implied odds). He advises players to slow down the action and fold against any strength when holding only top pair. You can read Dan and a few other pros’ thoughts on these hands here:
Action Dan is indisputably one of the best players around, but his advice is dated given the table conditions that abound in low stakes cash games today. He rightly notes the trouble hands can leave you outkicked and broke, but the wide diversity of opening hands at cash tables today necessitates a reexamination of his advice. The key is understanding my opponents’ ranges and how these hands stack up against them. Let’s jump back to the table from a few weeks ago.
The table is extremely diverse in stack size and style of play. After a few orbits I notice an important condition for extracting value from the trouble hands - there are lots of limped pots, and three or four players at the table who robotically limp any two cards. Limped pots mean I can make or call a few bets post-flop without any danger of getting pot committed. But more importantly, a few players who limp any two cards ensures that hands like top pair, high kicker will win frequently against top pair, average or weak kicker (or even weaker holdings like second pair). Half the players at this table have no problem calling two or even three streets of value with top pair, questionable kicker.
When I hit a pair on the flop with one of the trouble hands at a table like this, I want to bet for value and isolate one of the weaker players. Yes, sometimes they will outkick me or hit a weird two pair, but most of the time I’m going to have them drawing nearly dead. It’s preferable to play these hands in position as it allows me to limit the size of the pot by checking back a street of action if necessary. And in the absence of any obvious draws, my value bets should be on the smaller side to prevent the pot from growing too large.
Note that I rarely raise pre-flop with these hands in late position if there are several limpers in the pot already. Most of the time a raise in this spot only succeeds in stuffing the pot with money as players at a table like this will rarely fold after limping. I just limp in and see a cheap flop, and if I do decide to raise I make sure it’s on the larger side to try and isolate a single player.
There is obviously a limit to how far I take these hands. I have top pair, high (but not top) kicker. This is a medium strength hand. While my observation of table conditions allows me to extract some value here, I never come close to getting my whole stack involved. If someone plays back at me strongly, I always lean towards folding. This means allowing someone to bluff me out of a small pot from time to time, but that’s much better than calling off my stack holding a single pair.
Issues with pot commitment are especially problematic if there is a raise pre-flop and multiple callers. I differ a bit from Dan here in that I have no problem calling a raise in position with the trouble hands (usually any KQ, but KJ, K10, QJ, and Q10 only when suited). Given the tendency in small stakes cash games to raise 4 to 7 times the big blind pre-flop, the pot will already be huge once the flop hits. In a raised pot with more than three players I need to be much more cautious if I’m only holding a single pair.
In conclusion, I always observe table conditions sharply so I can decide when it’s advisable to try and extract value when I have top pair and second or third kicker. There are no hard and fast rules here, but you can start with the observations here to learn when you can proceed with these hands. If you fail to value bet against weaker players in these spots you’re leaving a lot of money on the table.