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Playing a Big Pair in the Hole; and an Overcard Flops

George “The Engineer” Epstein

You see the flop with a big pair in the hole. You are (almost) certain that you have the best hand. Now the flop... Oops! An overcard falls. How good is your hand now? If an opponent has connected with a bigger pair, you have only two outs to improve your hand. So what is the best way to play a big pair in the hole before the flop?

A Typical Example. In a medium-limit hold’em game at a full table of nine players, you are in a middle position, and have been dealt J-J; that’s a premium drawing hand. If no overcards fall on the board, your pocket Jacks could hold up to the showdown; but, quite often, it must improve to take the pot (more so, of course, with smaller pocket pairs).

Could an opponent have been dealt a higher pair? With J-J in the hole, the odds are about 8-to-1 in your favor that none of your eight opponents has a higher pair. Most likely you hold the best hand preflop. This often is confirmed when no opponent raises preflop. (Discount a raise by a “maniac” who could raise with almost anything in the hole—even without looking at his holecards!) You figure that your pocket Jacks is the best hand so far... Preflop, you properly decide to raise, hoping to force out any players behind you who happen to hold A-rag, K-rag, or Q-rag, thereby protecting your J-J, and gaining a better chance to win the pot if an Ace, King, or Queen should be dealt out on the board. Note: If you were one of the blinds, raising likely would not force out an opponent who already had made one bet to see the flop; so, in that case, just call and avoid giving information about the strength of your hand.

On the flop, there are three overcards possible that represent a serious threat to your J-J. Suppose an Ace flops. With eight opponents, the odds are that at least one of them has an Ace in the hole. Likewise for a King or a Queen. According to Tom Green’s Texas Hold’em Poker Textbook (visit: www. PokerTextbook.Info), with eight opponents, the probability that one has another Ace in the hole is 79.6%. Odds are 4-to-1 in favor. And, of course, the same applies if a King or a Queen falls on the flop. So, if an overcard to your J-J falls on the flop, you are likely to be in trouble. So now what? It depends.

Caution. Due caution is warranted. If an opponent has caught an overpair, you have become a BIG underdog, with only two outs.

It is important to know your opponents; what kind of player is each?

If a tight player, especially in an early position, comes out betting, you would be wise to fold—rather than chase him all the way to the river. (Chasing is expensive!) His overpair (assumed) has you beaten! If the bettor is deceptive (“tricky”), a call is appropriate; he may not have the overpair he is representing. In fact, if no one else has called, consider raising him. That could serve to isolate him should everyone else fold. On the other hand, if there’s a bet and raise before you, a fold likely would be the smart move. Even if the “tricky” player is bluffing, the raiser most likely “has the goods.”

Note: This column is concerned with an overcard falling on the flop, so we will not discuss your strategies if only undercards fall on the flop (chances are you are still in the lead), or if you connect to a set of Jacks. Wow!

Bottom Line: Starting with a middle pair, like J-J, in the hole, raise preflop to encourage opponents with higher cards to fold. Then pray for no overcards on the flop. Be extra cautious if there is an overcard to your pair-in-the-hole. Consider the type of player who is betting/ raising, and the pot odds; then decide whether to fold or call


George “The Engineer” Epstein is the author of The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners! and Hold’em or Fold’em?—An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision and teaches poker at the Claude Pepper Sr. Citizen Center in Los Angeles. Contact George at

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