Top pairs are big time money-makers in poker.
Even when you have a weak kicker to go with your top pair, you will still win money over the long run…
…as long as you don’t make any major mistakes (such as over-playing your hand).
The question is: are you winning as much as you can?
By the end of this article, my goal is to help you be able answer that question with a resounding yes.
So, let’s begin!
Before getting into strategy, let’s make sure everyone is on the same page.
What Exactly is a Weak Kicker?
A weak kicker in the context of this article is anything 9 or lower. Here are a few examples of top pair weak kicker:
- on a flop
- on a flop
- on an flop
Alright, now let’s get into strategy for playing top pair weak kicker with 100 big blind stacks in cash games.
Playing the flop is quite simple. In the vast majority of situations, whether you bet or check will not affect the expected value (EV) of your top pair (at least in theory).
That being said, when playing high-level games, such as mid-high stakes online, always taking a certain line can open you up for small exploitative adjustments.
The main idea that you want to keep in mind here is that with a top pair weak kicker, you cannot comfortably bet all three streets of value. Unless your opponent is a massive calling station, you will generally only get called by worse hands for two bets (unless you improve to trips or two pair).
You need to sacrifice a bet on one of the three streets, which leaves you with the following options:
- Bet Flop, Check Turn, Bet River (Bet-Check-Bet)
- Bet Flop, Bet Turn, Check River (Bet-Bet-Check)
- Check Flop, Bet Turn, Bet River (Check-Bet-Bet)
None of these three options is the “go-to” play with top pair weak kicker. The option you choose should be based on the specifics of the situation.
(Note that if an opponent bets into you, that counts as a bet. In other words, no matter who does the betting, you should aim to put in exactly two bets with top pair weak kicker.)
With that said, let’s compare playing in and out of position with top pair weak kicker.
Playing the Flop In Position
As the preflop raiser, you will almost always have the range advantage. Thus, playing an aggressive c-betting strategy with your overall range is the way to go. That said, at equilibrium, top pair weak kicker is often a check back hand. By checking back these top pairs, you protect the weaker hands with which you check from getting blown off the pot too often.*
As the preflop caller, you should always check back for the same reasons.
*Advanced note: If you always bet with top pair weak kicker, your opponent can start overbetting with weaker hands for value and also widen his bluffing range on the turn. This means that, on average, your check-back range will have a lower expected value due to more hands being put into an indifferent situation (where calling or folding renders 0 expected value).
The exception is when the flop is extremely favorable for your range as the preflop raiser, in which case you can leverage your advantage by c-betting with your entire range. Related article: 10 Spots to C-Bet 100% (The Range Bet).
Playing the Flop Out of Position
Playing out of position as the preflop raiser is split into two major situations:
- Playing Small Blind vs Big Blind
- Playing versus an in position player who called your raise (e.g. you raise and the player on the Button calls)
When playing from the Small Blind as the preflop raiser, you will oftentimes have a range advantage. When this happens, as mentioned in the previous section, it’s best to play an aggressive c-betting strategy. That being said, you should still just go for the check-call with top pair weak kicker, specifically.
When you raise preflop and get called by a player who has position on you, you will almost always be best off checking with top pair weak kicker. The correct way to approach these out of position spots is to play a defensive strategy that involves a lot of checking. With top pair weak kicker, you have a clear check-call hand.
As the preflop caller who just defended your Big Blind, you should always check-call with top pair weak kicker. Solvers do like to check-raise a handful of vulnerable top pair weak kicker hands (such as on ), but you can simplify your strategy by check-calling every time. It won’t cost you much EV, and you can always add that more advanced strategy to your game later on.
Note: Our free articles are great, but the Upswing Lab is 100X more value-packed. Learn step-by-step how to become the best player at the table when you join the Upswing Lab training course.
Elite pros have been adding new content every week for the past seven years, and you get all of it when you join. Learn more now!
Playing In 3-Bet Pots
In 3-bet pots as the preflop raiser, you should always c-bet with top pair weak kicker, regardless of whether you are in position or out of position. The reason here is that the stack-to-pot ratio is much smaller than in single raised pots, which means that the opponent cannot start leveraging massive overbets to punish a weak check-back range.
You can always slow down with a check on the turn, but starting off with a bet on the flop is the way to go.
The turn strategy is quite simple too. Remember, you should mainly look to bet exactly two streets with top pair weak kicker. So, depending on what you did on the flop, you only have a few options.
If you bet on the flop, you can check or bet on the turn. Both plays are fine. Think about the specifics of the situation (your opponent, the board texture, etc) and decide which option makes more sense in the moment.
If you checked on the flop, you should now bet on the turn. Checking again would be a mistake because your goal should be to bet twice, and you can’t do that if you check the turn. The exception is when the turn changes the board significantly (e.g. a draw completes or an overcard comes).
If you checked on the flop and your opponent bets into you on the turn, you have an easy call. Folding would be a mistake, especially because your opponent may be attacking your perceived weak checking range with a bluff. This is actually a major upside to checking top pair — you give your opponent the opportunity to bluff on future streets.
That gives you a solid roadmap of how to play turns. But I want to caution you against making two other common mistakes that I see players make with top pair weak kicker in these spots.
Another mistake to avoid is betting for value when a 4-straight or 4-flush has completed. Say the board is and you have . Your top pair is now much weaker given the scary nature of the board and you should not value bet with it; it doesn’t matter if it’s a single raised pot or a 3-bet pot.
One final mistake to avoid is betting and calling a raise when a draw has been completed. For example, suppose you bet with on the turn of a board. If you face a check-raise, you should get out of the way. Your opponent might be bluffing, but it will be very tough to realize your equity and you have some reverse implied odds of improving to two pair/trips and losing to a flush/straight.
If you’ve followed the roadmap until this point, there are only a handful of ways you could have reached the river with top pair weak kicker:
- Checking back the flop and betting the turn
- Betting the flop and betting the turn
- Betting the flop and checking the turn (and you may have called a bet after checking, if you were out of position)
- Calling once or twice (after a bet or a check on the flop)
Let’s go over them one by one.
1. If you checked flop and bet the turn, you will generally have a strong enough hand to bet on the river. The exception is if the board has run out in a scary way — 4-straight, 4-flush, multiple overcards, etc.
2. If you bet the flop and bet the turn, it’s time to check on the river with your top pair weak kicker.
3. If you bet on the flop and checked on the turn, there are multiple possibilities. You either:
- Faced a bet on the turn and called. In this case, you should generally fold against a river bet.*
- Didn’t face a bet on the turn. In this case, you should bet on the river for value (unless the board is a 4-straight or 4-flush).
- Are facing a bet on the river after checking back. In this case, you should call.
4. If you’ve only called one bet on the flop or turn, then you should call the river bet. If you called a bet on the flop and then another on the turn, then it’s time to fold versus a bet on the river.*
*My advice in these two spots assumes you don’t have any information on your opponent. If you know your opponent has a tendency to bluff too often, you should consider a heroic call with top pair weak kicker.
I’ve given you the handbook for playing top pair weak kicker. That being said, you need to keep in mind that these are just guidelines based on equilibrium strategies calculated by solvers.
You are playing against a human. And guess what? Humans aren’t able to play as perfectly as solvers. If you think your opponent calls too much, then by all means go ahead and bet for value even if I said you should check. If you think he folds too much, then by all means check even though I said you should bet.
You should always be willing to adjust your strategy if you know what your opponents are doing. Just make sure you have sufficient evidence before making such an adjustment.
That’s all for this article guys! I hope you enjoyed it and that you learned something new from it! As usual, if you have any questions or feedback please let me know in the comment section down below!
Check this one out next (it’s crazy): Tom Dwan Plays the Biggest Pot In TV Poker History (Analysis).
Till’ next time, good luck, grinders!