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when to check top pair on the flop

Checking Flop With Top Pair: When Should You Do It?

If you continuation bet every time you hit top pair on the flop, you make yourself easy to play against.

Every top player knows that there are certain situations in which you must check top pair (at least some of the time) in order to protect your checking range. Examples of such situations are examined below.

Settle in because this beast of an article covers a lot of ground, including:

  • A Quick Word on Single Raised Pots and Bet Sizing
  • In Position Examples (Button vs Big Blind)
    • IP Example #1: A T 9♠
    • IP Example #2: T♠ 8 6
  • Out of Position Examples
    • OOP Example #1: T♠ 7 5
    • OOP Example #2: T♠ 8 6

Let’s get to it.

A Quick Word on Single Raised Pots and Bet Sizing

Most of the situations in which you should check with some top pairs are single raised pots.

In single raised pots, the stack-to-pot ratio (SPR) is too high to comfortably get 3 streets of value with most top pair hands. Thus, you need to consider which of the following 3 plans makes the most sense with your top pair:

  1. Bet 3 streets for value
  2. C-bet on the flop, double barrel on the turn, check back on the river
  3. Check back on the flop, delay c-bet on the turn, barrel on the river

Let’s dive into a few examples.

In Position Examples (Button vs Big Blind)

The first two examples cover playing in position as the button (who raised preflop) versus the big blind (who called preflop).

Let’s plug a couple different flops in the solver with the goal of answering these two questions:

  1. Which top pairs does the solver prefer to check back?
  2. How often does the solver check back top pair?

IP Example #1: A T 9♠

On this flop, the solver’s preferred bet size is 75% of the pot. Here is the breakdown of the top pair combinations:

At9-top-pair-in-position

There is a clear preference toward c-betting with the strongest kickers (AK-AJ). Those hands have the highest betting frequency. There is no clear pattern for the lower kickers, which the solver bets between 33 and 55% of the time. In total, the solver c-bets 57 top pair combinations out of a possible 102.

Now that we’ve seen the solver’s approach, let’s talk about how to play top pairs on this A-T-9 flop in practice.

One way would be to randomize with each top pair in an attempt to match the solver’s frequencies. If you went with this approach, you’d aim to bet AKo 84% of the time, AJo 65% of the time, A6s 33% of the time, and so on. If that sounds impossible to memorize and execute, that’s because it basically is.

The more natural approach is to come up with some heuristics that result in c-betting with approximately the same number of top pair combinations as the solver (57). Here are some examples of such heuristics:

  • C-bet with the top 5 kickers, AK down to A7 (60 combos)
  • C-bet with the top 3 kickers and the lower top pairs that also have backdoor flush draws (50 combos).

The idea is to land somewhere close to the right overall frequency.

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IP Example #2: T♠ 8 6

Since top pairs are more vulnerable on this flop, we should expect to see the solver c-bet with them more often. Additionally, there are more hands in the opponent’s range that have enough equity to call a bet. Let’s see if that’s true.

Like the last flop, the solver prefers to c-bet large (75% of the pot). Here is how the solver likes playing each top pair:

t86-top-pair-in-position

Indeed, the solver c-bets at a much higher frequency here. The solver sees an immediate need to extract value against the enormous amount of worse-than-top-pair hands that the opponent will call with. In total, 45.4 of 63 top pair combos are solver-approved bets (that’s 72%).

All top pairs are in the betting range at least 70% of the time with two exceptions: QTo and JTo. I can only speculate as to why the solver checks more with QTo/JTo, but I’d guess it’s because those hands make two pair on the cards that also complete the opponent’s most likely draws (J9/Q9). Interestingly, QTs/JTs bet more often, probably because they have the added benefit of being able to hit a backdoor flush.

Like the last example, there are a couple of ways to build this strategy. You could try to randomize with all top pairs like the solver does. Or you could use heuristics, such as betting with all suited top pairs and checking QTo/JTo/T9o half of the time. Or you can come up with your own idea. The main point is to reach the correct frequency (72% in this example).

Let’s move on to out of position play.

Out of Position Examples

Out of position as the preflop raiser is a whole different game. It’s a much more complex game tree given that you also need to include check-raises in your strategy (to protect the checking range).

Each example covers a common situation in which you will find yourself out of position as the preflop raiser (vs a cold-caller and blind vs blind).

OOP Example #1: T♠ 7 5

The preflop action: you raise from middle position (aka hijack) and the player on the button cold-calls.

These spots are actually pretty easy to play because the cold-caller has a fairly condensed range on the vast majority of the boards. So, even though you can have overpairs and he can’t, he makes up for that by having a higher concentration of nutted hands.

All of this, combined with your positional disadvantage, means that you should play a much more defensive strategy. This involves checking with a ton of your top pair hands to protect the rest of your range.

Let’s dive into specifics on the T♠ 7 5flop.

The solver calculated that the best bet size is a 33% of the pot. This small bet size makes sense when you are out of position and don’t have the nut advantage with a high stack-to-pot ratio. You want to keep the pot small or force the opponent to reveal information about his hand by raising.

Here’s how the solver plays its range as the middle position player:

t75-top-pair-out-of-position

You can see that while there is still a pattern of c-betting the stronger kickers more often, it’s much closer than the in position examples. No top pair hands bet more than 67% of the time, and most are closer to 50%. In total, 13.6 of 24 top pair combos are bet by the solver on this flop (56%).

Again, there are multiple ways to achieve this frequency. One way to do this is to use a randomizer and bet 50-56% of the time with all of your top pairs. An even easier way is to only bet when you have top pair top kicker (12 combos), which is close enough to the solver-approved 13.6 combos.

Both approaches are fine!

OOP Example #2: T♠ 8 6

The preflop action: you raise preflop from the small blind and the big blind calls.

Let’s take a look at the same T♠ 8 6flop from an earlier example. Like the in position example on this flop, the solver also preferred to use a large sizing of 75% pot:

t86-top-pair-out-of-position-v2

You can see that the solver does a lot of betting with top pair despite the positional disadvantage. Getting value right away and protecting these vulnerable top pairs are simply too important.

The pattern is the same as the in position example: the stronger the kicker, the more frequent the bet. Having backdoor flush draw increases the bet frequency too, which you can see by comparing the offsuit hands with the suited versions of the same hands (e.g. T9s bets more often than T9o).

As usual, you want to find some rules that will help reach the frequency threshold of the solver. Will you randomizing with every hand and try to remember the approximate frequencies from the solver? Or will you simply bet with the two best top pair hands (AT/KT) and the top pairs that have a backdoor flush draw?

Maybe you’ll come up with another way. There are many valid approaches!

Wrapping Up

As you just read, there is a lot of wiggle room when it comes to how exactly you approach playing top pair on the flop. Try to use the general concepts you just learned to build a strategy that includes both betting and checking at reasonable frequencies. If you can do that, you’ll be way ahead of the curve when it comes to playing top pair on the flop.

That’s all for this article! If you enjoyed it or have some questions please let me know in the comment section down below!

Till’ next time, good luck, grinders!

Note: Want to get better at poker without spending a lot of time or money? Get the $7 crash course that will help you win more often. Grab your Postflop Playbook now!

 

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About the Author
Dan B.

Dan B.

Online grinder aspiring to reach the highest stakes and crush the toughest games. I'm available for quick strategy questions and hourly coaching -- reach out to me at [email protected].

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