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Playing Over Cards in Poker

For many players, there's nothing prettier than peeking at their hole cards and seeing paint. A-K. K-Q. Q-J. They're all big hands and, often times, very playable ones, especially in position. Sometimes though, your masterpiece of a starting hand can lead to a very ugly result.

The fact is over-cards can be some of the trickiest hands to play well if they don't connect with the board. So how do you avoid going broke when you whiff with your overs? In the words of Kenny Rogers, "you gotta know when to hold 'em and you gotta know when to fold 'em."

Let's say you're in late position or in the blinds with over-cards and are facing an all-in bet after seeing a ragged flop like 8-5-3 rainbow. What do you do? The answer is an unequivocal "It depends". First of all, what could your opponent possibly be betting here? Top pair? An over-pair? A set? Your read of your opponent's hand should greatly influence your decision because if he's holding anything but a set, you may have odds to call.

That brings me to the next question: how much is he betting? If your opponent's all-in bet is worth half the pot or less, I think you have to call with any two over-cards so long as you think they're still live. Over-cards give you six potential outs to the board, meaning that you're only about a 3-1 dog against top pair if you have no straight or flush draw possibilities. Your over-cards may even be ahead if you think your opponent is pushing all-in on his own draw or is bluffing at the pot.

In situations where you're not facing an all-in bet, the decision becomes a little harder because you must not only consider the size of your opponent's current bet, but also the size of his next potential bet. If you're both deep stacked and you call on the flop, you could find yourself facing a sizable bet on the turn. In this situation, I believe mucking your hand and looking for a better spot is the preferred option.

Another thing to consider in this type of situation is your position relative to your opponent. If you're playing from position, you may want to consider staying in the hand even if you miss the flop – especially if you can do so cheaply. For one thing, calling a cheap bet on the flop might let you hit one of your overs, giving you what may likely be the best hand. For another thing, being in position can let you try and steal the pot away on the turn or river if your opponent shows further weakness on those streets.

Facing this same situation out of position is much riskier as your opponent has control of the hand and gets to act behind you on every street. I'm much more likely to throw my over-cards away here and look to play a better hand later on.

While position can be a key factor in determining if you carry on with your over-cards, the texture of the board is also something to be considered. On a flop like the one earlier – 8-5-3 rainbow – I'm much more likely to at least see the turn with my two over-cards than I am if the flop is more coordinated, like 9-8-7 or something that brings flush or straight draw possibilities. Why? Because unless my opponent is holding a pocket pair, it's just as likely that he missed the flop the same way I did. On a more coordinated flop, there are more ways for my opponent to connect and, even if I hit one of my cards, I could be drawing dead against a flush or straight.

If I'm in a pot with multiple opponents, I'm even more likely to play my over-cards conservatively because there are that many more hands that can easily beat me. Where I might try to continuation bet the flop against a single player, I'll almost certainly check against multiple players because I don't want to give someone the chance to raise behind me and force me to give up chips I don't need to waste.

If someone does bet and another player calls, I can very easily give up my hand without having lost too much. If, on the other hand, someone else bets and the action folds back to me, I can determine whether I want to fold, call or possibly even raise in an attempt to steal the pot myself.

When all is said and done, the key to playing over-cards successfully is not to fall in love with your starting hand no matter how pretty it may first appear. Play your hand smart after the flop and you can avoid an ugly result.


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