Since we are looking to play big cards, it stands to reason that in a lot of cases we will be hitting top pair on the flop. This is one of our primary goals of course, as top pair is by far the easiest to hit among the potential ways we can improve our hand, and thus will represent the majority of our wins.
As a general rule, it is an advantage to have both cards with this potential. Let's take the obvious example of AK to start with. If either an ace or a king fall, we will not only have top pair, but top kicker as well. All we'd be worried about now is someone having 2 pair or better. We can play this aggressively, as in most cases we'll win the hand, and we'll determine by the betting action of the table where we're at.
So, with AK in the pocket, we've got about a 1 in 3 chance of hitting this on the flop. Which is pretty good odds. For illustration purposes, we're going to assume that we either hit top pair on the flop, or fold. We'll deal with our play when we don't hit in later, lessons, although it's still going to be a fold in most cases. Suffice to say that for now we'd need a good reason to continue with the hand, and it's going to be based upon the play of our opponents.
Now, if we were playing to only one card, an ace, say, with a kicker which won't make us top pair, we're only going to hit 1 in 6 times now. So we have to win all those hands and get at least 6 bets out of it on average to show a profit. And if that was all there was to it, this would be a somewhat profitable play. However, we've not only got to worry about someone hitting a better hand, we're going to lose to better kickers as well. And if the top pair isn't an ace, we've got to worry about overpairs as well. So you can see how this kind of move ends up losing money in the long run. In fact, we're counting on opponents playing hands like this, so we can take their money with our good top pairs.
So we need 2 good cards which not only can hit top pair rather easily, but have top kicker as well. But another concern is going to be the the threat of overcards. For instance, say we have JT, and either one comes up. At the games we play, opponents will often play one big card regardless of the kicker. And they'll stay in the hand to see if they can hit it. This is a good thing for us overall, since we want them to be playing junk, however, if an overcard comes up later, and someone bets, what are you going to do? Of course, all of this depends on the style of your opponents, but if we often have to fold our hands after making them, this is going to affect its profitability. Even worse is hanging on to them when we're beat, and losing even more.
This doesn't mean that hands like JT can't be played profitably, but we'll be relying on other ways to win hands more, so we really should confine ourselves to them being suited, where we have both the straight and flush potential to win. The same is true even for QJ. In tighter games, or at less than a full table, these hands will be stronger, but at a table where half or more are in the pot, playing all sorts of hands, we really need an ace or a king to be safe enough so we'll be able to stick with the hand in most cases when we hit it.
In fact, at one time I used to play QJo and JTo, as a lot of people do, and it was only after profitability analysis that I discovered these hands were losing money for me. Not a lot mind you, but even a little unprofitable is too much, when you can simply avoid playing the hand and not losing anything extra on them. And that's really the only thing that matters. After thinking about it, the answer why became obvious. Aside from occasionally being outkicked, a problem which increases as your kicker gets lower, I lost money from not hitting them and having to fold on the flop, I lost money from hitting them and having an overcard come up with them on the flop, and I lost hitting them with an overcard coming up later in the hand, as well as losing at showdown.
So aside from the straight and flush potential, the only way I could be even reasonably certain I had top pair was when I paired one of them, and no overcard ended up coming up either on the flop, or later in the hand. So it's not hard to see that this plan goes wrong a lot. Adding the flush potential though, and sticking to playing this stuff in late position, was enough to tip the scales in my favor and turn this profitable.
Don't pairs like QQ and JJ suffer from this problem as well? Yes, but remember, we're not counting on 1 in 3 of hitting a pair on the flop, we already have that going in. So while we still need to be concerned with overcards, we'll be contending in every pot, which will make a big difference over only contending a third of the time.
So, let's say we either have top pair in the pocket, or hit it on the flop. How do we want to play this? In limit poker, we almost always want to play these hands aggressively. We want to build the pot, since we have a good chance to win it, and the pot odds are favorable for us and others to contribute more, even against one opponent. And the more opponents the merrier, unless it's apparent we're behind in the hand. More often than not though we'll be ahead, and we also want opponents to pay for drawing to beat us. So betting and raising on the flop is going to be the norm here for us.
If we had a better hand, and the board wasn't threatening, we could consider delaying our aggression somewhat, as we wouldn't be concerned about opponents drawing out on us so much. Here, we've got a good hand but not a strong enough one for that, so it makes sense to be aggressive here in most cases. Keep in mind though there are always exceptions, based upon the number of opponents, the board, and the playing style of others. This is a general rule though, and one that will serve you well provided there isn't a good reason to act otherwise.
We want to continue with our aggression to the end, provided we still appear the favorite. We of course will pay close attention to the patterns of our opponents in this particular hand, and compare this to their overall patterns generally, all with a close eye on the board, to discover whether we need to keep going or perhaps slow down, and even fold in some instances. This will be covered in more detail in later lessons of course. It is important though to know when you're probably beat, and not have any reservations about folding top pair when this is the case. Otherwise, we'll be overplaying our cards beyond the point of advantage and thus profitability, which is always a bad idea.
So, to sum up, look for 2 high cards to play generally, look to hit one of them, look to play it strong if one hits, and look to tread cautiously if danger is apparent.