02- 1-05, LearnTexasHoldem:

Playing Pocket Pairs

Question: Pocket Pairs

Great site. My question is about pocket pairs. Specifically, pocket 10s and below. Generally, with strong pocket pairs, it is better to raise because you want to play them against fewer players. However, is the better strategy for lower pocket pairs to also raise them, or try to limp in and hit a set? Also, how would you play them from early, middle, and late position?

-Nick R.

Top 3 Beginner Rooms

Answer: How to play pocket pairs depends on what type of holdem you are playing and what the texture of the game is. I'll try to do a break down for the games you might find yourself in: low limit holdem, no limit holdem cash games, and no limit holdem tournaments.

The easiest advice I can give for playing pocket pairs is for limit holdem since most of what you do is fairly mechanical. In the games you will find yourself in, TT should be a raising hand preflop from any position. If the flop is raised before you, you can call with TT or sometimes reraise if you think you can get heads up with the opponent. For hands 99 and below, in low limit holdem you'll have a hard time winning against more than one opponent so you need to take the approach that either you'll try to get heads up or you'll have to get a very favorable flop. 99 and 88 can hold up sometimes in limit holdem but it is rare that you'll get a nice flop so when you enter with the hand, you want to do so cheaply.

The two situations where small and mid pocket pairs do well are against lots of opponents, or against very few opponents. Some players take the philosophy that if they have a raise in front of them, they will 3 bet preflop with any pocket pair in hopes to get heads up and win; I don't like that strategy. If you do that with a hand like 55 against most players preflop raising hands, you'll end up losing money. 55 can't get many flops that give you any measure of confidence. Little pocket pairs to win usually need to hit a set. To hit a set you need to have 4 or more players in to make it profitable, any less than that and you are giving up money.

A couple more tips on these hands are; first, since the mid pocket pairs rarely do well in volume pots, if you can get heads up with the blinds with a raise, do so; secondly, if many people have just limped in preflop and you are on the button, sometimes raise the pot in hopes of building a big pot if you hit your set (people will misread it and it adds some variety to your play).

For no limit holdem tournaments, your position, chip stack and opponent's moves will dictate your play. In no limit holdem, you definitely do not want to be the caller unless you are sure you have your opponent beat; most players when they play a small pocket pair will raise it for this reason. If you play a hand like 77 preflop, you would be very happy if your opponent folded since there aren't many flops that the 77 will like (nothing but overcards).

Pocket pairs are stronger in no limit holdem than in limit holdem because people don't draw as much for overcards. For example, if you raise preflop with 88 and get called by one player and the flop is 9 - 4 - 2, it would be safe assumption you have the best hand. Most likely your opponent has two large cards like AQ or KQ. In limit holdem he would call your preflop bet faster than you could put it out but in no limit holdem, you can bet enough to discourage him from chasing.

Next, while the pocket pairs are strong preflop, you need to be able to release a hand more so than in limit holdem. Often times in no limit you will make a raise with a hand and then get reraised an amount that you can't call -- which is perfectly normal. When you make these laydowns depends on who your opponent is, what stage in the tournament it is, and how many chips it will cost you. The later in the tournament, the looser people are playing. You wouldn't want to go all-in preflop with TT in the first round, but at the final table you might.

Now as for pocket pairs in no limit holdem cash games... When I play no limit holdem, I'm there to break people, not win small pots. What I consider one of the best trapping moves is to call someone's preflop raise with a small pocket pair in hopes to hit a set and nail them for their entire stack. Now obviously if it costs me too much money then I won't call; too much money might be more than 4 times the big blind.

What I usually do is limp in with small pocket pairs and then see how the rest of the table shapes up. If the raise is something I can handle, I'll call. If it is too much, I'll just muck. Calling the big blind only in no limit holdem cash games doesn't cost you much at all compared to what you might be able to win if you hit when someone has AK and the flop is A - Q - 3 for example when you have 33. Many times when you make this sort of play, you will miss the flop and have to muck.

There are other times when the person will bet an amount that isn't large enough in relation to the pot so you can peel off a card. Mid-pocket pairs are some of the hardest hands to play in no limit holdem (99, TT, JJ). I will raise with these hands from any position but I'm not going to get my hopes up. If you get married to JJ preflop and someone puts you all in, you can't assume you have him beat. This brings me to my next point, after watching the WPT, everyone knows that two overcards are about even money with an underpair to the river.

For example, if TT went all-in against QJ, they would be around 50/50. I think seeing this on TV can lead to a skewed perspective. It is true that QJ has the same chance of winning as TT does to the river, but most hands aren't all-in matches/races. It would be more correct to look at the odds of QJ catching something it likes on the flop against the TT.

Most of the no limit holdem hands don't include all-ins. Most of the time you are just betting an amount that could get called so you can make some money. It sounds obvious to write but you want to play a hand in a favorable situation for that hand. In no limit holdem you have more control over shaping the texture of a hand to suit your cards. The mid pocket pairs are strong in no limit holdem, more so than in limit holdem, so you can be more aggressive with them.

The aggressiveness will help you to win more often with them (not letting a bunch of other junk in). Just be careful though and be prepared to fold. There is nothing wrong with mucking QQ preflop if it will cost you your entire stack that you've built up all day. Remember that for the race situation, even AK is 50/50 with you.

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