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Playing Pocket Pairs

By Gary Steele

There is a lot of different advice on how to play two cards of the same value, also known as pocket pairs, in Texas Hold’Em. I personally believe all pocket pairs have potentially high value and I will play them all under the right circumstances. The value of pocket pairs varies greatly from Aces down to about Tens. With pocket Nines and below there is a significant drop in importance as the pairs generally require a third matching card on the flop to become viable winning hands. Here is my advice on playing pocket pairs.

Pocket Aces, also known as pocket rockets, are well known as the best possible hole cards in Texas Hold’Em. They have earned this title by consistently winning pots without any help on the board. Statistically, at a 10 player Hold’Em table, if every person stays in the hand until the end, pocket aces will still win approximately 31% of the time. When you get dealt Ace/Ace you need to try to accomplish two objectives. First, and most important, you want to whittle the competition down to as few opponents as possible, using a moderate raise, without scaring them all away. “Wait a second,” you ask, “didn’t you just say Aces will win 31% of the time regardless of how many people are in the pot?” Yes, but with only two other people in the pot, pocket aces win much more often. Never let the big blind see a free flop when you have Aces. Second, you have to get as much money in the pot as you can by using all of your skill. Do this by knowing your opponents. Are the two people left in the pot going to bluff at it if you check? If so, slow play the Aces. Are they the type of players who would love to check to see a free card? If so, bet them (no free cards). Are the players left in the hand good enough to calculate pot odds? If the pot is small, you have to bet just enough to keep them interested. If the pot is already substantial and you do not want to risk losing it, bet enough to make it unprofitable for them to stay in.

That is a lot of things to think about when playing Aces, but it gets easier from here on in.

I have found pocket Kings, Queens, Jacks, and 10’s (okay maybe not 10’s, they are a borderline pair in this category) all can be played approximately the same way. Your first objective with one of these hands is to make the other players get out of the hand unless they have something really good. This means placing a hearty bet (if you are not playing limit poker) before the flop. The players that call your raise have to have something good such as Ace/Jack or decent suited connectors like the Jack/Queen of Spades. What you are trying to do is make sure none of the players in the hand has a surprise such as pocket twos or 6/7 suited and gets a lucky flop. Obviously, the Kings are the best cards in this category to have, but if you have people call your bet and an Ace shows up on the flop, you are probably beat. If you are last to act and everyone has checked to you when there is an Ace on the flop, you still have to make a small bet just in case you do have the best hand, but do not go overboard. The other pairs in this category are the same. For example, if you are holding pocket Jacks and an Ace, King, or Queen shows up on the flop, play it very carefully. Only completely trust these pocket pairs when nothing higher is on the board. They are valuable only because they can win without help. If there is a higher card on the flop you need to treat these as the second pair.

The rest of the pocket pairs, nine and down, generally need a third card on the board to be viable winning hands. You have to realize before the flop that you only have two outs (cards that can help your hand) out of the 50 unknown cards left in the deck. This gives you a little over a 12% (close to 1 in 8) chance of getting the card you need on the flop. In a limit game it is sometimes difficult to win eight times the bet you need to pay to see the flop. Weigh your opponents playing style carefully before calling with low pocket pairs in a tight limit game. In a no-limit or pot-limit game, however, it makes sense to call the minimum bet before the flop with a small pocket pair, even deuces if you are in late position. Players love to bet top pair, and they love to bet two pair even more. Three of a kind will win most pots and can make you a lot of money at a no-limit table. When you do get a set, just be on the lookout for flush and straight possibilities on the board and play appropriately.

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