Is That A Pair In Your Pocket?



Rising Star
May 22, 2005
Total posts
Pocket pairs are potentially the most profitable hands in holdem.
However, because they are so often misplayed usually overplayed, sometimes underplayed they don't add as much to a session win or your tournament chances as they should. Here, well examine pocket pairs, focusing mainly on their value in no-limit tournaments. Ill also offer thoughts for low-limit cash game players, so don't run away if you only play small limit or no-limit games. Every hold'em player should learn something useful.

The worst play in poker:
I'm astounded by the number of players who get this one wrong. Its calling an all-in bet with a small pocket pair. If you call all-in rather than betting or raising all-in, you only have one way to win: holding the best hand. Its far better to have two ways to win when you make a bet: either with your bet or with your hand. Suppose you knew your hand was a 3/2 underdog to win that you only had a 40% winning chance. Suppose further you knew that if you bet all-in, your opponent would fold 50% of the time. It would be correct to bet, even though you had the inferior hand. In 100 confrontations, you would win 50 without a fight, and of the other 50, you would win 20. You wind up winning 70 of the 100 confrontations. While you cant know the odds this precisely at the table, this shows how having two ways to win often turns an inferior hand into a winner. However, if you call all-in, youre going to find yourself in one of two situations: either youll be roughly even money (against two overcards), or youll be roughly a 9-to-2 underdog (small pair against larger pair). Do you really want to put all your chips into the pot when its impossible for your opponent to fold and youre either a small favorite or a huge underdog? Its a terrible play, and yet youll see players again and again make huge calls with hands such as pocket 4s.

The ‘coin flip’ myth:
Whenever you watch televised poker and you see someone with a pocket pair going up against someone with two overcards (such as Q-Q versus A-K, or 7-7 versus 8-9), you almost always hear the announcers say one of two things: either the hand is a coin fl ip, (meaning that its a 50/50 chance) or that its roughly 11/10 in favor of the pair. Listen for it: its practically universal. However, its practically universally wrong. Different pocket pairs are different-sized favorites against different overcards. In fact, they arent always favorites. J-10 suited is a favorite over every single pair from 2s through 7s if the pair doesnt contain one of the suited cards, and usually even if it does. You need to reach pocket 8s before the pair becomes the favorite, and thats by a tiny amount. On the other hand, if you take your pocket 7s or even your pocket deuces, for that matter up against A-K, youre the favorite. Can you guess why the J-10 hands do so well? There are four primary ways in which overcards can defeat a pocket pair:
To hit one (or more) of the overcards For example, Q-Q versus A-K and the final board is 5-K-7-J-2.
* To make a straight A single card from a pair can also help make a straight, but two connected cards stand a much better chance. For example, 7-7 versus J-10 and the final board is 8-9-Q-7-2. Notice that even making a set of 7s on the turn didnt save the pocket pair.
* To make a fl ush This is similar to the straight analysis. For example, 8-8 (no spade) versus Q-J (one spade) and the final board is 10-9-A-3-8 (four spades). The same river card that gave the eights their lucky set also created the fl ush: remember such possibilities when calculating outs (winning cards).
* To get counterfeited This is one of the biggest problems with tiny pairs. For example, 3-3 versus A-9 and the final board comes 5-5-6-10-6. The owner of the 3s must play the board, while the opponent can use his Ace. Any time you own a small pair and a larger pair fl ops, be careful.
J-10 makes more high straights than any other hand so, if you owned a pair of 4s, you would actually much prefer to be up against the more powerful-looking A-K, which makes far fewer straights, than against J-10. If you have Q-Q and are up against A-K, youre in the most favorable pair versus overcards situation. Express it however you like 4/3, or 1.33/1, or a 57.2% no matter which way you describe it, you're quite far away from coin-flip territory. You have this significant edge because your two Queens reduce the A-Ks chances of winning with a straight. The holder of A-K will need a Queen to hit the board to make a straight, and you have two of them tucked safely away. Don't get too excited by this information, though: upon learning that J-10 makes more straights than any other hand, many players start to rank J-10 far too highly. Vulnerable pairs
I split pocket pairs into several distinct value groups. Lets start at the bottom and work our way up:
* Small pairs (2-2, 3-3, 4-4 and 5-5) These hands stand a reasonable chance of winning a heads-up confrontation against overcards, but they're quite vulnerable. In a game where three or more players see the fl op, they usually need to hit a set to win. Small pairs are also the most prone to getting counterfeited. The good news is that their unimproved post- fl op weakness is so obvious that even bad players are usually willing to throw them away, something that cant always be said of the following pairs.
* Middle pairs (6-6, 7-7 and 8-8) For the most part, these hands play like small pairs. The main difference is that they don't get counterfeited nearly as often, and youll occasionally find yourself facing only one overcard instead of two in heads-up confrontations. Otherwise, these hands can be more troublesome than small pairs, especially if the board comes low 10-4-2, for instance. A player holding pocket 8s will often think that with only one overcard hit, he might be leading. He bets aggressively, not realizing he is up against someone who has that one overcard or someone who is tentatively calling with a hand such as 9-9. Normally, unless you fl op a set or a good straight draw (that is, the board is 4-5-6 and you have 7-7), you should get out.
* Danger pairs (9-9 and 10-10) Much like middle pairs, these will occasionally hold up against an opponent who has hit part of his hand (like someone playing A-8 suited who hits the 8). Danger pairs should be played much like middle pairs, but you will rarely get counterfeited. I call them danger pairs, as players tend to push them too hard.
If you have Q-Q and are up against A-K, you're in the most favorable pair versus overcards situation
Perilous plays
Hold or fold? You wont know what your pocket pair is really worth until the fl op comes Pocket pairs are usually the best hand before the fl op, but remember that in hold'em, your hand is usually defined by the fl op, when you see three cards all at once. One of the biggest mistakes players make with pocket pairs is getting stubborn with them once the fl op makes it probable that they're no longer leading. Remember that hold'em is a seven-card game, not a two-card game. Small pocket-pairs almost always have to fl op a set to be worth continuing, so its very important to keep position in mind when playing. If you're the first player to act and hold a small pair, theres a strong chance you will face at least one raise by the time the action gets back to you, and then the price to see the flop is'nt right. You'll only fl op a set one time in eight tries, so try to get in there cheaply, and get in against opponents who have enough money to pay you off handsomely if you get lucky and hit your hand.
J-J wins just enough without improvement to give its owner confidence, and yet it's extremely vulnerable in multi-way situations
Royal couples
* J-J This is the single-most tricky hand in no-limit hold'em. It wins just enough without improvement to give its owner confidence, and yet its extremely vulnerable in multi-way situations. If you're facing all three overcards, you're a significant underdog. Just how big varies: youre far better off being up against A-K or K-Q (winning about 43%) than against A-K or Q-10 (winning about 37%), because of the lack of duplication. One trick to help you avoid getting into trouble with J-J is to pretend that its 8-8 instead. You'll only play it hard in favorable post-fl op situations, and wont try to beat the world with it pre-flop.
* Q-Q The third best starting hand in hold'em, this should be played aggressively. The problem in low-limit games is you wont just be up against one player holding A-K: you'll be up against K-10 here and A-9 there, and thats much less favorable than facing a solitary A-K. In no-limit games, with what sort of hands will you face heavy action? Bluffs, the occasional person overplaying a smaller pair, or A-Q, A-K, and K-K or A-A, where you're a 9/2 underdog. Its often best to make a significant but not full-commitment raise and wait to see if the fl op contains an Ace or King. If you're in a tournament, and someone raises up front, someone else moves in on him, and someone else calls the all-in bet, your Queens belong in the muck unless at least one of the all-in players was short stacked. The same is true in any situation where someone seems unafraid of multiple opponents.
* K-K Cowboys are a terrific hand, worth playing quite strongly. They do belong a full level below Aces, though, as even some rookie playing A-3 has a 30% chance to beat you with his lone overcard. If an Ace fl ops in a low limit, multi-way pot, your Kings are essentially doomed. You only have a chance in high-limit games, where players will throw away hands such as A-9 but even then, its probably not worth bothering until you're an advanced player. Avoid going on tile when the Kings get beaten, as players often hold singleton Aces, and 30% chances arent insignificant. Aces
* A-A Pocket rockets are much better than Kings because you dont have to fear overcards. One key to playing Aces correctly lies in knowing when to get away from them. In low-limit, multi-way games, you should figure that two red Aces are toast when the fl op comes 9-10-J in other words, beware of extremely co-ordinated fl ops. Dont get stubborn. A lot of no-limit players like to limp with Aces, hoping someone else will raise, and then they can re-raise. This is dangerous. If five people wind up limping, you have no idea where you are after the fl op. You raise a lot with other hands and get re-raised; why not raise with this one and hope you get reraised here? If everyone folds and you just win the blinds, thats unfortunate, but not as unfortunate as losing your whole stack because you let someone in too cheaply and only bet heavily once his hand became well defined.
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Apr 1, 2007
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Great post, I have made some of the misstakes you pointed out. I will try not to make them in the future.


Jan 2, 2007
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good post, pretty basic stuff though, it's worth reading anyway. a lot of times, one must get back to the basics to be successful.


Feb 26, 2007
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This was a pretty good article. I was never able to find the authors name though. Do you know who wrote it?

It is well written and if there were any more advanced articles by this author I would love to take a look at them.