In the range of all starting hands in Hold’em, pocket pairs are probably the most exciting group to look at. It is because this particular category can be very powerful when played correctly, but also can put a serious dent in your profits if you approach it wrong.
In this article, we’ll try to dissect the strategy behind playing pocket pairs in poker. We’ll look into some of the most profitable lines with these hands as well as some of the biggest errors you should try to avoid at all costs.
If you’re entirely new to poker, let’s briefly define what the term “pocket pair” actually means.
In poker, when you get two cards of the same ranking, such as 2-2 or A-A, you are dealt a pocket pair. Of course, the value of these hands is vastly different, but they belong to the same broad category that I will cover today.
A majority of poker books and other training materials recognize three major subgroups of pocket pairs, namely:
While there may be some smaller differences in approaches, where someone will categorize TT as a premium pair or 77 as a small one, but this general categorization is fairly accurate.
Before we move on to strategy, let’s break down some simple math. Odds of being dealt any pocket pair are about 5,9%. So, on average, you’ll get a pocket pair once every 17 hands or so. In terms of more specific stats, numbers break down as follows:
Odds of being dealt a pocket pair in poker.
We already mentioned that are three major subcategories for all pocket pairs in poker. Now, we’ll look into each of these separately to identify their overall value and the best approach to playing it.
Premium Pocket Pairs in Poker
As the name suggests, these are some of the best preflop holdings you can have in Hold’em. While pocket Jacks can still be considered somewhat marginal, depending on the situation, the rest of the pairs in this category are extremely strong.
Even those completely new to poker understand that being dealt QQ or better is what you can call a good start.
The value of premium pocket pairs increases significantly as the number of players involved in the hand decreases, as you’re far less likely to get out-flopped by a single player.
In most situations, your plan should be to get as much money as you can before the flop. It is true for most standard tournament scenarios as well as cash games where you aren’t too deep (100 – 150 big blinds).
As the stacks get deeper, your strategy might change, especially with the low end of the category (JJ & QQ), but that’s a whole different topic.
Of course, you won’t always be able to achieve your goals before the flop as it will often happen that you raise and face several callers. When this happens, there are two things you should keep in mind:
While these two points seem mutually exclusive, they really aren’t.
On a board of 10 6 2, for example, you are still very likely to be ahead with pocket Kings even against multiple opponents. You shouldn’t be afraid of monsters under the bed and should try to go for some value.
At the same time, you need to be able to let go of your hand if there is too much action on the flop or a turn card comes, and all of a sudden someone else is starting to push the action.
For example, if the turn is a 9, you need to be aware that your opponents could have all sorts of sets, two pair combos and some completed straights as well.
Since players rarely go crazy against multiple opponents with just one pair hands, you should continue cautiously against aggression even with your overpairs.
Hold’em is played on all streets and your ability to fold big hands (in absolute terms) in dicey situations will save you a lot of money in the long run.
Medium Pocket Pairs in Poker
It is hard to come up with an exact strategy for medium pocket pairs because they fall into this in-between category.
The best advice here is to try and get heads-up going to the flop. When playing against a single opponent, these hands can easily win pots even without flopping a set.
However, if you see a flop with several players, you almost always need to hit a set to take down the pot and will be simply folding for the most part.
Also, depending on the situation, sometimes you should play medium pocket pairs as premiums and sometimes opt for set mining. This statement may seem a bit confusing so let’s look at an example.
Say you’re playing in a tournament and have a stack of 40 big blinds. The under the gun player, who you perceive as tight, open for 2.5x, and the dealer makes the call. You’re seated in the big blind with 88. What do you do?
There is very little merit to doing anything but calling in this spot. The original raiser is likely to have a very strong range. So by raising, you’d be turning your hand into a bluff, and there is absolutely no reason to do that with a hand like 88.
In this case, you’ll play pocket eights like a small pocket (which we’ll talk about in a moment), just calling and trying to flop a set or otherwise very favorable board.
In the other scenario, you’re dealt 88 in the big blind, and everything is the same, but instead of the UTG, you’re faced with a raise from a very active player on the button.
Here, you may well consider playing 88 like a strong hand because you’re likely ahead of the buttons raising range. And, since you’re not too deep, you can even look to get your stack in the middle against overly aggressive opponents.
Small Pocket Pairs in Poker
Now we finally arrive at the category that most players actually refer to when talking about pocket pairs.
Small pockets are probably some of the hardest hands to play because they seem to have so much potential if you hit the right flop but, at the same time, that flop doesn’t come nearly as often as we would like.
Our general plan with small pocket pairs (22 – 77) is very simple. We want to see the flop as cheaply as possible, flop a set, and get our opponent’s stack when they have an overpair or flop a hand like top pair – top kicker.
In theory, this all sounds good and straightforward, but there are many traps to avoid along the way.
Odds of flopping a set with any pair are about 1 in 7.5 (or around 12%). This may seem like a reasonable number but keep in mind that 88% of the time, you won’t flop the set you’re looking for.
And, even when you do, it doesn’t mean that your opponent will automatically give their stack to you or that you will even win the pot every time.
Therefore, you need to be very careful with your small pocket pairs. As a general rule, try to:
It may be tempting to see the flop with 33, but you really can’t afford to do it when there is a raise and 3-bet in front of you. You do not want to be investing a decent chunk of your chips preflop with low pocket pairs.
Secondly, you’re not closing the action and if the original raiser decides to 4-bet, you’ll either have to fold or make what’s very likely an incorrect call because it is almost impossible to have the right odds here.
Finally, 88% of the time, you won’t get that set you’re so hoping for. It may entice you to try and bluff your way to the pot, which can be very dangerous because you do not have any blockers.
This isn’t to say that you should never bluff with these hands but try to only do it against a single opponent, and when you have a good reason to believe he doesn’t have a strong holding himself.
For the most part, try to play passively when you don’t flop a set and don’t go crazy – there are much better bluffing spots.
Although all of these three categories of pocket pairs require different strategies, there are some common considerations.
These pretty much apply to all hands you play but especially to pocket pairs due to the fact these hands don’t offer as much flexibility across many flops, turns, and rivers as other holdings.
1. Effective Stack Size
The effective stack size is one of the biggest considerations when deciding on how you want to play a pocket pair (the effective stack being the smallest of the two in a heads-up pot).
With small pockets, for example, you don’t want to set mine against an opponent starting a hand with just 20 big blinds or a similar short stack – it is simply not profitable to do so. Instead, you should fold, or re-shove all-in if the situation is right.
However, if an effective stack is much bigger, you can profitably set mine in most cases.
With a medium and higher pocket pairs, you have a very easy decision against a short stack and can push all your stack in the middle right then and there.
While your position at the table is not as important with premium pockets, you definitely want to do more set mining with weaker pairs when in position relative to your opponent.
It is much easier to extract value when you get the last say in the hand as you can have a much better understanding of how strong the other player is and how likely they are to commit the rest of their chips.
Chasing sets with small pairs out of position is not nearly as profitable. You’ll often miss value by checking on the turn and allowing your opponent to check behind.
So, the pot won’t be big enough to get the stacks in the middle, most of the time.
3. General Players’ Tendencies
Every game and player pool out there have certain tendencies that you’ll learn to recognize as you play more against them.
How you play your pairs, especially the smaller ones, will depend a lot on the general tendencies of your opponents.
If you’re involved in loose, wild games, where people tend to stack off light, mining for sets becomes highly profitable as your implied odds increase significantly.
However, in fairly tight games, the value of sets diminishes as it won’t be nearly as easy to stack your opponents even when you flop big.
Hopefully, some of the strategic considerations in this article will help you play your pocket pairs better in the future. Keep in mind that these can be a powerful tool in your arsenal, but only if you play them right.
Always try to be realistic about your expectations. If someone doesn’t have a tendency to stack off lightly and are very conservative, don’t trick yourself into thinking that you’ll be the one to get all their chips when you flop the set.
Stick to the advice from this article and always try to keep your eye on the ball as the hand progresses. There will be situations where you’ll need to let your opponents catch up, and there will be spots where getting all your chips in the middle is the right play.
The beauty of poker is that it is such a multi-dimensional game that there can be different approaches to similar spots – but a sound fundamental strategy based on math is where it all starts.