Poker Basics: Playing Pocket Pairs

In poker – specifically, Texas Hold'em – a pocket pair is often seen as a "must play" hand. As the name suggests, a pocket pair is when you're dealt two cards of equal value (but differing suits) in any game of poker. Although pairs are important in all forms of poker, they are most significant in a game of Texas Hold'em because this variant involves two hole cards. This means that all of your decisions will be based on the strength of this pair, both pre-flop and post-flop.

Defining Pocket Pairs

The odds of being dealt a pocket pair in Texas Hold'em is 1/221 or 0.45%, so when you do receive a pair you need to know how to play it. The first thing you should do when you're playing a pair is assess its strength.

  • Low Pairs | A low pair is any hand valued between pocket deuces and pocket eights. The reason for this is that these hands don't always perform well post-flop.
  • Medium Pairs | Medium strength pairs are essentially pocket nines and tens. These hands play relatively well post-flop, even in the presence of high cards.
  • High Pairs | A pair of jacks, queens, kings or aces should be classed as a high pocket pair and played as aggressively as possible.

Things to Consider Before You Play Your Pair

Before you start sizing up your hand, you first need to take into account the following dynamics:

  • Stack Size | The shorter your stack (60bbs or less), the less post-flop play you have. In this case it's often best to either fold your pair or move all-in pre-flop.
  • Your Position | The earlier you are to act pre-flop (your position), the more conservative you have to be with your pairs. As it's possible for players to raise behind you, you have to take this into account when you're sizing up your pair. In simple terms, the earlier you're required to act, the stronger your pair needs to be.
  • Tournament or Cash Game| Depending on the setting, the way you play your pair will differ. As you have the ability to top up your stack in a cash game, it's possible to play more pairs and set mine (trying to make a set post-flop). In contrast, tournaments involve shorter stacks (either yours or your opponents) and more pre-flop moves. This means you have to be more conservative with the pairs you play.
  • Your Opponents | If your opponents are aggressive or have shorter stacks then you need to be more conservative. If your opponents are prone to folding a lot post-flop then you also need to be more conservative, as you will not realise the value of sets when you hit them.

Playing Small and Medium Pairs for Value

The best way to play small and medium pairs (except for when you are short stacked) is for set value (i.e. you want to hit a set post-flop). You will often see one or more overcards post-flop; when this happens you could find that your pre-flop advantage has been negated.

Therefore, when you're playing small and medium pairs, you always need to take into consideration the above points and ask yourself: will I be able to make a set and, more importantly, will I make some money from my opponents when I do?

The chance of flopping either a set or quads is roughly 11.6%. Based on this, it's possible to say that if the ratio between your opponent's stack versus the amount you have to call to play the hand need to be 12:1+ (i.e. their stack needs to be 12X or greater than the size of the bet) to justify set mining.

Essentially, if you're not in a position to set mine with small and medium pairs you should either move all-in with your hand pre-flop (if you have a short stack or are in a tournament) or fold it.

How to Handle High Pairs

If you have a high pair then you have more options because your hand will fare better post-flop. For example, if you were dealt a pair of jacks, there is a strong chance that your pair will be higher than the community cards.

When this is the case you can be slight more confident that your hand is best on the flop, turn and river. Of course, you constantly need to refer back to the above points concerning the table dynamics; however, in general, you should be as aggressive as possible with high pairs.

Pocket pairs are great hands but only under the right circumstances. Each time you're dealt a pair you first need to look at which category it falls into (low, medium or high). From this point you need to run through the checklist of table dynamics and then decide whether your objective is to hit a set and be deceptive or to be aggressive with a strong pair.

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