Explaining Pocket Pairs and How to Play Them
Pairs are probably the most exciting pocket cards in Texas Hold’em poker. You have a ready-made hand pre-flop, and you can extract decent value post-flop if you play them correctly.
But many novice players overestimate the power of their poker pairs. Plus, they might fail to get the maximum value out of their small and medium pairs. We’ll show you how to make the most of your poker hand and avoid common pitfalls.
Highest to Lowest Pair in a Game of Poker
There are a possible 13 types of pocket pairs you’ll get in a game of Texas Hold’em. The lowest pair in poker is obviously 2-2, the highest pair being A-A.
But it’s important to understand what constitutes a premium pair, a medium pair and a low pair in your starting hand. Your tactics with pocket pairs will change according to seat position and your opponents. However, in general you should call small and medium pairs in late position when facing a single raise. In early position, don’t be afraid to call if you get value, or just muck them.
For premium pairs, you are in good shape to attack every flop. Raise pre-flop, or re-raise from any position if facing a raiser.
Categorizing Pocket Pairs and How to Play Them
While it seems like you get dealt pairs a lot, the actual odds of receiving any pocket pair is just 5.9%. You’ll remember the times you got dealt A-A when playing poker online, but in actual fact you only receive them 0.45% of the time.
So, how should you be betting the lowest pair in a poker game, and what should you do with your kings and aces to make the most money? Let’s break the different pairs down.
Premium Pocket Pairs
Key Points: Raise or re-raise in any position
You’ll see from our list that premium poker pairs are A-A, K-K, Q-Q and J-J. These play well in any position pre-flop, and you can easily 4-bet to an aggressor holding A-K or a smaller pocket pair.
You should always 3-bet your premium pocket pairs to gain value and protection. You also want to get to the flop heads-up. Even with a hand like Q-Q, you don’t want 3-way action post-flop.
In some circumstances, you can simply call Q-Q in the hope of hitting a low flop. It’s a good disguised hand that may bring in more money from A-K, A-Q, A-J etc.
Medium Pocket Pairs
Key Points: Call all pairs in early position; raise in late position
Getting paid with medium poker pairs is about making sets on the flop. You’re about 10-11% to flop a set every time, so don’t be afraid to call in early position. You can also throw out a raise in late position in order to thin the field.
Essentially, you want a good price to call with a pocket pair that has set-mining potential. That is, a pocket pair that might connect and make three of a kind on the flop. You should be happy to call a sizeable pre-flop raise with pairs such as 5-5, 6-6, 7-7, and 8-8.
Small Pocket Pairs
Key Points: Fold in early position to a raise; call big blind and late position
Small pocket pairs might look nice as a starting hand, but you should be dumping most of them in early position. Certainly, hands like 2-2 to 5-5 should be folded to any LP raise.
You can raise in late position, but make your raises big. This scares off any marginal hands that might call and connect on the flop.
The lowest pair in poker is 2-2. You can sometimes call pre-flop in late position in the hope of hitting a set. But in general, hands like 2-2, 3-3 and 4-4 don’t play so well post-flop unless you are set-mining.
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Odds of Being Dealt a Pair
If you play a lot of online poker, you might think you’re getting a lot of pairs. But what are the actual odds the best pocket cards in poker showing up in a player's hand?
Any pocket pair (2-2 to A-A): 17-1 (5.9%)
8-8 to A-A: 31-1 (3.2%)
J-J to A-A: 54-1 (1.8%)
A-A: 220-1 (0.45%)
Odds of Flopping Two Pair or a Set
You know the odds of hitting the worst and best pocket cards in poker. But what about the odds of flopping two pair or a set?
When you have a pocket pair, even the lowest pair in poker, the odds of flopping a set are 15-2, or just under 11%. This percentage jumps to 16.1% to hit two pair.
Odds of Hitting the Flop When Holding a Pocket Pair:
Two Pair: 16.1%
Full House (Set to your pocket pair, plus a board pair): 0.7%
Full House (Set on the flop plus your pocket pair): 0.2%
Four of a Kind: 0.2%
Things to Consider Before You Play Your Pair
You’re going to come up against a lot of different scenarios when playing poker. The top rated online poker sites, for instance, you can take your pick of cash games, tournaments or satellites. Plus, you can hit live poker rooms across the US and enjoy a range of exciting Hold’em variants.
It’s easy to understand how to play pocket kings, whatever discipline you choose. But you need to consider a range of factors to make the best decisions.
Luckily, there is a wealth of resource material online today. You can join a coaching program or pay for training and get a firm grounding in how to play poker.
To start, find a simple cheat sheet or pre-flop chart which will show you how to play pocket pairs in all positions in most poker variants, whether it be standard poker (5-card draw poker), Texas Hold’em or whatever your favorite game might be.
In general, it’s good to consider four key factors when learning how to play pocket pairs:
Your chips will have a huge impact on how you play your pairs. For example, early on in a tournament with a lot of chips behind you, you won’t be raising with the lowest pair. In a poker game, your decision will largely be based on your stack size.
So, if you have 500 big blinds, you’ll be folding your small pairs in early position. However, if you have 5-10 big blinds and you’re first to act, you may decide to move all-in. The value of hitting a set outweighs the odds of you losing your chips and busting out.
In general, you need to be making 15-20 times your pre-flop bet size in the hand. So, if you wager £/$/€100 pre-flop with your pocket kings, there should be £/$/€1,500-£/$/€2,000 left in yours and the opponent’s stacks.
Pairs have different values depending upon your position. The key thing to remember is that you won’t have information if you raise in early position. If you raise 3-3 in early position and face a re-raise, you’re wasting good money.
On the button, however, you can comfortably call an open raise with even the lowest pair in poker.
You can also call the big blind, too. You have the final action pre-flop, and you may have the correct price to call. It’s a win-win situation for small pairs.
Conversely, you should avoid just flat-calling your small pairs when in the small blind. Pay attention to the type of player in the big blind, however. If they are prone to a squeeze play, you may want to muck your hand.
Tournaments vs Cash Games
Playing pocket pairs varies depending on the type of game you’re playing. Pairs often get played differently in a tournament or cash game setting.
For example, you might be able to open-raise most small pairs in tournaments only if the stacks are huge. You’ll have enough chips to get away from the hand if you miss.
Plus, if there are antes in play you can increase your raising range with all pairs in any position. The value you are extracting goes up and makes a raise a more sensible move.
But in a cash game where the stacks may be even, you may face way too many callers to make the move profitable. It’s more sensible to call more pairs pre-flop in cash games where you can set-mine for value. In a multiway cash pot, it’s easier to fold if you miss, especially if there are over-cards on the board.
It’s also good to compare full-ring games versus 6-max tables. In a full-ring game, you should probably fold out most small pairs in early position. However, in a 6-max game, you can comfortably raise all of your pairs, even if you have the lowest pair in a game of poker.
Why? Because pairs have much more value in a short-handed game. Obviously, be wary of having lots of loose opponents on your table who may throw in a 3-bet or 4-bet from behind.
You should always assess the type of opponent you’re up against when playing pocket pairs.
If your opponent is fairly passive and calls a lot of raises, you may want to slow down with your large pre-flop raises with medium pairs. However, if they are prone to folding against a lot of late position raises, you can start putting in 3-bets with small pairs. Even a 3-bet with the lowest pair in poker might get through.
It’s important to weigh up implied odds too when you look at your opponents. Your implied odds increase if you have a large stack, and so does your opponent’s.
If your opponent is prone to making lots of moves with marginal hands, you can play more low pairs for value and try to set-mine. Your implied odds will always go up when facing an aggressive player, or an opponent who loves to play a lot of hands. If you hit, you may earn a nice payday.
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Playing Small and Medium Pairs for Value
The pros will tell you that small pairs carry a lot of value, especially if you can see a cheap flop. That’s why it’s good to call most of your low and medium pairs in late position to a single raise. If there has been a re-raise, it’s an easy decision: just fold.
The beauty of seeing a cheap flop is that you can set-mine: call to see a flop and just continue if you’ve made your set. If not, simply check it down unless you’re facing a bet. In that, case, don’t be afraid to toss the hand away.
As you hit a set around 10-11% of the time, you need the correct odds to call. But you’ll need to look at implied odds to see if it’s worth making a call pre-flop.
Look at the aggressor’s stack and see how many chips you could likely win if you make your set and win the hand. You’ll also need a good read on the opponent too. If they are prone to only making pre-flop raises with premium hands like JJ-AA, that could play into your hands if you connect post-flop.
Of course, moving all-in with a small or medium pair is essential if you are short-stacked. If you hold the lowest pair in poker, raise all-in in any position and hope to induce folds and steal the blinds, or get a single call and cross your fingers for a set.
How to Handle Big Pairs
Big pairs are perhaps the easiest poker hand to play in poker. You want to know how to play pocket kings or pocket aces? Easy – simply raise pre-flop from any position, or 3-bet if facing another raise.
The great thing about big pairs is that you will often be ahead on the flop. Even in a multiway pot versus several opponents, your pocket queens may be good on a 9-7-2 flop.
Don’t be afraid to slow right down if a tricky turn card comes, though. Let’s say a 6 arrives on this board. It opens up a gutshot straight draw, a possible set or two pair, or even a flush.
Over-pairs can win you a lot of money in poker, but don’t be afraid to fold and dust yourself off for the next battle.
Play Pocket Pairs at the Best Online Poker Sites
Pocket pairs might be the prettiest hands in poker, but they can get you into trouble if you don’t play them the right way.
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