Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Learn how to play pocket pairs

I've been playing poker since the age of 15. Pocket pairs always used to strike me as one of the most difficult type of hands to play. Over a million hands on and countless books devoured - here is my guide to playing pocket pairs.

Short/Long Handed and Pocket Pairs

The chance of pocket 8s being the best hand on a 9 handed game are 79%, that's pretty large huh? I'm not saying that you should be raising pocket 8s in any position but it's a stat worth thinking about.
To get an understanding of the chance that you hold the best hand with any pocket pair, refer to the Pocket Pair Odds table below.

If you're playing a shorthanded cash game and you have a full stack, you should be looking at raising any pair in any position and re-raising with any pair in late position. The only time you should not re-raise is with low pocket pairs against a player who raises very occasionally. If you find yourself against an aggro player who is opening pots with a wide range, then re-raise back at him in late position.

If you're playing a longhanded cash game, then in early position you should only be raising premium pocket pairs and folding anything less than 88/99. In late position on a longhanded game feel free to raise with any pocket pair if you feel you can outplay your opponents on the flop. It's always safe to never play small pockets longhanded unless you have 3 or 4 limpers before you, in which case you have odds to call.

Why position is important

With hands like QQ/KK/AA, position is fairly irrelevant and it's not essential to be last to act on the flop, turn and river. When playing small pocket pairs you really must do the best you can to be in position and be heads-up with one opponent. The idea being, that provided the flop isn't coordinated (i.e. 678 suited board), a checked flop can be taken down by a strong c-bet.

Isolate your opponent

If you want to play a pocket pair, it is very important that you do your best to get into a heads up situation. Anymore than one opponent will mean you can't put anyone on any specific hand and will often have to fold with even one over card flopping. Isolate a player by either raising or reraising. Punish the limpers. But remember; if you're in early position then try not to build the pot too much, a failed c-bet can be very costly. Do not bother to isolate if you're limping/calling with low pockets to go set hunting, you want as much equity in the pot as possible!

Pocket Pairs and Tournaments

The previous advice has been mainly aimed at cash game players. As a tournament player, you need a whole new outlook on pocket pairs. Stack sizes and table images are of paramount importance.

Playing as a big stack >30bbs

You're big stack deep in a tournament... and you want to be bigger! Dominate the table with pocket pairs. At late stages people are scared to bust and you can really bully medium size stacks if you have enough fold equity. Raising 2.5bbs in any position with any pair is usually a great way to steal blinds and build pots. Remember, even pocket 2s UTG are 57% likely to be the best hand (of course AK may shove OTT the same as AA would). Raising pocket pairs and c-betting strong to take down pots is very profitable. Be sure that you know the opponent you're playing and if he shows any strength on the flop, get away from your low pockets. Keep the pressure up so that people play back at you when you hit your set. Remember to only c-bet flops that are reasonably clear of your opponents range. If things turn sour; slow down and play TAG (tight aggressive) again.

Playing as a medium stack 20-30bbs

Medium stacks and pocket pairs don't mix. Players can get caught up with over pockets or re-raise strong to find a board that even Gus Hansen wouldn't c-bet at. Position is hugely important to medium stacks with pocket pairs. Whilst as a big stack, you're free to play as aggro as you like (providing you don't get caught up c-betting), you should really only consider raising small or medium pairs in position. These are pairs from 22 up to 88 and should either be used to steal blinds at late stages or to hit sets and build pots early on.


You have 25bbs and raise 3bbs preflop with 66 on the CO.

Action folds to the BB who calls.

Provided you know that the BB has been playing fairly TAG and has seen ~20% of hands, you can put him on a range. He either has low pockets (unlikely as he'd probably reraise) or a marginal hand such as KTs/KJ/KQ/AT. If the flop brings 2s 7h 8s, you're looking at throwing out a strong c-bet or even a raise if he bets into you. A flop such as 9c Kh Jh should rarely be c-bet at, as your opponents range hits this flop a lot of the time.

Playing as a short stack <20bbs

The simple way to play pocket pairs. Being a short stack, you can never really fault yourself for getting your money in with any pocket pair as long as the action wasn't raise, re-raise, all in, "hero" calls. Of course premium pockets such as QQ/KK/AA are played normally (don't be frightened to shove if you have 10 or less BBs, people will expect you to do that with KQ!) and lower pockets need some evaluation.
First off, let's clear things up. If you have any pair with less than 10BBs, even if it is 22, you need to get your money in. It's +EV. When you're around 11-12BBs then shove medium pockets such as 77 through to JJ, you don't want to raise 3BBs (1/4 of your stack) to see 3 over cards come. If you're deep in a tournament and have anything up to 20BBs and the CO or BTN is stealing (or at least appearing to steal), then shove back at them. If you have 15-20BBs then you have a lot of fold equity and rarely will they call off with a hand like AT/AJ, they'd probably need 77/AQ+ as a minimum. If you're a short stack then shove back anyway, you're probably in a race and that's exactly what you want.

Slow Playing Premium Pockets

Countless times this goes wrong. If you limp pockets in any position then value starts building and people will limp anything in late position and you won't have a clue if you're AA is good on a 27Q rainbow flop. Only limp/mini-raise AA in early position if the table is aggressive or shorthanded (or even heads up). Remember that isolation is key, and having half of the table in with you on a flop isn't going to work out.
Slow playing isn't necessarily bad if you are willing to lay down your hand on any sort of coordinated flop or with just one over card. Slow playing is dangerous simply because it can be hard to get away from AA or KK when the flop looks dry. Remember, the BB could have anything!

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