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Poker Strategy:Playing Pairs

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The 'pocket pair' is the hardest hand to fold for a home poker player. By pocket pair, we're referring to your two hole cards being the same rank. When you deal two hole cards to a home poker player and they match, that player will not be inclined to fold that hand regardless of the community cards that fall or action that ensues.

Here, you'll learn when to play a pocket pair, when to fold a pocket pair, and when to raise with a pocket pair. Furthermore, we'll take into account how pocket pairs should be played in a low-limit game.

Small Pairs

Let's distinguish a small pair from a big pair. Many poker writers categorize pairs into three groups, we'll use two where it concerns low-limit tables: Tens and lower are small, and Jacks and higher are big. As mentioned, it's hard to look down at a pocket pair and not think you're holding a powerful hand. This may be true dependent on the rank of the pair. Here are the facts:

1) Your pocket pair is likely better before the flop than any other hand at the table.

2) At a low-limit table however, it is very rare that you'll be able to fold every player before the flop.

3) When the flop falls, if it contains any single card that is higher than your pocket pair, then the potential exists that you are already beat (anybody with that card in their hand has just made a bigger pair than yours).

For that reason, your pocket pair is not as good as you think. This isn't to say you shouldn't play it to the flop, just don't overestimate it.

When determining how to play your small pair, bear this in mind. If you don't flop a three-of-a-kind -in other words, if a third card the same rank as your pocket pair doesn't fall on the flop- then you'll likely have to fold your hand. For that reason, you want to get to the flop with your small pair as cheaply as possible. Your goal is to see that flop for the cost of the single blind bet. If you don't flop a set (otherwise known as trips or a three-of-a-kind), then you should normally fold to any bet made. In other words, it cost you one bet for the chance to make a solid hand.

Because of how rarely one set will get beat by another higher set, a set of Two's is only marginally worse than a set of Nine's. For that reason, you're safe to play any small pair before the flop, but there are exceptions. If there's been a raise, you'll have to consider folding your small pair unless there are alot of callers. If it's an aggressive table and you're in early position, you may only be able to play some of the bigger pairs for fear of a raise behind you. Notwithstanding a raise in front of you or a possible raise behind you, call the blind bet with any pair in any position.

Big Pairs

This constitutes any pair of Jacks or better. The reason that this is a better hand follows the same logic that was given for small pairs. When the flop falls and contains a card higher than your pocket pair, you may already be beat. With Jacks or better, there's less chance of an 'overcard' falling on the flop, so your hand stands to retain its strength on the flop. You're safe to play these hands a little more aggressively, but you should still exercise caution. Considering the strength of these hands, you will always call the blinds with them. You'll even call the blinds and a raise with these hands. The only real question of how to play big pairs is whether to call or whether to raise.

There are two possible reasons to raise before the flop: either to thin the field, or to put money in the pot. A big pair is a unique hand, in that it is strong but likely as strong as it's going to get. It's good, but not as great as say, a straight or flush. Theoretically, the more players there are in the pot, the better a hand you'll need to compete. In other words, your big pair plays well against a small number of players but loses potential to a large number of players who have more individual ways to beat you. For this reason, you want to play your big pair against as small a number of opponents as possible.

So, back to the question of whether or not to raise with your big pair. If your raise will thin the field, then by all means raise. If your raise won't thin the field, remember that it will only succeed in building the pot (which you're jeopardized in winning if up against a large number of opponents). If you're in late position and there have been few callers up to you, then you should also feel free to raise. The reasoning here is that you already know you're going to be up against a small number of opponents, against which your hand is strong; by that logic, raise to get money in the pot. Against a large number of opponents, you wouldn't raise to get money in the pot, since it's a pot you have less confidence you're going to win. You also wouldn't raise with a pair of Jacks if you knew you would be up against a large number of opponents. With a hand like this, you certainly wouldn't fold, but your goal now is to go to the flop and hope that it hits you one way or another (ex. no overcards, flop a set).

The exceptions here are Kings and Aces, especially Aces. A pair of Aces is a monster hand. No card can possibly fall on the flop that's higher. You're going to flop either an overpair (meaning a pair higher than any individual card on the board) or a set. Either one is a strong hand. So with Aces, raise and reraise. With Kings, the same rules apply, but remember that if an Ace falls on the flop and anybody has paired with it, your Kings are done. When I'm dealt Kings in any position where I can see there is going to be a lot of opponents, I would just as soon not raise for two reasons: i) the field is large, which hurts my hand's potential, and ii) by calling and not raising, I hide the strength of my hand from my opponents. Of course, you can get burnt by this lack of aggression by letting hands stay in that are worse than yours but have the potential to improve and beat yours. It's for this reason that many players lump pocket Kings and pocket Aces into the same strategy: raise, re-raise, cap it if you have to (meaning take it to the maximum number of raises per betting round). This thinking holds that there's no sense in hiding the strength of your hand; rather, make the strength of your hand known and try to limit the number of opponents as much as possible. With Aces, this is sound strategy. With Kings, it is as well, but you may also consider slowplaying them before the flop for the aforementioned reasons.

The last lesson with big pairs is the most important. It is difficult for a home poker player to look down at a pair of Jacks and not feel unbeatable. Remember that depending on how the community cards fall, your hand can lose value quickly. If an overcard falls, you have to tread carefully. If the community cards have three of a suit or cards close enough in sequence, you also have to tread carefully. Otherwise, bet it up if for nothing else than to gauge the strength of your opponents' hands. But, always be cautious of playing a strong second best hand. As discussed, the big pair is a good hand, but it's not a great hand.

With experience, you'll get used to opponents who aren't as smart as you cursing everytime their pair of Tens or Queens didn't win them the pot. These opponents tend to venture too far into the later, more expensive stages of the game with hands like these that have lost potential to the cards on the board and/or the number of opponents against them. Don't be blind to a menacing board. When yours is not the hand that improved from the board, give serious thought that somebody else's hand might have.

Note on the Flop and Beyond

This point is worth repeating: home poker players tend to overestimate the value of a pocket pair and have trouble letting it go when they should. When the flop falls, if you're not holding an overpair or a set; or if the board is very menacing in terms of somebody else making their hand (ie. three of the same suit, three in sequence), be smart and know when your hand is beat. The worst sting comes from playing the mid-range pairs like sevens-tens. These are hard to release, and a home poker player will tend to play these too far. Break this habit. Even if you stay in until the turn or river, know when to fold a pocket pair.

If however, you do flop the set, then you have a powerful hand. Lee Jones advises almost never slowplaying a set. If you do flop this hand, bet it up. This is your chance to capitalize on a flopped hand you're not normally going to get, as well as charge all of those looser players chasing hands. Your bets and raises either fold them (removing competition) or make it expensive for them to stay in the game (charging them for their draw).

Conclusion

Before any community cards fall, a pair beats any hand that isn't a pair. This is immutable, since each player is only dealt two cards to start in Texas Hold 'Em. The facts however are that in a low-limit game, you won't be able to stop at least a couple of opponents from going to the flop with you. Furthermore, when any card falls on the flop that is higher in rank than your pocket pair, you might already be beat by one of those opponents. For that reason, a small pair is what we call a drawing hand and a big pair is a good-but-not-great made hand.

By drawing hand, we mean that your small pair will not win the pot unless it improves. If it doesn't improve, you have to get out of the pot before it costs you any more money. And because the chance for it to improve is minimal (there's only two cards in the deck that can turn a pair into trips), you need to make it as cheap as you possibly can and get out when it gets expensive. Know when to fold a small pair.

By good-but-not-great hand, we mean that your big pair is a good hand but not one that can improve to anything that much better. Sure you might flop the set or an overpair or maybe even a full house with three-of-a-kind on the board, but ultimately like the small pair, your big pair is likely as good as it's going to get. With that in mind, the challenge is in determining whether or not your good hand has been beat by a better hand. If it's unlikely based on the action and players involved that anybody has made two pair or better (or that your hand hasn't improved), then you could still very well be holding the best hand at the table. It's important to remember to tread carefully with a big pair at a low-limit table. Because of the number of opponents willing to go to the flop, each one poses an individual threat of forming a better hand than you. Individually, you're a favourite over them all. But together, they represent a number of ways that you could lose.

Know when to be aggressive with a pair, and know when to give it up.


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- Drawing Hands - Psychology - Playing Big Cards

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