Making most of pocket pairs
May 30, 2017 3:00 AM
by George Epstein
Pocket pairs will occur, on average, one out of every 17 hands dealt to you – about twice an hour. In a seven-hour session, you can expect a pocket pair about 14 times. It pays to be prepared.
The challenge: How best to play that pocket pair before the flop in low/middle limit games. That’s an important decision point; you are about to make an investment in that hand, putting your chips at risk. You can minimize that risk.
The higher the pair, the more likely it will win the pot. On that basis, there are three categories of pocket pairs:
(1) Top pairs: A-A, K-K, and Q-Q. These are made hands preflop – hands that could win the pot at showdown without further improvement.
(2) Middle pairs: J-J down to 8-8, often called premium drawing hands.
(3) Small pairs: 7-7 down to 2-2 – that usually must improve to win the pot.
Let’s start with made hands. Without question, you will stay to see the flop. Your hand is favored to win the pot over each of your opponents. For example, A-A is favored by about 80% over each opponent. But there may be several players planning to see the flop with you.
Using basic probability math, you can expect to win that pot with a probability of about 64% (80% x 80%) with two opponents; and 51% (80% x 80% x 80%) about half the time – against three opponents. With four or more “enemies” seeing the flop, you become an underdog – most likely to lose. So, your goal during the preflop betting round is to thin the field down to two or three, never more than four, opponents remaining in the pot before the flop. Make your bet/raise accordingly.
If you are in a middle or late position and two opponents have already paid to see the flop, a raise would be the best strategy to encourage players behind you to muck their hands. If no one has limped in before you, just call to see the flop, hoping to get action from two or three players to your left.
Playing a middle pocket pair (J-J down to 8-8) pre-flop is a situation that can be a dilemma. You would like to thin the field to give your middle pocket pair a better chance to keep the lead until the showdown. The problem here is the weaker hands are most likely to fold to your raise, but the stronger hands can be expected to stay to see the flop – especially those with an honor card in the hole, connectors or suited cards. On average, one out of three times, each of those opponents will pair up one of his holecards. (That’s a statistical fact.)
In that case, unless you flop a set, you probably have a losing hand. In a low-limit game, players with just one honor card in the hole often stay to see the flop. So, you might as well just limp along. Then, if no honor card falls on the flop, that’s the time to bet out or raise to thin the field. Hope your middle pair keeps the lead. Of course, you could get lucky and hit a set or better. The odds are almost 8-to-1 against. (If that happens, you might bet for value or slow-play to build the pot on the later betting rounds.)
Tougher yet is deciding how best to play small pairs (7-7 down to 2-2) in a limit game, before the flop. If a higher card falls on the flop that pairs one of your opponent’s holecards, unless you flop a set, you are then a huge underdog with only two outs – and you don’t know it.
If a player bets before you, consider the type of player he is. If he’s a tight player, most likely the flop has improved his hand to a higher pair or better. Folding your small pocket pair is a viable option – even more so if there is a raise before you.