Know how to use your pairs in poker

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Playing Texas hold’em, in the long run, you will be dealt a pair in the hole (a pocket pair) one out of 17 hands. Let’s put this statistical fact into perspective, and discuss the ramifications.

With 30-35 hands dealt per hour, you can expect to be dealt a pair – any two cards of the same rank – about twice an hour. That’s on the average. In the short term, it could vary widely.

At a full table of 9 or 10 players, anticipate an opponent will hold a pocket pair about once every two hands dealt. That’s more likely if you don’t have a pair in the hole. Of course, like many other statistical combinations, that holds true in the long run. But, if you play long enough, the time will come when two or three players in the hand all have pocket pairs.

I have seen three players, each holding a pocket pair in one hand; the A-A beat out the K-K and 10-10. The 10-10, in a middle position, started out the betting and was raised by the K-K. The A-A, on the button, reraised. The 10-10 folded on the flop after the K-K bet and was raised by the A-A. Little did the K-K realize he was a huge underdog from the start, with only two outs.

For any particular pair in the hole, say a pair of Aces, the odds are 221-1 against it being dealt to you. Again, that’s on average and in the long run.

A-A, K-K, and Q-Q are regarded as “made hands” – they could win the pot at the showdown even without improving. But, it’s so much more comfortable – and exciting – when the flop brings a matching card. Then you have a set (three-of-a-kind). There is even a reasonable chance you could catch a full house. A monster hand!

With a made hand – say it’s A-A – before the flop, you are a favorite to beat any other opponent who stays to see the flop. In fact, preflop, you are about an 80 percent favorite over each of your opponents.

How should you play this hand? According to the laws of statistics, the probability of winning that hand at the showdown against all four of these opponents at the same time, is determined by multiplying the probabilities for each opponent.

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Thus, assuming the probability is 80% against each of the four opponents who stays to see the flop, then, the statistical probability your pocket Aces will prevail is 80% x 80% x 80% x 80% = 41%. That would render your A-A an underdog (less than 50%).

That’s why a skilled player will bet or raise to thin the field. Optimum is to play against two or three opponents – never more than four. How often have you heard someone complain: “I never win with pocket Aces,” while he fails to thin the field against him. He may be naïve to believe he should encourage more opponents to stay in the hand, so he can win a bigger pot.

Yes, the pot would be much larger, but – in the long run – he will lose more than he wins.

Should you hold a small pocket pair (7-7 down to 2-2), usually you need to improve to a set to win this pot – provided no one makes a bigger set or a straight or a flush. With a small pair in the hole, fold from an early position and call only from a middle/late position if the Hold’em Caveat is satisfied: no raises preflop and a multi-way hand (three or more opponents staying to see the flop).

Middle pairs (J-J down to 8-8) are playable from any position. These are Premium Drawing Hands – usually must improve to win the showdown. These often require the Hold’em Caveat. Exception: Against tight/conservative opponents, your raise may thin the field so your J-J (down to 8-8) could hold up.

If a higher card falls on the board, be cautious and prepared to fold to a raise unless the raiser is very aggressive and deceptive.

“The Engineer,” a noted author and teacher in Greater Los Angeles, is a member of the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame. Contact George at [email protected].

About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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