Playing pocket eights in live poker

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Middle pairs – J-J down to 8-8 – are in a class of their own.

Assuming an opponent doesn’t have a higher starting pocket pair, these starting hands are favored against one opponent but usually are underdogs in a multi-way pot. I call these “Quasi-Made Hands.”

Pre-flop, the “made hands” are A-A, K-K, and Q-Q. They have a reasonable chance of winning at the showdown without further improvement. Based on probability law, the optimum is to play against three, but not more than four opponents. With middle pairs – quasi-made hands – the most advantageous situation is to see the flop with no more than two opponents vying for the chips.

Raising is the only way to force out opponents. Our seniors poker group at the Claude Pepper Sr. Center calls that “reducing the size of the playing field” or RSPF.

In no-limit games, a player can size his bet/raise to RSPF, but it’s difficult in limit games. Therefore, in limit games, we usually play middle pocket pairs as drawing hands. They usually must improve to win at the showdown.

But that presents a bit of a dilemma. You are hoping to make a set on the flop. The odds are about 7½-1 against – a long shot.

The situation: Like most recreational players, you are playing low- or middle-limit hold’em. Should you raise with your pocket eights, hoping to RSPF or play it as a drawing hand, accepting the high odds against improving on the flop?

The answer: It depends. (We’ve heard that before.) If the game is loose (as are most low-limit games), it is best to play your 8-8 as a drawing hand. Your goal is to see the flop as cheaply as possible with at least three opponents. The more the merrier.

And pray for a set on the flop.

But there are situations, even in low-limit games, where you might play your 8-8 as a made hand, hoping to see the flop with no more than two opponents. It depends on your image, position, and the texture of the game.

Here’s a hand I played recently in a $3 to $6 game at the Normandie Casino in Gardena. In middle position, I had pocket eights. Two players before me folded and one called. It was a fairly tight table.

Raising to RSPF is more likely to succeed in tight games. During the short time I had been playing, I had folded most hands dealt to me. So my image likely was that of a tight player. Under those circumstances, I decided to raise pre-flop. It would cost most opponents behind me a double small bet to stay in.

They all folded to the big blind who unhesitatingly called the extra bet. So did the original bettor. Great so far. I had achieved my goal – just two opponents to see the flop. I had gained position, last to act in each subsequent betting round.

The flop didn’t help me and likely didn’t help my opponents, although it put a nine on the board – an overcard to my 8-8. They both checked to me so I made the continuation bet. It was also a preliminary to a possible semi-bluff if I didn’t improve on the turn.

The big blind called. Now it was just the two of us. I tried to read his hand: Most likely two big hole cards or a small/medium pair – warranting his staying to see the flop. But I was concerned he might have a better hand, perhaps a set he was slow-playing.

The river was a small card, pairing the board. This time, my opponent bet out. (I wasn’t going to bluff him out!) I feared he might have a better hand than mine. But, having observed his playing for about half-an-hour, I knew he was capable of bluffing.

My cost to call for the showdown gave me pot odds much higher than the odds that he held the better hand. So I called and eagerly looked to see his hole cards at the showdown. Would you believe: He had pocket sevens.

Whew! My pocket eights took a healthy pot.

(For comments or questions, George “The Engineer” can be reached 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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