Pocket Pairs

There are many ways to play pocket pairs in No-Limit Hold’em, but only a few are correct, and knowing the difference between the right way and the wrong way is going to save you money. We will cover:

  • What are Pocket Pairs?
  • Pre-Flop Strategy: Position and Hand Selection
  • Playing Small Pocket Pairs (Deuces through Fives)
  • Playing Medium Pocket Pairs (Sixes through Nines)
  • Playing High Pocket Pairs (Tens through Aces)
  • Adjusting Play Based on Stack Sizes
  • Post-Flop Play with Pocket Pairs
  • Evaluating Board Coordination and Potential Draws
  • Recognizing Overpairs and Underpairs
  • Pot Control and Hand Reading

What are Pocket Pairs?

Pocket pairs are two cards of the same value, i.e., two kings. Before any community cards are dealt, pairs are the strongest cards in the game, and obviously, two aces are the best pre-flop hand you can be dealt in Texas No-Limit Hold’em.

Winning big pots in poker depends on having the best hand and getting your opponent or opponents to put in as much money as you can get them to commit with the worst hand. Getting the better of pre-flop betting is vital, as is what comes after the flop. If you play pairs correctly, you’ll have mastered a key element of the game of poker.

Pre-Flop Strategy: Position and Hand Selection

Making a decision based on your position at the poker table is vital if you want to make the most of your pair. Strictly speaking, the earlier your table position, the stronger the hand needs to be for you to play it. This is because there are more players to take part in the action after you have called, bet, or raised with your own holding.

Playing in position will give you the best chance of winning with your pocket pair. This is particularly true if you manage to flop a set, i.e., a third card of the same value as the pair in your hand lands on the flop. If this happens, then you can often win big pots, and if you start the hand in late position, it can be very difficult to put your opponent on a set.

Deuces are the lower pocket pair; then they go up in ranking by number to ten, before a jack, queen, and king get progressively more valuable. Pocket aces are not only the best pair, but also the best pre-flop hand in poker because before any communal cards have come, it is the hand that no other is beating.

Playing Small Pocket Pairs (Deuces through Fives)

If you’re under the gun – in the first position – you, therefore, want to look at throwing away most small pairs, unless the table is weak or tight. Even a raise here in an attempt to steal can run into trouble with players in the blind positions who could over-defend their own holding and leave you with a 50/50 chance at best.

If you act too big with a smaller pair in early position and get raised, then you’re likely to have to fold your hand, losing more money than if you’d been able to see that player raise first. If you take a stand with a small pair, you can easily be dominated or at the very least have to fade two overcards.

It is important to evaluate your table based on the established dynamics. Who is the aggressive player at the felt? Which players are more passive? If a passive player is raising in early position and calls a three-bet out of position, then you can make the strong assumption that they have a very strong hand.

Calling with a pair is not only about the value of your hand or others’ hands. Stack sizes can play a very big part in this equation too. Let’s say, for example, that you are the big stack and make a raise from early position with jack-ten of hearts. The money bubble is approaching, and a player in late position moves all-in for ten big blinds. Are they doing this with any pair below you, giving you the chance to ‘coin toss’ them out of the running? It’s unlikely. In many scenarios, you’ll be behind if you call them.

Playing Medium Pocket Pairs (Sixes through Nines)

The implied odds of a hand need to influence you with a pair too. It can often be the case that as a player with a middle pair, you go three ways on the flop. Knowing the odds of beating your opponents based on them having four overcards to your holding or three can be the difference between whether you call or not, and that all depends on how well you know their ranges.

Pre-flop is the key moment for deciding what to do with your middle pair. You need to strike a balance between mining for a set cheaply and allowing multiple opponents in the hand to outdraw you beyond the flop. Keeping it cheap will likely allow you to get away from hands post-flop if you are overtaken, but this is no good to you if you’re down to ten big blinds in a tournament needing to double-up. Making sure that if you commit your chips to the hand you’re doing it against one player rather than two in this position is advantageous.

Very often, middle pairs cost players who raise and then can’t get away from the hand pre-flop without seeing if they were to hit a set on the flop. Raising with a pocket pair, then folding to a larger one when you’re three-bet is a truly money-saving move in poker and can stop you bleeding chips with average hands such as pocket sevens, eights, or nines. They look pretty, but if more than one opponent is looking at a flop with you and they have four different overcards between them, you’re less than 32% to win the hand.

Playing High Pocket Pairs (Tens through Aces)

Playing big pairs is another key part of the game of poker. If you’re to save money when you have the worst hand, the flip side of that is maximizing your profit when you hit the big hands. The first rule is to avoid overconfidence. After receiving rags for an hour, getting dealt pocket queens can feel like all your Christmases have come at once. Just like eating all your Christmas dinners at once, however, you can easily end up feeling sick.

Many players, when they receive big hands such as jacks or queens, can quit observing players the way they might if they had a small or middle pair. This is a huge mistake and easily corrected. Simply imagine that when you’re dealt pocket queens, a player at the table has pocket kings or aces at the same time. It happens, and if you can’t spot it, then that’s one thing. If you don’t even look out for it, you’re almost asking to be punished. Don’t assume that because you’ve been dealt a premium hand, no one else has either. Always watch for tell-tale signs.

As a general rule of thumb, you want to be showing strength with a big pair like queens. You’re ahead of almost every other hand, so pressure people by charging them for drawing to the chance of overtaking you.

Picture the scene:

You only 2x pre-flop and get three callers and you have queens. The flop comes 5-6-A in the same suit which you don’t have. Now imagine that you’re only up against one opponent instead of three. It’s a lot easier to imagine yourself winning the hand, isn’t it? So don’t be tempted to mess around in the hope that you mine a set. Even if you do later on in that board, it might be no good.

Adjusting Play Based on Stack Sizes

Stack sizes are crucial in poker. They can and should influence your play a great deal. If you have a premium pair and players around you have short stacks, you should be working out the best way that you can get them to commit all of their chips pre-flop. If you’re not so stacked and have a middle pair against the pre-flop raiser of the big stack at the table, calling might be more prudent. You can mine for a set or straight draws and save that three-bet for another hand if all goes against you.

Going all-in with a pair changes hugely from before the flop to after the flop. Think about which card can come that might hurt you. If the answer to this question is ‘a lot,’ then you need to narrow the competition pre-flop to reduce the chances of that happening.

Look at the implied odds of your hand against the pot, your opponent(s) stack size(s), and the relative strength of your hand against your opponents’ common ranges. Only then will you have more of an idea about how much of your own stack you should push into the middle of the table.

Post-Flop Play with Pocket Pairs

C-betting with pocket pairs is very standard. You don’t have a high card or a draw; you’re holding a ‘made’ hand, i.e., it was already a ranking hand before the flop fell. You must evaluate what to do with your pair based on the factors we’ve already discussed, such as pot size, stack size, and table dynamics, yes, but don’t forget the texture of the board itself.

If you have two black queens and somehow went four ways to an all-heart flop of 5-6-7, you may be in very dangerous waters despite having a starting hand that outranks everyone. Adjusting your play is vital. Don’t fall in love with a pocket pair. It’s easy to do; every time you look back, there they are, two red queens, they look lovely. But they could cost you your stack if you’re unable to put their strength above even considering their weaknesses.

Reading what hands your opponents have is crucial here. We’d all love to be Daniel Negreanu on TV at this point, calling someone’s exact cards off the bat. In reality, and with mere human skills, using our experience to put each opponent on a range of hands is way more realistic. Watch opponents closely, paying particular attention to what they have when they go to showdown in hands. Free information can really help you win in poker; don’t let it pass you by.

Evaluating Board Coordination and Potential Draws

Pocket pairs are, by their very definition, weak against straight or flush draws. As is obvious, a pair completes only one card of the five required to make a straight and cannot be in the same suit, so you’re behind everyone at the table in chasing both straights and flushes. This needn’t immediately worry you; no-one can make a straight or flush pre-flop, and it requires an enormous slice of luck to be able to make one on a flop. It’s after the flop that pairs can become more vulnerable to these drawing hands.

You need to adjust your play based on the board texture and coordination. What connects on the board? If a flop comes 6-5-8, it can be dangerous to pocket jacks. If the turn comes a seven, it’s very possible someone has an open-ended straight draw against your hand now, especially if they called a bet post-flop.

Pocket nines now win the hand against your superior hand. So do pocket fives. Weighing up whether to bet or not on each street needs to be a careful consideration. Don’t just barrel off your stack for the sake of it.

Recognizing Overpairs and Underpairs

Getting an overpair or underpair has different connotations and can change your tournament or cash game session if you don’t understand it. If a flop comes ten-high, but you have pocket jacks in your hand, then you have an overpair; its value is greater than that of the flop’s highest card. If someone has ace-ten and they have top pair, it’s no good against your superior jacks.

An underpair would be the case if you hold those jacks and the flop comes A-K-Q. You have a pair which is under the value of the lowest card on the flop, and this represents extreme danger; someone who has paired any card on that flop is now ahead of you, albeit with you having a low draw to a ten for a Broadway straight.

If you have an overpair, you can pressure players who have hit top pair. This is usually overrepresented in bluffs, too, so having an overpair is perfect for extracting value and making the most of your better cards. If you’re holding an underpair, it can often be the case that you need to fold your cards and save yourself the time and aggravation of losing valuable chips with what looks like a strong hand… before the flop.

Pot Control and Hand Reading

Controlling the pot with your pocket pair is going to be the biggest way you can make money in this situation. Managing each street in terms of risk and reward and making profitable decisions long term is the route to offsetting any short-term pain you might experience in losing the odd hand with a pocket pair. It stings – all losses do, right? – but it shouldn’t put you off getting pairs in poker as they can be one of the most valuable ways to make money.

If the board gets coordinated, features cards higher than your pair, and multiple opponents are firing off chips, you’re seldom ahead. On the flip side, if you have an overpair and straight or flush draws miss, this can be one of the sweetest positions in poker to extract value from players who might put you on a worse drawing hand.

Read the hand carefully, match it with your opponents’ behaviors and ranges, and you can make more informed decisions, which always lead to profit.

Conclusion and Final Tips

In conclusion, don’t be scared of getting pocket pairs, but don’t overrate them either. Small pairs need to be played with caution, and set mining is an activity that needs to cost you less than you’re willing to lose if it continues to be one you enjoy. Middle pairs can be overtaken, but if you know your opponent and their range, then you can use this information to your advantage to maximize your winnings. Big pairs are great, but not unbeatable, and retaining an analytical focus in order to extract the maximum from your opponents while never assuming you’ll win is the way to go.

Above all, pairs are only as strong as the board allows them to remain. Knowing your opponents and taking implied odds and stack sizes into consideration will assist you greatly in making the right call, raise, or fold. Practice simulations with different pairs using our Poker Odds Calculator, and you’ll see patterns that you can exploit on each street to get the most out of being dealt pocket pairs… or losing the least.

Money saved is money earned, and pocket pairs are cards that almost always have a huge influence on how much you’ll win or lose at the poker table.

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Paul seaton


Paul Seaton, a poker luminary with over a decade of experience, has reported live from iconic poker events, including the World Series of Poker, European Poker Tour, and World Poker Tour. He’s not just a spectator; he’s been the Editor of BLUFF Europe Magazine and Head of Media for partypoker.

Paul’s poker insights have graced publications like PokerNews, 888poker, and PokerStake, where he’s interviewed poker legends such as Daniel Negreanu, Erik Seidel, Phil Hellmuth, and The Hendon Mob’s, entire lineup. His exceptional work even earned him a Global Poker Award nomination for Best Written Content. In the poker world, Paul Seaton’s expertise is a force to be reckoned with, captivating enthusiasts worldwide.

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