How to play pocket pairs

In this section, we discuss how to avoid mistakes when playing pocket pairs, including:

Pocket pairs can be some of the most profitable hands in poker. But if you misplay them your chip stack could be seriously suffering. So let's start with possibly the worst play in poker, which also happens to be the best example of misplaying pocket pairs.

Calling an all-in bet when you only hold a small pair

Calling, rather than betting or raising all-in yourself, only gives you one way to win: by holding the best hand. Betting or raising gives you two ways to win: by holding the best hand or by getting your opponent to fold. Which sounds much better, don’t you think?

Pocket pairs against overcards

Imagine you have pocket sevens – or even your pocket deuces – and you find yourself up against two cards like A-K or J-10. You're the favourite to win, but only by small margin.

Why? These are the main ways your pocket pair can lose:

  • Hitting at least one of the overcards. For example, Q-Q vs A-K, and the final board is K-J-7-5-2
  • A straight. For example, 7-7 vs J-10, with the final board coming Q-9-8-7-2 (even making a set of sevens on the turn didn't save the pocket pair)
  • A flush. For example, 8♥ 8♦ vs Q♠ J♠ with the final board coming 10♠ 9♠ A♥ 3♥ 8♠ (here, the same river card that gave the eights their 'lucky' set also created the flush)
  • Being counterfeited – one of the biggest problems with smaller pairs. For example, 3-3 vs A-9 and the final board comes 10-6-6-5-5. Your opponent’s ace gives him the edge. So be very careful any time you own a small pair and a larger pair flops
  • Coming up against J-10. This hand makes more high straights than any other hand. So if you owned a pair of fours, the powerful looking A-K, which makes far fewer straights, would be a much better hand to face

However there is one occasion when the odds favour your pair. Owning Q-Q and being up against A-K, puts you in the single most favourable 'pair vs overcards' situation. At 4:3, or 1.33-1, or a 57.2%, however you label it, you’re quite far away from coin flip territory.

This edge is down to the power of your queens. They significantly reduce the A-K's chances of winning with a straight as a queen will need to hit the board to make it possible. And with two of them tucked safely away you’ll be in the driving seat for sure.

Smaller pairs

You can split pocket pairs into groups. Here we’re going to start at the bottom and work our way up:

Small pairs (2-2, 3-3, 4-4 and 5-5)

These hands stand a reasonable chance of winning a 1 on 1 confrontation against overcards, but they have several major vulnerabilities. If three or more players see the flop, you’ll usually need to make a set to win and these pairs are the most vulnerable to counterfeiting.

Middle pairs (6-6, 7-7 and 8-8)

Most of the time these hands play like small pairs. On the plus side they aren’t as vulnerable to counterfeiting and sometimes you’ll only be up against one overcard rather than two. However, these hands are often more troublesome than small pairs and as a general rule, unless you flop a set or a good straight draw (that is, the board is 4-5-6 and you have 7-7), you should get out, quick.

Danger pairs (9-9, 10-10)

Danger pairs play a lot like middle pairs, but will occasionally hold their own against an opponent who has hit part of his hand (like someone playing A-8 suited who hits the 8). Play them like you would middle pairs, you’ll very rarely get counterfeited but try not to push them too hard. You’ll only end up disappointed.

Face cards

J-J

The single trickiest hand in no-limit. It looks good because it’s a face card, but it’s vulnerable to lots of other hands. Only play it hard in favourable post-flop situations and don’t try to take on the world with it pre-flop.

Q-Q

The third best starting hand in Hold’em. And we recommend you play it aggressively. Lead out with a significant raise, then sit back and wait to see if the flop contains an ace or king before making your next move.

K-K

'Cowboys' are a strong hand but they still rank below aces, because even a rookie playing A-3 has a 30% chance to beat you. So be careful when they land in your lap because nobody wants to lose like that.

A-A

'Pocket rockets' are great because you’ll never be facing an overcard. But like all the danger cards we’ve talked about you still need to know when to get away from them. Most importantly, whatever you do, don’t slow play this hand. You’ll get caught out if someone else at the table hits a stronger hand and you’ve let them in cheaply. If there was ever a hand to show who’s boss, this is it.

Conclusion

When it comes down to it you won't know what your pocket pair is really worth until the flop. It’s usually the best hand before the flop, but as we all know, in Hold’em the flop changes everything. Don’t get stubborn and always remember – this is more than just a two-card game.