pocket pairs - aces

How to Best Play Pocket Pairs in Tournaments

In a Texas Hold’em Poker Tournament, what you have in your starting poker hand matters quite a bit and there’s nothing quite like having pocket pairs. While there are a lot of variables that can make or break you as the game goes on and you see more cards, your initial position is going to be determined by those first two cards that you have in the pocket. For most, poker strategy really does come down to those initial two cards.

In most poker games, players are going to be pretty happy to see pocket pairs. This is as true for new players as it is for seasoned veterans, and for good reason. These pocket pairs don’t come along very often (statistically only see about one out of every seventeen hands), and when you get them they can absolutely make your day. They’re also championship material when it comes to guaranteeing a loss.

pocket pairs - queens

Too many players put too much emphasis on pocket pairs, assuming that having them handy is a guaranteed win. If you want to learn how to use pocket pairs correctly and avoid the mistakes that so many other players before you have made, you’re going to need to start by learning a bit more about how they work.

What are Pocket Pairs?

Strictly speaking, you’re not likely to get pocket pairs nearly as often as the emphasis placed upon them would suggest. You’ve got less than half of a percent of a chance to get the cards you want on any given deal, so it’s very important that you learn how to do something with them if the odds fall in your favor. What you need to do – and what many forget about – is looking at each pair as its own unique entity.

Realistically, pocket pairs only fall into three categories. The first is the low pair – anything between a two and a seven or eight. They’re pairs to be sure, but they’re pretty weak. They’re not exactly garbage to be thrown away, but they’re probably not going to support you too well after the flop.

pocket pairs - threes

Next up are the mid or medium pairs. These cards come in a low range – eights, nines and tens – and they’re a lot stronger than their lower cousins. They’ll do okay after the flop, and they’re ideal for building better hands. They’re not the best that you are going to see, though.

pocket pairs - nines

The most sought-after pairs are the high pairs. High pairs are face cards, and they’re the best weapons with which you can go into any hand. These are the pocket pairs that provoke aggressive play and big raises, and for good reason. You also need to be very careful if you’re sitting with the Jacks instead of the Aces, because these pocket pairs also provoke some utterly stupid play at the same time.

pair of Jacks

What You Need to Know About Pocket Pairs

Having a pocket pair is great, but you’ve really got to put on your thinking cap if you actually want to get anything out of them. You’re going to want to keep a few factors in mind if you really want to make the most of them, but there are two that are always going to stand out. If you want to put what you’ve got in your pocket to work, it’s the size of your stack and your position at the table really matter.

The size of your stack is fairly self-explanatory. The smaller the stack, the less room you’re going to have to get creative. When you’re sitting with a pocket pair and a shorter stack, you’re going to want to either be pushing all-in before the flop or you’re going to want to fold. The more chips you have, though, the more you can tease things out after the flop.

Your poker position is a little bit more complicated than your stack size. If you’re in an early position, your goal is to be aggressive enough to make money but not so aggressive to either get caught by someone else raising after you or to bully everyone else away from the pot entirely. In the early positions, you really need a strong pair in order to do anything. The later you’re in the order, the weaker the pair with which you can feel comfortable.

In all honesty, there’s a lot to play around with in terms of position. Small pairs are pretty much the province of late positions, but you can still play them early if you’re willing to take some mighty big risks. Likewise, the level of confidence that you might get from coming in late with a big pair can really through off your game. What you’re looking for here is not just your ability to bet – it’s having the discipline to do things right every time.

There are also a few other things of which you should keep note. The type of game in which you are playing, for example, matters quite a bit. Cash games that allow you to rebuild your stack are going to let you play weaker pairs a lot more aggressively than most poker tournaments, and tournaments are going to require you to play smarter with even big pairs than even the most limited of cash games.

You will also want to keep how your opponents play in mind. This isn’t exactly unique to playing starting pairs, though. Do your usual feeling out to determine if the other player is an aggressive poker player or passive player, so that you can respond in kind. Your goal here is to figure out the best way to take the other player’s money, not just to convince the other player that you’re holding something better than he or she has.

Poker Strategy for Small and Medium Pairs

Playing the big pairs is usually fairly easy – it’s the kind of thing that makes you feel really lucky and really skillful in most poker games. If you really want to master the game, though, you’re going to have to learn how to play exceptionally well even when you don’t have the preferred pairs in your hand.

pair of fives

If we look back at the elements of playing the pairs above, we’ll want to focus on position whenever we have a small pair in our hands. What we want to remember is our pocket pair is essentially going to go down in value the closer we are to the button. If we’ve got a little pair anywhere below the middle positions, we’re going to want to be exceptionally cautious with these cards.

So, how are you going to play? You’re going to want to look at these cards not as a sure thing, but rather as builders for a better hand after the flop. You’ve probably got enough to take you to after the flop, so start focusing on what you might see there rather than the fact that you have a small pocket pair.

Yes, there’s math to do here but it’s not necessarily all that important. What you’re looking at are the odds of turning your little pair into something much better than what you already have. The bad news for you is that the odds of actually getting something off of the flop are just a little bit more than ten percent, so you’re probably going to be using these cards just to steal a little bit of money unless the opponent has a huge stack advantage.

What you’re really going to be doing with these pairs is getting into an all-or-nothing mindset before the flop. You either feel comfortable enough to go all in or you’re going to be uncomfortable enough to fold, and there’s not a lot of room for trying to go for a set. You’ve got to be more than just confident here – you’ve got to be so confident that you’re ready to leave the table, or you’ve got to start looking for a better hand.

Let’s say that you do go into the flop. What do you do if you miss that set you hoped for? If people are putting more money on the table, you’re probably well-served by just going out. You don’t want to be somebody else’s bank, after all, and you can just consider the money spent as a good way to learn more about others at your table.

Of course, you can also just become a huge liar and bluff.

Yes, if you bet before the flop, you might as well try a continuation bet here. You might bully everyone out, at least once or twice. If somebody calls you, just try to ride the river as best you can and hope that they’re a bad player. You will probably lose money here, so don’t throw bad money after good by seeing any raises.

Poker Strategy for High Pairs

Congratulations, you’re starting from the strongest possible position in a Texas Hold’em Poker Tournament. You have one of the four best starting hands and the odds are in favor of you having better cards that will show up after the flop. You’re in a good position to win, so now your goal is to make as much money as humanly possible.

pocket pairs - kings

Step one here is confidence. Read the table, get an idea for how others play, and then be as aggressive as possible. You want to take all of the money, not just some of it. It’s okay to feel good right now because you really do have the best hand at the table. Even when the flop, turn, and river come out, the odds are still in favor of you having something better than anyone else there.

The thing is, though, that you aren’t guaranteed a win here. You need to figure out where your pair actually lies in the great scheme of things and figure out exactly where it’s going to go when the other cards come out. Be confident by all means, but try not to be stupid. You need to learn how to be incredibly disciplined if you’re gifted this kind of amazing hand.

If you want to know the key to making these pairs work, it really does come down to being more disciplined. Plenty of people lose with exceptional pocket pairs, and that’s because they get too excited. Treat this hand like what it is – something good, but still just something at the start of your process. Don’t get so excited that you lose a sure bet.

Final Thoughts

Starting pocket pairs are a good thing, but they’re not the end of your story. It can feel great to win with a small pair, but realize that doing so requires a lot of stars to align and that you’re more likely to lose than win unless you pay a lot of attention. Also, try to remember that even with high pocket pairs there’s no such thing as a sure thing in poker, and the people who win are those who can be dispassionate and adapt to all the changes that occur as the hand goes on. See you at the WSOP!

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Pocket Pairs – FAQs

Q: What is a pocket pair in poker?

A: A pocket pair in poker is two cards of the same value, such as AA, KK, QQ, JJ, etc.

Q: What are the odds of being dealt a pocket pair?

A: The odds of you being dealt a pocket pair in Texas hold’em are 6%. However, use caution with 44, 33 and 22. The best poker pros will fold these hands in early position.

Q: How often do you flop a set with a pocket pair?

A: You will flop a set with a pocket pair 1 in 7.5 tries, but the amount of chips you can win is substantial because sets are the most disguised hands in the game of poker.

Q: How often do pocket aces lose?

A: If every player in a 10-player game stayed in the hand and you had AA, your odds of winning would still be 31.36%, which is incredibly high vs nine opponents. You want to get your opponents to put as many chips in the middle as possible pre-flop when you have AA.

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