pocket pair 88

Poker Strategy for Tournaments You Need to Know | How to Play Pocket Pairs

Throughout my experiences playing in poker tournaments, I have found that the biggest pots I have won have been when set-mining. This is often because my opponent has raised with a big pair, I called with a smaller pair, I hit my set, and I stacked him.

Maximize Flopped Sets

The only reason I stack most of my opponents in most of these situations is because I get it all-in on the flop. For most people, it’s very difficult to let go of AA, KK, and to a somewhat lesser extent, QQ. That is why I go all-in. Another reason why I get all my chips in the middle when I flop a set and I have my opponent on an overpair is because a turn card might scare my opponent off a call.

When you flop a set and you have your opponent on an overpair, I don’t recommend playing it out to the river with a slow-play approach. This pertains to more scare cards for an overpair. You want to get all those chips in the middle when your opponent feels the least threatened. That’s simple and effective poker.

There is another reason I want to get all my chips in the middle when I flop a set and I have my opponent on an overpair. There was a study done several years ago. It showed that contrary to popular belief, the amount of chips you earn when you’re ahead and you go all-in is greater than the amount of chips you earn when playing it street by street.

Most people don’t view poker hands this way because you’re going to get a lot of folds when you go all-in. It will be mostly folds. But think of it as swinging for home runs. You might strikeout more often and have a lower average than some players, but you’re also likely to have more RBIs (Runs Batted In) than those players. And RBI might be the most important hitting stat in baseball.

If you have been reading all of my articles, then this approach might seem contradictory. I have said on many occasions that I prefer to play street by street because I have more information to evaluate, which then leads me to a much better chance at winning the hand. When you reach the river (while controlling the pot), there is no more variance.

However, this pertains to normal poker hands. I have also written on many occasions that I won’t hesitate to jam (or call an all-in) if I find a good spot. Flopping a set when you have your opponent on an overpair is the ideal spot.

Cherokee Set-Mining

I have had many good (and profitable) runs in WSOPC Cherokee poker tournaments by taking this very approach. I remember those hands like they just happened. My biggest one was in 2016 on Level 5 of a $365 ring event. I had 33 and she had KK. She bet out on this flop: Q36-rainbow. I jammed. She called. I tabled my set, which held. She said, “Nice catch,” then left. I barely had her covered. If I remember correctly, I had 120k chips prior to the hand versus her 108k chips.


Working your way up to 120k chips by Level 5 when you start with 15k is a good place to be. Getting a call on a flopped set for an almost double-up is a dream come true. I played a different kind of game at that time. I was sticking to SPATS, and I was cashing often. But I would play the whole freaking range no matter what.

This means that if I had QJo and it was three-bet to me, I was calling. It was kind of stupid. However, while it led to some really bad plays and me looking like an idiot (I’m a different player now), it also led to me getting a lot of calls in big pots when I hit because the person who took the lead pre-flop wouldn’t let go of their hand. I was the ‘victim’ of much verbal abuse, but I can’t really say ‘victim’ because I found it entertaining.

No SPATS (for now)

Today is much different. I don’t play SPATS. I play the person and the situation. For example, I might fold AJo in middle position on one hand and raise with K9s from UTG +1 on the next hand, then fold ten hands in row.

My job is to pick up patterns without ever developing a pattern. This makes me unreadable. If someone sits with me for five hours, they might say to themselves: Okay, Tyler plays pretty tight, he respects position, and he doesn’t bluff often. I’m not going to make my move against how people perceive me until I believe that perception has been established (trap has been set).

Playing Big Pairs

As far as playing big pairs go, it’s simple. You almost always want to put in a big raise pre-flop. It’s best to isolate in these spots. Two opponents max.

poker strategy for tournaments: pocket pair KK

That said, you don’t want to raise too much. If you raise way above your norm, you’re giving your hand away. Nobody raises that much with 44. It’s rare anyway.

As crazy as it sounds, if I’m playing well and running good, I might raise 2.5x BB with AKs, 3.5x BB with 99, and then 3x BB with AA. I know this won’t make sense to many of you, but if it doesn’t make sense to many of you, then it won’t make sense to others, which is good. Also, at first glance, you might be thinking I’m losing value by only raising 3x BB with AA, but you’re only perceiving it that way because I raised 3.5x BB with 99.

If I had listed five hands where I raised 2.5x BB and then told you I raised 3x BB with AA, your perception would be different. The facts didn’t change. Only your perception changed. This is what I want to do at the table. Lead my opponents down one road–a road of comfort, understanding, and knowledge–but it’s all a façade.

You might be thinking about limp-raising and whether you should do it or not when holding AA or KK. I wouldn’t use this play with KK very often. Too dangerous. I see KK get cracked in so many different ways. Sometimes by the ace, of course. With AA, you can at least eliminate that possibility. I would recommend limp-raising from early position if it’s an aggressive table, you’re below the average chip stack, and you’re looking for a shot at a double-up.

If it’s not an aggressive table and the blinds are relatively high (or high), then apply the K.I.S.S. principle: Keep It Simple Stupid! This will often lead to the best results. Jack it up right off the bat and take those blinds and ante. If you get a caller, cool. That’s usually good news.

Now let’s get to poker tips for the tougher pocket pairs. You already had an idea how to play pocket pairs when you’re set-mining or holding a monster, but you might get a little confused about how to play pocket pairs when you’re holding TT in early position. The poker tips below might help your poker game in that regard. Remember, they only pertain to Texas Hold’em Poker, and this information is best suited as a poker strategy for tournaments.

Tougher Pocket Pairs

This is going to be tough for me to write about because so much of the decision making in Texas Hold’em Poker tournaments relates to how the table is playing.

For example, if I’m at a table where the pot is ballooned on almost every hand because there are two Maniacs and one Ego player and I have TT UTG, I’m probably going to limp to control the pot.

poker strategy for tournaments: pocket pair TT

I want to get a cheap look at that flop. I don’t want to risk all my chips in a four-way pot with TT. That usually doesn’t work out well.

On the other hand, if it’s a solid table (all solid players), I want to put in a standard raise and see how it plays out. You shouldn’t get nervous about this kind of raise. You will only get nervous when you get married to a hand. NEVER GET MARRIED TO A HAND!

If it’s a table full of beasts (excellent players), then you need to be a little more aggressive. You’re not going to find a lot of great spots against these players. They’re going to read you better, which means they’re going to put you to the test often.

Whenever you feel like your skill level is inferior, you want to get your opponents to put as many chips into the middle as early in the hand as possible. You actually want to increase variance. This reduces their skill edge. If you feel like you’re one of the strongest players at the table, or the strongest player at the table, then you want to control the pot and play street by street as much as possible. Information is power. This poker strategy fits into our poker rules for winning.

Let’s say you’re dealt TT UTG in all three scenarios (the three types of tables listed above). And let’s say you whiff on the flop all three times. At the first table, it’s a check/fold. You are out of position, you have nothing, and there are going to be fireworks. Get the heck out of there. You must eliminate Ego.

At the second table, you want to bet out. You will probably get 1-2 callers. If you really want to take your best shot at winning this hand against these types of players, you need to check-raise the turn. That is the move that’s going to get the most respect.

Don’t worry about what they have. You usually want to figure out the range of your opponents, but in this spot, you’re simply putting 1-2 other people to the test. You will usually win by doing this, but not every time. If your check-raise is called, you’re a surefire loser. Just check/fold the river. Nobody calls a check-raise on the turn with a losing hand. Unless they flew over the cuckoo’s nest.

At the third table, you’re going to need to buckle up. If you truly believe you’re outmatched, then you need to do something to change the momentum and perception. I would purposely put in a weak-looking bet, such as an amount right above the minimum. One of those players is likely to raise you. Jam it right here. If you get called, oh well, but you might actually be ahead.

If you get a fold, this is one of those situations where you need to show it. By doing so, you will accomplish two things. One, it will show that you’re more of a player than everyone thought. Two, that player is going to be embarrassed and he’s very likely to go on tilt. His skill level doesn’t matter.

Actually, his skill level will hurt him because this will bruise his Ego more. You just shifted the entire playing field. This move doesn’t just fit into our poker rules for winning, it’s also Badass Poker. If it fails, so what. You went out swinging like a beast.

QQ from Late Position

I recommend aggression when playing QQ from late position. Almost always three-bet it. I don’t recommend four-betting it. You’re already in position. See a flop. Remember, it’s just another hand. NEVER GET MARRIED TO A HAND!

pocket pair QQ

If you read other people and what they write about poker strategy, they will tell you to go with the odds and four-bet. That’s fine, but it’s all science. You’re relying completely on numbers. Shit … that works!

But it doesn’t factor in how many opponents we’re up against, stack sizes, position, the betting patterns of our opponents, the mannerisms of our opponents, the future actions we anticipate based on the past actions of our opponents, bubble territory, pay jumps, and the incredible importance of the patterns of everything you have picked up on in your subconscious throughout the day (where ‘gut feeling’ comes from).

If you would rather play the numbers, I can’t argue with that. They work over the long haul, but I would rather play the people. It’s also more enjoyable. It’s more art than science. If you can figure out a way to understand people so you have a very good idea of what they’re doing, you have an edge. If you can figure out their future actions (before they do), you have a huge edge.

This is all hypothetical, by the way. I will sometimes have this working, but sometimes not. For some reason, the one place where I can’t get this to operate at all is the Tampa Hard Rock. I love that room, and I have done relatively well there recently, but for some reason, my radar is blocked in that room. I think that room is underground. Hmm….

Final Thoughts

Too crazy. Anyway, I’ll sum it up this way. Whether you’re playing in traditional poker cash games or poker tournaments, how you play pocket pairs should depend a lot on the way your table is playing. While this does apply to traditional poker games, the information above is better suited as poker strategy for tournaments.

One of the best tips to remember is to CALL when you have a pair and you have your opponent on AA, KK, QQ (unless they’re all-in pre-flop). This is the ideal spot to stack your opponent. You will usually miss, but when you hit, it could very well mean a run at the final table.

♠ pokerjournal.org / Tyler Nals