Texas Hold’em is the world’s most popular poker game.
The game has been around for decades but exploded into the mainstream in the early 2000s in what is known in the industry as the poker boom. While the glory days of the poker boom are long gone, Texas Hold’em is enjoying a bit of a renaissance as of late, as we are seeing record fields at many of the top poker tournaments in the world, including the 2022 World Series of Poker.
With all of this Texas Hold’em action attracting new players to the game, the time has never been better to find a seat at the table!
Win or lose:
Playing Texas Hold’em can be a lot of fun. But we all know that winning is always going to be more fun than losing, so before you sit down at the table, you need to do your homework! One of the spots that comes up quite often, that I consistently see new players struggle to navigate effectively, is how to properly play pocket pairs. Pocket pairs can be some of the best starting hands in the game and knowing how to play them well is a major key to any player’s long-term results.
In this article, we are going to tell you how to play pocket pairs in Texas Hold’em, so the next time that you find yourself in a game, you can play them with confidence. But before we get too deep into pocket pair strategy, let’s start at the beginning, by telling you the odds of getting dealt a pocket pair in Texas Hold’em.
Odds Of A Pocket Pair
In Texas Hold’em you are only dealt two hole cards at the start of each hand. The odds of being dealt a pair to start are right around 17-1. At a typical Texas Hold’em table you are going to see anywhere between 20-40 hands per hour, which means you are going to statistically be dealt a pocket pair, about 1 or 2 times every hour.
What Is A Pocket Pair?
A pocket pair is poker slang for getting a pair in your hand on the initial deal. Some of these specific hands even have their own nicknames. For example, pocket aces are known as pocket rockets or American Airlines and pocket kings are known as cowboys.
While that doesn’t seem like a huge percentage of your hands, if you don’t know how to play pocket pairs properly, it is going to be a major drag on your win rate. Now that you know what a pocket pair is, and how often you can expect to be dealt one, we can dive into how to play pocket pairs in Texas Hold’em!
How To Play Pocket Pairs In Texas Hold’em
In poker, I very rarely like to speak in absolutes. Almost nothing at a Texas Hold’em table is an always or never situation, as there are a lot of factors that can influence your decisions.
Are you playing in a cash game with deep stacks?
Are you playing in a fast structured tournament?
Is this a kitchen table game or one played at a casino?
Depending on the type of game you are playing, the lineup you are playing against, and the exact situation you find yourself in, your strategy on how to play pocket pairs is going to differ.
That being said:
There are going to be some guidelines that you always want to keep in mind, that aren’t going to change much no matter what scenario you may find yourself in. Not all pocket pairs are alike, so for the sake of this article, we are going to break down pocket pairs into three categories.
First, we will look at the big pairs, then the medium sized pairs, before finishing up with the small pairs.
We will then tell you how each specific type of pocket pair should be played to maximize your expected value (EV). Let’s get started by taking a look at big pocket pairs!
How To Play Big Pocket Pairs
In Texas Hold’em you are only dealt two cards, so getting a big pair pre-flop is the single best starting hand that you can get. When you look at the consensus hand rankings of the top Texas Hold’em hands, pocket aces, kings, and queens are always up top. Some people consider pocket jacks a big pocket pair, but I am a bit more pessimistic on pocket jacks, as it tends to be very difficult for jacks to be an overpair to the board after the flop consistently.
The best way to play large pocket pairs is to play them aggressively. As a general rule, all pocket pairs are hard to improve upon, as you are only going to flop a set about 1 in 8 tries. But the great part about big pocket pairs is that most of the time, you won’t need to improve them to win the pot.
If you are first to enter the pot, you should almost always come in with a raise with a big pocket pair. The more players that are in the hand, the better the hand is going to need to be to win the pot. Opening with a raise is the best way to limit the field early, to avoid giving weaker hands the opportunity to suck out on you. If a player has already raised in front of you, you should look to isolate that player with a 3-bet. 3 betting preflop is one of the most aggressive ways to play any hand and with your hand very likely being the best, you want to push the action any chance that you can get.
Should You Limp With Big Pairs?
Limping with big pairs pre-flop in order to disguise the strength of your hand, or to induce action behind you, is a risky play. Personally, I think this is a stereotypical case of what I call fancy play syndrome, as many players are more concerned with playing the hand sneaky, to show everyone how “good” they are, rather than just playing the hand for max profit. Don’t fall for fancy play syndrome! If you have a good hand, play it aggressively, if you have a bad hand, just fold. The further you get away from this basic strategy, the more tough spots you are going to find yourself in later in the hand.
Every once in a while, you might want to mix in some limps, but that needs to be the very rare exception, not the rule! It is very hard for other players to cold call your 3-bet, so you have a great chance of getting the hand down to heads up before the flop, which is what you are going to want with a big pocket pair. If you find yourself in a spot where despite your raise or 3-bet, you are seeing the flop with 4 or more players in the hand, you must tread lightly, as there is going to be a good chance one of them out flops you.
How To Play Medium Pocket Pairs
Medium pocket pairs are pairs that have a chance to be an overpair on the flop, but more than likely there will be at least one higher card on the board.
These hands are the trickiest to play of all pocket pairs, as you don’t want to just set mine with them, as they have too much value, but you also don’t want to be in a spot where you need to improve after the flop, as that is hard to do. For me, medium pairs are 8s through jacks. That’s not to say that you should be playing 8s the exact same way as jacks, but for the sake of this article, these hands are going to be lumped together. I am an aggressive player and if I get the chance to isolate pre-flop with a medium pair, and get the hand heads up to the flop, I am usually going to take advantage of it.
But on the flip side, if there are already a couple of limpers ahead of me, I also don’t mind just calling to see how the board runs out, reserving the right to get aggressive later in the hand, depending on the texture of the flop and the action.
The toughest spot you are going to find yourself in with medium pairs is when you have a small field of players to the flop and only a single overcard comes out. When you see the flop with a hand like pocket 9s and the flop is ace, king, queen, that is an easy fold. But when you have a flop ten, deuce, trey, things get a little harder to read. If you find yourself in a situation like that, you have to really study the other players to determine where they are at in the hand. If you feel that you have the best of it, push hard to take the pot down right there.
If you feel you may be behind, just pack up your bags and call it a day for that hand, as you don’t want to be playing from behind. And if you aren’t sure where you are at, I would suggest you play a bit passively, wait for more information to become available, and maybe take a card off and see the turn if it is cheap, to give you a better idea of where you stand.
How To Play Small Pocket Pairs
Small pocket pairs can be played fairly straight forward most of the time. Try to get in cheap to flop a set, and if you miss, fold. Set mining with small pairs is a great strategy, as you either flop a set and have a shot to potentially in a big pot, or you brick the flop and fold, losing very little along the way.
I never understand when I see players getting out of line with small pairs pre-flop.
Particularly in tournaments, players seem content to get it all in pre-flop with a hand like a pair of threes. At absolute best, they are going to be in a coin flip scenario, and at worst, they are crushed by a larger pair and way behind.
The one thing that you do have to keep in mind when it comes to set mining, is that the stack sizes have to make sense. If either you, or the other players in the hand, are short-stacked, trying to flop a set to bust them doesn’t pencil mathematically.
You aren’t going to flop that set very often, so in order for this to be a long-term positive EV play, you need to be able to win enough the one time that you do flop the set, to make up for all of the other times that you are going to miss.
If your effective stack size doesn’t make that possible, then you just have to fold.
It can be frustrating when you fold pre-flop and would have flopped a set and won a big pot, but when you are playing poker, you have to try your best not to be results oriented, as you must focus on the odds and probability, not the short-term results.
Now that you know how to effectively play pocket pairs in Texas Hold’em you might be asking yourself, how do I get into a game?
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Thank you for reading and good luck on the felt!
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