Pocket Pairs 101
Pocket pairs are considered one of the easiest types of hands to play, but as with usual with poker, nothing is really easy and straight forward.
In this guide I will try to cover basic playing strategy with pocket pair, with some emphasis on specific situations that occur in Sngs.
I am mostly a turbo player, so most of this advice comes from turbo experience; I believe most of it transfers well to non turbos as well.
My area of living is the $25+2-$36+3 Sngs on stars, with occasional $55+5, but most of it relates well to lower buy ins as well.
Some basic Math
Here are the important statistical data about pocket pair:
Your chance to hit a set on the flop is about 12%
Your chance of hitting a set on the turn or river if you did not flop a set is about 8.4%
pair over pair (for example AA vs 55), the higher pair will win about 82% of the time
pair vs 2 overcards (66 vs QT): The pair is somewhere from 57% favorite to 49% underdog, the common figure is 55/45 in favor of the pair – we usually refer to this situation as flipping.
Pair vs 2 overcards if both of you missed the flop: Pair is about 76% favorite to win
Pair vs one overcard (66 vs Q4): The pair is about 70% favorite to win
Pair vs two undercards(88 vs 53): The pair is about 87% favorite.
Preflop strategy, early stage of Sng
Early in the tournament is the stage when it is easiest to play most of the pocket pairs, I refer to the stage in which the stacks are pretty deep (M well over 10 for almost everyone) and a pretty full table (8-10 players).
Low PPs (22-55):
Those are the hands that you generally want to play cheaply for set value.
I tend to throw those away from EP, limp from MP and LP.
I will call moderate raises (about 3BB, assuming it is less the 10% of my stack) if I can be fairly certain that I can see the flop for that price.
I usually dump those from EP because there is a decent chance I will see a limp and a raise before it gets back to me, The raise may be big enough to drive me off, and even if I call the raise and I am not closing the action there is a decent chance I will need to throw my hand away because of a re-raise.
With those hands I prefer cheap multiway pots.
Mid PP (66-88):
I may limp those from EP if the table is not too aggressive, I will limp them from EP and I will raise from LP if it is folded around, I am happy to pick up the blinds but I don’t mind a call.
I will again call raises if they are moderate and I think I can see a flop for cheap.
I will not call reraises with them.
With those hands I prefer cheap multiway pots.
Mid – High PP (99-JJ)
I grouped those together, because I believe this is where PP start to gain value as high cards as well, I will not fault anyone who treats 99 the same as 88 and play them as the previous section, but for generality purposes I will discuss them toghether.
With those hands I want to isolate one opponent, to gain some value if the flop is all unders.
I tend to raise them from all positions, but I do not like to get re-raised, if I am re-raised I will call it given the following:
1. I am definitely closing the action
2. I have position on re-raiser
3. I don’t have a good read on villain that tags them as very tight
4. Calling the raise will leave me with a decent stack if I fold on the flop.
I will reraise with TT or JJ in the following cases:
1. I have position on villain.
2. The original raise is not that big, so calling it will tempt the blinds or other limpers to jump in with all sorts of hands.
I reraise for two purposes, to drive off the blinds and isolate the original raiser, and to better define my hand, if villain comes over the top I will fold, and for this reason I tend to make my reraise relatively small, I don’t mind winning the pot right here, but this is not my major goal.
QQ is a category by itself, I always raise it from all positions, my standard 3-4BB raise, and I reraise if it was raised before me. If I get re-raised I will usually call and not re-re-raise, I will discuss it more in postflop play.
I rarely fold QQ preflop, but I will fold it if I raised, got a re-reraise or push and a re-re-raise or a call to that push.
Your goal is to isolate one opponent and get to see a flop heads up.
KK and AA
Always raise preflop, always re-raise if raised before you, always re-re-reaise if re-raised, your goal is to isolate one opponent and get as much money as you can preflop.
There may be cases for slowplaying, only calling raises limping AA from EP etc.., but those are very specific cases, as a general rule of thumb always raise them.
What if you raised and everyone folded, did you miss value by not playing them softer – the answer is NO, if they folded they had nothing and you will get little action anyhow unless they flop a strong hand that will usually beat you.
One issue that always comes up with having KK and running into AA, it does happen, but pretty rarely, and it is more then compensated by the people who are putting all their chips in with QQ/JJ/TT/AK and worse.
PostFlop Strategy, early stage of Sng
If you were lucky and you have hit your set – the major decision for you is ‘how can I extract the most from this hand’, and this basically results to whether or not to slowplay the hand.
If you are first to act you should only slowplay if the following conditions both exist:
1. The board is not coordinated – it should be not coordinated enough so that the turn card could not complete someone’s draw. For example QdJd6h when you hold 66 is a very coordinated board, you want to bet out for two reasons – first is to not let anyone draw for free, second is that if the draw completes it may kill action from legitimate hands (TPGK, two pair etc…).
2. You have reason to believe you will get action either on the flop or on the turn, for example someone raised preflop and they usually c-bet, there is an A on board in a multiway pot, or there is a very loose player at the table.
An important note here is that multiway pot (5-6 players) by itself is not a reason to slowplay, on the contrary it is a good reason to bet. This is true for two reasons – one is that people are reluctant to bluff or bet mediocare hands on multiway pots, and the 2nd is that you have no idea what is out there, two pair can turn into a boat, gutshut str8s may hit etc…, you don’t want to give 5 people a shut at the pot.
Even if you slowplayed and you have a villain which has position on you betting the flop and the turn you should bet the river, don’t trust him to bet it, and don’t let him have the option of checking behind.
Should you ever fold a flopped set on the flop or the turn – almost never. Set over set are very rare, and you should pretty much ignore them, you will get beat by one once in a blue moon, but too many players play two pair or even top pair the same way they play a set.
I don’t think I will fold a set on the flop even on a straight flush board (ThJhQh for example) unless there was a strong bet from a very tight player, I will fold a set on the turn in case of a 4 flush or 4 str8 on board faced with a strong bet from a decent player.
In the likely event that you did not hit your set:
Low PPs (22-55):
The common practice in ‘set it or dump it’, and it is usually correct in multiway pot, however there are some exceptions that can earn you nice small pots.
If you are heads up with one villain who is not in the blinds and the flop is all low cards it may be worth to take a stub at the pot, you may as well have the best hand, if he bets you may want to call a relatively small bet, most people who fire c-bets and meet resistance will not fire a 2nd barrel unless they improve, your pair may just be good enough.
However don’t try this for a substantial part of your stack.
Mid PP (66-88):
If the flop is all unders bet it out in hands with little action preflop, if you are re-raised you are usually beat, there are cases when you are ahead, usually TPTK, but it is not worth paying to find out unless you have a solid read on villain.
Mid – High PP (99-QQ)
If the flop is all unders and you were the aggressor preflop you can pretty much assume that you have the best hand and bet it for value. I usually bet it pretty strong in this stage because there are a lot of scare cards that can hit if you get called, so you want to either take the hand down here or make people chase to pay their overcards.
If someone comes over the top but you were the aggressor preflop a lot of times it will be with TPTK that you beat, especially if the top card on the board is T or 9, a lot of people are willing to commit their stack on TPTK.
Flops with one over are trickier to play, since a lot of it depends on the preflop action.
However assuming the case of a preflop raise by you with one or two callers, if the overcard is relatively low (Q and below) there is a decent chance you have the best hand, so betting is not bad.
If the overcard is an A I do not bet it against two opponents unless I have position, if it is checked to me in position I would bet it out, if I am called I will try to get to a cheap showdown.
If somebody bets at me with an A on board I have no problem folding my hand here.
K as an overcard is pretty tricky, I would want either position or only one opponent to bet it.
Two overcardsboard is not something you want to bet for value, you are probably behind, especially if there is more then one opponent. With one opponent you may want to stub the pot, but don’t commit too much of your stack and be willing to get out when you meet resistance.
Only one thing to say about KK, if you raised preflop and got a caller, an A hits and villain bets into you he has an A more often then not.
There are very few flops that will make you believe AA is not the best hand, so bet it out for value.
One final note about pocket pairs in this stage – if you did not hit your set on the flop there is a little chance you will hit your set later, and pocket pairs (even AA) lose a lot of value as the hand progresses, you want to get money in the pot and you want to get it in every street, you don’t want to give a free cards, and if the board is coordinated and you bet the flop and got called overbetting/pushing the turn is not a bad play, especially in multiway pots.
Middle stages of the Sng
Middle stages of the Sng is the stage where M is relatively low, there are anywhere from 4-6 players, and pocket pair strategy changes drastically in this stage, especially for low-mid pairs – the reason is that it is way too expensive to go set hunting here, you either play your pair for it pair or you do not.
Opening with PP
In this stage of the Sng limping is usually a bad play, you want to raise hands that you play and picking up the blinds is not a bad result, and this is true with PP as well. From mid-late position I will usually raise them, and if my M is below 10 I will push them, the reason is that you don’t want multiway action with PP in this stage, with AA I would not mind 2 callers, but other then that you want to either pick up the blinds or have one opponent.
Playing low-mid PP from EP is totally a question of stack size.
With a big stack I have no problem raising them
With a small stack I will push any PP, you don’t have time to wait and you don’t mind taking a flip here, so push and pray for folds or one caller when you hold low PP.
With mid stack I will dump low PP (22-66 maybe even 77,88 depending on how aggressive the table) since any hand that will call you is either dominating you or flipping with you, and you don’t really want that.
Regarding high pairs – always raise them, unless you are pretty sure you will be raised if you limp. The reason is that you should raise pretty much every hand that you play, so this should be not exception.
With low-mid PP if you face a raise you are either flipping or way behind, you only want to call a raise if flipping is good for you, i.e. you are either short stacked or you have a large stack, and you want to be pretty certain you will get heads up, this means a few things:
1. You want to be one of the last players acting
2. If the raise does not put you AI you want to reraise to discourage calls behind you.
One more issue to take into consideration is – assuming villain raised but he is not AI and not clearly pot commited, and you decided to play and calling the raise does not put you AI, do you want to call or reraise if you are closing the action (i.e you are guarnteed heads up).
If you think there is a decent chance villain will fold then pushing is the better option, as you would rather pick up the pot right here.
If you think the chances of him folding preflop are slim and you are first to act after the flop you may want to call and push the flop, pretty much regardless of the cards that hit. The logic here is that if he has two overcards and missed his flop he may fold here, while he would probably call your preflop re-raise with two high cards. (BTW for the record this move is called stop & go, you can find more info about it in VQC’s Sng moves.
With high pocket pairs you pretty much want to re-raise every time, people are playing wider ranges of hands as the table gets short handed, and you probably have the best hand, once in a while your Jacks will run into kings or aces, but this is the nature of the game, and you will run into AT, 77 and other hands you have dominated much more often.
You run into other pocket pairs about once every 17 times you have PP, so when you have PP you are either flipping or ahead, so treat it like the best hand.
The only exception may be if you are faced with a push and you have low PP, in this case you should consider folding, especially if the blinds are not substantial.
Poker is a situational game, which means that the correct answer to any general question is ‘it depends’, and pocket pairs are no different.
However I think that pocket pairs are relatively easy hands to play and they can bring a lot of value if you play them correctly.
I tried here to go a bit beyond the standard ‘set it or dump it’ approach of mid & low PP I hope this will inspire some discussion…