Guide to Playing Pocket Pairs In Poker

Joe A.
19th August, 2020

Many newcomers to the game of poker and sometimes even more experienced poker hands fail to comprehend how to best play pocket pairs. In this guide, we will explain you the best way how to play pocket pairs in poker!

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Playing poker

Poker is an exciting game to play and millions of people across the globe play it every single day with friends or playing online poker in a casino or dedicated poker website. Especially the Texas Hold’em variant has captivated the minds of many – which is probably due to the popularity of televisionised poker tournaments such as the World Series of Poker (WSOP).

When playing Texas Hold’em Poker, you are of course dependent on the initial hand you are dealt with. These two cards which are handed out to each player by the dealer are the basis on which you base your bet and how you will play your hand.

Pocket pairs are probably the most exciting kind of hands to look at. This is because this particular category of hands can be very powerful if played correctly, but it can also seriously damage your bankroll if you play pocket pairs incorrectly.

In this article we are going to talk about the strategy behind pocket pairs. We also look at some of the most profitable situations you might come across with these hands and the biggest mistakes you can potentially make.

For those who are relatively new to the game of poker we’d like to first put a very brief description of what a pocket pair actually is. In poker you can get two of the same cards such as 2-2, 6-6 or A-A as your starting hand. This is called a pocket pair. Of course, the values of these hands differ, but they all belong to the same category of hands.

poker wsop

Poker is a popular game, with big tournaments like the World Series of Poker even being showed live on TV. ©Screenshot

Type of pocket pairs and their values

A majority of poker books or poker guides on the internet recognise three major subgroups of pocket pairs. These are:

– High (or premium) pocket pairs: usually JJ (Jack-Jack), QQ (Queen-Queen), KK (King-King) and AA (Ace-Ace)
– Medium (or average) pocket pairs: 77, 88, 99 and TT (10-10)
– Low (or small) pocket pairs: 22, 33, 44, 55 and 66

Although sometimes there are slight deviations, eg. some people who see TT as a high pocket pair, we think the above description of categories is the most accurate.

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Chance of getting a pair in poker

Before we move on to the strategy, let’s discuss some simple maths. The chances of getting a pair are around 5.9%. So you receive a pocket pair about once in every 17 hands. In terms of specific statistics, it looks like this:

– Chances of getting a pair of aces (or any other specific pair): 0.45% (220 in 1)
– Chances of getting a high pair (JJ to AA): 1.8% (54 in 1)
– Chances of getting an medium pair or better (77 to AA): 3.2% (31 in 1)
– Chances of getting any pair (22 to AA): 5.9% (17 in 1)

Pairs split into categories

We have written before that there are three categories in which you can place all pocket pairs. Depending on the category of pocket pair, you have to pursue a different tactic. Needless to say, getting a strong pocket pair such as two aces asks for a different approach than a lower pair such as two 4s. Below, we will discuss these categories individually to identify what the overall value is and what is the best approach is for playing these types of hands.

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1. Premium or high pairs

As the name already implies, these are some of the best hands you can get before the flop in poker. While a pair of jacks might still be considered as a marginal hand, in reality it really depends on the situation how strong such a pair is. Especially QQ, KK and AA are considered to be very strong hands.

The value of a premium pair increases enormously once the number of players decreases because there is less chance of opponents making a better hand. In most situations, your plan is to get as much money as possible before the flop. This is not only true for standard tournaments, but also for cash games played online.

As soon as the stacks get bigger, your strategy should change. Especially if your pair is on the lower side like JJ and QQ instead of KK or AA. Of course it does not always go as planned and it can happen that several players join after you have put an initial raise. If this happens, there are two things to consider:

– You still have a strong hand if there are no cards on the table that are higher
– You should not cling to your pocket pair too much if multiple players play along

While these actions are far apart, they often come together. If a 10, 6 and 2 are dealt on the flop, and you have KK in your own hands, then you don’t have to worry too much yet. If there is a lot of action on the flop and the card on the turn is for example a 9, then you should start worrying. There is now a chance that a player has two pairs, three of a kind or perhaps a strait.

As it is rare for players to simply throw a lot of money into a pot while several other opponents are still active in it, you should start thinking just how good your pair still is. It is quite possible that some opponents now have a stronger hand than KK, as why would they all call your raise and perhaps re-raise themselves?

Texas Hold’em is a game in which you have to react on every occasion (flop, turn and river) and adapt yourself to the newly created situation. You should certainly be able to throw a seemingly good hand away if you think it has lost most of its initial strength. You can therefore save yourself from losing a lot of money. Although most money is won with strong hands, you also lose the most with it. Nothing is worse than throwing in a lot of extra money in a pot, only to see that your own hand wasn’t actually as good as you thought it was. Especially a situation in which lots of opponents play along and where some threatening cards appear on the flop should be an alarm call even when you have a high pair. We don’t say you automatically need to fold your hand – just that a lot of extra caution is required.

pocket pairs poker

Sometimes even three players on the table might end up receiving a high pocket pair at the same time. ©Screenshot

2. Medium pairs

It is difficult to come up with an exact strategy for medium pocket pairs because this category can be divided into two further categories. The best advice here is to try to get heads-up with a single other opponent on the flop. When you play against one player, these hands can easily win the pot.

However, if you are looking at a flop against several other players, you almost always have to hit something strong (three-of-a-kind, two pair, possible full house etc.) in order for your hand to still remain its initial strength. Otherwise you will most likely have to throw away your cards if someone else puts a raise on the table – as chances are likely someone else will by now have created a better hand. It also depends on the situation. Sometimes you have to bluff a bit and play the medium pocket pair pretending it is a premium pocket pair, yet sometimes you have to be careful. This may sound confusing, but let’s look at an example.

Let’s say you play in a tournament and have a stack of 40x the blind. The player in early position who normally plays with restraint raises the pot by 2.5x the blind, and the following player goes along with it. You are in the big blind and you have 88 – a pair of eights. What are you going to do?

Not much else is possible than just going along. The original player who raised probably has a strong hand. So by raising, you would turn your hand into a bluff, and there’s absolutely no reason to do that with a hand like 88. In this case, you play pocket 88 as a small pair (which we’ll talk about later), just go along and try to get a set on the flop for a better hand.

In other scenarios when you get an 88 in the big blind, and everything is the same, but no player has raised in early position and only raised the player on the dealer button, your 88 is suddenly a lot stronger.

Here you can even consider putting a raise on the table yourself, perhaps going all-in against that one player. The reason is that the player sitting before the dealer is one of the best positions in poker. By deciding last, you can play a little more aggressively trying to pick up the blinds. Take these situations into account and do check first if any other player might have already acted aggressively.

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3. Small pairs

We have now arrived at the category which is meant by most players when they talk about pocket pairs. Small pairs are probably the trickiest hands to play because it seems like if you don’t hit a set on the flop, the hand isn’t worth much really.

Your plan for small pairs (22 to 77) is very simple. You want to see the flop as cheaply as possible and get a set, and get your opponent to toss his or her chips on the table thinking that his/her higher pair will win the game. In theory, this all sounds good and obvious, but there are many obstacles to overcome.

The chance of flopping a set with each pair is about 1 in 7.5 (or around 12%). This may sound like a fair number, but keep in mind that 88% of the time you don’t get a flop where a set is formed. Therefore, you have to be very careful with small pocket pairs. Try the following:

– See the flop as cheaply as possible
– Don’t turn your hand in a bluff and limit yourself in raising the pot for the most part
– If you don’t hit a card on the flop (set) then you shouldn’t try to bluff to win the pot

It can be tempting to see the flop at 33, but if you are already raising and another player re-raised by as much as 3 or 4 times the initial bet, then it is not recommended to play this hand. You don’t want to invest too much money into the hand with low pairs.

It’s not that you can’t bluff with a low pair, but you must have a good reason to believe that the other persons don’t have a strong hand. For the most part, it’s wise to play small pairs passively. If you don’t get a set on the flop, don’t go too crazy. There are better positions and moments to do that.

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General things to keep in mind with pocket pairs

While these three categories of pocket pairs require different strategies, there are a few things which they have in common. This applies to almost all hands you play, but especially to pocket pairs due to the fact that they don’t offer much flexibility on the flop, turn or river versus other hands.

1. Effective stack size

The effective size of your stack is one of the biggest considerations when deciding how to play your pocket pair. For example, with a small pair, you don’t want to play a flop if you only have 20x the blind and are up against 1 player. With medium and premium pocket pairs you can go all-in and the choice is easier. However, if your stack is much larger, you don’t have to go all-in in such cases and you can try to earn more chips out of the situation one raise at a time.

2. Position

While your table position isn’t all that important with premium pairs, you definitely want to be in a good position with weaker pairs. It’s much easier to make a decision when you are last in turn to act because you have a better understanding of how strong the opponent’s hand are and how committed they are to push the rest of their chips into the pot.

Chasing a set with small pairs out of position is hardly profitable – or even something which should be downright discouraged. You will often miss some pot value by checking on the turn and allowing your opponent to opt for a cheap and easy check as well, or an easy rise to get you out of the pot.

3. General things players tend to do

Each game is different because the players have different intentions with their hands. Nobody is the same. How you play your pairs, especially the small pairs, depends on the tendencies of other players.

Have you gotten involved in a wild and aggressive game where players with extremely weak hands like to push chips forward? Then the small pairs suddenly become more valuable because it is easier to win a lot of chips once you get a set on the flop.

Do you play on a table where players play very carefully? Then it remains difficult to tempt opponents to commit more money into the pot.

Conclusion: Make the most of your pocket pairs

Hopefully, some of the strategic suggestions in this article will help you improve your game. These tips can certainly help you improving your hand of pocket pairs in the future. Keep in mind that such pairs can be very powerful, but only if you play them well. Always try to be realistic about your chances and odds. Even though a high pair may look so great as your initial hand, it can quickly decrease in value if you are up against multiple players on the flop and some threatening cards land on the table.

Stick to the advice in this article and always try to keep an eye on the developments when more cards appear on the table. There will be situations where you deliberately want to let your opponents get an extra card to form a better hand as they might be lured in thinking they have a winning hand while your hand is actually stronger, making them commit more chips to the pot. That said, there can easily be situations that you might find yourself be tricked by other players! Always take extreme care and be aware of your opponents’ strengths, weakness, tactics and possible hands they might have.

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