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Texas Hold'em A to Z: P Is for Playing Pocket Pairs

24 February 2012

By Bill Burton

A "pocket pair" is when you are dealt two cards of the same value as your stating hand. You may also hear it referred to as a "wired pair." Although a pocket pair has instant value, some players tend to overvalue them.

Odds and Probability

  • You will be dealt a pocket pair about once every 17 hands. The odds are 16 to 1 against you.
  • The odds of being dealt a specific pair such as a pair of Aces are 220 to 1.
  • The odds that a pocket pair will improve to at least a set (3 of a kind) on the flop is 7.5 to 1.
  • The odds of making a full house on the flop are 136 to 1.
  • The odds of making a four of a kind on the flop are 407 to 1.
  • After the flop you have only two outs to make a set. The odds are 11 to 1 on the turn and 22 to 1 on the river.

The World Poker Tour and other televised tournaments have given many players a false sense of the value of the pocket pair. Most of the time, they show a heads-up situation in which two players have gone all in before the flop and one player has a pair while the other player holds two overcards. (An overcard is a card that is a higher value than the pair held by the other player.) In these situations it is pretty much a coin flip, with the pair being a slight favorite. This has lead to many novice player's belief that all pocket pairs are a strong starting hand. But this is not the case in multiway pots and especially not in low limit games.

Your pocket pairs can be broken down into categories base on their strength. Like your other starting hands, the strength determines which position you should play them from. Not all pairs should be played from every position. Doing so is one of the common mistakes that low limit players make.

Big Pairs

Aces, kings, queens, jacks and tens are big pairs that can be played from any position. Big pairs play best against a small number of players. That is why you raise with them in early position to narrow the field.

A pair of aces is the best starting hand you can have. You will win with aces about 80 percent of the time in a heads-up situation but will only win about 30 percent of the time with seven or more players. That is why you want to raise and re-raise before the flop with your aces. You want to get as much money in the pot to make up for times your aces get beaten.

A pair of kings is the second best starting hand. You should play your kings as you would your aces by raising and re-raising most of the time. In low limit games many players will play a hand with a single ace. You want to make it very expensive for anyone holding a single ace to stay in the pot. When I first started playing Hold'em I would try to get fancy and slow play my kings in hopes of maybe raising on the turn or river when the betting limit went up. Quite a few times this backfired on me when an ace would show up on the turn or the river. After losing to players holding hands like A-6 off suit I decided not to slow play my kings.

Queens and jacks are good starting hands, but they do present a problem in low limit games. Both of these hands are vulnerable to the single aces and kings that many low limit players will play. If an overcard shows up on the flop, you should proceed with caution. If you see an overcard on the flop you shouldn't hesitate to bet the hand but be wary if there is a raise. If no card higher than your queen or jack appears on the flop you should raise with the top pair if a player ahead of you bets. You want to make it expensive for anyone who might be holding a single ace or king.

Tens are actually the start of the medium pairs. Since most players will play any face cards, they can easily be beaten if any overcards appear on the flop. Pocket tens can be played in early position in loose, passive games but you might want to pass if the game is very aggressive. If the flop brings all low cards making your tens top pair, you should raise if anyone bets before you after the flop. You need to make it expensive for anyone holding overcards to stay in the pot. If the flop contains aces or faces, you will probably be best to fold your tens if you have no other outs such as a straight draw.

Medium Pairs

Nines, eights and sevens are considered medium pairs and you want to play these hands from middle or late position. These hands play best against one or two players. In a large multiway pot, you will usually need to improve to a set or better to continue with the hand after the flop.

Small Pairs

Pairs of sixes and lower are considered small pairs. You should play these hands only from late position. With small pairs you want to see the flop as cheaply as possible with many players already in the hand. This will give you the correct odds to draw to a set. Small pairs are lousy hands if they do not improve on the flop. Many winning players use the "No set, No bet" philosophy when dealing with small pairs.

If there are overcards on the board and more than one player you should throw your hand away if there is a bet in front of you. There are only two cards in the deck that will help you. The odds are 11:1 against making a set on the turn and 22:1 on the river. These are not good odds.

If your small pair improves to a set you should play it aggressively. In most cases you don't want to slow play a small set as it is still vulnerable to a bigger set, straight or flush. You want to make if very costly to those players who are on a draw.

Read the Board

Pairs can be profitable but they can also be very expensive for players who "get married" to their pair and refuse to fold when they are beaten. It is not unusual to see players calling all the way to the river with pocket aces even when there are threes suited cards on the board. When they get beat you will hear them complaining about the bad beat they suffered. Pairs are strong starting hands, but you have to remember that they are not automatic winners and by no means are all pairs created equal.

Until next time remember:
Luck comes and goes.....Knowledge Stays Forever.

Bill Burton
Bill Burton is a gambling expert and best-selling author of Get the Edge at Low Limit Texas Hold'em and 1000 Best Casino Gambling Secrets. He is the former Casino Gambling columnist for

Burton's Texas Holdem book was published in 2002 long before the game became a national phenomenon. The producers of Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown used his book during the first season to teach the game to the participants.

He writes for several national gaming magazines and newsletters. These publications include: Casino Player, Strictly Slots, The Southern California Gaming Guide, Midwest Gaming and Travel magazine, Southern Gaming and Destinations magazine, Midwest Player and Blackjack Insider.

Burton is an instructor for the Golden Touch Craps dice control seminars teaching players how to gain the advantage in craps. He is an expert at all casino games and can teach players how to play any casino game as well as offering them advice to get the most out of their casino visits.

Bill Burton Websites:

Books by Bill Burton:

1000 Best Casino Gambling Secrets

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