I define “middle” pocket pairs as being 8-8 down to 5-5, although a more conservative player might classify J-J to 8-8 as such. A more aggressive player might include more pairs; the point here is that I’m not talking about the very highest pairs or the lowest pairs like 2-2 and 3-3 and 4-4. Those pairs pretty much play themselves – the big pairs are frequently worth a push all-in at some point and the smallest pairs are usually folded preflop or they’re a “no set, no bet” hand after the flop. I open-raise 9-9 or higher from any position, including under the gun (first to bet), so any pair 9-9 or higher is a high pair to me and, conversely I just call with 2-2, 3-3 and 4-4 in any position other than late position where I will raise with them if I’m first to act. However, if I’m at a table with less than nine players – like the final table of a match – or with four players remaining at a Sit & Go, those pairs below 5-5 become much bigger, so I could be playing them as a “middle” pair. But I’m mainly going to talk about 9- or 10-player tables here.
Playing a pocket pair preflop is covered by my No Limit Hold’em Starting Hands matrix, which you can find in Lesson 15. It’s very simple and easy to follow. What’s not so simple is playing a hand like 8-8 that you raised from, say, the Cut Off position (one place before the button) and another player called. These days raises from Late Position don’t get a lot of respect because “everybody” does it. Consequently, it’s almost certain that the Big Blind, at a minimum, will call. If more than just the BB calls, you either have a great opportunity or you’re toast, depending upon how the flop comes. If you hit a set (three-of-a-kind) on the flop – a 10.8% probability – you can be very confident that you have the best hand. It’s not a lock of course, but I’ll take it every time; set versus set hands are very rare.
It’s when you don’t hit a set (about 9 out of 10 times) that things get difficult. The first question I ask is: Am I up against a higher pair? From a mathematical point of view, with three players remaining after my raise from the Cut Off (the Button, the Small Blind and the Big Blind), the probability of someone holding a pair higher than 8-8 is about 9%. (For an excellent chart of probabilities like this, go here: http://wizardofodds.com/holdem/dominated.html) There’s a relatively small chance that I’m already beat by a higher pair, which basically leaves me with only a 20% probability of ultimately winning the hand but I might also be in a “coin-flip” situation where the caller has two cards higher than mine, like A-K
The second question I ask is: If my opponent has a higher pair or a hand like A-K, wouldn’t s/he have reraised me? Well, maybe not, but hands like A-K, A-A and K-K are “kneejerk” reraises for a lot of players, especially when they’re in either Blind where they’ll be playing out of position after the flop. I can see an opponent on the Button just calling with a big hand in the hope that one of the Blinds will reraise, thus setting up a classic “trap” play where the Button pushes all-in if I fold in the Cut Off. So, my primary concern in this hand will mostly be a smooth call from the Button, more than a smooth call from either Blind because the Button will have position on me after the flop, plus s/he had to voluntarily put $$$ into the pot, unlike the Blinds who are getting a “discount”, so to speak. Remember, the less it costs to get into a pot, the more likely it is that lower cards will be played – virtually all poker players love a bargain, even if they have a mediocre hand.
Okay, so let’s say the Button and the BB both call my raise (very likely because the BB is getting great pot odds to call with almost any hand when the Button just calls) and the flop comes 7-5-3 of different suits. Assuming the Big Blind checks, I’m going to bet here – about a pot-sized bet – mainly because I have an over-pair to the board, but also because I want to make it expensive for someone to try and complete a Straight. If someone just calls, I now have to ask myself: Does that my opponent have a set of 7s, 5s or 3s or a made Straight? Anyone could have a set, but if I’m up against a made Straight, it’s probably in the Big Blind who’s the one player that could justifiably call my raise with a hand like 4-6. Oh, I fully realize that the Button may have called with a 4-6, especially a suited 4-6 but that person is a gambler and in the long run I beat gamblers, even though I might lose this particular hand.
Either way, I might be up against a made Straight and for the moment at least, I’m behind in the hand. A smart opponent with a made Straight will just call – there’s nothing to be gained by reraising me unless s/he fears a Flush, something that the “rainbow” flop pretty much precludes.A player with a big pocket pair – higher than mine but not A-A, K-K, etc. – let’s say 9-9, may just call as well because s/he has got to figure that I didn’t raise with 4-6, but I might have raised with a higher pair (10-10 or better) and is in basically the same dilemma as I’m in; either way ahead or toast. But my opponent has more information about the hand than I do, namely that I, the original raiser, very likely does not have a made Straight, but I cannot be sure that my opponent doesn’t have one.
Going further, my opponent might have two-pair, say 7s and 5s, but again, s/he can be pretty sure I didn’t raise with 7-5 or 5-3, so my hand at this point is perhaps easier to define, but my opponent can really only eliminate some hands that I might be holding. That said, s/he cannot feel for certain that they have me beaten, unless s/he has a made Straight which is the absolute nuts at this point. Remember, I may have flopped a set myself or may have a bigger overpair (if my opponent is holding a pocket pair) or may have an inside Straight draw because I raised with 4-4 and so forth.
That leads to my next question: Am I up against the “nut” hand? A little math will help me here, namely, what are the odds of a player flopping a made Straight. Before I give you that number, remember that there are differences in the abilities of starting hands to make a Straight, the easiest example being that 7-2 cannot make a Straight on the flop no matter how much you pray. Any cards that are 4 or more ranks apart simply cannot make a Straight from three other cards. Sure, you can eventually make a Straight with 7-2, but we’re talking about flopping a Straight, so the starting hand cannot be more than four ranks apart in order for that to happen. For example, a hand of 2-6 can make a Straight if 3.4,5 flops and a hand of A-10 can make a Straight if J,Q,K flops. But a hand of, say, 10-J can make a Straight if 7,8,9 flops, if 8,9,Q flops, if 9,Q,K flops or if Q,K,A flops. My point here is that starting hands with “gaps” make fewer Straights than hands where both cards are “connected” or in sequence, except when the sequence is A-2, where only a flop of 3,4,5 will make a Straight or A-K where only a flop of 10,J,Q will make a Straight. With a one-gap hand like 4-6, the number of possible Straights is also reduced; only 2,3,5 or 7,5,3 or 5,7,8 works. If you hold two cards in sequence, like 10-J, it works out that the odds of flopping a Straight are 76 to 1 against. If you hold a one-gap hand like 4-6, the odds of flopping a Straight are 99 to 1 against and the odds increase as the number of gaps increase. Personally, I use the 76 to 1 (1.3% probability) number in all of my calculations, just to be conservative.
Let’s get back to my hand of 8-8. Obviously, the probability that I’m up against a Straight after the flop is fairly small, only 1.3% and the probability that I’m up against a higher pocket pair is bigger at roughly 9%, but both of those hands have me basically crushed. I might also be playing against two-pair (a 2.1% probability) or a smaller set (a 12% probability) but there I’m not in horrible shape; I have some outs, optimistically speaking. But let’s add up all of those probabilities and see where we stand; there’s about a 25% chance I’m holding the worst hand on the flop with two more cards to come. And that’s the number I use when calculating pot odds for hands like this, because it’s pretty accurate and very easy to remember. If I am, indeed, holding the worst hand 25% of the time, that obviously means I’m holding the best hand about 75% of the time, which makes me a 3 to 1 favorite at this point. Yes, there are two more cards to come and I could suck out if I’m behind (like making Trips on the turn or river, an 8% probability) but I might be up against a player with two overcards and not enough sense to fold after missing the flop – something a lot of players do with hands like A-K – so my opponent could suck out, also. I just stay with the 25% figure and leave prayer to accomplish other things in my life.
While the 3 to 1 number looks pretty good, remember that I’m still at the flop, have made a pot-sized bet and let’s pretend only one opponent has called. If my opponent is one of the Blinds, I have position, but if the Button is the one who calls, I’m out of position and must bet first for the rest of the hand. Here’s one of my favorite plays with an overpair if I’m in position and my opponent bets after the flop: I raise the minimum. By raising the minimum, I accomplish two things. First, if my opponent re-reraises me (especially by going all-in) and I decide to fold, I lost the least possible in order to get the information I want. Secondly, a minimum reraise by me sends a “please call, because I have you beat” message that will inspire many experienced players to stop their bluffing and fold, assuming they’re bluffing in the first place. Remember, a lot of players think those who open the pot with a raise do so with an Ace, so if a flop comes 7-5-3, they’ll lead out with the hope of you folding, so a raise of their bet has the impact of a check-raise (even though you didn’t check), which is generally regarded as a strong move rather than a bluff. Just calling when they lead out is viewed as being on a draw and consequently somewhat weak, which works in your favor if you flopped a set. Don’t be too quick to reraise your opponent all-in when you flop a set because such a move is one of the signals that you, indeed, flopped a set and your fish might get away. See Lesson 21, “Sniffing Out a Set” for how that works.
If I’m out of position, have bet and my opponent just calls, I now ask: Is s/he on a draw? Obviously that’s possible, so the turn card will be my guidance here. If it looks like a Straight is possible on the turn, I have a decision to make: To bet or not to bet, that is the question. I typically bet because a “scare” card on the turn may also be scaring my opponent. If I bet and get raised, whether or not I’ll call (or reraise) depends, in large part on how many outs I’ll have on the river and the size of the pot; in other words, what kind of pot odds do I have to try and improve my hand? By that point in the hand, I usually have a plan in place – have made a good guess as to which cards my opponent has and act accordingly.
Sometimes I’m surprised to find that my opponent was “chasing” and missed, but other times I find I was beat all the way. But I will say this: I win a helluva lot more hands like these than I lose, so I’ll keep playing them like I described here until I find a reason to change.
I’ll see you here next time.