Lesson 7 – Pocket Pairs

Home Poker School Lesson 7 – Pocket Pairs

As we work our way through the minimum starting hands one should play in limit Hold ’em, I thought now would be a good time to address pocket pairs (2-2 to A-A), those two lovely cards that are known only to you; cards that can make you a lot of $$$ – or lose you a lot of $$$ – depending upon how (and when) they’re played.

Generally, there are no great secrets for extracting a maximum profit from your pocket pair because they’re pretty much a straight-forward proposition. That’s because a Pair of anything is the lowest “made” hand in poker, thus even a pair of Aces is beat by 2s over 3s, Trip 4s, any Straight, etc., etc. So, for the most part, the only way you’ll win with a pocket pair is to either have a “big” Pair that holds up, or you improve on it at or after the flop. Big pocket pairs (J-J and higher) will often be enough to win a pot, particularly if you’re playing against 3 or fewer opponents, but they constitute only 4/13ths of all the possible pairs that you’ll get. Pocket Aces, Kings, Queens and Jacks may put rice in your bowl, but winning with the other 9/13ths is what keeps that rice in there. Before I get into my strategy chart for pocket pairs, let’s cover a few basic terminology and mathematical facts about them.

Pocket Pair Facts

  • The probability of being dealt any pocket pair is 5.9% (16 to 1 against).
  • The probability of being dealt a specific pocket pair (A-A, 3-3, etc.) is 0.45% (220 to 1 against).
  • A “set” is formed with a pocket pair, plus another card of that rank on “the board” (the community cards).
  • Trips are formed with one card in the pocket and a pair of the same rank on the board. Obviously, a set is much stronger than Trips, so remember the terminology as we go through the lessons; there is a difference in how each is played.
  • The probability of hitting a “set” on the flop is 10.8% or 8.26 to 1 against.
  • The probability of hitting quads on the flop, when holding a pocket pair, is 0.25% (about 399 to 1 against).
  • The probability of hitting a Full House on the flop, when holding a pocket pair, is 0.74% (a 133 to 1 shot).
  • A general rule for playing pocket pairs is this: If you hold 9s or lower and don’t make a set on the flop, fold. No set, no bet.

The Strategy Chart

This chart will show you the minimum hands needed to make a play depending upon your position, working backward from the “button” (acting dealer for this hand) to the Big Blind. The options you have are usually to raise or reraise, call or fold, just as I show in my other charts. What I want to stress is that this chart is appropriate for limit Hold ’em games and, like most of my others, will make you appear as a “tight” player, which may or may not suit your style of play. If you want to be looser in nature, the chart can easily accommodate you with some simple modifications, as you’ll see.

While I think it’s important for anyone to play within some sort of comfort zone (why bet your hard-earned $$$ if you’re uncomfortable?), the fact is that we have to loosen up our play as the number of opponents decreases. A hand of 5-5 may not be all that strong in a game with 10 players, but head-to-head with someone it will often be the winner, if it’s played aggressively. And that’s not something I can teach you – at least not in this lesson – how to get a feel for the “texture” of the game you’re in; whether to lay back or be out there firing at every pot. Whatever your choice, this chart will at least let you know if your play is fundamentally sound.

So, take a look at it and I’ll see you down below for a thorough discussion when you’re ready.

Minimum Pocket Pairs for Limit Hold ’em Poker
Player Position Reraise/Raise Call all raises Call 1 bet only
0 (the button) K-K/10-10 8-8 2-2
1 K-K/10-10 8-8 3-3
2 K-K/10-10 8-8 4-4
3 K-K/J-J 9-9 5-5
4 K-K/J-J 9-9 6-6
5 K-K/J-J 9-9 7-7
6 K-K/Q-Q 10-10 8-8
7 (UTG) K-K/Q-Q J-J 9-9
Small Blind (See SB chart)
Big Blind (See BB chart)

Notes and comments

To better explain what I’m trying to show you here, let’s discuss a few examples, starting with the cards to play when you’re on the button. Occupying the button is, of course, the primo position in Hold’em, mainly because all the other players, except for the Blinds, must act before you on the first round of betting. And, after the flop, everyone still in the hand has to act before you and that gives you a lot more hands you can consider playing.

If you go across the chart on the “0” position, you’ll see that the minimum hand for reraising is K-K. What this means is that you can feel free to raise any number of previous raises if you hold K-K or A-A because the math is on your side. If the pot hasn’t been raised by the time it’s your turn to act, you should raise if you hold 10-10 or higher, but if your raise is reraised, you should raise that only with K-K or A-A. Anything less and you should just call. Continuing across, you can see that a hand of 8-8, for example, should not raise on the button (and obviously not reraise), but it’s worth calling any raises that have been made in front of you. In the far right column, you’ll see that a pair of 2s should call one bet only; in other words, dump them in a raised pot. So, what if you have 5-5 and you call, then the Big Blind raises the pot? Well, the chart says you need 8-8 to call that raise, so you should fold. Oh, I know the flop will have at least one 5 in it the first time you do that and you’ll curse me, but this chart is based upon long-term probabilities, not what may happen in one particular hand, so while that’ll sting a bit, the $$$ you save in the long run will justify the play, I assure you.

Let’s now look at the “UTG” (under the gun) position, which is the first player to bet pre-flop. The chart says you may reraise with K-K or A-A, but of course no bet has been made yet. My advice here is to “limp” into the pot by just calling the BB bet, then reraise any raisers when it comes around to you. The reason for that, particularly in a typical limit game, is upfront raises cause a lot of players to fold and you’ll usually win only the blinds if you do it. But, by reraising, you’ll now trap a few players into staying with the hand. Of course, one of those players may hold A-A against your K-K, but if you wanted guarantees, you’d be visiting a bank Website. I absolutely love to make that play with A-A, especially in no-limit tournaments, but it’ll work well in a limit game, too.

Okay, back to playing under the gun. While the “limp and reraise” tactic applies to K-K or better, a hand of Q-Q is one with which to raise, but not reraise. While you can limp with Queens, you can’t really generate much income that way, so my advice is to raise with them to open the betting. Sure, you’ll get called by every Ace out there, but all the lower pairs will call, too. It’s just wiser to only call any reraises with Queens and see what the flop brings. Obviously, if an Ace or King is in the flop, you have to proceed very carefully, if not fold. In the UTG spot, you can call any number of raises with Jacks or better. The far right column shows that 9-9 should call only one raise and that’s true of 10-10, at least in this position. Were you close to the button , then you could call any number of raises with pocket 10s.

This “sliding scale” of hands is what allows you to easily open up (loosen) your game. If you’re a kamikaze-type of player, then ignore all of the position limitations for pocket pairs and have at it. You’ll have some very good days, but on the bad days, you’ll all but bleed $$$ across the table. That said, I fully recognize the necessity for loosening up as the number of players at the table decreases. That’s easily handled with this chart by mentally moving the UTG spot closer to the button. For example, if you’re playing at a table with 5 players, make the UTG spot # 5 on the chart, which means you’ll still reraise only with K-K or better, but now you’ll raise with Jacks or better as an opening bet. In a 5-handed game, you can call all bets with 9-9 or better when in the UTG spot and call a raise with 7-7 or better. Thus, in a 5-handed game, you’d fold only 6s or less in a raised pot, if you’re under the gun. See how that works? If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to email me.


Alrighty, then. Get your homework assignment and you’re done.

I’ve read at least 15 books (to date) on Hold ’em Poker and my strongest recommendation for learning how to play pocket pairs in both limit and no-limit tournaments (and in cash games, for that matter) is “Championship Tournament Practice Hands” by Tom McEvoy and T.J. Cloutier (Cardsmith Books, 2003 $29.95). Not only do they thoroughly discuss pocket pairs, but big and small connectors, suited Aces and all the other important pocket hands – 57 in all – are included. To me, this is the best of the 4 or 5 books the McEvoy-Cloutier team has produced and you should own a copy. No, I don’t get a commission; it’s just an unbiased opinion of someone who’s read it. You can go to www.conjelco.com/ for more info.

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