Playing Middle Pocket Pairs in Holdem -- Part I (Preflop)
The Hardest Hands to Play
We've all heard it time and time again, both in poker books and especially on the poker coverage on television. Norman Chad has said it countless times in the past few years of WSOP coverage on ESPN. Gabe Kapler says the same thing on GSN from time to time. Even fellow professionals Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten have consistently stated it on their telecasts: "Middle pairs are the hardest hands to play in Holdem."
I've thought a lot about this, and I have to say I don't necessarily agree. I mean, they are hard hands to play. Any hand that in most cases requires you to rely more or less solely on your reads of your opponents and their betting patterns or risk losing a lot of chips is a hard hand to play, and that definitely fits the bill with middle pairs. However, to me a harder hand to play is the low "20" hands (as Phil Hellmuth calls them) like TJ, QT, AT, etc. Those are hands that can really hit the flop well and yet still have you well behind all along, and it can be very difficult to pick up on where exactly you're at in the hand. The thing that I personally think saves the middle pair starting hands somewhat is that it can be easier to just let them go if you don't hit the flop fairly hard. It's hard to fold KJ on a flop of J93 rainbow and facing a pot-sized bet from your lone opponent. It can be much easier to let go of pocket 9s on a pot-sized bet on a flop of JcQc4d, at least for me. But despite this minor point, I do find middle pairs to be among the most challenging, but potentially the most rewarding in the long run, categories of starting hands to play. In this post, I will detail my own strategy for playing middle pairs in no-limit holdem.
In general (I know this will surprise many of you), I like to play my middle pairs aggressively right from the get-go. Of course there are some exceptions, but as a rule I am inclined to raise it up my standard preflop raise from the second I look down and see that I have a middle pair in the pocket. For purposes of this discussion, I will consider everything from say a pair of Tens on down to 2s as a "middle pair", in that these are clearly more vulnerable hands than those from JJ through AA, and although the lower pairs are significantly more vulnerable still than even the hands on the upper range of what I will discuss here. In any event, I like to try to raise preflop with my middle pocket pairs, for several key reasons:
1. I probably have the best hand preflop. Of course this is always no more than an assumption, but it is an assumption based on math. The odds of a given player being dealt any pocket pair in a game of holdem are around 6%. That is, you will get a pocket pair dealt to you approximately once every 17 hands or so. As every individual player has only a 6% chance of making a pocket pair, from this it clearly follows that it is more likely than not that no other player is also holding a pair at the same time that you hold your pair. So I am most likely ahead of any other hand heads-up at this point, and thus there is logic to raising here, to try to thin the field, perhaps drive others out of the pot, and at least to get some more money into the pot when I am ahead.
2. I will drive out a number of hands that are likely to draw out on me if they stay in. Here I'm not even talking about hands like higher middle pocket pairs, which will have me dominated as a 4-to-1 favorite if they stay in but which might fold to my preflop raise (like if I raise with 22 from early position and get someone with 33 or 44 to fold in MP). I'm more talking about hands like KQo, Axo, JTs, etc. These hands are very tempting for most players to limp in with, in particular if there are already other limpers in the pot to help sweeten the odds being laid by the pot. If I can raise them out of the pot preflop, then I am not only adding money to the pot when I am ahead, but I am also increasing my chances of winning that pot by getting out the potential suckout hands. Remember, any two overcards to my, say, pair of 6s in the pocket are roughly a 49% drawing hand against my pocket pair, which is something I'm trying to avoid at all costs when I play a middle pair for a raise preflop.
3. I will have a decent shot of winning the pot with just my preflop raise, if noone else has a hand worthy of calling a preflop raise with, which is the case more often that not. This is a good outcome for me, because in the end while a hand like a middle pocket pair is likely the favorite hand preflop, once the flop cards come out it will become exceedingly difficult for me to play. How do I mean? Well, say I'm holding a pair of 9s, certainly among the top starting hands in holdem. I raise, and 2 players call my raise preflop. Then the flop comes down AJ3 rainbow. Now one of the players bets 2/3 the size of the pot at me on that flop. What do I do? I'll tell you what I do -- I fold it in most cases, and fast. Once other players call my preflop raise when I'm holding a middle pair, I recognize going in that there will almost certainly be at least one overcard on the flop to my middle pair, which will make my hand very difficult to play once the three flop cards hit the board. This is a very important point to remember so I will repeat it here -- a middle pair is usually the best hand preflop, but very unlikely to remain the best hand once the flop is out. For that reason alone, trying to win the blinds and any other limp-ins preflop is probably the best and most realistic positive outcome for someone holding a middle pocket pair in holdem.
4. I will find out earlier in the hand if there are hands out there that might be better than mine. As a general rule, if someone calls my 3x or 4x preflop raise, they are telling me something. Specifically what they're telling me is not 100% clear, but they are definitely giving me information I can make use of. In most cases, they are saying that they also have a middle pocket pair, or perhaps two high cards likely including one Ace, or maybe suited connectors of some kind. In general when someone trails in as the first caller of a preflop raise, I'm putting them on one of these three kinds of hands -- a pocket pair, two high cards or middle suited connectors in some form. So, given the texture of the flop, I might be able to make use of that knowledge and know, say, not to bet too strongly at a raggy flop when I have just a low pocket pair, since my opponent likely has a pocket pair that beats mine, or middle connectors or high cards that would give him at least two overcards, if not flush / straight cards, etc.
5. With a preflop raise, I can represent a strong starting hand, that I can then follow through with on a non-scary flop (as most are) with a lead bet and hopefully take down the pot right there. Although I certainly need to pay attention to the texture of the flop, if nothing too scary comes off then it becomes possible to use the strength I projected by my preflop raise to push others out of drawing hands, overcards, etc. after the flop is on the board. This is just another way to act offensively with your low to middle pocket pair.
6. Raising preflop helps to camouflage my play with my premium starting hands like AA, KK and AK (no I will not include QQ among the "premium" starting hands because those effing biatches have cost me quite a few mtt entries in my day, those harlots). Since I generally play my strong hands aggressively preflop, it helps my "loose preflop" image significantly to raise with most of my other pocket pair hands as well. This pays off in innumerable ways as I continue to play later into a given holdem session. Of course if you only ever raise with your premium starting hands, good players will very quickly catch on to that aspect of your game, and you will not get paid off with your Aces, Kings, etc. Whereas, if you strategically raise preflop with smaller pocket pairs, some connectors and high-card combinations in the right situations, the Hammer, etc., then you have made it essentially impossible for your opponents to get a good read on your cards when you bet preflop. And as important as that is when you're holding one of the weaker raising hands like suited connectors or just two high cards, it is even more helpful when you hit the pocket Aces or pocket Kings, and players start calling your preflop raise because they know you will raise there with 4s as likely as with JTs, the Hammer, SMTL or another stronger hand.
Now let me show you what I mean with some real-life hand examples to illustrate my general principles of mid-pair play, which again are focused generally on being aggressive preflop before my likely advantage turns to a likely disadvantage once the flop cards are out. These examples will also give me an opportunity to discuss some of the exceptions to my general rules of early aggression with middle pocket pairs.
For starters, I like to raise from any position on the table with low to middle pairs, if I am the first one in the pot. For example, I'll certainly raise it up if it's folded around preflop to me in a stealy-looking position. In this case, I raise it up for all of the reasons specified above, but also because I'm hoping to get someone to call or reraise with a worse hand because they think I'm stealing. Then I can try to read them and figure whether a re-reraise from me will get them to lay it down before the flop (I still figure to have the best hand a significant portion of these times), so that's just another way to be offensive with middle-type of pocket pairs preflop:
That one is probably an easy raise for many or most of you out there. Here's another more borderline situation:
With pocket 2s, 3s or really even 4s, you really don't have much of anything heading into a flop, as it is almost guaranteed that the flop will contain multiple overcards. These overcards will make it very difficult for you to continue with the hand unless you hit your trips (1 in 8 times you play a pocket pair to see a flop), so I really like to be aggressive with them from late position preflop when no one else has entered the pot. With these very low pairs, I will lay them down from time to time in early or middle position, in the right situation. But from the end of the table when it's checked around to me, I'm there. Every time.
I'll play the low to middle pairs the exact same way from middle position preflop if it's checked around to me:
Notice that I'm using more or less the same multiple raise (3-4x) with every single raise I put in with a pocket pair preflop. This way, it is literally impossible for any opponent to put me on a high pair, mid pair, low pair, AK, etc. when I put in that raise before the flop. When all the bets look the same and are executed in the same way, timing, etc., by definition they can't really tell my opponents anything about my hand.
What's fun and useful to me about the middle pairs though is that I can play these the exact same way from early position too. As I mentioned above, one exception is that I won't often make a move from early position with a low pair like 4s or lower, because they are so likely to be behind once the flop is out and someone bets into me. Even a pair of 8s or 9s doesn't have this issue, in that there are some fair number of flops that come 762 or 653, which would leave me with an overpair to the flop and thus a good hand to play with on the flop. In that situation the only thing I'm really worried about (other than straight draws of course) is someone else holding another overpair to my overpair, in which case I might lose a lot of chips if we both have high pocket pairs but my opponent's is higher. More on that discussion in part II of this post when I discuss playing these middle pairs after the flop. For now suffice it to say that I don't like so much to raise with the lowest pocket pairs from early position preflop, when I can just fold or maybe even limp instead, but that otherwise a truly middle pocket pair is more than enough for me to take a stab with raising it up that same standard raise amount preflop, even from early position, when no one else has entered the pot yet:
And even a pair of 6s is sufficient for me to make a move from early position if the texture of the game I'm playing seems like I can get away with such a move:
In each of the above situations, for what it's worth, all of my remaining opponents folded. This is (1) the most likely outcome when you play your middle pocket pairs this way, and, more important as far as something that I have gotten absolutely ingrained in to my poker mind now and forever, (2) the most desirable outcome when you play a middle pair as well. Win the blinds, maybe a limp or two if the situation seems right, but that's the best thing you can realistically hope for as a rule with this kind of a hand. Sure, some times you'll get a caller and end up flopping trips and winning a big pot against TPTK, but as I've mentioned earlier, you're only going to flop trips with a pocket pair once every eight tries, so it really is not near likely enough for you to want a caller, when any flop is likely to contain at least one overcard to your middle pairs. What you want in this situation is for everyone to fold, you pick up the blinds, muck your cards and that's that. And that's why I say these hands are actually very profitable ones over time -- when you constantly raise as first to act with all your pocket pairs, you will pick up people's blinds and limps. A lot of them. And, it will also help you to get callers when you are dealt Aces, Kings and AK as well. And over time, that all adds up to some real coin, both in cash games and especially in tournaments.
As an aside, another nice side effect of always raising with pocket pairs and premium hands when it's checked around to you is that sooner or later, people just start folding to you in the big blind. I mean downright letting you have the pot without any clue how strong or weak your hand is. I can't count how many pots I've had folded out to me in the big blind when I was holding 7-high or worse. Tens. Hundreds even. It happens all the time. Because people know I like to raise aggressively preflop with a good hand and in the right circumstances, and they'd really rather not limp from the small blind to my big blind when they know I'm a good risk to raise it up 5x more with many different starting hands. And like I said, sometimes it's the little pots, and not the big pots, which really keep you around in the long run, again especially in tournaments.
Moving on, some of the more fun preflop actions I can take with pocket pairs come when someone else has already entered the pot ahead of me. This can take the form of a call from early, middle or late position, or a raise from any of these positions before the action gets to me with my middle pair. There are several such situations here, and most of them require slightly different approaches depending on the circumstances of each, my table image, etc. The following examples are all from actual hands I've actually played online, so they all assume that I have the table image that you probably think of me as having -- aggressive, willing to move at pots without the nuts, willing to reraise with nothing on occasion if I get a strong read, etc.
For starters, I am always a threat to put in a re-steal raise from the big blind if I have a middle pair (any pair for that matter) and someone in either the button or the SB has put in a steal-raise as the first one to enter a pot. As I mentioned, I'll typically do this with any pocket pair Deuces through Aces, and as with the above scenarios, I won't typically vary the amount of my resteal raise in this situation -- it should usually be somewhere around 3-5x of the stealer's raise. Notice I don't usually raise more than 4x as the first raiser, but I will often venture above 4x to the 5x area or occasionally even a little more if I am re-raising a raiser, and in particular with multiple people still to act. I need to make it clear with this resteal-raise that I think my hand is best here, and that I'm not one to be trifled with on this hand if my opponent was just trying to steal my blind. This is especially important with low to middle pairs, because as I've said above, these hands do not tend to play well once the flop is out and someone is betting into you, so I want to take it down now if at all possible. So for example:
There's me making a 5x reraise from the BB against a SB raise that I figured for a steal. 5x is a good number here because in most cases it makes it a fairly easy fold for a pure stealer with nothing good in his starting cards. I don't want the guy with J9o staying in and calling my reraise against my pocket 4s because I only made it 2x more for him to call my reraise -- that defeats the entire purpose of my raising preflop, which is to win the pot before the flop. He's only a 49% dog there, so I need to get this guy out now before that flop comes. I more or less know I'm folding if he bets out on the flop at that point (absent a strong read I pick up from time to time), so my only chance really is to win the hand right here, and I don't mind making a slightly larger than normal preflop bet for me since I do figure to have the statistical best hand heading into the flop with my pocket pair, even if my opponent has put in a steal-raise from late position.
I'll do this same move with a pair of 3s as the small blind and against a button limper instead of a stealer from the blinds, on the same assumption that my opponent likely does not have a strong hand due to his late position limp:
In fact, I think this is such a strong move in the right situation, I will even crack it out in huge spots in major tournaments without thinking twice. Here is me in the small blind at the final table of the Full Tilt 20k guaranteed tournament, when it was folded around to the button who put in what I felt was a steal-raise, and I reraised him a pile of chips with my pocket 7s:
Again, in all three of the above screen shots, my opponent went on to fold his hand to my resteal-raise. And again, that is exactly the idea. Even with those pocket 7s at the final table of the 20k, I really don't want a call. If he calls, he is likely to have two overcards and that makes him only a 49% dog and me only a 51% favorite despite my holding a middle pocket pair, and I'm likely going to have a lot of trouble playing this hand once the flop hits. I want him out and I want him out now, or else I know going in that I am not likely to win this pot.
The stronger the pocket pair I have, the harder I know I can play the hand preflop even against others who have already entered the pot ahead of me. For example, here I am with pocket 9s, facing a 3x raise from early-middle position from a player I have noted to be on the aggressive side preflop:
You can see here I elected to just put him all-in (actually, I hoyed him as you can see, leaving him just one chip after my reraise. That's so me.):
Despite the preflop early-middle position raise of 3x, given what I knew about this player, I had very little reason to think I did not have the best hand here, and with a little luck he would have a lower pair than my 9s (something not realistically possible if I had, say, a low pocket pair like 3s or 4s) and I would be way ahead. And one other fringe benefit of playing all of your pocket pairs like I recommend here is that on occasion you will get reraised or called preflop by a lower pocket pair, and that is all good for you, like what happened next in this hand:
And just like that, I went from considering folding on the flop or maybe betting out and winning a small pot, instead to taking an opponent's entire stack in a 4-to-1 favorite situation, all by betting and raising aggressively preflop when I believed I had the best hand. And again, keep in mind, I would not have made this move with a pair of 3s. If I held pocket 3s, I'd be more worried that he has me dominated with a higher pocket pair, and that's something I obviously want to avoid at all costs. But here, against a known non-rock, and with me holding a pair of 9s, that situation seemed very favorable for me to reraise here and try to steal the pot preflop. And this is one of the ways it can pay off to try to win pots preflop with your pocket pairs, acting progressively stronger preflop as the size of your pocket pair increases.
So above is a general overview of how I like to play my low and middle pairs preflop in no-limit holdem. However, as you all know, poker, and in particular no-limit holdem, is very difficult to pigeonhole into one set strategy that works 100% of the time, and for this reason mostly every rule you could come up with will have exceptions. My preflop low to middle pairs strategy is no different.
First and foremost, anytime I feel I have a clear read on whether someone in the hand is strong or weak, I am apt to rely on that more than my general strategy (this is true for any poker scenario with me, in fact). So, for example, whereas I might be apt to reraise from the button with a pair of 8s against a preflop late position raiser, if instead that raiser did something to make me believe he has a very strong hand or a pair higher than my 8s, I would be apt to rely on my instincts and probably fold my hand, or possibly just call to see a flop, and not lose another dime in that pot unless I hit my trips on the flop.
There are a few other general exceptions to my inclination to want to raise with my low to middle pocket pairs preflop. One of them comes when I am out of position with a weakish pocket pair and there are a number of players still to act after me preflop. For example:
Here I have just a pair of 3s to start, I am in middle position, and there is already one caller ahead of me. Here, as I've mentioned above, I can't really be optimistic about being ahead and being able to play this hand once a flop hits the board. And, with one early position caller already committing chips to the pot, and with five players still left to act for the first time in this hand behind me, I think in this case a limp is in order and is the more sensible play than raising it up preflop here with a lowly pair of 3s. It is just too likely that someone behind me will call or reraise my bet, and/or that the original preflop bettor will call or reraise (especially since he entered the pot from early position himself). So here, I might lay this hand down on occasion, or I might just limp in and hope, with one player already in the pot, that others are enticed to limp in as well so that I can have a chance to win a large pot if I do make my trips on the flop.
Similarly, here is another hand where I also had pocket 3s but did not want to raise it up preflop:
This one is probably a bit easier to understand than some of the others, but it still illustrates quite well a scenario where it is probably not a +EV move to raise with your low pocket pair. Here I'm looking at three limpers already in ahead of me preflop, all indicating at least some strength here, and then there is a preflop raiser from middle position also in ahead of me, and then a player calling that raise on top of everything else. Here, people are showing a lot of strength preflop, in a situation where I have a very low pocket pair. With all this preflop action, there is virtually no chance of me pushing all the other players out of this pot preflop, and remember with a low or middle pocket pair, there is very little chance that I will have the best hand if I see a flop. Here, this is either a good spot to fold a crappy hand like pocket 3s, or maybe (as I chose) to just limp here, and hope to make my trips, or fold the hand to any bet after the flop is out.
Again, it is important to note here that, even with a decently high pocket pair, I am less apt to want to raise it up preflop when several people have already indicated some interest in the pot preflop before the action comes around to me. Typically this means that at least one player is likely to have two high cards, if not a higher pocket pair than I, so again I am looking at a very difficult situation if I take this hand to a flop and do not have an overpair to the board once the first three cards are out. For example, in this hand:
I would not be inclined to put in much of a raise here, even with pocket 9s, when there are already two preflop callers in the pot, then a preflop raiser, and still 6 players left to act. Again there is just too much action going on early in this pot for me to believe that (1) I can chase everyone out of this pot preflop, which is always the ultimate goal with a raise before the flop with a middle pocket pair, or (2) I will be ahead before the flop, or certainly once the flop hits the board, likely with one or two overcards to my 9s. Here, given that I do have 9s and could either flop top pair or an overpair to the flop, I am apt to limp here if I believe I can get in for just that bet and no additional bets. If I think it will cost me more than the one more existing bet to see a flop, I would be more likely to just fold here. The last thing I want to do is to pay a lot of money preflop with pocket 9s, only to see a flop when two opponents already have Tens and AK as their holecards. Then I'm behind badly and basically dead to just two outs before even seeing the flop.
Along those same lines, while I do advocate betting hard before the flop with my low to middle pocket pairs in the right situations, I always try to keep in mind the fact that, in reality, people do pick up premium pairs on occasion, including sometimes when I myself have been dealt a middle pair. In fact, if the action is heavy enough preflop, I am often more than willing to just fold my hand and wait for a better situation, and this is the case even with middle pairs as opposed to the lower-end pocket pairs. A great example is here:
Here I went for the 3x reraise from middle position with pocket 9s, but then got an allin reraise behind me. As I pondered the right response to that move (call or fold, obviously), another player then moved in as well, and suddenly here I am holding a mere pair of 9s against two allin reraises, telling me that my 9s are probably no good here. And there really is no reason to push in this instance -- like I said, people do get dealt premium hands, and I try to always be sensitive to pick up when my opponents are telling me that's where they're at. Not being one to miss a message or innuendo, I folded this hand, feeling confident that at least one of my opponents was already ahead of me, and the other likely a race with my middle pair. And here's what happened:
Pocket Jacks and AK. Exactly what I did not want to be up against, and that's why I always fight to keep an open mind and fold a hand like this when facing two allin bets from people who were under no pressure to push preflop like this. So, I like to play my pocket pairs aggressively preflop, but I always remain attuned to what my opponents' play is telling me, including when they are screaming that they have my pocket pair beaten. Pocket pairs, in particular middle to higher pairs, are usually the best hand heading into the flop. But not always, and those can be some of the worst domination situations you can find in holdem, so I should never be afraid to lay down even a good middle pair like 9s preflop if I have a strong read that an opponent has a higher pair than mine, and is willing to go to the mat with the hand.