Playing Middle Pocket Pairs in Holdem -- Part II (Postflop)
This is the second part in my strategy posts regarding how I play my low to middle pairs in no-limit holdem. In the first part, I detailed my strategy of aggression in most situations before the flop with low to middle pairs, in particular when no one has entered the pot yet, and I described what I believe to be the many benefits of playing this way for my game. Playing low to middle pairs before the flop, however, is only the relatively easy part of the story. In this post I will detail how I generally try to play these middle pairs once the flop has hit the board, meaning that, in most cases, I will have already had some callers of a raise from me preflop, and now there will be some overcards to my pair on the flop. You can see why this is a much trickier situation, because we've got people showing strength already by calling preflop, and on top of that it is very hard to bet out at a flop with overcards and preflop raise-callers seeing that flop, and it is even harder to call a bet from one of those preflop raise-callers once those overcards to your pocket pair are out there. Despite this trickiness, however, I still find plenty of opportunities to make some moves, including some downrigt bluffs in the right situations, with these middling pairs even once the flop is out.
For starters, let me begin with my general strategy with middle pairs on the flop: don't risk a lot of chips. You will notice how different this approach is from my aggressive posture preflop with middle pocket pairs. If you've read Part I, then you know that I generally will raise with middle pairs before the flop, in a clear attempt to win the pot before the flop is seen. As mentioned above, this is because I know I am highly unlikely to have the best hand once the flop comes out since I don't hold any high cards and therefore will almost always run into overcards once the flop hits the felt. As a result, if my attempt to win the hand preflop fails, my general inclination is to give it up on the flop and try not to lose any more chips in that pot. This will be my general strategy unless (1) I have an overpair or a near-overpair to the flop with my pocket pair, (2) I flop a set, or (3) the flop is otherwise particularly weak or friendly to my situation, including when no one shows any strength on the flop so I have reason to believe that I still have the best hand heading into the turn.
Where my middle pair represents an overpair to the flop, I will typically play that pot aggressively on the flop, betting out somewhere between 2/3 and the full size of the pot. I do this because it is highly likely that I have the best hand at this point, and with just two cards to come, my opponents who are behind me are typically drawing to at most 6 outs with two cards to come, or about 25% chance of winning the hand if we see it through the river. If another player bets out before the action gets to me on the flop, I will typically put in a substantial raise. I say "substantial", because the idea is that I need to find out here and now whether or not I have the best hand, or if another pocket overpair is out there that is higher than my overpair. The worst situation would be for me to just call this bet from my opponent on the flop, and then the turn card comes lower than my pocket overpair once again, at which point I would be almost "forced" to call another large bet from an opponent who might have pocket Aces or Kings, and have me dead to just two outs with two cards to come. My strategy is designed to find out early whether or not I am beat by a higher pocket pair, so that I can happily fold to a re-reraise on the flop and escape the hand without losing any more chips when I inevitably run into pocket Aces on a raggy flop.
The more common situation is where the flop comes with two cards below my pocket pair, and just one card higher than my pair, where that one overcard on the flop is not an Ace (the card that people typically see flops with, especially online). This is much more common when I am holding a middle pair like Sevens through Tens than a flop where my pair is higher than all three flop cards, and yet it can still be a very profitable situation since there are only three cards out there that my opponents could be holding that would have them ahead of my pocket pair after the flop. In most situations where my pair is higher than two of the three flop cards, absent a clear read of strength from my opponent, I will make that same bet of 2/3 the pot to the full pot, attempting to take it down right there on the flop before another overcard comes out and threatens my hand. For example, here is a situation where I have a pair of 8s in the pocket, and the flop comes a non-threatening J62:
Here I bet the size of the pot, and got called by someone who thought that his pocket pair was good even though there were not one but two overcards to his pair on the flop (something which I am much less willing to do as a general rule):
To summarize, if my pocket pair is an overpair to the flop, or if it is higher than even just two of the three flop cards (and that third overcard on the flop is not an Ace), I will typically make a strong move at the flop and try to win the pot right there. If I get called there on the flop (presumably after also getting called with my preflop raise, per my Part I post), then it is just a matter of reading my opponent, although in general I will try to be very cautious from that point on, ideally checking it down through the end unless I really put my opponent on a hand like AK. There are definitely a fair number of people out there who will play AK (or even AQ, amazingly) in this way, willing to risk it all even after the flop misses them in the hopes that they are ahead or can spike a high card on the turn or river and steal a big pot. But in general, if a guy calls my preflop raise when I'm holding a middle pocket pair, and then calls my roughly pot-sized bet on a flop of a high card and two rags, I will be cautious from that point on. And notice again that I am making more or less the exact same size bet on the flop whether I have an overpair or whether instead I have a pocket pair that is below one of the three flop cards. As I discussed in my previous post, these same-sized bets provide the perfect camouflage since the amounts are identical, and therefore nothing can possibly be discerned by any opponents as far as just how strong my pocket cards are.
Now let's move on to the second exception to my general non-aggressive post-flop strategy with middle pairs, when I flop a set with my pocket pair. Obviously this is one of the highlights of playing no-limit holdem, and it will happen approximately once every eight times you see a flop when holding a pocket pair. So it's a rare thing, but to compensate for its rarity, it is a situation where you will almost always have a well-hidden hand, and if there are other high cards on the flop, you will usually be in good position to take down a large pot. My play when I flop a set is typically largely dependent on the texture of the flop overall, and how likely I think it is that my opponents may have hit that flop hard enough to provide some good action to my almost-guaranteed winner.
For example, if I'm holding pocket 5s, and the flop comes AQ5 rainbow, I am almost certainly going to bet out on that flop, in particular if it is any kind of a multiway pot. This is because it is highly likely that the Ace and Queen on the board have connected with at least one person's hand, again in particular if I have properly raised it up preflop as I recommend in my Part I post. I would generally play my set on the flop the same way by betting out if the flop came, say, JT5 with a couple suited cards, again assuming that someone has hit at least top pair, 2 pairs, or a straight or flush draw. Ideally someone has made top pair with a strong kicker, or top two pairs even (but then of course I have to worry about them sucking out a boat on me, especially if I'm playing on pokerstars).
One other important note here regarding flopped sets. I've read this in multiple poker books, and I have to say it is one of the most spot-on observations about holdem players that I've heard -- everyone checks the flop when they make a set. Just about everyone. So, people tend to be on the lookout for flop checkers who then bet strong on the turn card, since they know that they themselves play trips just that way. Thus, this is another reason not to just auto-check on the flop when you make your set. As Doyle himself points out in the original Super System, it is often the more profitable move to bet out with your set on the flop, because if no one calls your bet, you probably weren't going to win any money on that hand anyways, but if you do get some action, then you'll be in better shape having gotten more money into the pot earlier (on the flop) rather than having to wait for the second-to-last round of betting on the turn before starting to accumulate a good-sized pot.
One last thing I want to mention about the flopped set scenario -- and again this is something you'll read in many poker books, but let me just second it here -- sometimes I'm just going to go broke in no-limit holdem if I run into a set over set on the flop. If you aren't willing to get it allin after the flop with even the low set, then I laugh at you. And I'm not talking about where the flop comes with three of a suit (where you should be afraid of the obvious flush), and I'm not talking about where you had good reason preflop to believe a player had, say, pocket Aces or AK, and then where the flop came with another Ace, or TJQ suited, etc. I mean an innocuous-looking flop in an innocuous situation, and I'm here to say in such situations, I will never spend my time worrying about the highly unlikely situation of two sets being made on the same flop. Sometimes the cards are just going to cost you all your chips, and again, I can only hope to be playing against someone in a no-limit holdem cash game or tournament who is willing to lay down a set to aggressive betting from me. I don't play that game however, and if I hit a third one of my pocket pair cards on the flop, absent a very strong read to the contrary, I am likely to get it allin on either the flop or the turn. Here is a great example of where I made my set of 4s on the flop and got all in on the end:
Here I made my usual pot-sized bet on the flop when I tripped up, had a player call me, and then he proceeded to check-call me the rest of the way on each round through the river, only to see me lose to a higher set of Tens on a flop of JT4. This is basically the ideal kind of flop where I want to bet my set, in the hopes of someone hitting a big draw, top two pairs, etc., but in this case it just didn't happen for me. I live with that, because I have also won the set-over-set battle more than a few times, and ostensibly that should all even out in the end (ha ha). My point here is, if I make my set on the flop and don't have any reason to believe my opponent is still ahead of me, I will make my usual 2/3 to full pot-sized bet, which again camouflages the strength of my hand and makes it impossible for opponents to get any clear read on what I'm holding, but I'm willing to reraise or call allin on the flop if someone puts me to the test. If the cards are going to beat me in that situation, then so be it.
The last exception to my general post-flop strategy with middle pairs is when the flop is otherwise friendly or weak, or there are indications that nobody hit the flop from the betting through the flop betting round. This is probably the most nuanced and difficult to summarize scenario, and it requires me to rely more on "feel" and my reads than any of the other areas discussed in this post. There are a lot of different situations that this scenario can entail, and I will discuss a few of the most common ones here. In general they can break down into three subcategories: (a) paired flops, (b) raggy flops and (c) flops which are checked all around on the flop, and I will take each subcategory in turn here.
Flops which contain a pair is a category of flops that I have mentioned in the blog before, and it is one situation where I have seen much profitability betting my medium pocket pairs on the flop. This is the case because, when there are just two card values on the flop instead of the more usual three, it becomes less than 2/3 as likely that my opponent has hit his hand. This is just simple math, in that on a flop of, say, J32, my opponent can have any of three remaining Jacks, Threes or Twos and have hit a piece of the board, for a total of nine cards he could have in his hand to connect directly with the cards on the board. However, if the flop comes JJ2 instead of J32, then my opponent can only have one of two Jacks or three Twos, or five cards total, to combine well with the cards on the board (this is ignoring any drawing possibilities of course). And this mathematical point is not at all trifling or insignificant. 5 possible connecting cards in my opponent's hand instead of 9 possible connecting cards is actually a huge difference, and it therefore becomes a great situation for me to make a move at a pot with a medium pocket pair, on the assumption that my opponent did not hit the flop, and that therefore I have the best hand at the time despite the presence of an overcard to my pocket pair on the flop. Of course, if the flop cards include Aces or Kings, it is less advisable to make a play with a medium pocket pair, because holdem players tend to take flops with Aces, and to a lesser extent Kings, for their high card value and thus many players are more likely to have hit trips on that flop. This play works best when the paired flop cards are low-value cards, and even better, lower than the pocket pair in my hand.
For example, in this hand:
I took my pocket 9s and hoyed my single opponent when the flop came Q88. Again, I'm figuring basically no one actually plays Queens anyways, and on top of that, the pair of 8s on the board made this a particularly non-scary flop since only the other three Queens and the other two 8s would likely hurt me if my opponent held them. And, having properly raised preflop with my 9s, it was just highly unlikely that any of those Queens or 8s were in my opponent's hand and worthy of him calling my preflop raise.
I like this aggressive bet with a pocket pair against a paired flop so much that I'll even do it with a low pocket pair. Here I am betting large with pocket 3s against a flop of J88:
For what it's worth, I don't think the size of my pocket pair really matters much in this situation where I am making this kind of a move at the flop because of the likelihood that the paired flop did not hit my opponent's hand. That's exactly the point after all -- I'm not betting so much because of the strength of my hand as I am because the flop was unlikely to have hit whatever my opponent was holding. All things being equal, I'd rather have the higher pocket pair just in case my opponent is also holding another middle pair in the pocket, but this example illustrates that I'll make that same 2/3 to full pot-sized bet at almost any paired flop that does not contain an Ace or a King if I have any pocket pair and don't have any specific read of strength from my opponents still remaining in the hand.
The next exception, raggy flops, is another situation where I will be willing to depart from my usual strategy and make a significant bet at the flop when I am holding just a low to middle pair in the pocket. The reasoning here of course is that, if I have properly raised the pot up preflop with my pocket pair, then anyone who calls that raise before the flop is highly unlikely to have connected in any major way with the rags on the flop. As an example, take this hand where I played pocket 7s for my standard 4x raise preflop, and then the flop came down 853 rainbow:
When a single opponent called my 4x raise preflop in this hand, I generally put him on two high cards in some form or another. Yes he could have been holding another pocket pair, but it's a fair assumption for me to make that if he was holding a premium pair of some kind, he would have reraised me preflop, so even if he does have another pocket pair, I might reasonably be able to push him off this pot with a large enough bet on the flop. And at worst, he could reraise me on the flop with a higher pocket pair than mine, and in most cases, absent a strong read one way or the other, I would be inclined to fold to that reraise, not losing a ton of chips in the end result. And keep in mind, I'm not making this play on a flop of QJ9, or KJ4 with two suited cards, etc. -- all flops that are likely to have connected in some meaningful way with the pocket cards of a guy who has already called a preflop raise from me. That would be suicidal when all I'm holding is a low to middle pocket pair. But when the flop comes down truly raggy, I am definitely game to get in there and make a strong move on the flop because I think there is generally a good chance I can get my opponent to lay down after a flop like this.
The last exception where I will make a bet with my low to middle pocket pairs after the flop is out is where my opponents have shown weakness on the flop (despite there possibly being some dangerous cards there). So here, I'm not moving at the flop if I am first to act, and some kind of Ace hits, or a bunch of suited and/or high cards come on the flop, etc. But I might make a move if everyone checks around to me on the flop, or even on the turn if the flop saw the whole table check it around, etc. This is of course the trickiest and most touchy-feely of all the post-flop situations I have descibed in this post, as it requires the most skill at making a read of my opponent, and trying to pick out when I might be being slow-played by a big hand or at least by someone who has hit top pair and is willing to go to the river with only a so-so kicker, etc. So this is a situation where I want to try to play much less frequently than most of the other scenarios I have discussed above, because I'm definitely hanigng out squarely in the danger zone here. But at the same time, my general holdem strategy definitely includes me taking a stab at a pot if no one else is showing any strength, and where I think I might have the best hand or at least might be able to represent the best hand well enough to get everyone else to lay down.
There are lots of ways that this last category of playable hands on the flop can manifest itself when I'm holding a low to middle pocket pair. And again, almost all of them only work because of the fact that I already put in a standard raise preflop with my pocket pairs, so when I do make a move amidst weakness around the table, it is perfectly plausible that I am doing so with a good hand in the pocket. Most of the following examples would be far less likely to work if I had not raised preflop, which is an important point not to lose sight of. I always try to remember that any bluff is most convincing when I've told a consistent, reasonable story from the very beginning of the hand, and that definitely comes into play here.
Here is a perfect example. I've got a pair of 8s in the pocket, and the flop comes K72 with two clubs. Not exactly what I wanted to see since I have no part of the flush draw, and the King on the board itself doesn't make me too happy since many people will play and even call a preflop raise with a hand like AK, KQ, KJ or even KT on occasion. However, when my opponent led out with a small bet on this flop:
I read him for weakness and I reraised it up big. He folded and I took down a nice-sized pot. And make no mistake, this play worked primarily because I made a good read, and because I had put in my standard 4x preflop raise. I set this play up from before the flop ever hit the board with my preflop raise, and when I sensed weakness on the flop, I took it down with a big move. My reraise represented a very strong hand to my opponent, and given my 4x raise before the flop, he was apt to believe that I was stronger than him, and thus he folded his marginal hand to my pocket 8s.
Here is another similar-looking flop where I was able to take a decent-sized multiway pot down after a bunch of small bets and calls around to me on a King-high flop:
All it took here was a read of weakness around the table on my part, plus again a significant bet from me in response to that perceived weakness. In fact, if I have a solid enough read that my opponents are weak, I have even been known to take one stab at the pot with my middle pocket pair and an Ace coming on the flop. And I say "one" stab, because I know even before I make this flop bet that I won't be putting one more dime into this pot no matter what happens from here. That is to say, if there's an Ace on the flop, and I bet with a middle pocket pair, if I get called, I am check-folding from there unless I get a strong read that my opponent is bluffing, on a draw, etc. And if I get raised right there on the flop, again I am most likely out of the hand just like that, absent a strong read on my opponent. So I'm willing to even take a stab on an Ace-high flop with just a middle pocket pair, if I have already set up the play by putting in a standard solid raise preflop, thereby representing myself that I may be the guy with the strong Ace in the pocket. So, in this hand:
I've got just a pair of 7s, and the flop comes A82. I'm not happy about the flop, and I figure for sure I'm up against an Ace somewhere, but after it got checked around on the flop, I began to feel a little frisky. I still figured someone probably has some kind of Ace here, but I also know with all the checking on the flop that someone could even be on a weak Ace (A-x suited, for example, the favorite hand of online fish everywhere) and could be pushed off this hand. Since I know I'm only actually risking this one last bet and that I won't be putting another dime into this hand if I get called or raised, I go ahead and put in a large pot-sized bet on the turn. I took my stab with just the pocket 7s, and everyone folded to me. This is how to really make your middle pocket pairs work for you after the flop, even in the face of a potentially scary board.
Lastly, let me share one final hand example along these same lines, but with an even scarier flop, and with me holding an even weaker pair of 4s in the pocket:
Again here I had already set this hand up by making a significant preflop raise with my middle pair, and when my opponent checked this flop to me, the timing of his check seemed an awful lot like a guy who was disgusted that the Ace had flopped here, likely trumping his middle pocket pair himself. So I bet it big, about 3/4 the size of the pot, and more importantly, more than half of my opponent's remaining stack, and he folded it pretty quick. Again this hand helps illustrate the importance of making good reads on my opponents, and having the testicular fortitude to make a move at even a scary flop based on those reads when I know that my opponent knows I've already represented strength before the flop. For my game, it simply cannot be overstated how many ways raising preflop with middle pocket pairs can help me to win pots later in the same and/or other hands at the poker table.
Hopefully this two-part post provides some valuable insights to some of you out there who may have the typical troubles when playing non-premium pocket pairs both before and after the flop. As I have covered in detail above, it is important to note how very much intertwined my post-flop strategy with these hands is with my preflop strategy, as I will hardly ever be involved in a pot on the flop when I'm holding a middle pocket pair unless I was a raiser preflop, so much of my approach on the flop is dependent on my having shown strength with the hand before the flop hit the board. This is in addition to my attempt with a preflop raise to win the pot before the flop hits the board in the first place, when my pocket pair is worth the most. Following my preflop aggressive strategy consistently with middle pairs makes it much more possible for me to make moves on the flop, even flops that might otherwise be scary given what I am actually holding in my hand. Additionally this preflop aggression also provides all kinds of useful camouflage and advertising opportunities for future hands, in addition to increasing my chances of winning the hands where I am deal the middle pocket pairs in the pocket to begin with.