Big pairs

In the first of a new masterclass series we explore the importance of your starting hand

Like Aces, Kings work best against a short field

Let’s talk about big pairs. No, not that kind – you’re reading PokerPlayer not Maxim. We’re talking about the premium hands in nolimit Hold’em: A-A, K-K, Q-Q and (perhaps) J-J. In this article, we’ll discuss: how to play big pairs correctly; whether pocket Jacks should be considered a big pair or a medium pair; whether it makes sense to slow-play these monsters.

As you know, big pairs are rare birds. On average, you’ll pick up pocket Aces through Jacks about once every 55 hands. As that’s more than five laps around a full table, you don’t have to worry about them most of the time. But when they arrive… don’t get too excited! Sure, you’ve got a big pocket pair, and no doubt you’ve been waiting patiently for just such a hand, but that’s no reason to lose your mind. Big pocket pairs are a profit opportunity. Don’t squander it by going off half-cocked. Take your time and think things through. The poker gods have bestowed upon you a gift – it’s your job to make the most of it.

Aces in the hole

When you look down at your hole cards and see those beady eyeballs staring back, your blood April races, your heart pounds and your hands begin to sweat. It’s a natural reaction to pocket Aces. After all, you’ve got the best possible pre-flop Hold’em hand. Everyone else is chasing you. In this instant, many players have an urge to drag (slow-play) Aces. May I suggest that you fight this urge? And here’s why, for three easy reasons.

1. When you slow-play Aces, you let bad hands see cheap flops. Maybe the small blind calls the big blind with 8-7 suited and flops a 9-6-5 straight. You don’t put him on a made hand, so you blithely bet out, only to face a raise. Now your bile rises – how dare he raise your Aces? – so you re-raise. Next thing you know, you’re all-in and drawing dead, just because you let some piece of cheap cheese into the pot.

2. Pocket Aces don’t like a lot of company. Yes, they’re a pre-flop favourite against any other single hand. They’re even a favourite against two or three other hands. But as soon as they face four foes, your pocket rockets become an underdog to the field. So you should raise with Aces then, not just to drive out crap hands but to preserve the edge your Aces have.

3. Don’t you want to earn some scratch? How will you do that if you don’t get some money into the pot? Antonio Esfandiari’s simple strategy for no-limit Hold’em is this: build a pot, then take it away. That strategy works especially well when you hold a powerhouse like bullets.

In the face of all this compelling logic, why do people ever drag Aces? The answer is not strategic, it’s emotional. Aces come along so rarely that you don’t want to waste them. You want to make big money from your big hands. You’re afraid if you raise, everyone will fold and you’ll have nothing to show for your Aces but some piddling blinds. But you know what? That’s not the end of the world. At least you didn’t let 8-7 suited in for cheap and take away your entire stack.

Anyway, if everyone runs for cover when you raise with Aces, you’re probably not raising often enough with other hands. You need to be raising with sufficient frequency so that your foes won’t put you on a premium hand every time you push in some serious dosh. So here’s a thought: Don’t slow-play Aces, fast-play other hands. That way, when you raise with Aces your foes will figure it’s just another one of your frisky attempts to be a big hairy bully. They won’t put you on Aces and they will pay you off. Good times.

King Kong

Like Aces, Kings work best against a short field. You should definitely raise with them pre-flop, from any position, because they’re a huge favourite to be the best hand. As with Aces, raise enough to drive out the shoe clerks who can pummel you from below – three times the big blind is a good point of departure; bet more if others limp in first. As with Aces, you don’t want a lot of traffic. Trouble with Kings, though, is that the traffic they attract usually contains Aces. Yes, you’ll get calls from smaller pairs, but you’ll also see action from A-K, A-Q and A-J, and while you’re a favourite against these hands pre-flop, an Ace on the flop puts you in very bad shape.

Suppose you bet three times the big blind from late position and get called by the big blind. You don’t put him on pocket Aces – he’d have re-raised with those – but nonetheless he bets right out when the flop comes A-6-3 rainbow. Is he on a naked steal? Or does he have the Ace? It’s a tough puzzle – one of the toughest in Hold’em. Tough as it is, it’s often made tougher through a psychological landmine I call (somewhat grandiosely) the phenomenon of the stealth Ace. Here’s how that works.

Kings, like Aces, are rare, so Kings, like Aces, come with a certain sense of entitlement. You’ve waited patiently for them, and you feel you deserve to profit from them. When that Ace hits the flop, it thwarts your hope for the hand. But hope is stubborn stuff, so stubborn that it will make you jump through all sorts of mental hoops convincing yourself that the Ace is not a threat. Sometimes your denial is so strong that you just don’t see that Ace at all. Hence, the stealth Ace. Don’t fall into this trap. Recognise the real danger of an Ace on the flop and be clear-eyed enough to fold if you face a lot of heat. I’m not saying you always have to run scared – if you did that, your opponents would own you every time an Ace hits the board – but you do need to banish wishful thinking. So remember, if you’re beat, retreat!

Play pocket Kings boldly, but not preciously. Treat them as the best hand until evidence suggests otherwise. Don’t ignore that evidence, but don’t overvalue it either. Remember, if your foe starts out with an Ace, he’ll pair it on only one flop in five. That’s not a high likelihood, and why you should play Kings strongly preflop – because they’ll most often still be good post-flop.

Like other big pairs, Kings also love to snap off top pair, top kicker (what we call top/top). Here’s how that happens. You make your standard pre-flop raise and get called by A-J suited. Now the flop comes J-x-x, and your foe thinks he’s sitting dandy. This is one time it makes sense to slowplay. Lay back a little and let him get hooked on the hand. Let him bet big, then come over the top, either taking him off his stack or forcing him to make a tough laydown. Again, good times. With pocket Kings against top/top, your goal should be this: Pounce on the unwary.

It’s very rewarding and very profitable. But again, you want to have set this up by raising pre-flop. You don’t want weak hands to get in cheap, hit two-pair on the flop and trap you for all your chips. If they all fold and you don’t always get full value from your cowboys, so what? You’re betting both to narrow the field and to define your foes’ hands. Information is power in poker, and a pre-flop raise gives you the information you need to play the hand correctly.

Scream Queen

When I was coming up in poker, we used to call pocket Queens mop-squeezers. Naturally I’ve long outgrown such sexist rubbish. I no longer call them mop-squeezers or quad tits or girl-on-girl action or any of that. Aren’t you proud of me?

The problem that Kings face against flopped Aces is the same problem Queens face, only more so, for they have to fear both Aces and Kings on the flop.

Still, Queens are a premium pair and you really want to be raising with them, especially to drive out those holding Kings. Your pre-flop raise might not drive out A-J, but it should certainly send K-J to the muck. (If your foes don’t fold K-J, by the way, so much the better: that says you’re in a loose game where you should be able to do quite well.) Thus, if you raise pre-flop you narrow your post-flop concerns to Aces rather than Kings as well.

With Queens then, raise to protect your pair. If your enemies just call along, play your Queens like you play the other big pairs, hoping that the flop comes little and uncoordinated so you can bet again and either win the pot outright, or trap top/top, or get other weaker hands to make chasing hand mistakes.

But let’s contemplate a different circumstance. Suppose you get reraised. If you were holding Aces, this would not be a problem. You’d re-raise as fast as your grubby fists could grab the chips. Kings, pretty much the same thing, though if an extraordinarily tight player raised, you might pause to consider whether he could have Aces – the only hand that could beat you.

However, when Queens get re-raised, they face a wider range of threatening hands. Your foes could have A-A or K-K, in which case your Queens are a 4/1 underdog. It’s more likely, though, that they have A-K – the big slick – because: a) big slick is more common than A-A or K-K; and b) people love to re-raise with big slick.

While your mop-squeezers (oops, I said it again) are a slight favourite against A-K, you’re basically in a coin-flip situation, and before you re-raise all-in you have to ask yourself whether you want to gamble your stack on a coin-flip.

In cash games you can, because if you go broke you can always reach into your pocket. In tournaments, you have to think twice, especially if you’re putting your tournament life on the line. Mostly, with Queens, if you get reraised, just call, take the flop, and hope it comes Ace-free and Kingfree which, two-thirds of the time, it will. Then bet and hope you haven’t run into pocket Aces or pocket Kings. Bottom line, then: Queens are tricky – and not just because they’re girls.

As you can see, your decisionmaking becomes increasingly complex as the size of your big pair descends.

Queens are much more vulnerable than Aces or Kings – a fact that many players don’t stop to contemplate. Most people rate Aces as great, Kings almost as good as Aces, and Queens almost as good as Kings. By this logic (or lack of), pocket Deuces are almost as good as pocket Aces and you can see what nonsense that is.

So don’t get carried away with Queens. Yes, they’re a premium pair and will play profitably most of the time. But they hate Kings on the flop and they hate Aces even more. Raise to protect them, but be prepared to ditch the witches if the flop comes rough for your hand. Good times? Not so much.

Jack in the box

Now we come to the ‘no man’s land’ of pocket Jacks. Are they a little-big pair or a big-little pair? Philosophies and attitudes of poker players differ.

Some people play Jacks strongly, but this exposes them to overcard flops, which now include Queens, of course. Others play Jacks as a drawing hand, hoping to flop a set, which will only happen about 13 percent of the time. Some people fold pocket Jacks, although I think Jacks are too strong to dump, except in the face of excessive pre-flop action.

Still, Jacks are problematic, which is why it’s worth remembering this little maxim – there are three ways to play pocket Jacks and all of them are wrong.

That’s because Jacks aren’t quite a big pair. More than half the time they’ll face an overcard on the flop. Then again, they’re not quite a small pair. Quite frequently they’re an over-pair to the board. Then again, they’re not quite a fold-worthy hand; if you muck your Jacks you’re definitely throwing away long-term profit. So if you’re in a quandary here’s what to do: treat pocket Jacks like a little-big pair.

Push them hard – until someone pushes back. A lot of times, you’ll raise pre-flop and win the pot right there. Which is great. Pocket Jacks love to win without a fight!

Occasionally, you’ll find yourself dominating top/top and then your pocket Jacks behave just like other over-pairs. Very occasionally, you’ll see a flop like A-K-J, and if someone has the bad luck to flop two-pair, your set is going to hurt them very badly. Alas, you’ll all too often see a flop like A-K-3; now your Jacks are more than likely just junk, especially if you raised pre-flop and got called.

There’s no two ways about it, pocket Jacks are tough to play right. Don’t be seduced by them and don’t confuse them with Queens or Kings, for all picture cards are not created equal. They have sufficient muscle to (usually) warrant a raise, but they’re sufficiently low in the deck that a lot of hands can crush them. Perhaps of pocket Jacks we should say what was often written on medieval maps: Here be dragons. Beware!

In summary, then, treat the rare appearance of big pocket pairs like the big profit opportunity it is. Don’t be afraid to bet them and don’t be afraid to get away from them. Let logic, not wishful thinking, be your guide.

Next month I’m going to talk about those dreaded middle pairs, which are a completely different kettle of fish entirely.

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