Mid pairs

John Vorhaus
tackles the tricky matter of playing
pocket Sevens through Tens

The only good thing that can happen if you raise with mid pairs is that everyone folds

I love pocket Aces as much as the next man. (Possibly more than the next man who, as of this writing, is a priest in the next airplane seat over.) I know that pocket Aces have two ways to win: they can be the best hand or they can improve to the best hand. The lesser big pairs – Kings, Queens, and to some extent, Jacks – share this trait. But then we get into the middle pairs, Sevens through Tens, where the chances that a middle pair will win – especially a big pot – without improving, quickly plummet. Thus we pretty quickly come to the first truth of playing middle pairs: they want to flop a set.

And then almost immediately we come to the second truth of middle pairs: it’s bloody hard to flop a set. How hard is it? Well, you may know this figure already, but if you don’t I want you to learn it now and sear it into your memory, alongside your credit card pin, wife’s birthday and all the other crucial numbers of your life. The odds of flopping a set or better are 7.5/1. To put it another way, when you start with a middle pocket pair (okay, any pocket pair) you’ll improve to three of a kind only about 12 percent of the time. The odds are not in your favour. Almost 90 percent of the time, what you have when the hand starts is what you’ll still have after the flop.

So as you can see, holding a middle pair is nothing to write home about. Most of the time you’re going to lose with them and, if you’re smart, most of the time you’ll get away from them before you’ve tossed a pile of cash or chips into the pot. But does that mean you shouldn’t play middle pairs? No way! They can be played profitably. You just have to know what to do with them.

Exception to the rule

Now, I’m no fan of the limp. As a rule, if I’m in a hand of poker I’d much rather be the aggressor, for the simple reason that all those other slack-jaws around the table may fold and I could win the pot without a fight. But middle pairs are an exception to the rule for a couple of reasons.

First, since mid pairs want to flop a set, and since flopping a set is so hard to do, mid pairs need the right pot odds in order to see a profit. Pot odds, if you don’t know, describe how much money you stand to win with your hand, measured against the card odds – i.e. your chances of making the winning hand. Since it’s hard to flop a set, you want to make sure you’ll get an adequate payoff on those rare times when you do.

Crude example: You hold pocket Sevens against eight opponents. You limp in for $10, as does everyone else. Now there’s $90 in the pot and you’re getting the right price (8/1) to draw to your set. Alternatively, you hold pocket Sevens against one opponent. You limp and he limps, so there’s $20 in the pot. You’re getting an evens (1:1) return on your investment – not nearly the right price. So then, middle pairs like to limp because… the mid pair (like misery) loves company.

But it’s not enough just to get the right price for your call – you also have to get paid off, which means you need a willing donor. Since we’re talking about no-limit Texas Hold’em here, what you’re really looking for is someone who will pay you off big – possibly with their whole stack – when you hit your hand. That, of course, will only happen if they hit their hand, too – well, hard enough to bet big, but not quite hard enough to beat your set.

So in this case, you should cherish the limp-fest – the sort of hand where someone in early position calls (like you with your pocket Sevens), then someone else in early position calls, and then everyone from middle position on thinks, what the hell, they’ll take a flier on the hand, too. Now, suddenly, the pocket Sevens are in there against hands like K-10, Q-J, A-3 suited and all sorts of other middling crap. And the more middling crap that’s being played, the greater the chances that someone can flop themselves to hell.

Say the flop comes 7-A-3. K-10 is done with the hand, Q-J too. But the mook with the A-3 who just lost their flush draw (which was, really, the strength of their hand if they didn’t know it) has hit what they think is a miracle two-pair. Play this person right and they’ll give you all their chips in no time.

So that’s why you should limp with middle pairs – to create family pots with lots of callers, which provide the right pot odds to call pre-flop and increase the chances that someone will hit enough of the flop to pay you off.

Here, then, is Plan A for the play of middle pocket pairs:
• Look to join (or start) a limpfest.
• Hope to flop a set.
• Hope someone else flops big (but not too big).
• Pounce on the unwary.

Other options

Now, here’s Plan B:
• Look to join a limpfest.
• Hope to flop a set.
• Fold if you don’t!

I just can’t stress this last point strongly enough: when you miss, you’re done with the hand. Are we clear on that? Good.

Of course, there are exceptions. Occasionally you’ll hold pocket Eights and the flop will come 7-3-2. That’s a delightful flop for your hand and you might get paid off by someone holding A-7, or even a deranged speculator with over-cards. But if the flop comes wheelhouse (cards Ten or above) how could your middle pocket pair be good? Remember, this is a limpfest, and hands like J-10, Q-10 and A-x have been invited to attend. With a flop like A-J-9, you’re not only trailing all the made hands but potentially facing live draws, too.

Of course, you could hang around hoping to hit your set on the turn, but the odds of that are greater than 20/1 against. Trust me, the only way you’ll get proper odds for that call is if everyone checks, or possibly dies mid-hand. So we come to the magic words of middle pairs: Fit or fold! If you follow this simple advice, you’ll never go too far wrong in the play of mid pairs post-flop.

I know what you’re thinking, I can hear it from here – if there are so many dangerous flops out there, why not raise pre-flop to reduce the field and thus the threat? Well, apart from defeating your prime purpose of getting into the pot with the right odds, I can think of a number of bad things that can happen when you raise with mid pairs.

• You might run into a legitimate big pair, in which case you’ll go into the flop as a 4/1 underdog.
• You’ll prematurely reveal the (semi) strength of your hand, neutralising the excellent stealth potential of your mid pocket pair.
• You discourage calls from the very hands that you’re counting on paying you off when you hit.

You might get re-raised, forcing you either to surrender your hand or take a flop against few foes (or only one foe) with a hand that figures to be a marginal favourite at best and – in the face of a big re-raise – a big underdog at worst.

About the only good thing that can happen when you raise with mid pairs is that everyone folds and you win without a fight.

Fighting talk

Now let me stress, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with everyone folding and you winning without a fight. I love that. I especially love to attack the blinds in late position. But you don’t need a middle pair in order to do that. In the right games, notably tight and short-handed ones, all you need is two cards and the will to bet. So let your middle pairs do a different job – flopping sets and winning stacks. It’s what they do best.

Want to know what mid pairs do worst? They can get you stuck on the hand. So let’s talk about the downside of mid pairs, the risk they run against better hands, and how to avoid that risk.

To introduce the subject, let me offer you these soothing words: it’s okay to fold mid pairs pre-flop. It is. Truly it is. Not only okay, but absolutely vital if you don’t want to lose a lot of money with them.

Some players find mid pairs to be just terribly sticky, and have the devil’s own time letting them go. And it’s easy to see why – if you’ve been waiting forever for a playable hand and finally find yourself holding dogballs (pocket Eights, and I’m sure you can visualise why) you feel like, ‘Well, it’s not Aces, but at least it’s something. My time has come!’

But now there’s a raise, a re-raise and a call in front of you. How do you like your dogballs now? They can’t be the best hand. With all that action in front of you, someone has to have a big pair. Even if you’re looking at hands like A-K, K-Q and A-J, while your hand is a slight favourite to any one of those holdings, it’s about a 2/1 underdog to all of them taken together. And the hand’s not over yet – you’ve only seen the flop.

And the sad fact is that in hands where there’s a lot of raising pre-flop there will likely be a lot of post-flop action as well. This means you really have to hit your set on the flop (as opposed to getting a free card on the flop and a bonus draw on the turn). And if you remember, that happens only just more than 10 percent of the time. Almost nine times out of 10, then, if you call raises pre-flop with mid pocket pairs, you’re basically throwing your money away.

I can’t see that working out long-term, can you? So learn to fold mid pocket pairs in the face of raises, and especially in the face of raises and re-raises or over-calls. If you do this one thing right, you’ll end up playing your mid pocket pairs better than almost all of your foes.

One exception to this ‘run from the heat’ philosophy is when you’re up against just one raiser, and it’s someone you know to be frisky and aggressive. In that instance, go ahead and call the raise, looking to bet any low flop. But again, that’s more about playing the players than about playing your mid pocket pairs – you can make the same move with 2-7 if your courage and reads are up to it.

In any case, it remains true that in most cases when a pre-flop raising war breaks out, the best place for your mid pairs is safely in the muck pile.

Short shrift

If it frustrates you to play middle pairs so timidly, take heart! There are two situations in which you can take them up on the highway and really wind them out.

1. Play mid pairs fast in short-handed games: In shorthanded Hold’em all hands go up in value and mid pairs are no exception. Any time you’re in a game with five or fewer players, you should change your play of mid pairs from a calling style to an aggressive raising style. There are several reasons for this:
• You can’t get proper odds to draw to a set because there’s not enough traffic. So abandon the limpfest as a doomed strategy.
• With so few contenders, your mid pocket pair is probably the best hand pre-flop. Play it like the temporary monster it is.
• The key to short-handed success is hyper-aggressive play and taking over the table. Pushing mid pairs gives you a chance to further that worthy goal.

There is one caveat though: short-handed no-limit Hold’em is not for the faint of heart or limited of experience. Make sure your poker knowledge and confidence are both well grounded before you take mid pocket pairs, or even any hand, into action in a shorthanded game.

2. When you’re short-stacked, go all-in: Any time your stack is short enough that you’re contemplating an all-in push (figure in the neighborhood of 10 big blinds or less) your mid pairs become an excellent vehicle for such a push. If you raise all-in and everyone folds, that’s great; even if you do get a call it will most likely be from someone with unpaired over-cards. Since you’re all-in, you’ll get to see all five board cards for the price of your pre-flop push, and you’re a little better than 50/50 to come out ahead.

Of course, it would be better not to be short-stacked in the first place, and better not to have to risk getting felted on a coin-flip, but desperate times call for desperate measures. So if it looks like you can get one caller (or no callers) for your case chips, go ahead and shove them in, and hope your middle pocket pairs hold up. Best of luck!

John Vorhaus is author of the KILLER POKER book series and News Ambassador for ultimatebet.com

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