Lucky sevens

Pocket 7s are notoriously difficult to play. We explain how the right approach depends as much on your chips as your cards

A chip leader shouldn’t fold all good and marginal hands in an effort to move up in the money

Two months ago, we compared playing several hands from middle position in different versions of hold’em ring games: limit and no-limit. In this article, we’ll delve into playing a single holding (7-7) in a single variant – no-limit hold’em tournaments. Through hand problems, we’ll alter the stage of the tournament and our relative chip count, which are two important variables. Putting different circumstances in proper perspective is key to success in poker.

Why illustrate with pocket 7s? Because, as World Poker Tour analyst Mike Sexton says, ‘Middle pairs are the most difficult hands to play before the flop in no-limit hold’em tournaments.’ So, if we can master the play of 7-7, we’ll be well on our way in this challenging game.

You may notice that throughout the problems shown in this article, I hardly mention two very important factors: analysing opponents’ holdings and your perceived table image. Be aware that these essential elements of the game should be incorporated into all your poker decisions. In the future, I’ll provide a piece on how we can use table image to our best advantage and another on reading opponents.

Let’s assume you enter a World Series of Poker event where the first two days of play will reduce the field to a nine-player final table.


Midway into day one of this $1,500 buy-in event, with 1,400 of the 2,600 paid players remaining, you hold red pocket 7s in middle position. You have 1.5 times the average chip count. Amir Vahedi (an aggressive player) is first to act. He raises three times the big blind. You have read Phil Hellmuth’s book, so you know 7-7 is a no-limit hold’em reraising hand in Phil’s eyes. After three players fold, you make a pot-sized reraise. (Folding is a viable option, but I need you to reraise to discuss some concepts.) All fold to Vahedi, who has approximately as many chips as you. The Iranian plays with his chips and chomps on his cigar. Finally, he pushes a pot-sized reraise forward. What should you do?

Well, you have position, you have committed chips and you may be ahead (assuming Amir has A-K, you’re a 55/45 favourite). Despite this positive information, you should fold. The keys:

  • Your chances of flopping a set are unlikely (only a 7.5/1 probability).
  • You won’t know whether your 7s are still in the lead when overcards flop.
  • Amir raised from under the gun in a full game (as opposed to short-handed), usually a sign of strength. A professional player who is out of position is more likely to go three raises on day one with a big pair, as opposed to A-K.
  • Even if Vahedi has A-K, he will flop an Ace or a King one in three times.
  • If Vahedi does hold a better pair, such as K-K, you’ll be a 4/1 underdog.

You can’t win a three-day tournament on day one, but you can lose it.

During the most recent Monte Carlo Millions no-limit championship, Hellmuth took a walk to burn off steam after he had lost a few hands. When the nine-time bracelet holder returned to the table, he witnessed a pre-flop laydown of A-K by high-stakes cash player David Oppenheim. Phil, never shy about speculating or espousing theory when the cameras are rolling, stated he thought David’s young opponent had pocket 10s. Hellmuth also stated his opinion on moving in relatively early in a tournament with smallish pairs: ‘You know, these internet players are always moving in with little pairs. It’s crazy. If their little pairs win, they get a lot of chips. If they don’t win, they go broke. They play that way until they play on the circuit for about a year and then they say to themselves, “Maybe I shouldn’t be betting all that money with little pairs.”’


By mucking pocket 7s against Vahedi, you survived. Several hours later, you went on a rush and built your stack nicely. You took advantage of those players who were trying to coast into the money by picking up blinds and antes frequently. On day two, when the field was reduced to 250 (putting everyone in the money), the play accelerated and you picked your spots more carefully. Now, with 84 players remaining, you have $116,000 in chips (two and a half times the size of an average stack). The blinds are $1,500-$3,000, with each player posting a $300 ante.

Once again, you pick up red 7s. After two players fold, tournament chip leader David Pham (a very aggressive player) raises to $16,000. After his raise, it appears ‘The Dragon’ has a whopping $215,000 remaining. Knowing David is far from a tight player, you want to test him. In addition, you’d like to thin the field. So, you reraise to $40,700.

The $700 is an attempt to distract David by taking his thoughts away from his task at hand, to make the correct decision. You’re hoping everyone will fold. A likely scenario is all fold to David and he calls. In that case, at least you’ll be in position for the next three bets.

However, after 25 seconds, David announces he’s all-in. If my maths is correct (never a guarantee), you have $75,000 left and there’s $163,600 in the pot. As such, you’re getting more than 2/1 on the pending call. What should you do?

Well, your tournament life is at stake, so pot odds lose some significance, but the price you’re getting is still part of the equation. We should call David in this spot. The keys:

  • David knows he can lose this pot and still be in decent shape.
  • The Dragon is a supreme risk-taker.
  • Being pot committed and out of position, it’s likely that a professional would move in with A-K, as opposed to calling your raise.
  • I’ve seen David make this type of play with 3-3 and K-Q suited.
  • In a race against A-K (his most likely holding), you’re in the lead with a 55/45 expectation.

Unless the former Player of the Year holds a higher pair than 7s, you’re getting a really terrific price on your call.

The big money is in the top payout slots in tournament poker, and so taking measured risk to gain substantial reward is vital in tournament play.


You’re solidly in the hunt for the $800,000 first prize after surviving your encounter with Pham. David held A-K and spiked an Ace on the flop, but you hit a 7 on the river. The five community cards will give you a set around 19% of the time when you start with a pair. Then you went on a tear. At this point, you’re the chip leader with nine players remaining. You sit behind $1.3 million while an average stack is $433,333. Ninth place pays $59,000.

You pick up red 7s again. The blinds are $10,000- $20,000 with $3,000 antes. After two players fold, Allen Cunningham raises to $90,000. He has $498,000 left and his tournament life is at stake if you move in for a raise of $498,000. Of course, that probably isn’t your best option. Calling is even less viable, as you don’t want either blind player coming along. You want to pick up the pot uncontested with a pre-flop reraise or, if necessary, play Allen heads-up and in position. That leaves folding or raising to around $176,000, which is enough to make Allen fold a non-premium hand. What should you do?

You probably have the best hand, so you can put pressure on Cunningham and the rest of the table. You should raise. The keys:

  • As chip leader, you always want to be a bully.
  • You want to force Allen to muck two overcards.
  • By taking the lead in the play of this hand, assuming Allen calls, you’ll be able to manoeuvre better on the flop.
  • If Allen (or another player behind you) calls, you have better defined his holding: you can assume you’re up against one of the six (or maybe seven) best starting hands.

Failure to utilise a big stack is a common mistake. A chip leader shouldn’t fold all good and marginal hands in an effort to move up in the money. That’s a long-term financial error, as you’ll shed chips and forfeit your advantageous ‘bully’ roll. Many a chip leader has played his or her way weakly into fifth or sixth place in major events. Strong players will pounce on weak chip leaders.


While I provided definitive determinations to the three problems, each was a fairly close decision. As such, if you disagreed with my judgments, that’s okay. The important point is that poker is a situational game: the same hand may be played quite differently depending on two of the most important factors: the stage you’re in and the size of your stack relative to your opponents’.

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