Playing Pairs and Big Cards Pre-Flop

Pocket pairs and big cards represent almost all of the hands you should be playing, and where almost all of the profit comes from. This lesson covers when and how to play these critical hands in the context of the three previous lessons on position and loose/tight games.

Playing Pairs

AA: Raise. I do not care about game, position, type of opponents, or loss of deception. When you see aces pre-flop in a cash game, raise. Some people advocate open-calling with aces on occasion, planning to use this deception later, either by re-raising a pre-flop raiser or by making a big hidden hand later. Many of them are very good players, and I am not saying they are wrong. But AA is not just a little better than other starting hands; it is a lot better. It will frequently win without improvement and by failing to raise you are giving up significant preflop equity.

There is one more point about pocket aces. They do not always win. Yes, I know you knew that, but some people play as if this fact comes as a complete shock. They will cling to the aces until the showdown in spite of any evidence that they cannot win this particular pot. Then they show everyone their hand, hoping to get the sympathy they deserve. Try not to fall into the trap. If you feel your hand is no good, even if it’s AA, lay it down – face down. Only your mother and spouse care about your bad luck.

KK, QQ, JJ: They are all very good hands, of course, and are normally worth a raise or reraise. The raise enlarges the pot, but more importantly may eliminate players who have an overcard that might call one small pre-flop bet, but not two or three. With these hands you are hoping to have an overpair to the flop, and collect money from folks who will call you down with a smaller pair (usually hoping you are overplaying AK or AQ).

A major exception is QQ and JJ in the big blind. Do not raise from this spot against more than two players with QQ or JJ. You can no longer eliminate players by raising. When overcard(s) flop (1/3 of the time for QQ, over 1/2 the time for JJ), you want to be able to get off the hand quickly and cheaply. More importantly, if you flop an overpair, you want to raise someone to eliminate players with overcards. If you raise pre-flop, you will just be betting on the flop and they will all call. If you just check pre-flop from the blind, someone with a pair or draw might bet, allowing you to raise. This raise will either eliminate the players with overcards or force them to pay too high a price, increasing your EV.

The discussion above is also true for the small blind, except when you feel you can eliminate the big blind by raising. If you can’t, just call and wait to make a play later, if possible.

TT, 99: In tight games, you can open-raise with these hands Under The Gun (UTG) or later. They are the smallest pairs you can play in tough games in early position. Any small pair is a fold in tight and especially in tough games in early position. You simply will not get the five or more opponents you need to justify laying the 7.1:1 odds against you flopping a set, and you could easily get raised, making you pay extra to play a poor hand out of position.

TT and 99 play well against one or two opponents, and lose a lot of value against three or four opponents. In a loose game where nobody respects raises, you will get several players anyway and the value of the raise diminishes. You may as well just call.

In late position, you can raise a single limper, especially if there is a decent chance to create a heads-up or three-way pot. Since you will fold to overcards most of the time, and overcards will come most of the time, you do not want to invest a lot of money on these hands against 3, 4, or 5 opponents. Beyond that, play these hands as small pairs.

Small Pairs (88 – 22): Yes, I know 88 is a better hand than 22, but in most multiway pots, they play very similarly. You do not expect to flop an overpair, so you are fundamentally hoping to flop a set. These hands are very positional. You want to play them only against a single opponent, or against five or more opponents. You do not want to put in three bets to see a flop four handed. Therefore, you should play these hands only in the last three positions where you can get a good feel for how many opponents and how many bets you will need to put in.

In tight games, where multiway pots are infrequent, resist the temptation to raise with these cards from middle position in an attempt to win the blinds or get heads-up. Your success rate will likely not be enough to justify expending money on these mediocre hands.

Also, in tight games, players fall in love with the idea of three-betting a single player who has raised. This seems attractive, as it will get you heads up with initiative against a player who may well have only big cards. You will have some success if you do this, but overall I believe it to be a losing play. First, you may not isolate the player, in which case you are in real trouble. Second, he may have, or make, or, if he is good, represent a pocket or flopped pair. Third, you may be reraised and be forced to call to the river to see where you are. You may make this play against a loose raiser, or against a single raiser in very late position where you are the cutoff or the button. Otherwise, let it go, fold the hand and wait for more favorable circumstances.

It is hard to lay down pairs, I know. But it is one of the first signs of a truly maturing player.

Playing Big Cards

In this section, I will discuss hands with two cards with letters in the corners (A, K, Q, and J). Actually, I could easily do a lesson on every hand in this category, so we will have to be brief and paint a broad picture.

In general, you are trying to make top pair with a good kicker and have it hold up. This means big cards play best against few opponents. In large multiway pots, big cards lose a lot of their value; one pair will typically not be enough to win. It will hold up sometimes, but you must also be prepared to get off the hand if you are challenged. Pre-flop your main goal is to reduce the field if possible, and to keep the pot small if you can’t. Because these goals conflict, you will need to judge whether your raise will eliminate people. If players in your game tend to ignore raises, then you will want to make them more sparingly.

Suited big cards play better against a large field because a flush draw, even a back-door one, allows you to see the turn a little more often when you have not flopped a pair or better. Therefore, you can afford to play suited big cards stronger pre-flop even with a larger field.

A few notes on specific hands follow:

AK: These premium cards still like a small field. Raise all the time except when there are four or more limpers. With several players already in, do not raise out of the blinds with this hands.
AKs: Unlike with AK, you can raise with this hand in any position and against any number of players. You still need to play it carefully post flop.
AQ: This is a much tougher hand to play. In general, enter raising following the rules for AK. However, in tough games, you might fold this hand in early position. Also, be very careful calling raises with it. If a tight player raises in early position in front of you, release the hand.
AQs: You can play this hand like AKs almost all of the time. Do not raise from the blinds as much, but it is OK to call an early raise from a tight player trying to induce multiway action.
AJ: This hand is a fold in early position. After that, you may treat it like AQ.
AJs: You can play this hand up front in all but the toughest games. I normally do not recommend raising in early position unless the game is very tight. Do not call early raises unless you will get several other players coming in with you.
KQ: While this hand does not have a ace, it still has a reasonable chance to make top pair/top kicker. However, this is not a hand to play in a raised pot unless you are the raiser. Do not play this hand in early position.
KQs: I like large suited connectors and do not mind playing this hand in multiway pots for several bets. It is playable early, but usually for a call. A raise is not a great choice because anyone who calls ought to have a better hand. You would eliminate all of the players with poorer hands who might pay you off while isolating yourself against better hands. So go for the multiway pot. You can raise several players, however, as you should not mind larger pots.
KJ: While it looks pretty with all of those pictures staring back at you, KJ is really the beginning of the mediocre hands that get people in trouble. Play only in late position and only if you can get in cheaply. This is not a hand to call raises with. You may open raise in late or late/middle position.
KJs: Not much better than KJ, this hand does not play as well as KQs by any means. Again, do not play this hand early, and do not raise with it late unless you are the first one in. Do not call raises unless, of course, you have already put in one bet.
QJ: This hand has been called “Hawaii” because with all of the money you save not playing it, you can afford a trip to that island paradise. You may gather from this that I do not think very much of this hand. You can play it late for one bet, but that’s about it.
QJs: While not as good as KQs by any means, this is a much better hand than QJ. It does not work well with few opponents, however, so make sure you are getting multiway action.

Next lesson we will look at the play of other hands pre-flop.

Lesson created by Barry Tanenbaum