Playing Pocket Pairs and Sets in No Limit Hold’em

The Tip Top Fox explores the basics behind playing pocket pairs and flopped sets in No Limit Texas Hold’em

Pocket pairs are some of the best hands in poker. The top five premium hands in the game are all pocket pairs. However, playing pocket pairs is not always straightforward. The smaller the pair, the trickier it can be to play. There are several perils and pitfalls that await newcomers to the game when it comes to playing pocket pairs. Tip Top Fox explores some of the best ways to realise your equity when playing these hands.

Exploring Equity

Equity in poker relates to the portion of the pot a player can win based on the likelihood they win the hand. This comes down to percentages. Let’s take pocket aces as an example.

Aces are an 85% pre-flop favourite over two random cards. While this figure will change depending on your opponents’ exact pre-flop holdings – dropping to 80% versus another pocket pair and increasing to 88% versus a hand like ace-king – in general, it means aces should win a little over four times out of five.

So, if you raised with aces preflop and got a caller from a player with a hand like jacks or tens, you would have 80% pot equity before the flop. If there was $100 in the pot, your pot equity would be $80. Of course, if you win the hand you will receive 100% of the pot. However, if you lose you will win zero. This figure of $80 just helps you realise your equity – i.e. aid you in working out what percentage of the time you will win. This will tell you how much you stand to gain or lose depending on the result.

Playing Pocket Pairs

Pocket pairs are important starting hands in NLHE. The best three starting hands in the game – A-A, K-K, and Q-Q – are all pairs. The odds of being dealt any pair are 17 to 1. The odds of being dealt any specific pair are 220/1.

Pocket pairs have some of the best equity versus two random cards in poker. However, that does not mean you should be calling or raising all pairs from all positions at the table.

Small pocket pairs play less well than big ones. This means they also have less equity against other hands; your chances of winning the pot come the river with pocket twos is less than your chances of winning with pocket aces.

Pairs can be divided into three categories; Big pairs (AA – QQ); Medium pairs (JJ – 99); Small pairs (88-22).

Big pairs are some of the best possible preflop hands. To play them optimally it’s best to play them aggressively, either with a raise, or a re-raise. As previously mentioned, a player holding A-A has around 85% equity to beat any other two cards if they go all-in preflop (apart from another A-A, obviously).

Medium pairs are good hands. While it is usually correct to raise them preflop, this can depend greatly on your position and the action before it gets to you. Medium pairs do not play as well as big pairs post-flop. The smaller the pair, the greater the likelihood of overcards hitting the flop, meaning it can often be difficult to tell if you have the best hand. The later your position at the table, the easier it is to play your hand. As a general rule of thumb, the smaller the pair, the later your position needs to be to play optimally.

Small pairs are tricky hands to play. In general, it’s best to treat them with caution. Often it’s correct to fold them preflop (if facing a sizable raise) a large percentage of the time. Their value lies mainly in their set mining potential, and players should try and see a flop cheaply, if possible.

Flopping a Set

A ‘set’ is when a player is holding a pair and one of the two remaining cards flops to give them three of a kind. The chance of flopping a set is one of the main reasons players try to see flops cheaply with small pairs. The chance of flopping a set is around 12% – roughly one time in seven for odds 7-1.

Sets are extremely strong hands in NLHE, with the added advantage of being hard for an opponent to spot. This can often lead to winning a big pot. However, when set mining it is important to understand implied odds – the amount a player stands to win if they hit their hand.

While the odds of hitting a set are 7-1, you need to win more than seven times the size of the pre-flop bet. This is to make up for all the times you don’t hit your set and fold.

In general, you need implied odds of around 15-1 to make set mining profitable. That means if you were playing in a $0.50/$1 cash game and an opponent had raised to $2 they would need to have at least $30 in their stack to make your call profitable.

This takes into account the fact that you are going to miss the flop 88% of the time. The earlier your position, the more implied odds you need to make calling profitable. Implied odds of 20 or 25-1 are preferable if playing out of position as you may well have to fold an unimproved small pair to sustained aggression.

Even if you hit your set, you might not get paid. Your opponent could miss with a hand like ace-king or ace-queen and fold. Even if your opponent has a big pair, or has flopped top pair, top kicker with a hand like ace-king, there is still the chance that they hit a higher set or some other favourable flush/straight runout. That’s why it’s important to take into consideration your opponent’s stack size relative to the blinds. This ensures you are getting the correct implied odds to hit your set.

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