Mastering Pocket Pairs: Winning Guide

If you’re new to playing poker, there are probably a lot of terms you’re hearing for the first time, and one of them might be “pocket pairs.” We’re going to take a look at the different types of poker pairs and discuss exactly what pocket pairs are, why you want them, and how to play them. We’ll define high and low pocket pairs and discuss the poker pair rules that apply when you’re dealt a pocket pair.

There are no magic tricks or guarantees when it comes to playing poker. There’s some skill involved, for sure, but also lots of luck in terms of the cards you’re dealt. However, knowing exactly why a particular hand is good and how to play it is definitely a step in the right direction when it comes to winning at poker, so let’s dive in.

What Are Pocket Pairs?

When you are dealt two cards of the same value (say, two Aces, Queens, or sevens), that is a pocket pair. The term pocket pair refers to the fact that the pair is in your hand, and nobody else at the table knows about it. That is, it might as well be in your pocket. This is opposed to a pair that is already out on the table or a pair you can make with a card in your hand and one on the table.

For example, if you have a King in your hand and there’s one on the table, you can make a pair, but it’s not a pocket pair. Everybody knows about the King on the table, and when you make your pair, everybody knows about that too. If someone else at the table is holding a pocket pair of Aces, they have a better hand, but you won’t know that, and neither will the other players.

So with a pocket pair, the other players don’t know you’re holding a pair. This gives you a certain advantage, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll win, of course. It depends on the pair you’re holding and what other people have in their hands.

As you’re no doubt aware, the highest pair wins in poker, so even if you’re sitting there with a pair of Kings, that’s no good if there’s an Ace on the table and someone else has an Ace in hand. If that person makes a pair of Aces, that pair will beat your pair of Kings.

The Strength of Pocket Pairs

Being dealt a pocket pair may not be any guarantee of a win, but it’s a good hand to be dealt, especially if it’s a premium pocket pair. But even if it’s a lower pair, you’re still off to a good start. Generally speaking, picture cards are considered premium pocket pairs. A pair of sevens, eights, nines or tens is a medium pocket pair, and low pairs are sixes or below.

Being dealt a pocket pair means you have a good chance to flop a set, and a set – or three of a kind – is considered a very strong hand. Again, there are no guarantees, but starting with a pocket pair is going to improve your chances, statistically speaking. You’ll be looking for the highest set possible, so starting with a high-value pocket pair is great, but there’s more to it than that.

Even a complete beginner will understand that holding a higher value pocket pair is better than holding a low value one. What they may not immediately consider is that the value of premium pocket pairs actually increases as the number of players involved in the hand decreases. Once a few players are out of the hand, you’re statistically less likely to get out-flopped by another player.

Playing Pocket Pairs Preflop

How to play pocket pairs will depend on a few factors and will change depending on the pair and the stage of the game you’re at. How you play during the preflop (the initial round of betting) may be different from how you play in subsequent rounds (the postflop). In the initial round, you’ll have the chance to bet or raise your opponents. Then the flop cards are dealt and you’re into the next phase of the game.

If you have a premium pocket pair, you’ll want to go in quite aggressively preflop. At this point, your hand is likely to be better than your opponents, and you’ll want to be open-raising and three-betting (a three-bet refers to when you re-raise after the initial preflop raise). This kind of aggressive betting strategy will build the pot up early on, which will often pay off if you really do have a strong hand. 

You can still open raise and bet quite aggressively with a medium pocket pair. You’re in a fairly strong position, as medium pocket pairs often still lead to a win, depending on other factors, but you may want to be a little more conservative depending on your bankroll and your overall poker strategy. 

Playing low pocket pairs preflop is trickier. They’re unlikely to play well postflop unless they increase to a set. Remember that while pocket pairs are considered a great start partly because they give you a chance to flop a set (or indeed an even better hand), it is only a chance. In fact, statistically speaking, pocket pairs can be expected to flop a set or better around 12% of the time, so keep this in mind.

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Postflop Play with Pocket Pairs

Postflop, you’ll still want to be playing quite aggressively if you’re holding a premium pocket pair, as that’s a strong hand in its own right. That is, a premium pocket pair doesn’t necessarily need to improve to a set or better in order to be ahead of your opponents’ hands. If it does improve, then of course you’re looking at a very strong hand and should continue to raise and bet aggressively.

Don’t get complacent, though. A high pocket pair is great, but it’s still only a pair. If it doesn’t increase to a set, then your opponents can catch up with you pretty quickly. Beginner players tend to slow play a high – or even medium – pocket pair, and this can be a mistake. As in any poker game, you’ll want to closely observe the other players. You may be ahead of your opponents if you’re sitting on a high pocket pair, but you may be wasting time letting others improve their hands.

With medium pocket pairs, you’ll want to be less aggressive, but remember that there’s quite a lot of difference within the “medium” category. A pocket pair of tens will flop an overpair far more often than, for example, a pocket pair of sevens, so you may well want to three-bet your tens but not your sevens.

As we’ve already mentioned, low pocket pairs don’t have a whole lot going for them per se, but they do have the possibility to increase to a set, which is definitely what you’re hoping will happen in postflop play. If your pocket pair increases to a set, you can continue to play aggressively. If you miss the flop and can’t take your hand to three of a kind (at least), it’s probably time to fold.

Remember the stats. There’s only a 12% chance that any pocket pair will increase to a set or better. The odds of getting a pocket pair are 5.9%, and the odds of getting a specific pair is around 0.5%. The lower your pair, the more likely it is that anyone else with a pocket pair will have a higher one. There’s also a very high chance that the flop will bring over cards, leaving a player who’s playing a low pocket pair with an underpair.

Adjusting Based on Your Opponents

How you play pocket pairs will depend on your opponents’ actions as well as your own preferred strategy. A high pocket pair means you can play aggressively, but if one of your opponents is also playing aggressively you may be up against a better hand. If the flop increases your pair to a set, though, you’re playing a much stronger hand, and it’s reasonable to assume your hand is now ahead of your opponent’s range.

If you flop an overpair, or second pair, you can consider making a continuation bet (known as a c-bet), as you’ll probably still be ahead of your opponent’s calling range. Betting aggressively at this point has advantages in increasing the pot, of course, but it may also force an opponent to fold if they really are holding a weaker hand.

It’s always tempting to set mine with a weaker pocket pair, which means you’ll basically call on the preflop with the sole intention of hitting a set on the flop, but if your opponents seem confident and are betting aggressively, it can be a better strategy to decide to not play a weak pocket pair. 

One of the most important poker skills you can master is really reading your opponents so you can see through bluffs, but if you’re a beginner player up against a very aggressive opponent, it’s also good to remember that the most obvious explanation is often the real one. You could simply be up against a much better hand. 

Common Mistakes to Avoid

There are a few mistakes to avoid when playing pocket pairs, high or low. 

  • Playing the hand in isolation. This is a common mistake for all poker players in all situations. It’s not just this hand that matters; your strategy can and should change depending on how the game is going for you and what your bankroll is. If you can’t afford to play the riskier hands, fold more. If you can, you’ll be able to take more risks. It’s that simple. This is really important when playing pocket pairs and thinking about things like set mining (see the next point). 
  • Set mining in unfavorable conditions, especially with a small pocket pair. Your odds of hitting a set are low, as we’ve already discovered, so think before employing this strategy. It is almost definitely a mistake when up against a big open, a big raise, or three bet.
  • Slow playing. As we’ve mentioned, slow playing a pocket pair, especially a higher one, can be tempting, but it can also be a mistake. Slow playing a strong hand gives other players a chance to catch up to you.
  • Overplaying higher pocket pairs when they’re marginal hands. A high pocket pair is not always the strongest hand at the table. Even a pair of Aces is still only a pair. If you’ve got nothing else of value in your hand and there’s a lot of money going into the pot, you may well still be behind your opponents.

When to Fold Pocket Pairs

It can be a good idea to fold with smaller pocket pairs as they aren’t likely to play well postflop unless they improve. You can try set mining, but you should also be taking position into account. It’s generally better to fold on a low pocket pair in the face of a late position raise. For the same reason, if you’re making a late position raise on a low pocket pair rather than folding, make it a big raise. You want to scare off others with marginal hands, forcing them to fold.

Hopefully, you now have a much clearer idea about how to play pocket pairs. They’re a strong starting hand, especially if they’re at the high end of the deck, but don’t assume that they’re easy to play. There’s a lot to consider before you decide how to best play your pocket pair to maximize your chances of winning.

Author: Tanya Fields

Campaign Acquisition Manager Length with RC: 1 year, 9 months Favorite Casino Game: Starburst Background in iGaming: Opened the iGaming Department at Hard Rock Atlantic City in 2018 in both Customer Service, and then CRM, prior to moving over to RC in January 2021 Location: Based in NJ at the RC HQ Content: Occasionally, but only as it pertains to RC