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Big Pairs, Big Trouble

Nothing beats the feeling of looking down to find wired aces in Hold’em, but if you don’t know how to play your big pairs post-flop, your joy could prove to be very short-lived indeed. GOM’s Duncan Wilkie lends a helping hand.

Without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most fundamental yet often overlooked laws of no limit Hold’em is that there is no such thing as absolute hand strength. We’ve all been there and heard the stories at our local pub games, where an early poker casualty stares forlornly into their pint, quietly bemoaning the cruel beat fate has just bestowed upon on them. Reluctantly, we sidle up to them and – more out of a sense of duty than any real interest – ask them what on earth happened.

“I had a pair of kings. Imagine losing on a pair of kings!” is more often than not the type of typically nonsensical response we receive. Omitted are the details that all of the money went in after a raise and a re-raise on a monotone (one-suit), ace-jack-ten flop, but such idle trivia rarely ever gets in the way of a bad beat yarn. The lesson here is that a pair of kings is rarely ever just a pair of kings – its relative strength is derived from the type of opponent you are playing, their likely range of hands and – perhaps most importantly of all – the texture of the board you’re playing on.

In this month’s article, we’re going to try and look at how to make the most of your big pairs in favourable situations while avoiding the inherent pitfalls of overplaying these hands on dangerously textured boards. In all of the following examples, we’ll assume that you’ve correctly raised an opening bet with your big pair pre-flop and talk you through what to do next on a range of differently textured boards. First up, a flop that you’ll always be happy to see when holding a pre-flop monster.

Favourable Board: No over-cards to your pair i.e. 9c-5d-2s

Naturally, this is the type of board that you are ideally hoping to see when you hold a pair of jacks or better pre-flop. The three cards are all lower than your pocket pair and the texture of the board offers no obvious straight or flush draws that you will need to be particularly mindful of when betting. Therefore, you have free reign to think about how to extract the most from your opponent, and the first step towards doing that will be to gauge the range of hands that they would have called you with pre-flop.

Assuming your opponent is a reasonably competent player, the range of hands which they will call your raise with pre-flop is fairly narrow. Here we can expect their likely hand range to be confined to big pairs, big aces and small-to-medium pairs looking to improve to sets on the flop. As such, it is imperative that you lead out at this flop 100% of the time and continue to fire on later streets. Your opponent is likely to raise with an overpair of their own – allowing you to move all-in over the top if you think your big pair has them crushed – and will probably call with AK/AQ type hands based on the assumption that you are merely continuation betting the flop.

Of course, the size of your pair is a factor as if an ace comes on the turn you will have to re-evaluate if you are holding kings or worse, but conversely, if your opponent hits the other card in their hand they are liable to stack-off drawing very thin. With these completely ‘dry’ types of board, your main danger comes from players calling with smaller pairs in the hope of making a set, but the likelihood of this happening is so small that you will just have to pay off these hands if you have been out-flopped.

Neutral Board: One over-card to your pair i.e. Ad-9c-3h

The flop in this situation is slightly different to the one mentioned in the first example. Though the board remains ‘dry’ with no obvious draws present, this time it has come with one over-card to your big pair (we’ll assume you don’t have pocket aces in this scenario). Using the hand range for your opponent outlined in the previous example, you now face the obvious danger that your big pair has been out-flopped by AK/AQ and you will now have to proceed in the hand with a measure of caution.

It is still correct to lead out with your big pairs on this type of board, but you will have to be especially mindful of how your opponent responds to your bet and may have to re-evaluate matters if they show you any real signs of strength. On this type of board you are only really looking to get one street of value and if your opponent plays back at you, you will be forced to slow down. If you are raised, you are likely to be behind and should usually fold your hand, while if your bet is called, it is wise to check the turn and then call or fold based on your player read if your opponent bets.

The key here is to not play a huge pot when you are uncertain of where you are in the hand and not open yourself up to large raises on later streets. Occasionally you will be made to fold the best hand on the turn, but by playing cautiously and trying to get to a showdown as cheaply as possible, you will at least pick up a few small pots from all the non-ace pairs that your opponent was prepared to call a bet with on the flop.

Unfavourable Board: Connected/flushing flop i.e. Kd-Qc-10c

Connected, two-suit flops with three high cards are undoubtedly the last thing you want to see when holding a big pair. The reason for this is that they lend themselves perfectly to your opponent’s pre-flop calling range, and while sometimes you will flop a set and have no choice but to get the money in there and then, you are rarely ever going to be an overwhelming favourite against the myriad pair/draw combos you are likely to be up against.

Of course, the situation is infinitely worse if your big pair doesn’t connect and merely remains an overpair to the board. In this scenario, your hand could not only have been out-flopped by a made straight, trips or top two-pair, but you are also practically coin-flipping against strong drawing hands like Ac Kc. Fortunately, however, there are still enough pair/straight draw type hands out there that you are a decent favourite against for you to lead into this type of board, but you must be aware that in reality, you will be looking to get all of your money in on the flop with only a small edge.

It is possible for you to lead into a ‘wet’ board like this and then fold to a raise, but such a play will rely on you being able to very accurately gauge your opponent’s hand and is only advisable if you are sure you are crushed. These are the type of flops that players love to play their pair/draw combos fast on, as they know even if they get called and are behind, they will still have some outs for the win. As such, a lot of the time you will simply have to bite the bullet by getting your money in on the flop and praying your hand holds up, as giving a cheap turn card would be complete suicide. Hopefully, with these considerations in mind, you will be able to play your big pairs far more profitably in future sessions.
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