Who Doesn’t Like a Big Pair

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Let’s talk about big pairs, the top hands in no limit Texas hold’em: A-A and K-K. (Don’t fret Q-Q J-J; next time we’ll talk about you). In this article, we’ll discuss such heady subjects as how to play the top pairs correctly, and whether it ever makes sense to slowplay these monsters.

As you know, big pairs are rare birds. On average, we’ll pick up pocket aces or kings about once every 110 hands. As that’s more than ten laps around a full table, we mostly won’t have to trouble our tiny minds with how to play big tickets. But sometimes we will, so let’s break it down, pair by pair.

First, some friendly advice:

DON’T GET EXCITED!

Sure, you’ve got a big pocket pair, and sure you’ve been waiting patiently for just such a hand, but that’s no reason to lose your mind. Big pocket pairs are a profi t opportunity. Don’t squander it by going off half-cocked. Take your time and think things through. The poker gods have bestowed upon you a gift; make the most of that gift.

bigpairjeansPOCKET ACES

When you look down at your hole cards and see those happy ones looking back, your blood races, your heart pounds, and your hands begin to sweat. It’s a natural reaction to pocket aces. After all, you’ve got the best possible hold’em hand. Everyone else is chasing you. In this instant, many players have an urge to drag (slowplay) aces. May I suggest that you fi ght this urge? Around here we have a saying:

SLOWPLAY ACES, GO TO HELL

Here’s why, in three easy reasons.

1. When you slowplay aces, you let bad hands see cheap flops. Maybe the small blind completes with 7-8 suited and fl ops a 9-6-5 straight. You don’t put her on a made hand, so you blithely bet out, only to face a raise. Now your bile rises — how dare she raise your aces? — so you reraise. Next thing you know, you’re all in and drawing dead, just because you let some piece of cheap cheese into the pot.

2. Pocket aces don’t like a lot of company. Yes, they’re a preflop favorite against any other single hand. They’re even a favorite against two or three other hands. As soon as they face four foes, though, your pocket aces become an underdog to the field. We raise with aces, then, not just to drive out crap hands but to preserve the edge our aces have.

3. Don’t you want to earn some scratch? How will you do that if you don’t get some money into the pot. Antonio Esfandiari’s simple strategy for no limit hold’em is this: Build a pot, then take it away. That strategy works especially well when you hold a powerhouse like magic bullets.

In the face of all this compelling logic, why do we drag our aces, ever? The answer is really not strategic, it’s emotional. Aces come along so rarely that we don’t want to waste them. We want to make big money from our big hands. We’re afraid if we raise, everyone will fold, and we’ll have nothing to show for our big aces but some piddling blinds. Know what? That’s not the end of the world. At least you didn’t let 8-7 suited in for cheap and take you off your whole stack.

Anyway, if everyone runs for cover when you raise with aces, you’re probably not raising often enough with other hands. You do want to be raising, you know, with suffi cient frequency so that your foes won’t put you on a premium hand every time you push in some chips. So here’s a thought:

DON’T SLOWPLAY ACES — FASTPLAY OTHER HANDS

That way when you raise with aces, your foes will figure it’s just another one of your frisky attempts to be a big hairy bully. They won’t put you on aces and they will pay you off. Good times.

POCKET KINGS

Like aces, kings work best against a short field. You should definitely raise with them preflop, from any position, because they’re a huge favorite to be the best hand. As with aces, raise enough to drive out the ribbon clerks who can pummel you from below — three times the big blind is a good point of departure; bet more if others limp in first. As with aces, you don’t want a lot of traffic. Trouble with kings, though, is that the traffic they attract usually contains aces. Yes, you’ll get calls from underpairs, but you’ll also see action from A-K, A-Q and A-J, and while you’re a favorite against these hands preflop, an ace on the flop puts you in very bad shape.

Suppose you go three times the big blind from late position and get called by the big blind. You don’t put her on pocket aces — she’d have reraised with those — but nonetheless she bets right out when the flop comes A-6-3 rainbow. Is she on a naked steal? Or does she have the ace? It’s a tough puzzle — one of the toughest in hold’em. Tough as it is, we often make it tougher on ourselves through a psychological landmine I call (somewhat grandiosely) the phenomenon of the stealth ace. Here’s how that works.

Kings, like aces, are rare. So kings, like aces, come with a certain sense of entitlement. We’ve waited patiently for them, and we feel we deserve to profit from them. When that ace hits the flop, it thwarts our hope for the hand. But hope, per Emily Dickenson, is the thing with feathers, and the flighty stuff has the power to convince us that the ace is not a threat. Sometimes our denial is so strong that we just don’t see that ace at all. Hence: the stealth ace.

Don’t fall into this trap. Recognize the real danger of an ace on the flop and be clear-eyed enough to fold if you face a lot of heat. I’m not saying you always have to run scared — if you did that, your opponents would own you every time an ace hits the board — but you do need to banish wishful thinking and:

IF YOU’RE BEAT, RETREAT

Play pocket kings boldly, but not preciously. Treat them as the best hand until evidence suggests otherwise. Don’t ignore that evidence, but don’t overvalue it, either. Remember, if your foe starts out with an ace, he’ll pair it on only one flop out of five. That’s not a high likelihood, and that’s why we play kings strongly preflop: because they’ll most often still be good postflop. Like other big pairs, kings also love to snap off top pair, top kicker (what we call top/top). Here’s how that happens. You make your standard preflop raise and get called by A-J suited. Now the fl op comes J-x-x, and your foe thinks she’s sitting pretty. This is one time it makes sense to slowplay. Lay back a little and let her get hooked on the hand. Let her bet big, then come over the top, either taking her off her stack or forcing her to make a tough, tough laydown. Again, good times. With pocket kings against top/top, then, your goal should be this:

POUNCE ON THE UNWARY

It’s very rewarding and very profitable. But, again, you want to have set this up by raising preflop. You don’t want weak hands to get in cheap, hit two pair on the fl op and trap you for all your chips. If they all fold — if you don’t always get full value from your cowboys — so what? You’re betting both to narrow the field and to define your foes’ hands. Information is power in poker, and a preflop raise gives you the information you need to play your big pairs correctly – which is to say strongly – every time.

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