A great system for pocket pairs at the poker table

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Recently, several emails have come from students with queries on how best to play pocket pairs. Let’s explore a few rules of thumb to keep us out of trouble.

My quick advice is to recognize we’re playing to hit a set, hence the term “set-mining,” and to be extremely aware of the effective stacks in play. This will ensure you’re making strong preflop decisions. We want to minimize costs and maximize gains.

Players tend to overplay J-J. Think of jacks as a pair of eights and they’ll become a profitable hand. Even to this day, I get butterflies when I look down and see jacks.

Our strategy is to catch a flop and not pay too much. Avoid raising and never put in more than 5-10 percent of your stack. If we miss our set, we can minimize our loss.

When calling a raise with a pair, be aware of the raiser’s stack. We’re looking ultimately to get 15-1 on our money. In a $1-$2 game, a player raises to $10. The raiser must have $150 in front of him for us to be getting the right price. Obviously, we also need a stack to match his $150, which is the effective stack size. Do not skim this. Reread it. We’re shopping for the right price to play. If more players call, so much the better. How no-limit hold’em players play their pairs can be the difference of a winning or losing session, the difference of a winning or losing year.

The odds of hitting your set are about 7.5-1. So why are we looking for a 15-1 effective stack? Good question. That’s because our sets don’t always win. When we do win, it’s often a paid-off hand, which spells profit. With a 15-1 rule of thumb, we will overcome the losses of when the set doesn’t hold up.

Position plays an important role in our final decision on whether to play the hand. And this also ties in to our table awareness.

Again, Mission No. 1 is to catch a cheap flop. If we sniff out a reraise behind us, we might be forced to pass. Imagine we have 6-6 and an early seat has made it $10. We like the price, but we are sure a reraise is coming behind us. Better to release our hand. This also relates to game texture.

Winning players have a sixth sense about what is going to happen behind them. Some games, there are relatively few three-bets. In others, there is a higher frequency. Winning players are able to predict what is going to happen behind them with strong accuracy.
If pocket pairs are net winners for you, there’s a good chance you’re beating the game.

— Mark Brement has spent 15 years teaching and coaching all facets of poker, including at Pima CC. Email him at brementmark@gmail.com.