Playing With Big Pairs

You look down at a big pair, aces, kings or queens if you are a semi-tight, aggressive player. Jacks are added to the mix if your style is semi-loose, aggressive. Hooray, you have a premium starting hand. That’s the good news! You are likely the best hand but you aren’t likely to win a huge pot. Not only that but they are often crushed by a baby pair that hits a set on the flop and may spell disaster for a weaker player unable to make a big laydown. Unless the big pair improves on the flop or turn what you have is just one pair and in hold’em a pair, no matter how big, is often second-best.
Factors working against the Big Pair
The big pair is often the best hand pre-flop and continues to hold that status on the flop. Holding aces pre-flop is guaranteed to be best at that moment. If you bet your big pair strongly pre-flop and continue to bet strongly on the flop with an uncoordinated board it is likely that you will not get action, the hand will end and you win a small pot. When the board is highly textured your big pair is vulnerable to being out-drawn by an opponent making a straight or flush. Even if you hit a set you are still second best.

If players are sticking around when you are holding a big pair, warning bells should start to go off in your head. With an uncoordinated board and an unimproved big pair it is likely that your opponent hit a set with a baby or middle pair and has you crushed. You can hope for the miracle two-outer to make your set on the turn but it is probably best to recognize the warning signals and muck your big pair. If an opponent is staying around on the flop or turn with a coordinated board it is time to think about walking away. Your unimproved big pair is just a pair. Unless your opponent is so loose that you are able to discount their hand, it is sometimes wise to fold.
The other day I was playing against an ultra-loose player who saw nearly 80% of the flops and generally stuck around through at least the turn. He was bullying the table and inducing fold after fold with his aggressive betting. I had a QQ on the button. The flop came Q-8-7 rainbow. My opponent was in middle position and min-raised. The table folded to me and I bet around two-thirds the pot. He called. The turn was a brick, the 2h. My opponent went all in. I couldn’t wait to get my money in the pot. He turned over AK offsuit. My big pair improved on the flop and I won a substantial hand with my opponent drawing dead on the turn.

Strategy Pre-Flop

Holding AA, KK, QQ or JJ, it is most certain that you have the best hand pre-flop. I will raise from any position with any of these hands if I am first to act around 80% of the time and slow-play 20% of the time. If I am raised I will reraise or smooth call following the same formula. If I am raising I make it 3x the big blind but if I am re-raising I make it 3x the amount of the original raise. I want to get money in the pot but I don’t want to appear too anxious. These are relatively standard bet sizes. The only reason I will slow-play 20% of the time is to mix up my play so as not to be too predictable.

Post-Flop Strategy

If I hold aces or kings and they are unimproved on the flop I will c-bet 100% of the time. Queens or jacks slow me down just a bit. I use the 80/20 formula here where 80% of the time I c-bet and 20% of the time I check. I am not likely to lay down aces or kings unimproved on the flop. It is still almost certain that I have the best hand at this point. If, however, a tight player plays back at me with unexpected aggression I may lay down queens or jacks but I will see a turn with aces or kings.

If I do not improve on the turn and I am facing continued and unexpected aggression I will consider laying down aces or kings and, if I am still in the hand with unimproved queens or jacks I will most certainly muck. I am unwilling to lay down aces or kings very often because I am still likely holding the best hand. Holding kings I will sometimes, albeit not too often, loose to aces but I am also likely to be facing queens, jacks, AK to AT, also unimproved and a lay down will cost me money. My expected value with aces or kings is positive but begins to diminish dramatically with queens or jacks.

To Limp or Not

Some players like to limp with big pairs. Their argument is that a limp disguises the big pair and they are likely to get more callers in a pot with their limp. The problem with this strategy is that big pairs play better against a single opponent than they do in multi-way pots so raising to isolate is a better move. On the other hand, you might limp from early position with the intent to limp-raise if you are raised by someone in late position. Your limp-raise may have the same effect as an initial raise to isolate, only there is now more money in the pot. This can be an effective strategy if used sparingly. Over used it will become obvious and you will be lucky to get any action with your big pair.

In the end, play big pairs aggressively pre-flop meeting any aggression head on. If your hand is unimproved on the flop, turn or river and your opponent is acting with unusual aggression it may be correct to proceed with caution.

About the Author:
Roger Fischel began playing poker with his friends in high school. Seven Card Stud and Five Card Draw were the games of choice back then. Over the years, Roger turned to Texas Hold ‘em as his game of choice. During a long career as a teacher, Roger learned the value of sharing what he knows with others as a way to give back to the community in which he shares, thus, Rags to the River Poker was born. Come visit us today.

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