How to Play Pocket Pairs (It Might Surprise You)

The Ultimate Guide to Playing Pocket Pairs

This article was written by contributor Fran Ferlan.

Pocket pairs vary greatly hand strength wise, from pocket Aces, the strongest starting combination in no-limit hold’em, to pocket Twos, which is a weak hand and is in a lot of trouble if it doesn’t improve to a set post flop.

While hardly anyone has trouble playing strong pocket pairs like Aces or Kings, as you move down the pocket pairs hierarchy, things start to get more and more blurry. 

Pocket pairs are obviously stronger than non-paired hands, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they are easier to play.

If you have trouble playing pocket pairs, especially medium and/or weak pocket pairs, keep reading this cheat sheet.

This article will tell you everything you need to know about playing ALL pocket pairs like a pro.

There’s a lot of ground to cover here, so let’s get right into it, starting with strong (premium) pocket pairs.

1. How to Play Strong Pocket Pairs

Strong pocket pairs are premium hands in no-limit Texas hold’em, meaning they are the best possible starting hands you can get preflop. This includes pocket Aces, pocket Kings, pocket Queens and Pocket Jacks. 

As for the pocket Tens, you may include them in premium hands as well. But the problem with pocket Tens is the fact that they often won’t be an overpair on the flop, as any Jack, Queen, King or an Ace threatens to make it only a second or even third pair on the flop.

That’s 16 cards - almost a third of the deck that makes your pocket Tens relatively weaker. 

Also, even if your pocket Tens are an overpair on the flop, you still run the risk of your hand getting outdrawn on later streets.

By the way, an overpair is a pocket pair that’s stronger than all the cards on the flop. For example, on a flop like Q♠9♣2, pocket Aces and pocket Kings are an overpair.

Still, pocket Tens are decently strong, and should often be played aggressively preflop. 

You’ll still flop an overpair with them often enough, and if you manage to hit a set, you have a very strong hand indeed. 

Depending on the players you’re up against, pocket Tens can be strong enough to stack off with preflop. 

For example, if you’re up against a fishy opponent who likes to stack off lightly (with any pocket pair, suited Aces, or random broadway cards), pocket Tens are in great shape against such range. 

This means you can 3-bet them (and even 4-bet them) preflop quite comfortably, and let the math take care of the rest.

This is discussed in more detail in Crushing the Microstakes.

To 3-bet preflop is to raise against another player’s open-raise. To 4-bet is to raise against another player’s 3-bet and so on.

Strong pocket pairs should be played aggressively both preflop and postflop. That’s because these hands are strong in and of themselves, and they often don’t even need to improve postflop to be ahead.

There are obviously differences between how you should play pocket Aces and pocket Jacks, for example, but the same principle still applies: play them aggressively (especially preflop) while they are likely ahead of your opponent’s range.

This means you should open-raise and 3-bet them preflop, so you see the flop as the preflop aggressor. 

This will give you the opportunity to make a continuation bet on the flop, i.e. to continue with the aggression postflop.

With strong pocket pairs, you are 3-betting for value, because you hope to get called by weaker hands. This is the opposite of 3-betting as a bluff, where you want to get stronger hands than yours to fold.

I won’t get too deep into each individual pocket pair, even though there are obviously some differences between them.

If you struggle to play a specific pocket pair, Blackrain79 has you covered. 

Here’s a list of resources on playing individual pocket pairs:

Also, make sure to check out Nathan's recent video on poker hands everyone seems to screw up.

Pocket Tens are somewhat of an outlier, as they can be considered a strong or medium pocket pair, depending on the situation.

For this reason, we'll break down playing pocket Tens in more detail here.

Since pocket Tens fall somewhere between a strong pocket pair and a medium pocket pair, the way you should play them depends on the situation. 

Sometimes you can play them aggressively preflop (and even stack off with them), other times they perform better as a set mine.

Set mining will be discussed in more detail below.

Pocket Tens Example Hand #1

Effective stack size: 100 BB 

You are dealt TT in the SB (small blind).

A tight and aggressive (TAG) villain open-raises to 3x from the CO (cutoff). A loose and passive fish calls from the BU (button).

You: ???

You should 3-bet (re-raise) to 12x.

In this spot, it’s better to play pocket Tens aggressively. If you just flat call instead, you will end up

a) playing in a multiway pot

b) out of position

c) without the initiative and range advantage.

You can also get 3-bet squeezed from the big blind. Since you’re playing from the small blind, you can’t play the pot in position, but you can offset the positional disadvantage by being the preflop aggressor. 

This way, you’ll be the one with the opportunity to make a c-bet on the flop. You’ll also be the player with the range advantage, meaning you’re the one that’s perceived to have a stronger hand.

You’ll also be able to pick up the pot outright preflop, so you don’t have to worry about finding yourself in marginal spots postflop.

Now, let’s consider a different spot where you should flat call with pocket Tens instead.

Pocket Tens Example Hand #2

Effective stack size: 100 BB

You are dealt TT on the BU (button).

A loose and aggressive (LAG) villain open-raises to 2.5x UTG (under the gun). A tight and aggressive (TAG) villain 3-bets to 7.5x in MP (middle position).

You: ???

You should flat call.

Let’s consider the options you have in this spot. You can either fold, flat call, or 4-bet.

Folding is obviously far too nitty with a strong hand like pocket Tens. If you decide to 4-bet, though, you will only get action from stronger hands, and you will make weaker hands fold, which is a lose-lose situation for you.

In other words, you can’t 4-bet for value, and you can’t 4-bet as a bluff, either, because you can’t get stronger hands to fold.

The only option remains is to flat call and play some poker postflop. You have a considerable amount of hand equity, as well as positional advantage. You can get lucky and hit your set, or even try to outplay your opponents and push them out of the pot at some point in the hand.

If you want to know how to win "more than your fair share", even when you miss the flop completely, check out the Modern Small Stakes.

2. How to Play Medium Pocket Pairs

Next up, we’re going to take a closer look at how to play medium pocket pairs. 

What constitutes a medium pocket pair is debatable, but for the purposes of this article, it will include pocket Sevens to pocket Nines.

As mentioned, pocket Tens are somewhere between a strong and medium pocket pair, depending on the situation. 

Of course, there are some differences in how you’d play pocket Sevens as opposed to pocket Nines or pocket Tens, for example. 

The latter will flop an overpair far more often, and you can often 3-bet them preflop. They also have more showdown value than pocket Sevens.

A hand has showdown value when it’s not strong enough to value bet with (i.e. it can be called by a lot of weaker hands), but can still win at showdown often enough. The more showdown value a hand has, the more it approaches being a hand you can potentially value bet with.

Even though medium pocket pairs are stronger than small pocket pairs, they can be trickier to play. That’s because you often don’t know where you stand in the hand strength-wise. 

Pocket Pair Example Hand #3

For example, if you call preflop with pocket Twos and the flop is: 


You’ll have no trouble letting go of the hand because you’ve missed your set, and your hand has very little chance of improvement (as you only have two outs left).

On the other hand, say you call preflop with pocket Nines and you see the same flop.

The situation is far less clear now. Let’s say you face a c-bet on the flop. Now what?

You still have the best hand some of the time, but it’s not nearly strong enough to play a big pot.

This is something that Phil Ivey discusses in much more detail in his advanced poker training program. 

Your hand could also be way behind, but you have too much hand equity to just give up the hand altogether. 

So do you just flat call? Do you raise and essentially turn your hand into a bluff? Or do you simply give up because you’re not comfortable with putting extra money into the pot with a marginal hand?

Unfortunately, there’s no one right answer here, as it depends on a lot of factors you need to consider: the previous action, the stack size and your level of commitment to the pot, your opponent type and their playing tendencies, just to name a few. 

But that’s not really a helpful answer, so let’s back up for a second. Let’s consider how to play medium pocket pairs from the start of the hand.

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3. Enter the Pot With a Raise With Medium Pocket Pairs

If you have the opportunity, always enter the pot with an open-raise. This goes for virtually all pocket pairs, as well as other non-pair hands. 

Being the preflop aggressor is statistically more profitable than being the preflop caller.

This is something Nathan discusses in more detail in his recent video.

If another player limps into the pot and you have a medium pocket pair, the best play is to isolation-raise (or iso-raise for short) that player, as they will more than likely be a recreational player. 

To limp in means to just pay the big blind instead of open-raising.

This way, you’ll often play a heads-up pot against them, and your medium pocket pairs will be in great shape, as paired hands obviously have more hand equity than all the unpaired garbage they may be calling you with.

When you see the flop as the preflop aggressor, you’ll have a chance to make a continuation bet (or c-bet for short). 

You should make a c-bet on most flops (regardless of whether or not you made a set on the flop), because c-bets are usually profitable.

If you flop an overpair, you can c-bet for value, as your hand will probably be ahead of your opponent’s calling range. 

If you flop a second pair, you can still make a c-bet quite often, as you have the range advantage.. 

If your opponent calls your c-bet and you don’t improve on the turn, not all is lost. You can still try to take down the pot with a double barrel (i.e. a turn c-bet), especially if the turn is a scare card.

A scare card is the card that improves your perceived range, while making your opponent’s calling range weaker.

For example, if the flop is J93, an Ace or a King on the turn could be scare cards. 

Now, it’s worth mentioning that if you do decide to double barrel on a board like in the example above, you’re essentially turning your hand into a bluff. 

You don’t need to do this (and you shouldn’t) if you think your opponent isn’t likely to fold. 

Instead, you can hope for a cheap showdown, as your pocket pair still has SOME showdown value. 

Medium pocket pairs can be turned into a bluff if:

a) you aren’t likely to win at showdown, because you don’t have enough showdown value

b) you can credibly represent a strong hand


c) your opponent is actually capable of folding their hand.

If these parameters aren’t met, there’s nothing left to do but give up the hand altogether.

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4. How to Play Small Pocket Pairs 

Finally, let’s consider how to play small pocket pairs, aka baby pairs, ranging from pocket Twos to pocket Sixes.

Playing small pocket pairs is relatively simpler than playing medium pocket pairs, because they are a very hit-or-miss type of hand. 

They have very limited ways of hitting the flop, and if they miss, there’s very little chance of improvement on future streets. 

If you don’t flop a set with a small pocket pair, you’ll only have a third or fourth pair on the flop, with only 2 outs left to improve. 

This means that your chance of improvement to a set from flop to river is only about 8%. 

Once you do hit a set though, you have a very strong hand indeed, and you can be almost certain your hand is way ahead of your opponent’s range. 

The bad news, however, is the fact that you won’t hit your set nearly as often as you might hope for.

The chance of flopping a set (or a stronger hand) with a pocket pair is only 12%.

A lot of players make the mistake of trying to set mine with any weak pocket pair regardless of the situation (i.e. regardless of the stack size, implied odds, their opponent’s range and so on). 

This is a huge mistake, because you’re not going to hit your set nearly as often enough for any set mine to be profitable. 

By the way, to set mine means to call preflop with the sole intention of hitting your set on the flop and taking down a huge pot.

In order for your set mine to be profitable, you need to be able to win enough money to justify all the instances in which you WON’T hit your set.

Let’s consider which factors make set mining more profitable (more +EV) to figure out whether or not you should set mine in the first place.

Good Set Mining Factor #1: Deep Stack Sizes

The goal of set mining is akin to the goal of poker in general: to win as much money as possible while risking the minimum amount. 

In other words, you want to see the flop as cheaply as possible with big effective stack sizes. 

Since you will miss your set almost 9 out of 10 times, the logical conclusion would be that you need to win at least 10 times the size of the open-raise for your set mine to be profitable. 

However, that’s not really the case in practice, because there are other factors to consider here as well. 

Here’s the problem: even if you do manage to hit a set, it doesn’t automatically guarantee that you will totally stack your opponent. 

Your opponent simply may not give you any action, or worse yet, they may end up having an even stronger hand than you. 

Now, you may argue that the latter is very unlikely to happen, but flopping a set is unlikely as well. It still happens. 

What will end up happening way more often, though, is the fact that your opponent simply won’t give you action when you hit a set. The stronger your hand, the less likely it is for your opponent to have a strong hand, as well.

For these reasons, you need way deeper effective stack sizes as a sort of buffer for your set mine to be profitable. 

You need to be able to win at least 15x the size of the preflop call in order for your set mine to be profitable.

This is the bare minimum, of course, and provided other factors work in your favour, too. 

If they don’t, you may need to bump it up to 20x or even 25x the size of the call. Of course, the deeper the stack size, the better.

The effective stack size is the smaller stack size of the players involved in a pot.

Good Set Mining Factor #2: Playing in Position

This one’s a no brainer. Playing in position makes virtually all spots in no-limit hold’em more +EV, and set mining is no exception. 

I won’t go too much into the benefits of playing in position here. You can check my other article on why playing in position is important if you want to know more.

For the purpose of this article, though, suffice it to say that playing out of position when set mining is worse because your villain has the benefit of exercising pot control, which is obviously bad for your set. 

If you hit a set, you usually want to get as much money into the pot as soon as possible, which is way easier to do when playing in position.

Even if you miss your set, playing in position is better because you can often push your opponent out of the pot by bluffing, as they won’t be as inclined to fight back when playing out of position.

Bottom line: it’s better to set mine from late positions (i.e. the cutoff and the button) than from earlier positions or from the blinds.

Good Set Mining Factor #3: Villain’s Strong Range

When you’re set mining, you want your opponent to have a weaker hand than you on the flop, but still strong enough to be willing to pay you off with. 

In other words, you want to set mine against a strong range. 

The stronger your opponent’s range, the more likely it is for them to pay you off once you hit your set.

When a player open-raises from early positions, they usually have a stronger range than they would from later positions at the table (i.e. the cutoff and the button). 

For this reason, set mining when someone open-raises from a late position isn’t going to be as profitable, because they often won’t have a strong enough hand postflop to give you action with. 

Also, if a player open-raises from late positions, you’ll often play out of position against them postflop. The only exception is when you set mine from the button against an open-raise from the cutoff.

As mentioned before, it’s better to set mine in position than out of position.

Another factor to consider is the player type you’re up against. 

Tight players have stronger ranges when they open-raise than their loose counterparts. This means they’ll have more strong hands that will be willing to give you action if you hit your set on the flop.

For more info on how to adjust your game to different player types, check out my massively popular free poker cheat sheet.

Good Set Mining Factor #4: Multiway Pots

A multiway pot is a pot with more than two players involved.

Multiway pots usually don’t help your profitability, because the more players involved in a pot, the more likely it is for one of them to have a stronger hand than you. 

Put another way, the more players in the pot, the smaller your hand equity. 

However, when it comes to set mining, having multiple opponents is actually beneficial for you. If you manage to hit your set, you want to get paid off by weaker hands, which is more likely to happen if at least one of the players connected with the board in some way. 

The more opponents, the bigger the chance of you getting action with your set. 

In other words, the more opponents, the better your implied odds.

Implied odds refer to the amount of money you can potentially earn on later streets. With speculative hands like suited connectors or small pocket pairs, the more implied odds you have, the better.

Good Set Mining Factor #5: Fish on Your Left

When pondering a call with your small pocket pairs, always look on your left for the players left to act. 

Ideally, you want recreational players (preferably of the loose and passive sort) on your left when set mining. That’s because if you do manage to hit your set, they’ll be an extra source of implied odds for you. 

They’ll probably be willing to pay you off with their mediocre hands, weak drawing hands and so on. You also don’t need to worry too much about them 3-bet squeezing you if you call the open-raise.

A 3-bet squeeze preflop is a re-raise after there has been one or more callers of the open raise.

For example, let’s say you're dealt AQ in the small blind. A player open-raises to 3x from the CO (cutoff), another player calls on the BU (button). If you were to 3-bet (re-raise) to say, 12x, you are 3-bet squeezing.

For more info on 3-bet squeezing and other advanced poker strategies, check out The Microstakes Playbook.

When you’re trying to set mine, be on the lookout for aggressive 3-bettors/squeezers on your left. 

Small pocket pairs will have a hard time with facing big 3-bets, because

a) they’re an underdog against a huge part of the range a player might choose to 3-bet with

b) they won’t hit a set on the flop very often, meaning you’ll need to fold to a flop c-bet most of the time

c) 3-bets make the effective stack size smaller, meaning you need to risk more money upfront for a smaller potential reward postflop.

Nathan discusses this in more detail in his recent video.

Bottom line: weak, passive opponents on your left make set mining more +EV, while strong, aggressive opponents on your left decrease your EV.

The Ultimate Guide to Playing Pocket Pairs - Summary

To sum up, here’s (mostly) everything you need to know about playing pocket pairs in no-limit Texas hold’em.

Strong pocket pairs (pocket Aces to pocket Jacks, as well as pocket Tens to an extent) are premium hands, meaning you should play them aggressively both preflop and postflop as a default.

This means open-raising and 3-betting preflop to build up the pot while your hand is very likely ahead of your opponent’s range. 

You should also continue the aggression on the flop, unless there’s a very specific reason not to, as c-bets are usually profitable.

Medium pocket pairs (pocket Nines to pocket Sevens) are a bit trickier, but you don’t need to learn a bunch of advanced poker strategy to play them profitably.

You should still open-raise with them preflop, as they will flop an overpair fairly often. If there’s a lot of action preflop (i.e. 3-betting), you can try to set mine with medium pocket pairs.

Weak pocket pairs (pocket Sixes to pocket Twos) are less versatile, meaning they have very limited playability post flop if they don’t improve to a set. If you are set mining with small pocket pairs, make sure you have enough implied odds to make your set mine +EV.

Pocket pairs flop a set or better only about 12% of the time, so you shouldn’t set mine with just any pocket pair regardless of the situation.

As you can see, there’s no one right way to play pocket pairs, but there are many wrong ways to play them. 

One of the most common ways people play pocket pairs wrong is overvaluing them and not taking the context of the hand into consideration.

So before getting excited about being dealt a pocket pair, remember that it’s still only a single pair. You still need to play the rest of the hand. 

So always consider the math first, and don’t forget to look on your left.

Lastly, if you want to know the complete strategy I use to make $2000+ per month in small stakes games, get a copy of my free poker cheat sheet.

The Ultimate Guide to Playing Pocket Pairs