A pocket pair in poker is always a good starting point for a hand. Rather than that annoying 9-3 or J-5, a player might feel like there’s some real hope in the hand. Knowing how to play these pairs is crucial to poker success.

Whether you’re dealt a big pair like Aces or Kings or a smaller hand like 9-9 or 6-6, these hands always offer a chance to collect some chips. It’s essential to understand the strength of these hands and how you should play them. 

There are many things to consider – from opponents and chip stacks to bet sizing and tournament level.

888poker offers plenty of resources to help improve your game. Knowing how to play pocket pairs – and when to fold them – is a valuable skill to have in your poker toolkit.

Here are some ideas to keep in mind.

How Often Are You Dealt a Pocket Pair?

On average a player will be dealt a pocket pair once every 17 hands, which is about 6 percent of the hands you see. That statistic doesn’t include what individual cards or strength of hands, but, obviously, the higher they are, the more likely you are to win some chips.

With such a small number of pocket pairs typically coming your way, it’s imperative to play those hands as well as possible – winning as many chips as you can. Or sometimes  – getting away without losing too many chips or knowing when to flip that pair to the muck.

Premium Pocket Pairs vs The Rest

Every player is hoping to be dealt pocket Aces or Kings pretty regularly – and pocket Queens is pretty nice too. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen too often. In fact, according to WizardofOdds.com, your odds of being dealt pocket Aces are about once every 221 hands. What are the odds of getting that hand twice in a row? Try 1 in 48,841.

So, relying solely on large pocket pairs isn’t a strategy to embrace for the long run. Those smaller pocket pairs can win some pots too but maximising pots with these larger hands when you do get them should be a goal.

Here are some examples of average winning percentages per 100 hands for these hands against seven or eight other players at showdown. That’s the number one might face at an average cash game or in a tournament. 

This stat is just an average, and the hand will depend on numerous variablesbut shows the strength of these pocket pairs.

Big Pocket Pairs Win Percentage

Hand 7 Players 8 Players
A-A 39% 35%
K-K 33% 29%
Q-Q 28% 25%
J-J 25% 22%

How Do You Play These Hands Preflop?

While these percentages may seem small, even with pocket Aces coming just short of 40%, it’s essential to realise these are only a guide and a general idea of the strength of pocket pairs. Players with these hands will usually want to thin the field with preflop raising – making their chances of winning the hand much higher.

For example, the chance to win a pot with A-A goes from 35% in a full nine-player table to about 85% when a preflop raise narrows that field if only one other player calls and 73% when there are two callers. For K-K, those odds move to 67% for one caller and 51% with two callers.

Hands like A-A and K-K are extremely powerful, and players must be willing to call all-in moves with these premium starting hands. As this 888poker magazine article on playing pocket Kings notes: 

Being able to play large Pocket pairs (such as Kings) is an integral part of a wholesome poker strategy. These big preflop hands often have the potential to give you the most significant long-term gains of all the starting hands in Hold’em!

Q-Q and J-J are less powerful than Aces and Kings. When holding these hands, overcards can always be a possibility and a bit disconcerting. However, they should be played as big hands and should be bet, raised, and three-bet preflop. 

An uncomfortable flop will then have to be navigated based on the board texture and a player’s feel for his opponent.

Another concept should be noted about Q-Q, J-J, and even K-K. An Ace on the board will make it tough to call all-in moves in post-flop action. A read on the opponent and the size of his chip stack will offer some insight on making the decision.

Late in a tournament, Q-Q and J-J can become less appealing to call an opponent’s all-in bet as well. That may depend on chip stacks obviously and a player’s read on an opponent.

Raising and Betting

So, one of those big pocket pairs finally lands in your hands. What’s next? Players should almost always be raising or three-betting (or more) with these hands. A re-raise may cause players with Q-Q or J-J to slow down, but, in general, aggressiveness is proper before the flop.

As noted above, players want a smaller number of opponents on the flop to help increase their equity in a hand. As 888poker strategy writer Matthew Cluff notes: “You should eliminate limping from your preflop strategy entirely.

However, these aren’t hard and fast rules. As the comprehensive 888poker Bet Sizing in Poker Guide notes, if you believe another player may call big pre-flop raises, then make that raise to get the maximum value of your premium hands (such as A-A and K-K).

“If you have a premium hand and there’s someone at the table that will call a 10bb open, then raise 10bb!” the article notes. “Additionally, as more live players are likely to see flops for a lower price, you don’t necessarily want to see a five-way flop with your strong hands, which is another reason why players increase their overall open-raise size for live play (for their entire range).”

On dry boards after a pre-flop raise, it may be wise to size bets so that players with inferior hands will be motivated to call. However, boards with possible flush and straights draws may require a larger bet to discourage callers or at least make opponents pay maximum value to see another card.

Making a Fold

While these better pocket pairs are extremely strong, there will be times a player will have to fold. Clear-cut flush-possible boards and flops that might give another player a likely straight or full house will mean sending that big hand to the muck. That is easier said than done, but players must be willing to fold these on occasion to save some chips.

Also, players with J-J or Q-Q may be cautious of overcards. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean your hand is always beaten, and you have to expect to fold. Your opponent may have a smaller pair or better yet, missed his flop entirely. If you have J-J and get a Queen-high board, that doesn’t mean a bet from an opponent means he has a Queen.

Remember, your chance of even making a pair on the flop is 32.4%. Even an overcard appearing doesn’t mean your J-J is dead and may be worth calling or raising an opponent’s bet. However, continued aggression may require some consideration on whether to continue.

Middle and Smaller Pocket Pairs

The hands above offer some significant value if you’re able to pick them up and get them to a showdown situation with lots of chips in the pot. Other pocket pairs may not be as strong as these but offer some chance at raking some chips as well. Other smaller pocket pairs provide much less value. How you play all these types of hands will have an impact on your chip stack and success in the game.

Here are some examples of average winning percentages per 100 hands for these hands against seven or eight other players at showdown. That’s the number one might face at an average cash game or in a tournament. This stat is just an average, and the hand will depend on numerous variables.

Middle and Small Pocket Pairs Win Percentage

Hand 7 Players 8 Players
10-10 22% 19%
9-9 19% 17%
8-8 18% 16%
7-7 16% 15%
6-6 15% 14%
5-5 14% 13%
4-4 14% 13%
3-3 14% 13%
2-2 13% 13%

How Do You Play These Hands Preflop?

Looking at this table gives some ideas on your win expectations with these types of hands. The better of these, such as 10-10, 9-9, 8-8, and 7-7, offer more value than these lower pocket pairs. 

Notice that the expected win percentage flatlines at 5-5 and below. These hands offer much less value but can win pots depending on the board and situation.

Raising and Betting

Making use of these hands is a bit more nuanced and requires some attention to the other players at the table and chip sizes. With the top level of these pocket pairs, players may want to raise and narrow the field. That winning percentage for 10-10 moves up to 75% for two players in the hand and 57% with three players - the 9-9 moves to 72% and 53.5%.

These hands become much weaker, however, if you are re-raised before the flop. Overcards on the board then create an even bigger problem and players should proceed with caution. Big bets or raises after the flop may force players to fold those better pocket pairs in this category.

Players in tournament short-stack situations may be forced to make a move with these hands considering where they are in relation to escalating blind levels. When dealt a pocket pair in this situation may not offer a lot of alternatives, and you may have to move all-in. This scenario might undoubtedly be the case with the better of these pairs like 10-10, 9-9, and 8-8.

Playing and Bluffing with Smaller Pocket Pairs

Get dealt a hand like 5-5? If there are a few callers, making a call yourself might be worth a call as well. For the most part, calling with small pocket pairs means you’re hoping to land a third card on the flop, turn, or river to make trips. Hitting that card offers the potential for a big pot – depending on the board texture.

Folding these hands after the flop is much easier than some of the higher pocket pairs focused on here. However, that may not always be necessary. As 10-time World Series of Poker champion Doyle Brunson has noted, you may also have to be aggressive occasionally on a flop. This strategy accomplishes two things:

  1. Your opponent may have missed his flop, and you win a pot.
  2. Aggression keeps players from continually running over you with continuation bets.

Brunson offered some sage advice on learning to play these hands or how to put on the brakes from using them. 

“If you can’t play small pairs right, don’t play them at all,” he notes. “The truth is, if you always fold these hands from early positions, you won’t be sacrificing much. Only if you play like the experts can you make money with small pairs early. And that means simply calling, not raising, in early seats unless you’re in psychological command of your table and able to push weak opponents around.”

Some of these hands may be worth running a bluff depending on your reads on opponents. An extremely tight player might fold to these hands. Even if he calls and then misses his hand on the flop, a continuation bet might be enough for him to send his hand to the muck.

Making a Fold

For the most part, smaller pocket pairs mean checking and folding on the flop while hands like 10-10 and 9-9 offer a bit more play when community cards hit the table. For smaller pairs, overcards mean trouble.

Players in a tournament, especially in the later stages or near the bubble, may decide that some of these hands (even 10-10, 9-9, 8-8) may be better suited for folding than calling big raises or even calling the big blind. Players to your left with a bunch of chips may be in raising mode in these situations, leaving players with decisions for a call for a significant portion of their chip stacks.

As Brunson notes above, sometimes letting these hands go can pay off in the long run. You avoid situations where you might just fold to a raise behind you. At these stages, chips are extremely valuable, and you want to move up the pay ladder. Waiting for a better spot might be a wise decision.

A Pocket Pair vs Another Pocket Pair

One of the more challenging aspects of poker is picking up on an opponent’s big pocket pair when you also have a decent-sized pocket pair. 

  • Does that player have Ace-King or Aces? 
  • Ace-King or Kings? 
  • Are they three-betting light? 
  • Is 10-10 or J-J still good in this situation after a reraise?

Of course, those aren’t always easy questions to answer. Not everyone has the reading power of Daniel Negreanu, and some situations like this are just going to be coolers, such as this insane hand below.

Sometimes all the money is just going in the middle no matter what may have transpired between the two players.

In general, it helps to have a keen sense of awareness at the table – 

  • Would this opponent make a move out of line? 
  • Has this player been tight or aggressive? 
  • Does he look confident or a bit concerned? 

Knowing the answers to some of these questions will help in deciding what your opponent might have.

It’s also critical to consider where you are in a tournament. Is it worth risking your tournament life for hands like 10-10, J-J, or Q-Q when there’s a chance for a better spot, and hopefully making it into the money, down the line? The answer may be yes when considering your opponent.

Even a hand like Q♦Qh♥ is only a 57% favourite to beat A♠K♣. There’s still a pretty good chance you might lose that hand. Consider your options and always be focused on where you stand. 

Making wise decisions with those pocket pairs can lead to plenty of poker success.

Sean Chaffin is a poker writer who appears in numerous websites and publications. He is also the host of the True Gambling Stories podcast