Pocket pairs are often very desirable starting hands in hold’em, although just how desirable depends a great deal on position, which pocket pair you hold, how many other players are in the hand, and the kind of game (loose or tight) in which you’re playing.
Most beginning and intermediate players usually find themselves in games that are reasonably loose, with 4-6 players seeing many flops. When that’s the case, unless your pocket pair is AA, KK, or QQ, you are very often losing—perhaps badly—if you don’t flop a set (three of a kind).
That’s why playing small pocket pairs in early position isn’t often desirable in these games. You limp in, hoping to flop a set, but get raised or re-raised and suddenly have to play your 5-5 for three bets instead of one. You also don’t know, in early position, how many opponents you’re likely to have, and a hand like 5-5 plays best either against one opponent (where it has a chance to hold up by itself) or against many (where you get paid off well if you get lucky and flop the set, an 8-1 shot). As we’ll see in a moment, sometimes flopping a set leads to the best of times, and occasionally it leads to the worst of times.
Today I was playing in a different kind of game. It was reasonably tight, because it was the opening event of the Reno Hilton’s World Poker Challenge, and players had started with $1,000 in tournament chips. We had reached the third level of play ($50-100 blinds, playing $100-200), but very few players had been eliminated yet, which meant that almost every stack was quite short, relative to the size of the bets. Six-way hands were quite rare. On many hands, an opening raise took the pot, and if it didn’t, it was quite likely that the field would be narrowed to two or three players.
I saw one player flop sets twice at this level, and he went out of the tournament relatively soon thereafter, because he played them exactly backwards.
In the first hand, the player (let’s call him Backwards) held A-A, and after an under-the-gun player had limped in, Backwards raised to $200. The two blinds folded, and the limper called.
The flop came As-8d-3d, the limper checked, Backwards bet, and the limper folded. A rather disgusted Backwards showed his set of aces, and (I can only assume) vowed to himself that if he flopped another set, he was going to slow-play it.
A bit later that round, Backwards raised in an early position, got three-bet by the player to his left, and the big blind called, as did Backwards. The flop came Ad-Jd-4c. Everyone checked.
The Turn brought the Kd, a scary card that made both straights and flushes possible. The big blind checked, Backwards bet, and the initial three-bettor called. The river was some sort of blank, Backwards bet again and was called. Backwards flipped over his pocket fours, a set he’d flopped and slow-played, and the caller showed pocket kings, a set to which he’d been given a free chance to draw to by Backward’s check on the flop.
Now, it’s at least possible that had Backward’s bet out on the flop, his caller, seeing two opponents and an ace on the board, might have let his hand go. If that’s the case, Backward’s slow-play cost him the pot. It’s also possible that he might have called, especially given the amount of money already in the pot, but remember, this was a pretty tight game, and it’s hard to imagine what card KK could catch that would let him call another bet, other than a king.
More to the point, even though it’s very likely (though not a lock, as the three-bettor could have had AA or JJ) that Backward was leading on the flop, this was a scary board, with not only flush and straight draws, but also a very reasonable chance that someone had at least a pair of aces or jacks, and with two opponents, Backward’s flopped set was very vulnerable.
Contrast this to his set of aces. There, he faced only one opponent, and the only thing he needed to fear was a diamond draw; if someone with an eight caught another one, instead of the disaster it would have been if someone with K-J caught another jack on the set of fours, it would have been Backward’s dream card, because he’d now have aces full and his opponent trips that he would probably have a hard time getting away from. If you’re worried about someone who had 8-8 catching the fourth eight, you’re too nervous to play this game.
All sets, it’s pretty clear, are not created equal. Some are much more vulnerable than others, be it because of the number of opponents, or the number of reasonable draws that could beat the set. That’s a pretty important lesson all by itself. In second place, not too far behind, is the lesson I’m guessing at, that the lack of action on the first set caused Backwards to resolve to slow-play next time around. The trick is that in poker, the situation is rarely never the same the next time around. Don’t compound one mistake with another.