The truth about small stud pairs

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

What do want to talk about today? Oh, that. Is it better to have your small seven-card stud pairs hidden? Good question. We can talk about that, but it’s going to be a more analytical type of discussion than we usually have inside this column. Oh, why not?

Let’s cooperate. You try to concentrate, and I’ll try to make this as simple as possible.

Should small seven-card stud pairs be hidden? It’s generally accepted that when you first examine your seven-card stud starting hand, you want that pair to consist of two downcards, so that it is thoroughly hidden. If one member of the pair is the exposed upcard, then your opponents have clues about what you might specifically be holding.

Let’s say you have Q♦ 10♣ Q♥ , the first two cards being facedown. If you catch Q♠ on the next card, you’ll probably chase off your customers when you bet. They will likely be unable to beat what they can plainly see, plus they will fear that you made three queens or queens up.

If you have Q♦ Q♥ 10♣ , instead, and catch Q♠ , you have the same three queens as before, but no one suspects them. In fact, you don’t show anything unusually threatening, unless an opponent is strangely superstitious about 10♣ Q♠ and decides not to play. Hey, it could happen.

Anyway, this case is clear and closed. All in all, you’re better off with the buried queens and the exposed 10. Fine. But does this concept hold true for all starting pairs in all situations? Do you always want that pair facedown and totally concealed?

Well, what if you had 2♣ 2♦ A♥ ? OK, you catch 2♠ and have three deuces and nobody suspects a thing. So that’s perfect, right? You want the original pair of deuces concealed, right? Right?

Maybe. I’m not saying one way or another yet. Let’s not jump to conclusions. Let’s just think about this some more. What if your hand were 2♣ A♥ 2♦ , and now you catch the 2♠ ? Yes, I know, opponents won’t be as intimidated by a pair of deuces as they would be by a pair of queens, previously examined. But, depending on the situation that preceded the fourth card, they still may fear three deuces and pass, or fear two pair and pass. And if they don’t have a pair yet themselves, they are very likely to just give up in frustration. So, all in all, it’s still better to have that small pair hidden, right?

Still no answer. Maybe. I’m still not ready to say. Let’s think some more. Now I’m going to ask you a question. Which are you most likely to catch on that fourth card, a deuce, or an ace? We’re assuming that there are no aces or deuces exposed or implied in opposing hands.

Good. You’re right, you’re more likely to catch an ace, because there are three of those unaccounted for, but only two deuces. OK, now let’s assume we start with the seemingly preferred 2♣ 2♦ A♥ and catch an ace on the fourth card, which is 50 percent more likely than a deuce. Look, there it is, A♠ . Our hand is now 2♣  2♦  A♥  A♠ with the two aces exposed. Now you can occasionally make an argument that with aces up or a small three-of-a-kind, you’d rather just win the pot outright. That way, you can stack whatever profit you’ve earned so far without risk. That’s not a bad point, and clearly aces up or three deuces comes closer to falling within that argument than three queens. But in most cases you do want weaker hands to continue to play against you when you hold aces up or better. Often, you don’t want flush draws and straight draws to stay, but sometimes — contrary to popular theory — you do want them to stay. We’ll save that topic for another day, OK?

For the sake of this discussion, we are assuming you will be better off if players call against your three deuces, than if they pass. So, now, let me ask you another question.

How much better is it to catch a deuce, making three-of-a-kind, than an ace, making aces-up? Think hard. You’re right. It’s not any better at all. In fact, it’s sometimes worse! Why worse? First, of all, as you’ve probably already decided by now, there’s no real difference between reaching a showdown with three deuces than with aces-up. Aces up will beat everything three deuces will beat, except bigger aces up. It’s unlikely that anyone will have or make aces up, since you haven’t seen any other aces, and there are only two of them left in the deck. Sure, it’s possible, and it will happen, but aces over deuces is almost as likely to be the best hand as three deuces.

Pick a hand. Now that we’ve said that, and now that we’ve agreed you want your opponents to stay in and not fold against your three deuces, let’s take a small, logical leap. Let’s assume we also want them to stay against aces-up. Fine.

So, given that we’ve decided the two hands are almost equivalent, and that we want opponents to stay if we make either aces-up or three deuces, which of the following is better?

Choose 2♣ A♥ 2♦ or 2♣ 2♦ A♥.

In the first case, if you catch a deuce, you might lose customers. In the second case, if you catch a deuce, you probably won’t. In the first case, if you catch an ace, you probably won’t lose customers. In the second case, if you catch an ace, you almost certainly will lose customers (and the ones you won’t lose, frequently will have you beat).

Back to what we’ve already said, then: Which is more likely? You catch an ace, or you catch a deuce? Remember, there are three aces to catch and only two deuces. So an ace is more likely. So, we’re less likely to chase away customers when that ace is hidden and a deuce is exposed. Think about it. Of course, the ace has tactical leverage when it’s the exposed card. You can occasionally take the antes outright with your meager two deuces, and you can try to terrorize opponents and keep them in line. One problem with the ace up, though, is that other weak hands are more likely to fold and not be around to supply profit if you do make three deuces or aces-up. All in all, we often should prefer the ace to be our buried secret.

Wait! But, with three deuces, you can make four of a kind, is the typical counter argument. How important is that? Not important at all, my friends. We said that aces-up over deuces would beat almost everything that three deuces would beat. Well, guess what? Aces-full over deuces will beat absolutely everything that four deuces will beat!

And how much more likely are you to make four deuces from three of them than to make aces-full from aces-up? That’s right, you’re less likely to, because there are two remaining aces and only one remaining deuce. So, does that mean that aces-up over deuces has a better chance of beating an opposing full house than three deuces with an ace? Absolutely. The chances are about twice as good.

Which improves more often? And let me ask you one more question. Won’t 2-2-A-2 and 2-A-2-A improve to a full house or better about the same percentage of the time? Think. Let’s see, there are four cards that the first hand could catch (one deuce plus three aces) and also four cards the second hand could catch (two deuces and two aces). So, are you convinced that both hands have approximately the same chance of converting to a full house or better? Well, wait! They don’t.

The 2-2-A-2 will improve to a full house or better with considerably more frequency than 2-A-2-A. How can that possibly be? It’s because any new pair that appears among the final three cards will elevate the three deuces to a full house, but not the aces-up. See, there’s more depth to this kind of analysis than you thought. That’s an argument for preferring three deuces to aces up, but not necessarily an argument for preferring the starting-hand deuces concealed.

You’re curious about which hand wins more often in actual play, three deuces with an ace or aces-up over deuces. Three deuces will win slightly more often. Against a completely random seven cards, for instance, three deuces with an ace will win almost 89 percent of the time, but aces-up over deuces will only win about 86.5 percent of the time. Now, back to our analysis.

Bottom line: Careful analysis shows that in most common seven-card stud starting-hand situations, you should not favor a small buried pair with an ace over a small split pair with an ace, having one of the pair members as the upcard. By small pair, I mean deuces, for sure, and threes, fours, and even fives to a lesser degree. The problem with stretching this too far is that three fives beats many hands that aces-up over fives doesn’t beat. Still, the concept is valid with some pairs bigger than deuces and an ace — a completely hidden small pair may not be as desirable as you think. Yes, in some cases, a king-kicker is enough to prefer a small split pair over a hidden pair, too. Same dynamics, but that’s harder to explain.

I know players who pre-defined which starting hands they will play and which they won’t. In some situations it seems like (although I don’t have enough data to prove it and they don’t tell me) that they will play deuces with an ace only if the ace is exposed and the deuces are buried. Except for the early round leverage the exposed ace gives you, in being able to steal the antes or bully the table, buried small pairs are not always better and are sometimes worse. And now you know what they don’t. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

Visit Mike on   → Twitter   ♠ OR ♠    → FaceBook

Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Let's make sure it's really you and not a bot. Please type digits (without spaces) that best match what you see. (Example: 71353)