The power of pairs in hold ’em

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2007) in Casino Player.

You can wait a long time before being dealt a hold ’em starting hand that makes you truly happy. If your hand isn’t a pair of aces, kings, queens, or ace-king (either of the same or mixed suits), your hand is quite vulnerable to the flop.

In fact, there are only 34 combinations of cards out of 1,326 that qualify. This means the odds are 38-to-1 against you beginning with one of those premium hands. That’s a paltry 2.6 percent, so 97.4 percent of the time you’re going to be disappointed

Beginners typically have the wrong mindset for hold ’em. In their primitive reasoning, they think that a pair of aces must be the best hand, followed by kings, then queens, right on down to deuces. The next best hand, they assume, should be ace-king suited, followed by ace-king of mixed suits, followed by ace-queen, ace-jack hands, down to the three-deuce. This seems logical based on their familiarity with other forms of poker from draw to seven-stud.

High cards rule

Quickly, players catch on. High cards rule in hold ’em and small pairs are much less valuable than expected.

That’s because when you hold, say, a pair of threes and the flop is king-jack-eight against four opponents, any foe that holds a single king, jack, or eight has you mastered. When hold ’em players realize this, they blurt something like, “small pairs are scary.”

They’re right, but what they don’t realize is that not all “small pairs” are equally “scary.” A pair of sixes is much more profitable than a pair of deuces – especially heads up — even though most players see them similarly.

Sixes vs. deuces

To understand why this is so, let’s analyze what happens when you hold that pair of sixes against an opponent, instead of a pair of deuces. True, if the flop shows all cards higher than sixes, you’re almost equally worried.

But suppose the flop is A♦ 4♥ 7♠. Now if you hold a pair of sixes, your opponent only has two chances of connecting to make a pair higher than yours. With a pair of deuces he has three chances. Sure, it’s less likely that your opponent played with a four in his hand than that he played a higher-ranking card, but there’s still a chance. He could have ace-four, five-four suited or one of the myriad of “surprise” hands opponents sometimes play just when you think they wouldn’t dare.

And don’t forget, your opponent might actually hold a pair of fives. Then with a pair of sixes, you rule, while with a pair of deuces you’re left hoping for a miracle third deuce on the final two board cards.

Deceptive difference

But the difference is even more deceptive. What if the final board is K♠ 4♦ 4♣ 10♦ 10♠ and your opponent holds A♣ Q♥? Well, if you hold a pair of sixes, you win with two pair, tens over sixes. But if you hold a pair of deuces, you must play the two pair on the board and your opponent wins with an ace kicker.

Or what if you flop three-of-a-kind with sixes, while your opponent holds a smaller pair and also flops trips. Bingo! Big pot! With deuces, you’ll always be on the losing end.

There are other reasons why all small pairs aren’t equal, but the point is they can’t be categorized equally. And what about the largest pairs? Did you know that a pair of kings is only worth about 70 percent as much in profit as a pair of aces — or that in some common situations kings are worth less than half as much as aces? That’s a big difference.

Sometimes, you’ll need to hack your own path through the hold ’em forest. But, as you do, always keep in mind that hold ’em is a game of high cards, and even toward the low end of the ranks, a little higher is often a lot better.— MC

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Mike Caro

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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.


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  1. This shows me that I have a lot to learn. Kings worth only 70% as much as Aces. Where can I study things like this? I own and read your book of tells, Mike. Please recommend another. Thanks.

    1. Thank you for commenting. Although I’ll announce many more books and videos soon, I think you’ll be surprised by how much information you’ll find right here for free at Poker1. You’re invited to explore. And good luck on all your future poker adventures.

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