McHaffie: MCU lesson 004 / Hold ’em and pairs

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Poker Player newspaper in 2003.

This is part of a series by Diane McHaffie. She wasn’t a poker player when she began writing this series. These entries chronicle the lessons given to her personally by Mike Caro. Included in her remarkable  poker-learning odyssey are additional comments, tips, and observations from Mike Caro.

Diane McHaffie index.

Diane McHaffie is Director of Operations at Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy. She has traveled the world coordinating events and seminars in the interest of honest poker. You can write her online at

Diane McHaffie

Lessons from MCU

— With bonus content by Mike Caro (pending) —

Lesson 4: Hold ’em and pairs

One of the first lessons Mike taught me was that Hold ‘em is by far the most popular poker game in casinos. This was news to me, because I had always thought that stud poker or draw poker were the main types of poker, since they were the ones always represented in movies. The movies are probably one of our first introductions into the poker world and can be vastly misleading.

With 7-card stud you receive seven cards total, four face up and three face down (the ones face down are your cards that no one has seen). When you play 7-card stud against opponents, anything is likely to happen with the cards that are dealt. A small pair to begin with, in 7 card stud, often would be pretty good; however, that would not be the case in hold ‘em.

I have learned that in hold ’em, one of the most common mistakes happens when players try to think the same as in 7-card stud. They think that a small pair has more value than it actually does. That isn’t the case with hold ’em.

Hard to improve

Hold ‘em starts with two cards face down to the player. Those are personal cards that nobody has seen, and they can’t be used by anyone but yourself. All the other cards (five more total) will be communal, dealt face up, to be used by both your opponents and you. This means that it is hard to improve a small pair in hold ‘em, because it is impossible to catch another pair on the board to improve your hand.

Keep in mind, that if another pair comes on the board, it belongs to everyone, not just you. So if you are trailing before with the pair that you have in your hand, you will still be trailing after the new pair has landed on the board.

Best hold ’em hands

Mike asked me to name the best hold ’em hands. Of course, I started with A-A, K-K, Q-Q, and J-J. When I reached 10-10 Mike ordered me to STOP! I frowned at him, and demanded to know why. He pointed out a fact that should have been rather obvious to me, yet I had managed to overlook it. Smaller pairs aren’t as good as A-K or A-Q. Therefore, if you have a small pair and many other opponents have higher cards, after the flop (i.e., three cards the dealer places face up on the board that belong to everyone), it is quite likely that of those cards, one of them will be higher than your pair. It will match up with one of your opponents cards to provide a higher pair than yours.

This means that quite often, when you have a smaller pair in your hand, you must match a third card to the pair, making a three of a kind, to have the best hand. However, in 7-card stud, you can often win just by catching another pair, because that pair belongs to you and not to everyone else.

My lesson was that you must understand this very basic concept that separates 7-card stud from hold ‘em to master either game.  Small pairs are not as valuable in hold ‘em as they are in 7-card stud. You will not have a chance to win at Hold ‘em, in the long run, unless you learn this lesson well.

I sincerely hope that this simple insight into the world of hold ‘em helps you as much as it has helped me. It has been a very valuable lesson and should prevent us from making costly mistakes in the future. — DM

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