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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lessons from MCU
— With bonus content by Mike Caro (pending) —
Lesson 10: Your first hand
When I sat down at a table to play poker for the first time, I was scared. It was intimidating, facing a table full of people, sizing each other up. Then I bought my chips and the first cards were dealt. I trembled nervously.
I don’t remember my exact thoughts, but they were something like, “What am I doing here? Oh, gosh, what do I do now? Oh, yeah, look at the cards, silly. Hmm, now what?” Then I saw the dealer and the players regarding me expectantly. “I’m the big blind and they’re waiting to see if I’ll call the raise!” The cards I held were of little consequence, and I quickly folded, relieved. I then watch the hand play out, growing calmer, gradually. “Wow! My first hand, my first game!”
Before I knew it, almost a whole hold ’em round had played out — once around the table — and I had looked at no cards worthy of wagering. Now I was in first position, with my blinds soon to come up again. Nine opponents waited to act after I did. I picked up my two private hold ’em cards, three of clubs first, then three of diamonds.
Automatically, my pulse quickened. After waiting and waiting, I finally had a hand worthy of my attention. The ranks matched. I had a pair!
Now, getting a pair on just two cards is no easy feat. Let’s examine together what Mike told me. At first there are 52 cards in the deck, and we don’t know which is which. Then I had the first card dealt to me. I looked. It was the three of clubs. The question is: What are the chances that I’ll end up with a pair?
Think along with me. Obviously, my chances of getting a pair are the same no matter what my first card is. In this case, it was a three, but if it were a queen or a seven or anything else, the mathematics would be the same. Simply, I now had one card and there were 51 left that were unknown to me. Since there are four threes in the original deck, there are now only three of them left. Three out of 51. So, how many cards would give me a pair. Three. And how many of those 51 cards would not give me a pair? The other 48, right? So, it was 48 to 3 against me getting a three on the second card and having this pair. By dividing 3 into 48, this reduces to 16, and the odds against me getting a pair of threes were 16-to-1. The fact is, it’s always 16-to-1 against getting a pair on the first two secret cards in hold ’em, because you first card has to be something and the second card always has three chances out of 51 or matching it — 1 in 17 or 16-to-1 against.
So, yes, I was momentarily excited. This was a sufficiently rare happening that I was suddenly proud of my hand. Then I remembered Mike’s advice. Small pairs, particularly pairs smaller than sixes, are probably unprofitable in the earliest positions. It’s close, but Mike assured me that he’s run computer simulations on millions of hands and they don’t quite work themselves into the profit column.
I questioned him about this and he explained that sometimes the smallest pairs can be profitable, especially if you’re against non-aggressive opponents that you can outplay. The main reason you want non-aggressive opponents is that they tend to just call and let other opponents in. With a small pair, you’re probably going to need to catch another of that rank and make three of a kind — unless you can find yourself heads-up, which isn’t likely when you’re in an early position with too many opponents eager to call you.
But I wondered why a pair of threes was worse than a pair of sixes or some other slightly larger pair. Mike said the difference was deceptive, but significant. For one thing, if the pair of sixes competes against the pair of threes, obviously, you’ll have a huge advantage with the sixes. With threes, you might flop three of a kind and someone else might flop a bigger three of a kind. This “set vs. set” doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it can be quite costly to you.
But there are other subtle disadvantages of playing the smallest pairs from the early positions. One is that someone in the blinds might hold an ace and a five and make a pair of fives against your threes. Now, if you’d had sixes, instead of threes, you’d win instead of lose.
One of the most obscure, but expensive, reasons not to play threes isn’t always apparent to novices. Suppose you have 6-6 with a board like K-K-4-4-9. Assuming you get to the showdown, you’re going to beat any opponents with A-Q or other unpaired holdings. But if you hold 3-3, you find suddenly that you have nothing. You have to play what’s on the board, because your pair can’t improve on the two bigger pair you see in front of you.
There are a lot of reasons why it really does hurt when your pairs are too small in early positions. If your opponents are very weak or you’re very talented, you sometimes can play them anyway, but if you’re not certain, you’ll probably save money by throwing them away. The MCU advice: While you’re learning, it’s best to fold pairs from deuces to fives in early positions. — DM