McHaffie: MCU lesson 029 / Pairs in hold ’em

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Poker Player newspaper in 2004.

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 29: Pairs in hold ’em

Today, hold ’em is the chosen game that has surpassed all others to dominate poker. In the 1970’s, when hold ’em was chosen to crown the first World Series of Poker champion, many wondered why. “Many of us had never played the game before,” Mike told me. “In fact, I’d never even heard of it. It had gained popularity in the South, particularly among the Texans. We thought a few hold ’em experts were unfairly dictating who should have a shot at the world championship. But, eventually, I accepted hold ’em as the truest test of poker skill.”

Hold ’em is now unchallenged as the championship game. So, I’m going to give you some pointers about how to play pairs in hold ’em, when no one else has entered the pot. Should you raise, call, or fold? Your decision should be influenced by today’s factors (among others that Mike will be teaching me later).

Smallest pairs

Your smallest pairs — deuces, threes, fours, and maybe fives — should usually be thrown away from an early position. In a loose game, you might occasionally choose to play fours or fives, for deception, but not most of the time.

Mike says, “With medium pairs, sixes through tens, it’s usually better to call in early positions. Raise in later positions, if nobody has come into the pot. Raising with these medium pairs in later position gives you an additional opportunity to win the blind money that’s already in the pot, without facing the unpleasant reality that if bigger cards hit the board, somebody will make a superior pair.” Beginners holding jacks, queens, or kings should usually raise, when they’re first to enter a pot, regardless of the position.

Mike usually advises raising with aces, regardless of your position, but calling is OK. In fact, he says calling is always a safe alternative. Calling with aces can be deceptive, causing opponents to overplay hands.

When you’re holding aces, Mike says, entering the pot by just calling gives you a “home run” possibility. When you call, a player behind you raises, and other players call that raise, you can re-raise, building a bigger pot before the flop.


If your image is dominating and unpredictable, you can profit more easily from playing a small pair. Mike says the reason for this is that “opponents are more likely to stay in line when they’re intimidated by you. They don’t punish you as much.” This helps when you get lucky enough to flop trips. Should the flop fail to help your hand, and your image is right, your opponents might let you have a free card, simply because they don’t want to challenge you. This gives you the reprieve that you need to possibly land your trips on the next card.

Sometimes, you’ll win a showdown with your small pair, when your image prevents anyone from betting. With the wrong image, you’re more likely to get chased out of the pot by what Mike describes as “inspired” opponents.

Skill matters in deciding whether to play small pairs. If your opponents’ skills are superior, you should usually fold — or sometimes raise with the hopes of eliminating dangerous opponents. If you’re playing against weak opponents that you can outplay on future betting rounds, consider just calling, instead of raising or folding.

Those are some factors to consider when deciding how to play a pair before the flop in hold ’em, assuming no one else has already entered the pot. As I learn more at MCU, I’ll add to our list. — DM

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