McHaffie: MCU lesson 145 / Borderline hands

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Poker Player newspaper in 2009.

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 145: Borderline hands

An astonishing new place to visit is Mike’s forum, called simply Mike Caro Poker, at It hasn’t been officially announced or advertised yet, so consider this an exclusive! Mike has already contributed 70 posts explaining strategy and participating in worldwide poker discussions.

The topic of borderline hands was recently raised on the forum, so I thought you might find that discussion helpful.

Deuces through fives

Mike teaches that smaller pairs, deuces through fives, are undesirable to play from early position. He states that one thing that distinguishes successful players from losing players is how they choose to play borderline hands.

Why are small pairs frowned upon? Well, say you’re holding a pair of fours and the board shows Q, Q, 7, 10, 7. Your fours have just become non-existent, due to the untimely arrival of the sevens. Mike says that there’s a term for your pair being exterminated. It’s “counterfeited,” a description that he doesn’t like, but one that you will hear.

Now, if you make three fours (trips), then your chances of winning the pot are greatly enhanced. Finally! Ah, but even then there are problems.  If you make a flush using a four, it’s quite likely that one of your opponents has made a higher flush. With big pairs, you’re likely to win flush-flush confrontations; with small pairs, you aren’t. And if you make a straight when starting with a puny pair, you’re sometimes going to be holding the low end and lose to a higher straight.

Mike points out that even when you hit trips, you’re often in a situation where you won’t be paid off easily. If the other two cards that flop are also low, it’s unlikely that an opponent hit a calling pair. And in pair-versus-pair contests, threes usually lose, whereas a pair of nines conquer someone who is playing a tiny pair unprofitably. On rare occasions, you’ll find yourself in a huge pot where you and another player have both flopped trips. Obviously, tiny pairs take the worst of that pivotal situation.

Five and larger

In a loose game where you don’t have to fear raises, it’s permissible to play small pairs from early position with caution. They’re borderline in that case, but you won’t suffer much profit by folding. Pairs, six and larger are generally profitable. If you’re in the big blind, you should call a solitary raise. If you don’t make trips against two or more opponents, then folding is usually advisable.


When heads-up, you have the luxury of raising with borderline hands, such as 4-4 and Q-10, if your opponent folds frequently. But if that heads-up opponent bluffs repeatedly, then just call with a borderline hand and let him lead.


If an opponent is playing a larger limit than he is accustomed to, he’ll rarely raise with borderline hands, instead choosing to more safely call. Make decisions accordingly.

Keep in mind that if you’re a friendly, chatty player, you will usually receive additional calls on borderline hands than an indifferent or sarcastic player who wouldn’t.


Against a deceptive player, don’t bet borderline hands very often. If you have established the image of an unpredictable player and an opponent bets, you can usually count on him having an impressive hand, not a borderline hand. When you have an aggressive image, borderline hands add to your bankroll, since your opponents tend to cower and get less value out of their good hands.


There are hands you will always play, some you’ll never attempt, and some that are questionable. Many times the situation will dictate your action. What is your position? How many players are waiting to act? What type of opponents are you facing?

Mike usually checks or folds in a borderline situation when he’s losing, because opponents are inspired and play better; but if he’s winning, he usually bets or raises in a borderline situation, because opponents are intimidated and play worse. — DM

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