Middle Pocket Pairs in Tournaments
Middle pocket pairs in tournaments tend to create a lot of problems for players. It doesn't matter if you have 10 World Series of Poker bracelets or zero cashes to your name, middle pocket pairs aren't the easiest hands to play. The trouble with middle pairs is that they often times turn themselves into nothing more than a bluff catcher.
When the only hands that you can reasonably beat are complete and total bluffs, you are going to be grasping at straws when it comes time for showdown. A lot of players also unnecessarily suck themselves into pots with middle pocket pairs. The absolute key to these types of hands is to keep everything relative and in context. Yes, they do have natural value, but you still need to be careful how you go about playing them.
There are many different ways to play middle pocket pairs post-flop, and most of them are going to be dependent primarily upon how your opponent is acting. You aren't going to be controlling the action with these hands in most spots as you normally would be if you had a legitimately strong hand. This isn't to say that you won't turn a middle pair into a super strong hand from time to time, but this isn't usually how they play out. You have to be playing these hands for what they are. When you try to turn a lone pair, and not even a strong one at that, into a monster, you are going to be getting yourself into an awful lot of difficult situations.
Pre-flop play is generally going to be simplistic with most any hand, and this remains the case with mid pairs in tournaments. There are going to be points where a middle pair is the virtual nuts in pre-flop spots, such as when you are super short stacked or are facing a shove in the blinds from a player on the button. While these types of hands are going to be pretty easy to identify, you are also going to have to be concerned about the times where things aren't so clear cut.
For the sake of this article, there are three different types of pre-flop pots that you are going to frequently run into. These pots would be classified as small, moderate, and folds. The reason that there isn't a designation for large pots is that usually a middle pair is going to fold before it gets to that point. If you are indeed playing a sizable pre-flop pot with a middle pair, it probably means that you had little other choice as in the few examples above, meaning that discussion and strategy isn't as pertinent.
In small pots you'll be playing these hands in a very straightforward manner. There's nothing that even the most amateur player doesn't get about limping in and/or calling small raises in order to see a flop. You might even open raise and get some calls, but you are still going to playing in a small pot. In these small pots, you aren't going to need to do anything overly analytical until the flop is dealt.
In medium sized pots, the chances are that you are playing for set mining value. This means that you are not calling or making a raise for the natural value in your hand, but instead for its potential. Say that a player makes an open raise in early position and you call in late position with 88. If a player in the blinds re-raises a fair amount, your decision to call or fold will rely on whether the open raiser calls, the size of the raise, and the type of players that you are facing. If the raise was massive and it forces a fold from the original raiser, you too would likely be folding. If it was small and the 3-bettor is known for their over aggressive play, calling makes more sense. Medium sized pots don't necessarily generate either a fold or a call.
Post-flop strategy with middle pocket pairs in tournaments can undoubtedly get quite tricky. You are going to be in never ending situations where you are beating nothing other than a bluff. Since these types of hands come in limitless variations, it would be impossible to elaborate on the exact approach. Needless to say, however, relying on bluff catching as your primary means of profitability isn't the most ideal approach to poker. If you are playing middle pairs all the way to showdown in pots that have action on each street, you should be near certain that your opponent is weak. Without a solid read and/or a super suspicious board and line, calling off big bets with middle pocket pairs is a recipe for disaster.
The most common and practical way to play middle pocket pairs post-flop in tournaments is to get to showdown as cheaply as possible. No matter what the board reads, you are almost always going to have some sort of showdown value. What this means is that betting dilutes the value of your hand and being otherwise aggressive is just unnecessary. Checking the hand down is logical and won't punish you beyond what you already have invested. Even calling small river bets can be OK. Keeping pots small and manageable is the key to success with these hands.
There are only two scenarios in which your middle pocket pair is likely to develop into an exceptionally strong hand, and this is when you back into a four card straight or make a set (or better). Rarely are you going to have a middle pocket pair in sync with a board that creates an opportunity for value betting without one of these hands. As a result, you should lay off the thin value bets and other moderately tricky plays. Unless you have an opponent who you know is prone to making ill-timed hero calls, betting middle pairs isn't going to be profitable. Minimize your risk and potential losses by playing mid pairs slow when you don't improve, but make sure you are maximizing your chances for profitability when you are able to flop a big hand.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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