Middle Pocket Pairs
Middle pocket pairs are the hands that fall in between the range of set mining and wanting to dodge an over card. 8s, 9s, and even Jacks are all strong hands, but they won't usually come out ahead on the river without a low board or some improvement. The trouble that many players have with middle pocket pairs is found in their inability to make folds. There are some players who don't like to give up pairs no matter what. Of course, these are usually going to be losing players as well, and your goal is to learn from their mistakes in creating a profitable environment in which to play these hands.
A middle pocket pair is almost always going to be played in a pot that was raised pre-flop. The difference between these pots and other pots, though, is that you'll usually either hit big or totally miss. You can raise with AQ and hit a straight or a flush draw, a pair, etc. With a middle pocket pair you are usually going to either hit a set or be left with your pair. You need to try and make the most out of the chances you have with sets while also reducing your exposure to potential losses when you fail to improve. This balance is what tends to throw most players off of their game.
In pre-flop situations, you should usually be making some sort of raise with your middle pocket pairs. The only real common scenario where a raise wouldn't make sense would be if there was already action ahead of you. When players are limping in left and right, you need to raise in order to thin out the field. You want to be playing a raised pot so that you stand to win more when you make a big hand and also so that you can better control the action when you miss. If you compare the likely outcomes in a limped pot vs. a raised pot, it's easy to see the multiple reasons why aggression wins out.
The trickiest element of middle pocket pairs will be when you raise and then get re-raised. Depending on the exact strength of your hand, there's now a good chance that you are already way behind your opponent. In most games, players aren't going to be 3-betting with anything weaker than AQ+ or TT+, with a lot of players calling even with these hands. You are going to need to evaluate whether you are now playing the hand in an attempt to win with an over pair or simply for the purpose of set mining. Whatever your plan might be going to the flop, though, it could very easily change depending on the board and the actions that follow.
There are some spots where profitability ceases to exist pre-flop with middle pocket pairs. For example, an open raise under the gun followed by a massive re-raise from a player in position should usually be enough to command a fold. Not only are you being priced out of the pot for the purpose of set mining, but you are also going to have a tough time going forward since you are out of position. There are just too many negative attributes to moving on with these sorts of situations. Beyond this, however, there aren't too many overly troublesome spots that should arise pre-flop with middle pocket pairs.
As alluded to earlier, post-flop with middle pocket pairs is usually going to lean to one extreme or the other. You can't really connect with the flop when you have a middle pair. The only way your hand would gain marginal value would be if you manage to make an open ended straight draw. For example, a flop of 567 would not be terrible for pocket 8s. But even if you do manage to hit a straight on this board, it's not like you have the benefit of deception on your side. Sets are just about the only thing that are going to win you a significant amount of money with middle pocket pairs.
Because they are a tad bit stronger than small pocket pairs, these hands are going to come along with greater showdown value. Though you shouldn't be turning every pot into a bluff catcher, you'll have more opportunities to call down lightly with a reasonable expectation of winning. With hands like 2s and 3s, you could easily lose to a stray 4 or 5 that just happened to pair your opponent, even if they think they are bluffing. With 9s and 10s you are going to be beating these hands. Even though there's a lot more inherent value in middle pocket pairs, you are still going to either be way ahead or way behind, so you need to be on one side of the fence or the other.
You aren't always going to be fortunate enough to face a low board when you have a middle pocket pair. The chances are that an over card is going to come out at some point in the hand, be it on the flop, turn, or river. In those hands that an over card isn't on the board, however, you should be taking advantage by firing out as many bets as you can. You might be surprised to see just how many players will call down with top pair, regardless of how low that top pair is. Things are always relative in poker. You could have a player muck a pair of 8s on the flop in one hand while going to the river the next. If the board reads 82462, betting out with pocket 9s the whole way is going to be a wildly profitable long term play.
One of the most ideal times to push hard with middle pocket pairs is on draw heavy boards. These boards are even more valuable when they are low. You'll get a ton of calls from players who are chasing their draws and you can be all but certain that you are ahead. The key to success with these boards is being able to slow down when the draws hit. You don't want anyone chasing cards for a cheap price, but you don't want to put more money in the pot when you are likely behind.
Another valuable element will be found in how you play draws that missed on the river. Since you were leading out with the understanding that your opponent was on a draw, it doesn't make much sense to bet again on the river if you believed they missed. You should instead check and give your opponent an opportunity to bluff so as to earn a little bit more from the pot. An even further benefit of this play is that you'll lose the least if your opponent happened to have a monster hand that wasn't related to the draws on the board. Putting the pressure on your opponent is crucial on draw heavy boards when you have a made hand, but eventually you want them to make a mistake on their own.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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