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Big Pair Preflop Betting

by Bob Ciaffone |  Published: Apr 01, 2015


Bob CiaffoneAt no-limit hold’em, how do you play aces and/or kings on the preflop betting round? The big pairs constitute a large role in how you do at that game. I have certainly been revamping my treatment of those hands lately in the no-limit hold’em games I play in. A lot of my strategy depends on the way my opponents behave.

In a loose game, where players give you plenty of action, I like to make a large raise preflop so they are paying far too much to see the flop on weak hands. So does everyone else. This has been called the pickaxe and shovel approach by some poker writers, because that is the obvious way to exploit weak, loose poker players.

One is of course not obliged to play in this fashion. The other common method of playing a big pair in early position is to limp in with the intent of reraising if someone raises the pot. This has its advantages and drawbacks. If someone raises the pot behind you, there is a good possibility that you will be able to make a big reraise and win a nice pot without anyone getting a chance at seeing the flop and getting lucky by hitting two pair or a set. This appeals to me a lot because it is a low-risk play. However, if no one reraises, you now have the problem of having a large field of opponents seeing the flop—the opposite of what you want. Let’s talk a little more about this situation, one I frequently face because I often limp in with a big pair.

The danger of this situation is somewhat exaggerated for the simple reason that the pot is still small. If you lose a lot of chips after the flop on a one-pair hand, you have probably played your hand too strongly after the flop. Another factor in your favor is that more than half the time, you will see by the texture of the flop that you don’t belong in it anymore. Your kings are in trouble if:

(1) An ace comes on the flop and somebody bets.

(2)Three cards of the same suit come on the flop and you do not have a card in that suit.
(3) Three connected, fairly big cards come on the flop, such as J-10-8.

Basically, you are in nearly the same position with a limped big pair as if you had made top pair with a good kicker. You treat it as the best hand until someone’s strong betting tells you it is probably no good.

Part of my strategy in limping with a big pair is that I often just call a small raise. Here is a hand I held recently in a $1-$2 no-limit hold’em game. I picked up two kings in late position and a player in early position opened for $6. I just called because there was a player behind me who had been raising a lot of pots and had just bought in again for $70. Sure enough, he reraised to $20 and the opener called the raise. I reraised $100 and the cat was out of the bag. However, the player who had reraised now felt pot-committed with his ADiamond Suit JDiamond Suit and called for his last $50. The opener folded without thinking about it. My kings held up, as the A-J player paired only his jack, so I won the pot. As I expected, he then quit the game.

Here is another hand where I held a big pair, but just called a raiser. This happened in a $2-$5 game at the Venetian in Las Vegas. The under-the-gun player min-raised to $10 and the player on my immediate right called. It was an aggressive game so I just called with pocket aces. Another player called and a lady in the hijack seat reraised to about $90. The two fellows on my right folded and I reraised to $260. The lady (who I later found out held pocket queens) went into the tank, decided to play me for A-K, and bet all her money, about $400 total. I of course called. My aces held up and the woman said that she did not think I had aces because I did not reraise earlier in the hand. I think my handling of the aces was a perfectly reasonable way to play them. Aren’t you supposed to vary how you play the nuts? If you make plays like this, you avoid the frequent scenario of winning only a small pot by ending the deal prematurely.

Here is another benefit to limping in and not reraising with a big pair. Your hand is concealed for the post-flop play. When the flop comes down with all small cards, You know that you likely have the best hand but the opponent who is the preflop raiser thinks his queens or kings has an excellent chance to be a winning hand. If you had pulled the trigger preflop, you would have won only a small pot, but now the pot will be much larger.

If you are going to be slow-playing big pairs before the flop, be sure to combine it with sometimes limping in and then reraising as a semibluff with A-K and A-Q. How much you use this play depends on what moves you have shown earlier in the session and who in the game has played with you in previous sessions.

In my opinion, the poker play of slow-playing a big pocket pair is a very reasonable play at no-limit hold’em. People sometimes make fun of it because so many players are overly aggressive with it when nobody has raised the pot preflop. When five or six people are in to see the flop, your hand is in great danger. Don’t be annoyed that no one raised and go to war with your big pair after the flop. The most important function of a big pair is to win a big pot by getting other players to commit a large amount of money to the pot before they have hit a big hand. You still have a decent hand when no one falls for your ruse by not raising preflop, but be cautious about playing your hand for a lot of money when you have a large field of players seeing the flop. In poker, the captain is not obliged to go down with the ship, and neither is the former captain.

When six people stay for the flop and someone bets into a flop of J-10-8, there is no dishonor in retiring from the battlefield. Some of the time you will be folding the best hand, but it is likely that you were not the favorite to win the pot and there were multiple draws out against you that failed to connect. It is also possible that your hand was the best throughout, but you will be unable to win the pot because you could not take the betting heat. ♠

Bob Ciaffone’s new poker book, No-limit Holdem Poker, is now available. This is Bob’s fifth book on poker strategy. It can be ordered from Bob for $25 by emailing him at Free shipping in the lower 48 states to Card Player readers. All books autographed. Bob Ciaffone is available for poker lessons.