The perfect start: How to play monster pairs and profit

In the third part of this series looking at starting hands, cash game pro Simon Hemsworth reveals how to win the maximum with your monster pairs

Big pocket pairs are the most profitable hands to play in no-limit hold €™em. Contrary to the belief of the €˜I never win with Aces €™ brigade, they do make you the most money. Online poker tools that track hands allow you to look at which hands are your most profitable and any good sample will show this to be Aces. However this is not to suggest that big pairs are always easy to play, and making them very lucrative starting hands requires you to play them correctly.

The most common problem new players have with big pairs is they get too attached to them after the flop when the board suggests they are not the best hand anymore. When you get dealt Kings preflop it €™s only natural to expect to win a large pot €“ suddenly the board runs out badly and it can be hard to get over the fact that you may now lose a large one. This is a lesson all poker players have to go through until folding Kings on an ugly board becomes second nature. In this article we will consider some of the potential pitfalls of big pairs and also how to extract maximum value from them. We €™ll consider big pairs to be pocket Jacks or better.


Big pairs should be raised from all positions almost all the time. There would need to be some exceptional circumstances to consider doing anything different. The more difficult preflop decisions come with how aggressively to play the slightly weaker big pairs like Jacks, and whether to fast play or slow play monsters like Aces.

Make sure you don't stack off with Jacks

Make sure you don’t stack off with Jacks

Cautious or reckless

Despite Jacks being an excellent starting hand in NLHE, and one that can yield high profits, it is also a hand that can cause a lot of problems. These troubles tend to lead to mistakes such as stacking off preflop in a situation where Jacks are too weak, or playing them too passively and missing out on value. In a standard NLHE cash game with 100BB stacks it can both be very standard or a big mistake to stack off with Jacks, depending on the situation. Let €™s consider some key factors that would decide this:

The action before you  

Sometimes the preflop action that occurs before your turn will make Jacks look weaker. If for example there is an open from under the gun, and then a three-bet from a tight player in mid-position you might consider the ranges of these two players (particularly mid-position) and realise Jacks in the big blind is just a fold. Your alternatives of calling or raising are quite undesirable and could ultimately end in either needing to get lucky or losing a big pot. Sometimes when no money has yet been voluntarily invested it is best to just fold.

Positions of active players

In a situation where a regular opens from the button and you have Jacks in the small blind it would normally be standard to three-bet as a reg will open the button extremely light. You know this, so you three-bet Jacks, and he knows you know this so can four-bet bluff or four-bet for value with worse than Jacks. You also know all this so can happily five-bet jam! However if you opened from UTG and the BB three-bet you it would be more prudent to just call as the BB will likely know your UTG range is much stronger and that the three-bet represents more strength.

  • Stack sizes  

Although stacking off with Jacks and Queens might be standard in a lot of spots 100BB deep, this can change with deeper stacks. Unless there is an aggressive dynamic, most players tend to only go with extremely strong hands when this deep. Jacks and Queens tend to do poorly against this range.

  • Reads on the villain(s)

Against more aggressive opponents you will be happy to play your Jacks fast and three, four and five-bet at will. However, frequently in cash games there are players that rarely bluff and play medium strength hands very cautiously. As a result the hands they play aggressively are very strong and Jacks does badly against this range.
In such situations it might be best to either just flat call an early position raise or call a three-bet and look to proceed carefully when you do not flop a set.

Sometimes it's good to slow play your Aces

Sometimes it’s good to slow play your Aces

Slow playing or fast playing

With increasingly aggressive online cash games it could be argued that for the sake of balance you should fast play all of your big pairs. To a certain extent this is true. However, there are also situations where slow playing your monster pairs is better. This is best done with Aces where you are in such a dominating position against all other hands that there are very few bad flops. Also, having Aces means you have two blockers to A-K and A-Q type hands the villain could have, which increases the chances he is bluffing. Let €™s look at an example where slow playing Aces is the best play:

  •  An aggressive player raises the cutoff and you three-bet the button with Aces. The cutoff villain four-bets and you decide to call

The aggressive player will be opening the cutoff very light and knows you will often three-bet the button light. It will be difficult for the villain to proceed by calling out of position so he will frequently four-bet bluff. Just calling allows you to keep bluffs involved. You can balance this play by also calling four-bets with suited connectors and other playable hands so you are not simply trapping with Aces every time.

Kings are great but what do you do when an Ace flops?

Kings are great but what do you do when an Ace flops?

On the flop

The texture of different flops can radically change how you should proceed with a big pair. We will look at some common problem flops that can occur with big pairs and the best way to proceed in these situations:

  • You three-bet K-K out of position 150BB deep and the flop comes A-T-5 €¦

This is a very common spot that every player has encountered. You are delighted to be three-betting a great hand like K-K and are really hoping for a flop that doesn €™t contain an Ace. A-x hands are frequently in the range of a player calling a three-bet so you should certainly be aware that K-K could now be the worse hand. The best way to proceed with the hand from here will largely depend on reads you have on the villain. Does the villain fold to c-bets frequently in three-bet pots? Does the villain bluff here when checked to with air hands? Will the villain value bet strong with a hand like A-J here? Questions like this should be going through your mind to determine the best play.  

Against a player you don’t have a read on the best line would be to be cautious, check and re-evaluate depending on how the villain reacts. If he checks you can look to get value on the turn or river. If he bets you can call one street then see what happens on the turn.

With big pairs it is not just overcards you should be afraid of. Sometimes flops can smash your opponents €™ range and make your overpair appear considerably weaker:

  • You three-bet Q ™ -Q ™£ out of position 125BB deep and the flop comes 8 ™¥-6 ™¥-5 ™¦ €¦

This is potentially a very dangerous situation for a hand like Q-Q. This is a flop that could hit your opponent in all sorts of ways with two pairs, sets, straights and big combo draws all in the villain €™s range. Much like the previous situation with K-K facing a flopped overcard, how to proceed best would depend on reads on the villain. The difficulty with betting here is that being raised would leave you in a very tough spot. All the possible strong hands that the villain can have will raise, but it €™s also possible that your opponent could bluff here knowing he can represent lots of strong hands.  

Again, I would recommend a cautious approach and check looking to control the pot size. By doing this you can encourage the villain to bluff or value bet worse hands and also keep the pot smaller for when you may want to fold your hand.

Quite often when you have big pairs the flops are favourable, but there are still mistakes that can be made:

  • You hold A-A and four-bet a villain out of position 100BB deep. The villain calls and the flop is J-5-4…

A frequent mistake I see here is to bet too big. In such situations the pot size is likely to be somewhere between 40-50BB already, with 75-80BB behind. Therefore there isn €™t much room for manoeuvre and for the villain to €˜make moves €™. Typically regulars bet too big here and don €™t allow their opponent to bluff or float on a flop where you have air a lot of the time. If they happen to have a hand like Q-J then you will get stacks in by the river anyway. If the pot was 50BB at this point I would recommend betting as low as 15BB. This makes it frustratingly small for your opponent to have to fold and tempts him to call with very weak holdings or to raise as a bluff.

The turn and river

With big pairs the turn and river cards can drastically change how you might want to proceed in the hand. The board can be one that makes you want to get more value from your hand or a danger card could make you want to fold. Let €™s consider an example where a turn card might look dangerous but is actually fairly harmless:

  • In a three-bet pot with K-K you c-bet a 9-7-2 flop. The turn is an Ace €¦

This is a spot where regulars will frequently shut down and check because of the scary looking Ace. However, this is not a card that hits the villain particularly often and one that many regulars will identify as a good bluff card, therefore giving you less credit when you bet it. By continuing to bet you can get value from hands like T-T, 9-x and 7-x if the villain is a non-believer. Although checking the turn can encourage bluffs from floats and missed draws, continuing to bet for value will usually yield higher profits. Let €™s continue this hand on an interesting river card:

  • You bet again on the Ace turn and the river is a Jack €¦

This is a pretty terrible river card with the previous action in the hand and one that means we can no longer realistically get more value from K-K from worse hands. In this situation the best play would be to check and look to get to showdown. If the villain then bets you should probably give him credit for a better hand. Sometimes the Ace on the turn improved his hand (I did mention this was unlikely, but it €™s certainly possible) with a hand like A-Q, A-J or A-9, now 10-8 just got there for a straight and two pair in J-9 is very possible. The only hands we feasibly now beat are double floats or made hands that the villain is turning into a bluff. If that €™s the case we just have to give the villain credit for a creative and ambitious bluff.  

Your Kings looked great preflop, on the flop and were still very decent on the turn. However on the river the board was looking pretty ugly and suddenly your mindset has to change to one that is looking to fold.  

This is a key skill in playing big pairs and one that all good players are capable of. Folding big pairs at the right time is just as important as extracting big value when they are  the best hand.

Always play Aces fast against Vanessa Selbst…

In this hand from The Big Game, Prahlad Friedman and Vanessa Selbst get tangled up in a huge pot. Unusually this was not a cooler but involved a huge bluff from Selbst, who commits $170k preflop with J-7 suited against the Aces of Friedman.  

With both being very aggressive players there is a dynamic whereby neither gives each other much credit for a hand. Some might believe that slow playing Aces against a player like Selbst would be the most profitable line. However this hand shows how sometimes fast playing Aces in a spot where you can easily be bluffing can be very advantageous too.  

Although Selbst looks a bit silly here, she has forged a very successful career playing this aggressively. Unfortunately sometimes bluffs go wrong!

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