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Playing Pocket Eights

by George “The Engineer” Epstein

Recently, poker writer, Roy Cooke described a hand he played in a $40-$80 limit hold’em game. Frankly, I question his decision and rationale for playing that hand, and wonder how others would play it.

He was on the button with 8-8, seated to the left of a highly aggressive opponent. A loose-passive player, two off the button, had limped in. Mr. Aggressive raised. Now it was Cooke’s turn to act, and he re-raised to force out the blinds and create a three-handed pot, where his pocket eights had a better chance of holding up without improving. Both blinds folded, and both Mr. Loose-Passive and Mr. Aggression called. Now it was a three-way pot.

Did Cooke Play it Correctly? With two opponents, the odds are that one or both have at least one hole card higher than an eight, and will pair up on the flop. According to Tom Green’s Texas Hold’em Poker Textbook, when two opponents see the flop, and one has an ace in the hole, he will catch another ace on the flop almost 25 percent of the time.

The same is true for any other card higher than an eight. With six cards higher than an eight, it is almost certain that one of the flopped cards will be higher. As expected, that’s exactly what happened. The flop was 9♣-2-2. When both opponents checked to Cooke, he fired. Mr. Loose- Passive folded and Mr. Aggression called. To me, the fact that he only called and did not raise suggests these possibilities: (1) While it’s not likely he had caught trip deuces, he very well might be holding two overcards to the board; or (2) he made a pair of nines and wanted to see what the turn would bring.

They were heads-up and the turn brought the 5. After Mr. Aggression checked, Cooke made the $80 bet. In response, Mr. Aggression then raised to $160. He had checkraised! Having observed Cooke’s betting and raising during this hand, I doubt that Mr. Aggression would be bluffing at this point, so he must have connected with top pair or a trip deuces. Possibly, with two diamonds on the board, Mr. Aggression might be semi-bluffing with a flush draw, which would be consistent with his style of play. Cooke called. The river was the Q♣. Now Mr. Aggression fired again.

Cooke debated whether to call for another $80, and decided the pot odds were high enough to warrant his call. Cooke’s pocket eights was second-best to Mr. Aggression’s pair of nines.

In all, Cooke invested and lost $400, which was costly! Was he wise to risk so much on his eights? With at least two opponents staying to see the flop, it was highly likely that one would catch a higher pair, assuming they would not have made any initial bets with unplayable hands, especially since neither had been identified as a deceptive or tricky player.

I would have played those pocket eights as a drawing hand, in order to see the flop as inexpensively as possible, in hopes of flopping a set. Letting the blinds stay in by calling a single raise would add to the implied pot odds. If I connected with a set of eights—the odds are 7.5-to-1 against that—I could expect a huge pot as my reward. If overcards fell on the flop and I missed my set, I could fold to a bet and it would cost much less than $400.

In my opinion, Cooke treated his pocket eights as a made hand, whereas it really is a “quasi-made hand” that plays well only against a single opponent. With two opponents already in the pot, it would have been wiser to play it as a drawing hand and hope to make a set in a multi-way pot.

George “The Engineer” Epstein is the author of The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners! and Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision. He also teaches poker at the Claude Pepper Sr. Citizen Center. He was recently elected to the Seniors’ Poker Hall of Fame. Contact:

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