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Seniors’ Scene - How to Play Middle Pairs Preflop

By George “The Engineer” Epstein
A reader recently asked my opinion: In low/middle limit hold’em, what is the best way to play a middle pocket pair before the flop? My comments may be somewhat controversial, but here’s my advice based on experience and lots of thought on this subject.
First, note that middle pocket pairs - J-J down to 8-8 - all satisfy the Hold’em Algorithm criteria for starting hands in all positions. (See ad for Hold’em or Fold’em? book.)
There are two options preflop: (1) Just call the big blind (limp) or (2) make a raise. Your inclination may be to raise to force out some opponents - reducing the playing field. With fewer opponents, your middle pocket pair has a better chance of holding up and taking the pot at the showdown – BUT...
It depends on position and types of opponents.
● Late Position
If you are in a late position with, say, 9-9 in the hole and several players have already called to see the flop, your raise most likely will not force those players to fold. They are willing to “invest” one more small bet. Their rationale: “I’ve already invested one bet; and I do want to see the flop. It will let me see over 70% of my final hand. Plus, the pot has already grown more attractive, offering me better pot odds.” Almost invariably, the limpers will call your raise.
Since you cannot force them to fold, your best bet is to limp along, hoping that an honor card does not fall on the flop, or you might get lucky and catch a set – most often a winner.
Since your card odds against catching a set of 9’s on the flop are about 8-to-1, to make up for it, a multi-way pot is best - three or more opponents staying to see the flop. Then, the pot can grow big enough to overcome your poor card odds. (Ideally, the pot odds should be higher than your card odds.)
What if the preflop betting has been folded to you? In that case, from your late position, your raise could force out the few opponents yet to declare – especially if they are tight players. There is nothing wrong with stealing the blinds. At least, you win chips to cover your next blind.
Alternatively, the opponents yet to declare – the Button and the two Blinds – may call your raise. With just two or three opponents, your middle pair has a reasonable chance of holding up and taking the pot without improvement. Of course, you can hope that your pocket 9’s improves – but...
Caution: Nevertheless, if an honor card falls on the flop, your hand may have become second – or third – best. Many players call with any-Ace or King. Checking along would be wise in that case. And, of course, being in a late position, you have an edge over the two blinds who must declare before you. If a tight player opens the betting, folding may be your best decision. Also, always look for tells.
● Early Position
With your pocket 9’s, suppose you are in an early position – one of the first to act before the flop. Now, it is especially important to know your opponents. Your raise will not force out loose or aggressive players who hold one or more honor cards. Indeed, you may very well get reraised. So, from an early position, your best option usually is to just limp along, hoping to see the flop for a minimum investment.
On the other hand, if there are mostly tight players behind you, a raise might force them to muck their holecards. But, it is quite likely that one or two stay to see the flop with you. Hope that an honor card does not fall on the flop - unless you get lucky (hopefully) and connect for your set of 9’s. It can – and does – happen.
Bottom Line
With a middle pair in the hole, depending on your position and “read” of your opponents, usually it is best to limp along before the flop. Be cautious if an honor card falls on the flop.


George “The Engineer” Epstein is the author of The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!;  Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision;  and The Art of Bluffing.  He has taught poker at the Claude Pepper Senior Center, at West L.A. College, and to elderly war veterans at the CalVet facility in the VA/West L.A.  George created and organized the Claude Pepper Seniors Poker Group.  He was awarded the Senior Citizen Volunteer-of-the-Year Award, in large part for his activities on behalf of senior citizens, and has been elected to the Seniors’ Poker Hall of Fame.
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