One of the trickiest hands to play in poker is middle pocket pairs. As with all situations in poker, the best way to play them depends on many factors, including position, stack sizes and aggressiveness of the other players at the table.
So what do you do when you are brand-new to a game and have absolutely no information on the players you are facing? This is the situation I faced last month when I joined a new table and played my first-ever hand as a sponsored pro on LiveAce.com.
I was in the big blind with pocket nines at a $1/$2 no-limit table and faced an interesting decision after an early limp, two calls, and a button raise to $12. I had $120, and my opponents, whom I knew nothing about, had roughly equal or greater stacks. I considered two options: raise to $35 to try to take down the pot preflop, or call and re-evaluate after the flop. While playing a multi-way pot with pocket nines was not ideal, I elected to call and do just that.
With the little information I had about the other players, I didn't want to risk having to fold or call with 9-9 if one of them reraised all in. Two players called behind me, and we were four ways to the flop. My decision to just call reflects a simple but effective rule of thumb I recommend that players keep in mind for tough spots like this: Only play big pots with big hands.
The 10c Jc Qs flop was about as coordinated as a flop can be. I had the bottom end of a straight draw -- a potentially strong hand but a dangerous one in that I could be drawing dead against a made higher straight. With three overcards on the board, a flush draw and the possibility of a better straight draw as well, I decided that checking was the best course of action. (I was first to act.) The problem with a bet here was that I would have to fold to a raise, whereas if I checked, I could simply call a bet and re-evaluate on the turn.
My three opponents checked behind.
The 10s turn changed little. For the same reason I checked the flop, I checked the turn with the intention of calling a bet. Again, my opponents all checked behind.
The 6s on the river completed an unlikely backdoor flush draw. I was convinced that with all three opponents checking behind both flop and turn, I had reasonable showdown value. Rather than lead out the river and have to fold to a raise, I elected to stick with my strategy of checking, with the intention of calling a bet.
A player in middle position bet $25 into a pot of $51, and I just called and won as the other two opponents folded and my nines beat my opponent's 3d 4d bluff.
The key takeaway here: When you are out of position with a marginally strong hand, keep the pot small so that you don't get pushed off of your hand.
Good luck, and see you on the felt!
Andy Frankenberger is a professional poker player. He was named World Poker Tour Player of the Year in 2011 and has won two World Series of Poker bracelets.