When waking up with a top pocket pair, players are often quite excited, but all too often players play these hands in entirely the wrong way – despite them being the best hands statistically to have before the flop. In this post I’m going to talk about a hand I was involved with last Sunday in a poker tournament, whereby a player was playing pocket queens out of position, and analyse the way he played and how I think he could improve his game.
It was the late stages of a small tournament, the final table, with 4 players left and the blinds were 1000/2000 with no ante. The average chip stack was around 22,000. The cards are dealt out, and the player with and a stack of ~20000 makes an under-the-gun raise to a total of 6000. The player on the button with a stack of ~35,000 flat calls, and the 2 blinds both fold. The flop comes down . The player under-the-gun shoves all-in, as the pot is now 15,000, and he only has 14,000 chips left. The player on the button insta-calls, and turns over . Ouch. The turn came down and the river an uninspiring . The player with pocket queens lost all his chips – and this is a particular mistake that I see all too often from a lot of players.
Now realistically speaking, there were probably few ways that the unfortunate player with could have escaped losing all his chips – it’s likely that the player on the button was calling any bet from him in any situation, unless they had a particular read on him as being an exceptionally tight player. The player on the button was a solid, aggressive player, and fairly tight – so on seeing the call, you knew that they were pretty strong. When the Ace and King then came down on the flop, he was pretty much doomed – the ace and king were all over the opponents range, and QQ was now the third pair. Rather than shoving here, I would have been very cautious indeed, and perhaps been very reluctantly prepared to let go of the hand, rather than going for broke.
However, in reality the big mistake was his standard 3xBB raise. It practically left him pot committed when the flop came down. This meant that when the awful flop came down he was in a position where it was very difficult to get away from the hand and losing all his chips. If it were me, I would have open shoved pre-flop. Okay, I still would have lost in this particular situation, but long term it’s a much stronger, and more positive EV play. Worst case scenario: you are up against AA or KK, the only two hands beating you pre-flop. Middle case: you are in a pretty much 50/50 race against AK. In the best case scenario (most the time) your opponent calls you with you dominating their hand (think AQ, AJ, KQ, JJ, TT, etc), or you pick up the not insignificant 3k in blinds.
So if you wake up with a top pocket pair in the late stages of a tournament, don’t try to trap your opponent or leave yourself in a position whereby you are pot committed when the flop comes down. Either make a very small raise if you are on a very loose table, whereby a re-raise is practically guaranteed, giving you the opportunity to 3-bet shove, or open shove yourself. The key is that you want to be getting all your chips into the middle before the flop, in a final table situation whereby you only have < ~15 BB’s remaining. If you are chip leader (or generally speaking have 15+ BB’s), you have a bit more space available to play, so making the raise becomes a more acceptable play (although at the later stages of a tournament your raise should be smaller, perhaps 2.2-2.5xBB, as players have smaller stacks). If it was the other way around, and the pocket cards were reversed, the button player with the bigger stack could have gotten away on the flop much more readily. Never make a play pre-flop which leaves you pot committed to shoving even if a bad flop comes down, it’s almost always better to get your chips in before the flop, with a top hand.