The fabulous folly of two pair

By Kenny Smith

I think two pair is the one hand I see that most often traps the player holding it. It’s a made hand that in some cases can be a monster, but I also see players get into trouble with it and at showdown they end up valuing it way more than the hand was worth.

Even though two pair can be a big hand there is one thing to remember: it’s NEVER the nuts.

I first started learning how to play from a gentleman who was brilliant at multiple aspects of the game—observing players, patience, bet sizing, well-timed bluffs. You name it, he was on top of it.

I would go with him to different cardrooms and sit behind him, watching him play for hours as he would buy me drinks and keep me engaged in the action while I was being entertained. He wasn’t even a professional because he had a great job as an inventory manager for a department store. However I would say he was one of the best amateur poker players that you would run across. If you stayed at a table with him long enough and made a mistake, he was going to take most of your money (if not all of it) in one hand.

When he first started teaching me how to play Hold’em there was one statement he made that still sticks with me to this day. He said, “Kenny, always remember this: almost anytime that you make two pair, someone else has a straight draw. If you’re gonna play two pair fast, keep your foot over the brake pedal.” Even though two pair is a monster of hand to some degree, it’s extremely vulnerable going to the river, especially if you’re in a multi-way pot against three or more opponents.

Two pair can especially get players into a pickle when playing limit Hold’em. Many times, on a heavily coordinated board, players are betting and even raising when they have top two pair (i.e., they hold 10-9 on a board that reads 10h-9c-8h) and there are four other players in the hand with them.

It’s a semi-strong hand but it’s extremely vulnerable going to the river, if it’s not already beaten before that. An even worse situation that players will get themselves into is making two pair on the river yet someone else makes an even stronger hand (They hold J-10 and the board reads Td-6c-7s-5h-Jh against three opponents.)

After the river, the first player with action bets and the other two players call before the action comes to the player who just rivered top two pair. In a situation like this (more often than not) the correct play would probably be to fold. There are a multitude of hands that crush two pair (two different straights, any set) so that even in a pot with 10 to 12 big bets in it ($80 to $96 in a $4/8 game), it may be more palatable to get away from the hand and save the additional eight bucks. Making two pair on this board is probably a bad spot to be in.

Some of the worst play you will see occurs when a players calls the flop with just a pair and a weak kicker; or worse yet, bottom pair on a non-coordinated board. You have an overpair and they call you to the river … and hit their kicker to win. This is the type of play that regularly happens in limit poker, and it frustrates many players (myself included). Obviously it is never recommended to play this way. You may win a big pot; however, in the long run it will lose you money.

You have to consider what your game plan will be if you have two pair at any point in the hand. If you don’t have a plan in place you could be placing dead money in the pot. If it’s dead money, chances are, it’s someone else’s money.

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