In this article I would like to “dissect” pocket threes as a starting poker hand. Generally speaking, neophyte NLH players make a lot of mistakes with the way they play certain hands. Usually new players misplay most starting poker hands and slowly start to become proficient. My observation of players’ tendencies with pocket threes has been rather different. Somewhat counter-intuitively, it seems to me that beginners as a whole play 33 (“crabs”) better than players who are actually starting to become proficient NLH players. It seems that, as players start to get some felt time under their belts, their play of pocket crabs gets worse instead of better. I’m going to provide some insight that should help you to avoid that struggle.
Players new to the game of No Limit Holdem usually start out loose and passive. They see too many flops and they call more than they raise. The natural progression of a NLH player moves him or her towards tight and aggressive play. Through experience, study, or a combination of both, players eventually realize that they should be playing only the best starting hands and they should raise instead of call when they enter a pot. Most catch on to, or read about, the “gap concept”. The gap concept states, basically, that it takes a better hand to call a raise with than to initiate one. Players at all levels of experience will often limp into pots with 33 to and see if they can hit a set, and that’s not a bad idea. Most players, with a bit of experience, become very reluctant to call raises with pocket treys. In fact though, calling a raise with pocket threes is very often the optimal play. When you consider that pocket threes are almost never a significant favorite to win a showdown, it’s not difficult to understand why players quit calling raises with 3’s in the relatively early stages of their poker development.
When you start with pocket threes you are only about a 3% favorite against two random cards. Your crabs are a huge dog to all pocket pairs other than twos, and they are only a small favorite against two unpaired over cards. Unremarkable hands like T4o pose just about as much threat as premium high card hands like AKs, AQs, AK, and AQ. Despite being a small favorite against two high cards, you will generally find it difficult to win a pot with 33 if you don’t improve to three of a kind. It’s just not easy to feel comfortable in a hand when every card ranked four or higher is a “scare card”. The only hands that you will beat with any real consistency in a showdown are hands that contain a three and another card, hands that contain a 2 and another card, and pocket two’s. It’s just not often that an opponent raises before the flop with hands as suboptimal as 22 or 3X. Generally speaking then, you are going to either be a very small favorite or a 4 to 1 dog to any hand that puts in a raise against you. So, how much wisdom could there be in calling a raise when the best case scenario is that you are in a “coin flip?” Well that’s just one of the things we’re going to examine in my starting hand analysis of 33.
Chances of 33 Winning Against Starting Hands
I’m going to show you your approximate win percentages against various two-card starting hands. Becoming familiar with these numbers should be helpful when you are playing pocket threes in cash games and at various stages of a tournament, especially when the blinds start to get hefty at the final stages of a tournament. I’m going to provide a list of starting hands that will cover a lot of ground. We’ll look at some premium starting hands, some garbage hands, some speculative hands, and some pretty random hands so you can see how your threes match up against: raising hands, limping hands, bluffs, and random blind hands. I’ll list the hand that your threes are, hypothetically, up against and then show your chances of beating the hand if both players see all five cards.
1) AK: 53%
2) JTs: 47%
3) KQ: 51%
4) Q7o: 53%
5) 45: 50%
6) 22: 78%
7) A2s: 64%
8) T2: 67%
9) J4s: 51%
10) 44, 55, 66, 77, 88, all the way to AA: 17%
When to Play Pocket Threes
The idea you should grasp from this is that you are in bad shape against a lot of hands, flipping a coin against most hands, and you are a real favorite only against a very few hands. It would be easy to look at numbers like these and just decide you’re never going to play threes again. We’re going to be a bit more creative than that though. I advocate playing the hand often when the blinds are small in relation to the sizes of the stacks in play. Towards the late/middle stages of a poker tournament, when the big blind starts to approach 5-8% of the average stack size, the strength of crabs starts to ebb. The intriguing thing about small pocket pairs like threes is that they actually become reasonably playable again once the blinds get even bigger.
There are two major attributes that pocket crabs have going for them in the early stages of a tournament. The first is implied value (there is a reasonable chance of flopping a (well concealed) monster and taking a player’s entire stack. The second is its post-flop playability – the hand virtually plays itself after the flop. You’ll either hit a set and attempt to get as much money into the pot as possible, or you will go away. It’s usually that simple. There’s very little chance of losing a big pot with pocket threes. Either you’ll hit your set and go into “extraction mode” or you’ll hit nothing and go into check-and-fold mode.
During cash games or the early rounds of a tournament, you should play pocket threes like any other speculative hand. You’ll want to play them from late position when you can see a relatively cheap flop. The odds of flopping a set or better when you start with pocket threes are a little better than 7.5 to 1 against. That means you will hit at least three of a kind a tiny bit less than one time in eight. So, as long as you can gain more than seven times your investment when you do hit, it’s at least a break even play. My rule of thumb when playing cash games is that I will play my crabs from late position only and will limp in or call a raise of no more than about 7% of my stack, and the player who made the raise has to have at least 15 times more than the size of the bet left in his stack. It doesn’t do you any good to take long shot gambles like 7 to 1 if your opponent doesn’t have enough money to make it worth your while when you actually do get there.
In freeze-out tournament play (tournaments with no re-buys), I tighten up my play even more with pocket threes, although I will still call raises with them in the first couple blind rounds. In freeze-outs I like to make sure I don’t call off more than 5% of my stack, and I would still like my opponent to have at least 15 times the amount that I’m calling to play. The reason I play tighter with threes in tournaments is three-fold. First due to the pay out structures rewarding survival, you don’t want to push small edges in a tournament. The second reason is that you cannot just buy back in when you’re low on chips, which means you want to try to reduce the volatility (the swings) in the game. Finally, I find that it’s easier to bust players at cash games than it is in freeze-out tournaments. Players are often risky in cash games, and downright reckless in re-buy events, but they tend to keep a tighter grip on there chips when they are not able to just reach into their wallets to buy more.
Oddly, when blinds become huge in relation to stack sizes, especially short handed or heads-up, pocket threes become playable hands again. They are actually a fine hand to move-in with under the right conditions. That means very large blinds with very few players to act after you, and particularly when you are on the short stack. You should start playing any pocket pair especially hard in large blind/small stack, short-handed play. When the blinds, and or antes, would add a large percentage to the size of your stack, pocket threes are just fine for moving in with on a steal. You’re hoping that no one calls you, but even when you are called you will be on the better end of a “coin flip” about 15 times out of 16 (the odds of holding a pair in a two-card starting hand are 15 to 1 against). If you do get called and end up in a “coin flip” or “race” situation, you’ll be getting better than 1 to 1 from the pot (with blinds and antes) and you’ll be a bit better than 1 to 1 in the hand. That’s not a bad situation to be in. The combination of good hand odds and good pot odds makes it somewhat profitable when you factor in the fold equity (the chance that your opponent may just let you take the blinds uncontested); you have a winning play. Remember that I’m advocating raising all-in with crabs in these situations and not calling all-in. Those are two very different concepts. When you call all-in you lose your fold equity, and that fold equity is crucial in making the play an overall money winner.
The first idea that I want to stress about pocket threes, to those of you who are starting to see that playing tight and aggressive are the keys to winning in No Limit Hold’em, is that it’s okay to call sometimes. You can call a raise with threes and try to hit a great flop and bust somebody. You don’t always have to raise or fold, as some of the literature in print suggests. While you should definitely raise more than you call and fold more than you raise, there are certain times when calling is the most advisable course of action. In the early rounds of a tournament or in a cash game, the last thing I think you should do with crabs is to re-raise and give your opponent a chance to price you out of the hand. The other concept I want you to grasp is that small pocket pairs like threes actually play well in the beginning stages of a tournament and at the end but do not play as well in the middle stages. Until next time, Good “Luck!”