Middling pairs like pocket nines are among the most difficult-to-play starting hands in No-Limit Hold’em.
Of course, even many beginners know that when you flop a set with a hand like nines you should usually be looking to put as many chips into the pot as possible…
…but since you will only flop a set around 12% of the time, it’s important to have a well-rounded strategy for playing pocket nines that accounts for all the times you don’t flop a monster.
This article aims to introduce you to some key principles for how to play pocket nines. Including:
- How to Play Pocket Nines Preflop
- Playing Nines Postflop on Different Board Textures
- 3 Bonus Postflop Tips
Understanding the strategy laid out in this article will do a lot for your win-rate and confidence as a player, so let’s get started!
How to Play Pocket Nines Preflop in Cash Games
Let’s begin by getting our preflop strategy down:
Although not a monster starting hand, pocket nines is certainly strong enough to open the action with a raise from all positions in 9 or 6-handed games. You should never open the action with a limp.
It’s easy to remember to raise 99 from any position unopened, but you start having to make more thoughtful decisions when you have nines against a raise.
When facing a single raise, you should never fold 99, but you do have to decide between calling or 3-betting. This decision comes largely down to position.
Pocket nines should be called on the button against early-position raisers and 3-bet when facing a raise from the cutoff.
Take a look at the Button (BTN) vs Lojack (LJ) raise preflop chart from the Upswing Lab training course:
As you can see, when on the Button with 99 facing a raise from the Lojack (UTG in 6-max), the best option is to call rather than 3-bet.
There are a couple of reasons to not 3-bet pocket nines against early position raisers:
- Early-position opening ranges (UTG-HJ) tend to be very tight. Because of this, you should expect your 3-bet to force fewer folds against early-position raisers.
- You will be in a sticky spot versus a 4-bet. When facing a 4-bet from UTG-UTG+2, you will not have enough equity to always call and may need to fold preflop (what a waste of 99).
These factors typically make 99 function better as a call than a 3-bet against early-position openers. You should, however, begin to 3-bet 99 against later position raises and prepare to call a 4-bet should you face one.
This spot is quite similar to playing nines versus a raise on the button.
Pocket nines should be called in the Big Blind when facing a raise from the cutoff position or earlier. When the button or the small blind raises, you can consider 3-betting for value.
Pocket nines can be called from the Cutoff or earlier when facing a raise from the earliest positions (UTG-UTG+2).
That is, of course, unless you’d prefer to never cold-call from these positions (which many cash game players prefer). If you don’t want to have a cold-calling range, nines are strong enough to be included in your 3-betting range.
Against a raise from the Lojack, you can use a mixed strategy of 3-bets and calls from the Cutoff through Hijack. But I prefer 3-betting, as it gives you a chance at isolating the Lojack, while also discouraging the players behind you (particularly the button) from making a squeeze-play. Plus, 3-betting gives you the chance to take down the pot preflop — a welcome result with a medium pair.
You can read more about squeeze plays here.
Playing 99 versus a 3-bet is simple: call. Nines have enough equity against even tight 3-bet ranges to see a flop, and are seldom strong enough to 4-bet and stack off with.
Your decisions after the flop in 3-bet pots largely come down to the specific board and the amount of pressure your opponent puts on you.
As mentioned in the introduction, hands like pocket nines can be very tricky to play correctly, particularly postflop. The reason for this is pretty obvious—discounting the times you flop a set, the value of middling pocket pairs postflop tend to be, well, middling.
When making postflop decisions with pocket nines, always start by analyzing the board texture. In other words, think about how the cards on the board affect the strength of your hand/range against your opponent’s range.
Let’s take a look at a few common categories of board textures, and quickly talk about the best strategy for each:
- A♥ K♦ Q♠
- K♠ J♥ A♦
- A♦ Q♠ T♥
Boards like this are pretty bad for pocket nines because there are tons of combinations of hands that beat your one pair.
Plan to do a lot of check-folding on high-card boards on which there are two or more cards over a 9.
- J♥ 5♠ 8♦
- 10♦ 7♠ 5♥
These are much better for pocket nines than high-card boards. The presence of only one over card in the examples above make it more difficult for your pair of nines to be beat.
On boards like this as the aggressor, you can often get value from worse pairs or high-card hands that your opponent might try to float the flop with. On boards like this as the preflop caller, expect to call at least one bet.
Low boards like 5♦ 2♥ 7♠ or paired boards like 5♠ 5♦ 3♥ are great for pocket nines. The number of hands your opponent can have that beat you drop dramatically.
You can still be up against a set or a higher overpair in some cases, but generally you should be more confident about putting money into the pot on these types of board textures.
Plan on doing a lot of betting on low and paired board textures as the aggressor, and call at least one and often two bets depending on the turn and river when facing aggression.
- 5♥ 4♥ 3♥
- 7♠ 6♠ 4♣
The connectedness of a board is another very important thing to consider when making decisions postflop.
In general, the greater the board’s connectivity, the more carefully we should play with pocket pairs that haven’t made a set.
As an example, think about having 9♣ 9♦ on 3♥ 4♥ 5♥. In this case, you have an overpair to the board and could in theory get value from lower pairs if you bet.
However, when you consider the board’s connectivity, you will realize that not only are there a number of possible straights our opponent could have but also a ton of flushes too.
In this example, you would want to tread carefully when it comes to putting money into the pot. A small continuation bet on the flop is probably still a good idea, in part to protect your hand. But if your opponent plays back at you with a check-raise, you should probably look to fold a good percentage of the time despite having an overpair.
Similarly, if you were out of position as the opener in this example, you might opt to check rather than continuation bet in order to control the size of the pot.
Before I wrap up this article, I wanted to list a few more useful ideas to think about when navigating with pocket nines postflop:
It might sound obvious, but it’s important to not get caught up trying to slow-play sets too often.
When deciding whether or not to slow-play, you want to consider things like:
- You opponent’s range
- The board texture
- The likelihood he will bet multiple streets on most run outs.
Trying to account for all of the variables can be tricky, but in general you will find that the best approach to playing sets is to bet/raise aggressively and build the pot yourself rather than risk losing EV by slow-playing.
Note: If you’re itching to do it, slow-playing out of position with top set on dry board textures makes the most sense. For example, check-calling with the intention of check-raising turn or river with 9♠ 9♣ on 9♦ 5♥ 3♠ is a solid play.
To learn more about deciding when to slow-play, read When Should You Slow-Play a Strong Hand?
Middling strength hands like pocket nines will have big shifts in value depending on the turn card.
Overcards or draw-completing turns can turn 99 into an easy check-fold candidate when faced with aggression. Undercard and board pairing turns are often good for pocket nines, and can give you the chance to value bet more streets or call another bet from your opponent.
Great poker players leave as little of their game as possible to guessing and random feel plays. If you really want to improve your postflop strategy, the resources are available at places like Upswing Poker, but remember that it’s always going to be up to you to correctly implement the strategy correctly.
I say this because I find that, with hands like pocket nines, players can get caught up wanting to call too much or bet too aggressively in spite of bad board textures. I think it’s an emotional thing that comes with the frustration of not flopping a set or an overpair, in combination with not wanting to get bluffed off a decent hand.
Even good players can get lost in this sometimes, so always remember that after you learn your strategy, you need to stick to it!
There’s nothing more fun than flopping a set and getting the chips in the middle, but you’ll miss a set with pocket nines around 88% of the time. Using the strategies listed above will go a long way in maximizing your value and minimizing your losses with this tricky hand.
Do you play pocket nines differently than this article recommends? Let me know in the comments below.
By the way, here’s an appropriate next article to read: How to Play Jack-Ten Suited in Cash Games.
Thanks for reading. See you next time, and good luck!