NL Hold’em: Small Pocket Pairs

Published by AngusD on

We don’t need years of experience to appreciate a couple of the implications of playing small pairs pre-flop (for the purposes of this article we’ll define small pairs as 22-77). On the upside, when the flop promotes the pair to a set it’s great news, particularly in view of the fact that such a hand can be so well disguised that the ‘reveal’ might come only at the conclusion. However, what happens far more often is that, not only does the small pocket pair remain a small pocket pair but, invariably, the arrival on the flop of at least one overcard immediately starts to sow the seeds of doubt – our pair might already be beaten and we’re effectively sitting in the dark armed with a pretty toothless pair.

And herein lies the problem – are we simply wasting money by investing (even modestly) in a small pair in the first place? When we do hit a set would an eventual big pay-off (not in itself in anyway guaranteed, of course) be enough to at least compensate for the cumulative losses incurred through trying our luck all the other times?

While it tends not to be quite as ‘black & white’ as that, this aspect of No Limit Hold’em can nevertheless be considered in, if not simplistic terms, at least a way that helps put the situation in perspective and thus makes the do-we-or-don’t-we decision making process easier to handle.

Here are a few factors to take into consideration when dealt a small pocket pair. Keep in mind when contemplating the following that a pocket pair will become a set on the flop less than 12% of the time:

Position – this generally important subject is going to make a difference here, too. The earlier we are in the pre-flop betting order the greater the chance, after we have limped in, for instance, that someone will throw in a raise or – worse – a reraise, thus putting us in the often unenviable position of having to face facts and cut our loss rather than unjustifiably call a big bet. Conversely, if we are last to act, we have the relative luxury of having seen all the preceding action and can approach the hand with much more confidence. Note that position is absolutely relevant post-flop, too, as being on the button extends this strategic advantage until the river. Were we to have called a (re)raise in early position, on the other hand, the problem would be compounded by being out of position for the rest of the hand.

The kind of game in which we’re playing has an effect on whether playing small pairs is or isn’t a viable option. If the nature of the game is generally quiet we can get away with seeing the flop cheaply but, when sitting with aggressive players, we can’t expect a smooth ride to the flop – thoughtlessly limping with a small pair in early position is often a mistake, while doing so in a clearly aggressive game is unforgivable…

In a particularly passive game we can also slot in an occasional raise – apart from picking up a pot uncontested here and there this also serves to both mix up our play and better disguise a set when we strike lucky.

The bigger our stack size the more justified we are in getting involved pre-flop with small pairs due to their high(er) implied value. This is another subject but, not surprisingly, it’s logical to be able to make the most of our chances when hitting a set – better to invest a modest amount of our stack with a view to a big win than to risk too high a percentage of our money for a payout limited by our (short) stack size.

Good luck with small pairs!

Angus Dunnington (AngusD at the tables)
32Red Poker Ambassador

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