Lesson 31 – Playing Small Pocket Pairs

Home Poker School Lesson 31 – Playing Small Pocket Pairs

What I mean by “small” here are pairs of 2s through 8s. Why those? Well, of the thirteen pocket pairs you can be dealt before the flop, half are lower than 8 and half are higher, with 8s falling right in the middle, but I’ll consider them small for this lesson, which will cover No Limit Hold’em (NLHE) only. In my lesson on pocket pairs in the Limit Hold ’em portion of my school, I outlined some basic facts that also apply here:

  • The probability of being dealt any pocket pair is 5.9% (16 to 1 against).
  • The probability of being dealt a specific pocket pair (A-A, 3-3, etc.) is 0.45% (220 to 1 against).
  • A “set” is formed with a pocket pair, plus another card of that rank on “the board” (the community cards).
  • Trips are formed with one card in the pocket and a pair of the same rank on the board. Obviously, a set is much stronger than Trips, so remember the terminology as we go through the lessons; there is a difference in how each is played.
  • The probability of hitting a “set” on the flop is 10.8% or 8.26 to 1 against.
  • The probability of hitting quads on the flop, when holding a pocket pair, is 0.25% (about 399 to 1 against).
  • The probability of hitting a Full House on the flop, when holding a pocket pair, is 0.74% (a 133 to 1 shot).
  • A general rule for playing pocket pairs is this: If you hold 9s or lower and don’t make a set on the flop, fold. No set, no bet.

The last item, “no set, no bet” is fine for beginners – it’ll keep you out of trouble – but I’ve learned that the “small” pocket pairs that do not hit a set on the flop can be played profitably at times in NLHE games and that’s what I want to cover here. What we’ll discuss is a departure from my NLHE Basic Strategy Matrix, which can be found in Lesson 11, so don’t get confused; the matrix is a tight strategy produced for beginners and what I’m going to discuss here is for the more advanced student who feels comfortable with making non-standard moves at a pot. Needless to say, these “plays” as they’re known in the trade carry a lot more risk, but they also have the potential of winning more pots, if not bigger pots. Let me explain

When you are dealt a small pocket pair (2s through 8s), the position you’re playing from will usually dictate what you do with them. That’s shown in the NLHE Basic Strategy Matrix where the predominant move is to fold them or just call, but in short-handed games or in tournaments where you’re approaching the money “bubble” (the next person out doesn’t make any $$$) or in an otherwise tight game, small pairs can usually be played more aggressively, regardless of position. That’s not to say I’m going to re-raise with a pair of 6s in early position, but I might call a raise with them instead of automatically folding. Now if the original raise gets re-raised by someone playing after me, I’m pretty much gone unless I’m getting huge pot odds (10 to 1, minimum) and I’m not likely to call with a small pocket pair if there’s a raise and a re-raise ahead of me, regardless of how juicy the pot odds are.

If I do end up in the pot after calling an early position raise, my next move will be determined primarily by how the flop came out and whether or not I’m heads up with my opponent or if there are others in the pot. If an Ace hits, I obviously need to determine if my opponent (I’m assuming we’re heads up at this point) is holding an Ace, if my hand did not improve. Sure, there’s nothing better than hitting a set on the flop and then check-raising with it, but because the probability of being dealt a pocket pair of 8s or lower is only about 4% and the probability of hitting a set on the flop is 10.8%, then you’re going to see that happen about once every 225 hands, on average. If the raiser is a tight player who basically has dust on his or her chips, I’ll likely fold to his or her bet when that Ace flops. But be aware that many players will check their Aces in an attempt to induce a bet, which they can then either just smooth-call or raise. If they do check, I’ll bet out about half of the pot in an attempt to see where I’m at in the hand. If my opponent calls, that doesn’t necessarily mean s/he has an Ace, but that call is going to slow me down. If my opponent check-raises me, I’m gone. However, if I’m still in the hand going into the turn, I’m looking to see if a Straight or Flush can be made with the turn card. In other words, if the flop has two cards of the same suit or if it has two cards to a Straight, I’m going to be very reluctant to stay with the hand if the turn card could complete either. If I happened to make the first bet on the flop, my opponent may check to me – whether s/he has made a hand or not – in order to perhaps check-raise me or at least call in order to build the pot. If my opponent does bet after the turn card is dealt, then I’m probably done with the hand – no set, no bet. Remember, this is a tight player who is leading out at the pot, so the 4 cards that are on the board aren’t scaring him or her. Sure, s/he might be bluffing, but most of the time I’m going to fold, unless I have a very big chip lead over this player and a loss won’t be more than 20% of my stack.

On the other hand, if the raiser has been playing more on the aggressive side, I’m not going to be quite so concerned if an Ace hits on the flop because that type of player may have raised with almost any two half-way decent cards; K-Qo, J-10s, etc. That’s not to say s/he doesn’t have a hand that beats mine, but you can usually determine that fairly quickly. An aggressive player who raised before the flop is most likely going to make a continuation bet on the flop, whether s/he hit a hand or not. I’m going to raise this type of opponent – not a big raise, but one that’s big enough to say, “I hit a set on the flop”. That move actually makes a lot of sense, especially if there is a Straight or Flush possibility. My opponent saw me call a preflop raise and then I raised his bet because I want to make him or her pay for any drawing possibilities. Aggressive players understand – and often respond to – aggressive plays made by their opponents; you cannot make a play like this against a “calling station”. If the aggressive player then re-raises me, s/he either has a real hand or thinks I’m making a “move” and believes I cannot call a re-raise. If my image is that of a tight player, my opponent may just smooth-call and try to take the pot away on the turn. Well, if I hit a set on the turn, s/he is going to get a big surprise because I’m going to re-raise if s/he leads out or I’ll bet big if s/he checks to me, assuming a “scare card” didn’t come on the turn. I will slow down and just call if it’s possible that my opponent made a Straight or Flush, but I’m not going to sweat losing to a higher set; if it happens, it happens and I’m going to lose a lot of chips. Conversely, if I do not hit a set on the turn and my opponent leads out at me, I just need to make a decision about whether or not my hand is best and call or fold as appropriate, as I’ll show you below.

Let’s talk about what will happen the vast majority of the time you hold a middle pocket pair. First of all, you should follow my No Limit Hold ’em Starting Hands matrix that is shown in Lesson 15, which assumes you’re at a full table because most of the time in a tournament, you will be at a full table (9 players or more.) All pocket pairs of 8s or lower are folded in early position, according to the matrix, but if you can limp in and feel comfortable with it, then do so. But just to make this an “average” hand, let’s say I’m in middle position with 6-6 and am first to bet on the first hand of a tournament, which means all chip stacks are about equal. My matrix says to raise, but fold to a re-raise, so let’s assume I do raise 3 times the Big Blind and the player on the Button and the Big Blind are the only callers. Notice that you I just lost position because the Button will act last on every round of betting for the rest of this hand. The flop comes Jh, 3c, 2h so a Flush draw is possible and I do not have a set, but do have a “backdoor” Straight possibility. Now it’s up to the Big Blind to act and s/he checks. Remember that there were 7.5 bets (1 Big Blind bet, 1 Small Blind bet, my 3 Big Blind raise and the Button’s 3 Big Blind call) in the pot when it came around to the player in the Big Blind, who had to call only 2 Big Blinds, which is 3.5 to 1 pot odds, so s/he could literally be playing any two cards; even 2-3, which means s/he just flopped Two-Pair.

But in almost every scenario, the Big Blind will either check or make a “probe” bet to try and take down the hand right now. The probe bet disguises the true strength of the Big Blind’s hand, but if the Big Blind does lead off the betting, it’s more likely s/he feels I raised with an Ace-x type of hand and, because an Ace did not come on the flop, missed and will fold. If the Big Blind had a real hand, like J-10, K-J, 2-3 or a heart Flush draw, why would s/he lead out? There are obviously a few reasons why – the key one being a Flush draw – but that’s the question I ask myself when it happens. Of course, the flop may have missed the Big Blind completely and s/he’s just bluffing. It’s tough to bluff two other players, so that’s actually a pretty poor choice for someone who’s playing out of position. But for now, let’s say the Big Blind just checks to me. Because I raised preflop, most of the time I’ll make a continuation bet of at least one-half of the pot and maybe even a pot-sized bet. (I like to mix them up, randomly.) Had I raised with an A-x hand, I likely would check like the Big Blind did because there is more than one other player in the pot, unless I had raised with A-J, in which case I would definitely make a pot-sized bet, having paired my Jack on the flop. Regardless, I do have pocket 6s and there’s only 1 overcard on the board and I must bet to find out where I am in the hand, so 99% of the time I will bet here.

The player on the Button now has a lot of power (but not all the power, if we’re fairly even in chips) in this hand, despite my continuation bet. Should s/he raise me, I’ll likely call if the Big Blind folds and fold if the Big Blind calls. In other words, I do not want to continue with this hand if I cannot get heads up. The Button, who has two potential callers, will most likely raise only if s/he has a part of the flop (like a Jack, a Flush draw or an overpair) but if s/he just calls my continuation bet, then my next decision point is based upon what the Big Blind does. If the Big Blind now raises, I’m gone, but if the Big Blind either folds or just calls, I’ll be looking to hit a set on the turn. If that happens and the card is not a heart, I’ll lead out with a pot-sized bet – no “trapping” plays for me, because the river card could still make someone a Flush and I want them to pay for the privilege. More likely to happen is that I will not hit a set on the turn and if the Big Blind again checks, I’ll check also and hope that the Button checks as well, which isn’t likely to happen. If the Big Blind checks and I check, the Button should fire at the pot in an effort to take it down.

But just because the Button bets at this point, it doesn’t automatically mean I’ll fold. Again, I want to see what the Big Blind does; if s/he folds, I’ll calculate the pot odds available to me and if they’re big enough, I just might call, but let me point out that I won’t be calling to try and hit one of the two 6s that are left on the river. It’s a 2 of 46 probability, which calls for 22 to 1 pot odds and I doubt those will be available. No, if I call, it’s because I think my opponent does not have a Jack and may be trying to win the pot with a bluff because s/he has something like A-x and missed a Straight or Flush draw, which is a consequence of playing a hand like A-x, suited or otherwise in this situation. Remember, a lot of players will call one raise on the Button with almost any two cards and A-x suited is very tempting in that position.

Let’s assume the Big Blind folds after the Button bets on the turn card, which happened to be the 9c, so I will call. Now, it’s all up to the river card. If I do hit my two-outer, I’m going to bet an amount I think the Button might call if s/he has just Ace high – about one-third to one-half of the pot is right, to my way of thinking (and of course I’m now hoping the Button has a Jack). If I miss on the river, I’ll check and hope that the Button checks as well. After all, the Button bet on the turn after both I and the Big Blind checked, which doesn’t necessarily mean s/he has a hand and the fact that I called may have put up a warning flag to the player on the Button. But if it has all gone this far, my opponent may well have a pair of Jacks and then s/he will “value bet” me; like one-third to one-half of the pot or s/he may do it as a bluff. While I probably will not call a pot-sized bet, I’ll likely call something smaller, if for no other reason than to see what cards my opponent was playing. There’s an old saying that applies here: If you check the turn, you should call on the river. Naturally, you cannot follow that “rule” blindly, but I guarantee that a lot of hands that could be won are lost in this situation.

If the Button shows a Jack in the pocket or otherwise beats me, I’ll wince a bit and remind myself of “no set, no bet”, but I’ll go away with the satisfaction that I had a good shot at a decent pot and vow to do better in the future. I just think one is giving up too many $$$ by automatically folding a small pocket pair when a set doesn’t come on the flop. Of course, this is just one particular situation out of thousands of possibilities, but I wanted to get you thinking about how you might win more often by craftily playing a very important hand: the small pocket pair.

I’ll see you here next time.

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