Poker Strategy: Small Pairs

How to play small pairs successfully at poker

Small pairs in no-limit texas hold'em in early position can be a catastrophe for an amatuer poker player, yet they can also be a huge earner for experts. We are going to divide this article into startegy for playing small pairs in both cash games and tournaments. Either way, the key factor you have to remember when playing small pairs in no limit hold'em poker is that to be confident of winning the pot you need to make a set (three of a kind) and the odds of making this hand on the flop are approximately 7.5/1. (And a massive 407/1 about catching 4 of a kind!)

Playing small pairs in cash games

Pocket deuces are my favourite hand when playing no limit hold'em cash games for the simple reason that they are so disguised when you make a set. As with any small pair, and indeed any poker hand you need to ensure you get the right pot odds. In early position the best practice is arguably to limp in (call) or make a minimum raise. Ideally you need to be getting at least 3 callers to create a decent pot. When playing small pairs in late position it can often be very profitable to call into a pot with numerous raisers.

The flop is key when playing small pairs in a raised pot. If you do not get make a set then get out (unless you are good enough to bluff your opponent). However, when you do make a set you should be looking to maximise your winnings. To do this depends on the number of players and the cards on the board.

I'll give you an example from a $1/$2 no limit cash game I was playing recently: Seat 1 had AA and raised under the gun, Seat 5 flat called with AK, another player called and the action came round to me as dealer with poclet 3's. I flat call and the flop comes: K 7 3 rainbow. Jackpot - I've made a set. At this point remember I don't know my opponents hands, but after the player in seat 1 bets 80% of the pot, only to be raised by the player in seat 5 with AK by twice player 1's bet it is a fair assumption that I am facing an overpair and top pair with ace kicker. Both my opponents believe they have the best possible hand at this point (with good reason as the flop is "ideal" for both of their hands). Therfore I decide to push all in and both players call. The river is an 8 and the turn a J. I win the $700 pot with 3 of a kind.

The above example illustrates how profitbale playing small pairs can be, but you must remember that the vast majority of the time the outcome is not this kind. The advice to anyone but pro players would be to check or fold when you "miss" a flop , especially in early position. Also, when you do make a set, make sure that you don't slow play it to the extent that you allow players with drawing hands, e.g. a straight or flush to make their hand and beat your set.

Playing small pairs in tournaments

Tournament poker requires a differnet approach to playing small pairs to cash games. In tournaments small pairs need to be played more conservatively as your stack can easily dwindle away if you don't make a set on the flop. When playing small pairs in late position it is possible to steal the blinds and ante's, but if you are called then you can face some tough decisions like in the example below:

I riase with pocket 4's in the dealer seat, only to be called by the big blind. The flop comes Q 10 3 and the big blind bets the flop. Your only real options here are to move all in hoping your opponent will fold, or to fold yourself. Tough decisions like this in tournaments on too many occasinos usually mean a prompt exit!

Many average poker players get carried away when playing small pairs and it's easy to run into a lot of trouble when playing these aggressively.

Ledgendary poker player Doyle Brunson sums up the strategy for playing small pirs when he say "If you can't play small pairs the right way, don't play them at all". Although this may sound obvious, it will save amateur to medium players a lot of cash in the long run.

Other useful poker strategy articles:

Common poker mistakes
Knowing when to fold
Going on tilt
How to play Ace King
Playing small pairs
Poker position
Poker tournament strategy