Many people play small pocket pairs like this:
1. ????? 2. Flop set 3. Profit.
My hope is that this helps some people figure out how to play pocket pairs according to the situation rather than just always raising, folding, calling, etc. It shouldn’t be anything ground- breaking, but I’m hoping it helps people think about their hand a little bit more. So here we go…
One of the reasons I wanted to do the CotW on playing small pocket pairs because they have been something I’ve been contemplating a lot and this would give me a great opportunity to take a look at my game and how I can best play them. So I looked over a lot of topics and studied my stats and re-read some previous CotW’s and this is my attempt to summarize and expand a little on how some of the concepts relate specifically to playing small pocket pairs. I don’t claim to be an expert but I do believe that this should help beginners and act as a refresher and chance for regulars to re-evaluate their game and take a look at why they play small pairs the way they do. I am also hoping that this leads to some discussion on the points I may have skipped over too briefly, missed entirely, or screwed up.
For the purpose of this I’m going to consider small pocket pairs as 22-66, and 22 will play differently than 66 in many situations and I’ll try to make notes when I think this will specifically come into play, but generally I feel this is the best way to categorize them. Also, I’m assuming normal 100bb stacks but strategy will obviously vary depending on stacksize. I will make notes here and there, but we can assume that generally shorter stacks are worse for small pocket pairs and deeper stacks are better. Lastly, I’m not going to address floating with small pocket pairs too much since there is already a fantastic CotW on floating and I’m not that great at it yet. There are tons of topics that really apply to what we’re doing here and I’m going to try and link to these where I feel they’re especially important (full credit given, of course). Especially now that we have a full year of CotW’s done there should be tons of topics that cross- reference each other and share similar themes. Many players here are better than me and I’m going to make sure my CotW utilizes their past efforts. I hope people don’t think this is a lazy way of writing a CotW or think I’m trying to ride other people’s coat-tails. I’m simply trying to make this as good as possible without directly copy/pasting everyone’s ideas which would obviously be no good.
By the way, if I mentioned a CotW and didn’t link/credit it, someone please PM me right away so I can edit that information in. I edited a couple times but there’s a possibility I may have overlooked something and I don’t want anyone’s CotW uncredited if I mention it, even briefly.
Playing small pocket pairs in early position is going to be table- dependent. I looked through my last year’s database of 280,000 (about 1⁄2 are 25NL and 1⁄2 are lower, I was a VERY marginal winner both in the 25NL-specific hands and the lower levels) hands and was a slight winner open-raising (including 22). I don’t open raise blindly, however, and won’t raise if I have a bunch of shortstacks after me (although I try not to sit at tables with more than three normally), if it’s especially aggressive. I don’t normally raise UTG with 22-55 and won’t raise 22, 33 or even 44 sometimes UTG+1. Blindly open-raising any pair in any position will likely burn you unless you are extremely skilled postflop, or playing deeper.
Here are some things that I try to keep in mind that will help me decide that it’ll be OK to raise my marginal hand out of position (keep calling it that, it’ll help keep things in perspective):
-If it’s a really tight table and lots of pots are being taken down by preflop raises and/or cbets then we can feel better about raising. On the contrary, if it’s a more aggressive table (especially at higher limits) then we should probably be dumping them more often than not.
-How well do I cbet, read hands and generally play postflop? If your postflop skills aren’t completely developed yet there’s absolutely no reason to get yourself into marginal decisions and hands. I would say that you should have a really good idea of how to cbet and double barrel/use turn scare cards in order to be really profitable playing these hands.
-What image do I have? If we’re playing aggressively and people have been playing back at us lately, there’s a good chance we could get floated or played back at, regardless of our position. If we’re tight I’ll tend to raise these hands more often than if I’ve been aggressive. We’ll tend to get more respect since we’re in EP but we still may not get as much as we’d hope. If it’s a tight table and no one has been playing back though, feel free to disregard this until they start playing back.
Open-limping: boooooo. I do not condone open-limping, it simply defines your hand way too much. If you open-limp UTG or UTG+1 you pretty much define your hand if you get raised and flat. Regs will be able to read you really well and you may not be able to extract as much value OOP vs the weaker players as you would like. You’ll have a positional disadvantage, the initiative disadvantage and you’ll very rarely have a good card advantage other than a small edge in coin flip situations. HUGE DISCLAIMER I DONT PLAY LIVE VERY MUCH: but I think that open-limping live might not be nearly as awful as doing it online. People don’t read as well and will stack off much worse, and you don’t want to build a huge pot preflop with a small pocket pair. I think I would open-limp live sometimes, depending on conditions obviously, but really just about never ever online.
Reacting to open-limps and open-raises as UTG+1: Since we’re in EP, if UTG limps or raises, we’re obviously in UTG+1.
Depending on table conditions, I may flat, but I want conditions to be pretty good for me. In my 280,000 hands I did this about 60-80 times, when conditions were optimal. There needs to be no shortstacks/aggressive squeezers behind me and I need to have some sort of note that the raiser is going to stack off somewhat lightly. The problems are that we may often find ourselves sandwiched and won’t be able to float or try to take the pot away (if we feel we can do so, board and villain dependent, of course) which helps us make up for some of the times that we miss our set, etc. and that there is a better chance of being three-bet off our hand by a real hand since there are tons of people behind us that could wake up with a 3-betting hand (and maybe even aggressive squeezers who can put us on the hand we have fairly easily and think they can push UTG out, obviously not a huge worry though because of the UTG raiser). Obviously since this occurs only in one situation my numbers are smaller, but I think we can feel pretty good dumping this situation unless we have some good reasons not to.
Middle position is where I’ll start to raise more often but I’ll still take caution if I’ve got a lot of aggressive players or shortstacks behind me (in which case it could be time to consider switching tables). We will get three-bet more often by aggressive players and if we can’t react correctly to three-bets then we would do better to just dump these hands. I was a small loser with these hands in 25NL for a little while in MP because I called three- bets way too liberally and lost a ton doing this (something I revert to when tilting sometimes). We will talk more about reacting to 3-bets with small pocket pairs in a bit, but it’s something to consider. Open-limping here is worse and even live I’m raising or folding at this point if no one has opened yet.
We can also begin to flat raises more often since we’ll have position on a fair enough amount of people who are left behind us that decide to play and there are less chances for people to wake up with a huge hand behind us. Ideally there aren’t aggressive squeezers behind us.
By the way, this is as good a place to put it as I can find, so I think it’s important to note that I would much rather be flatting a tight UTG raiser than a loose MP raiser. Simply put, we will win stacks more often versus someone who has a really tight range that will include tons of overpairs and TPTK type hands than someone who will be flopping weaker pairs, draws and middle pairs more often. If someone has 99 and we flop a set we’re rarely getting stacks from them even if they have an overpair and stacks will only go in on set over set or against super loose postflop players. So we’d like to play against the tightest ranges we can get, especially at the small price of 3-4BB. Also, people are going to squeeze someone who’s flatting a 10/7 player raising UTG or UTG+1 hardly at all, if ever. On the other hand, if someone is 24/21 raising MP and we have a cold-call and I’m on the button, squeezing looks pretty sexy. So take all this into consideration when deciding whether or not to flatcall.
As far as 3-betting goes, I’m not going to 3-bet small pocket pairs. We’re ideally hoping for the villain to have a big hand when we have a small pocket pair so we can hit our set and get stacks. When we 3-bet the villain is going to 4-bet a good amount of the hands we want them to have and force us off our hand. There’s no need to increase the SPR since most of the time we’re not going to have a hand we really want to continue with. And when we do flop a set we’ve shown enough strength to possibly scare off hands that could possibly pay us off like AQ, JJ, TT, etc. for more than one more street. We could easily get three streets of value from someone when we’re in position rather than scaring them off on the flop or river (villain dependent, but I still hate three-betting).
By late position, if it’s unopened and I have a small pocket pair, I’m raising. Maybe with super aggro players behind us or with aggro shorties or something we can find a fold, but if that’s the case then we need to leave the table next time the blind comes around. I’m flatting most raises unless stacks are short or I think there’s a great chance we’re getting squeezed, which doesn’t worry me much at 25NL and under. We are in position and can float a bit more if we’re good enough at it and aren’t as worried as people waking up with big hands behind us. We can extract value because of our position versus good hands and we’re generally going to be able to take control more often than we could with more players behind us. I’m not squeezing or three-betting very often for reasons I’ve outlined before, but there are situations where I can envision doing it if there’s enough dead money, but I’d still do it only on the very rarest of occasions, if ever.
Reacting to shorties with small pocket pairs:
If you have two or more shortstacks behind you should raise anyway but leave the table as soon as you can. If the shortstack pushes depending on how loose they are I may call. If a shortstack is pushing 10% of their hands and all pairs Pokerstove says 22 has 36.2% equity and 66 has 47% equity, which is a fairly small difference. If they are pushing 5% of their hands but all pairs we have 27% equity with 22 and 43.6% equity with 66. If they’re pushing 20% of their hands we have 43.8% equity with 22 and 46.77% equity with 66. You can use this as a rough estimate as to call or fold, but assuming we raise 3x blind and they push 20x blind we’re normally calling 17 blinds to win 24.5 blinds which means we have 40.97% equity to call profitably. If we think calling lighter may deter the shorty (or other shorties) from pushing light on us in the future, then we can probably call SLIGHTLY under equity. This is some fairly rough math, but a decent guideline.
Read the CotW on crushing shorties for more advice, I’m really only touching the tip of the iceberg here and the beating the shortstack CotW was phenomenal.
Reacting to 3-bets
Generally we’re going to be out of position and the stacks are going to be too small for us to profitably call a 3-bet with our small pocket pairs. With larger pairs we may feel that we’ll have the strong enough hand unimproved enough to call them, but that will very rarely be the case with our small pairs, and even against an unimproved AK/AQ type hand we are going to be out of position and unable to steal the pot often enough.
Mathematically we flop a set about 11% of the time so we’re going to need to be calling less than 11% of our stacks in order to profit. This of course assumes that we are going to get in stacks and not get sucked out on every single time we flop a set, which is silly. Realistically calling anything other than min- raise 3bets against people who have a really strong raise is going to get us in trouble. Normal 3bets will be at least 10bb if we (or someone else) raised to 3bb and we aren’t getting good enough odds considering we aren’t getting even half-stacks most of the time we nail that set. If we’re in position we have a tiny bit more room to play around if we believe we can take the pot away from them if we don’t hit our set. We also have a better chance at setmining if there are more people in the pot but keep in mind that they likely have marginal hands and won’t get it in often against us. If the 3-bet is larger we really should fold unless we have a sick read and want to four-bet bluff but 1) we already flatted in LP and may have defined our hand already and 2) I’m not good enough to discuss this further so let’s just say fold.
There is a superb CotW (I know, I’m pimping other people’s work a lot and using lot by mpethy on reacting to 3bets that can help you out if you want to take the pots away from them postflop. From a purely setmining point of view, though, calling a 3-bet is almost never a good idea, so we need to have a plan other than “call, hit set, profit”.
If we’re deep and we’ve noticed our opponent stacking off or dumping large portions of his stack off with overpairs and/or top pairs then we have a much stronger argument for calling the 3-bet and should proceed accordingly. Shorter stacks and it’s likewise a much, much easier fold. Unless we’re super-short and then we get to figure out the shorties pushing range. Fun times.
Playing from the blinds:
With a small pair in the blinds, I want to flat call if the raiser has a strong range obviously, or if there are several people in the pot already since I don’t want to create a situation where I screw myself out of a multiway pot with a great SPR by getting fourbet out of it or stuck out of position with a poor hand. If someone is attacking our blinds I feel ok 3-popping them with a small pair once in a while if they steal liberally since we can’t get stacks against them often enough anyway. If they have a tighter range we can feel comfortable set-mining/folding. We’re out of position so playing a hand fairly straightforward doesn’t bother me as much. We also are either facing only one player left if we’re SB or closing the action if we’re the BB so we can feel comfortable enough that we’ll get to see our flop. If we’re the BB we can definitely flat and try to outplay the SB on the flop even if we miss our set.
If I’m the SB and it’s folded to me I raise any pair, but I typically raise 4xBB from the SB instead of my usual 3xBB, I’ve found that my 3xBB raises don’t get much respect and I find myself getting played back a bit versus decent players in the BB. If the BB is tight or poor then feel free to raise as usual.
If for some reason we have our option in the big blind to check with our small pair, if it’s just one player and us and I’m raising to 5xBB and trying to take it down. We’re keeping our SPR too small by just checking and may not get stacks even if we flop a set vs a good hand. You can try to sweeten the pot with a small raise if your table is really weak but generally against competent opponents it may be best to raise to try and take it down or check and flop your set (dependent on aggression, table, etc.).
If it open folds to the SB and they limp, we raise. If they three bang us, we re-evaluate as normal and make a note. I’m raising with any two cards here, there isn’t a hand in the deck I check in this situation.
venice10 did a really good job on blind defense that you can read to get a better idea of blind defense.
Honestly, this may sound lazy (and maybe it is) but I think that the blind defense is really situational and since we’ve got almost all the info possibly available to someone preflop that writing about general situations is difficult. We really have to consider who raised, from what position, the fact that we’re OOP and whether or not we can extract a ton of value or whether we should try to take it down now, etc. I had a really tough time writing this section for some reason, but I think a good general rule is to look at the villain’s range, figure out if we can extract a lot of value if we hit our set, and if not then we can consider 3-betting. I’m still not three-betting my small pairs a ton here though. That general rule goes fairly well for our late position section, too.
Overall playing pocket pairs is a little more tricky than they seem at first. If we want to setmine we need to evaluate the situation and make sure that it’s a good spot to try and do so. We have to be aware of our opponents range and the opponents that are sitting behind us. If we don’t our red line is going to go down too quickly and we’re going to develop a considerable leak. Raising early on isn’t a bad idea if you know why you’re doing it and the conditions are good, but doing it blindly is a leak also. Calling three-bets is generally bad, but there are conditions under which we can consider doing so, especially if we have a plan.
In other words, it depends.