How to play small pocket pairs?

As we discuss in our article about pre flop strategy, there is a so-called ABC strategy of how to play pre flop. But you need to also include a level of unpredictability in order to not being too transparent and predictable.

How to play small pocket pairs is a question you probably had before. On one hand they are tempting to play because there is nearly nothing stronger and more pleasing than to flop a set with them, as such disguised hand often pays out big pots. On the other hand, it is costly to call all the time with these hands.

Small pocket pairs tournament strategy

Even though you should avoid playing them most of the time, pocket pairs can be played in a few cases, especially in tournaments situations. Here small pocket pairs means hands in the range {66,22} or it could be {77,33} for some tighter players who nearly never play pairs of deuces.

Generally speaking, playing small pocket pairs is not profitable because if they are unimproved, you will either be an underdog or be in a coin-flip situation, a net situation with a negative expected value. And the chances that they improved are small with just two outs. But coin-flip can sometime be exactly what you are looking for.

One example when these pocket pairs should be played aggressively is in the late stage of a multi table tournament with a high buy-in. If you have an average or below average stack size and do not get many premium hands like is often the case, you know what to expect is you do not change gear. Becoming short-stacked and getting eliminated earlier than later.

In such situations, pushing your small pocket pairs all in is the correct move. In fact if you followed the 2009 WSOP final table, this is exactly what the tournament winner Joe Cada did a few times, and luck was on his side each time. But independently of luck, this is the right thing to do.

The coin flip arises when you get called by a player with AK or AQ. But if you are called by a player with a higher pocket pair though, this is the underdog case, i.e. you have only 20% chance to win the hand.

One important concept to keep in mind is that with small pocket pairs you should only be the one making the all in bet, and never be the one calling an all in bet. Because by being the aggressor you get and hope for additional fold equity, whereas by calling you put yourself in a negative expected value situation without the fold equity.

Small pocket pairs ring game strategy

Small pocket pairs can also be played profitably in cash games, but only at deep stacked tables, as they require winning large pots in order to compensate for the numerous times when they miss. This strategy called set mining simply consists in hoping to flop a set, and this will statistically occur about one time in eight. But this is not a strategy to be attempted by fish.

In a nutshell if you make more money when you hit a set than the sum of all your losses when you miss, then your set mining strategy is profitable. And as such small sets are nicely concealed like if you have 55 and the flop comes QT5, chances are that your opponent will pay you big time if he has AQ, AT or even AK. Ideally with his entire stack if an ace comes at the turn.

Gaining his entire stack is quite optimistic, because for him to be willing to commit all his chips he must have a hand too, and sometimes his hand will be stronger than yours such as QQ on this QT5 board, and you are the one who will lose his stack.

Without the extreme case of the all in push, if you win more than seven times what you lose on average when you miss, then you will show a profit with the set mining strategy. So let us say for argument sake they you always limp with your small pairs and fold if you miss, then you need to earn 8 big blinds with your sets. Assuming your opponent has a hand, this is possible.

For example if he had AQ on QT5 versus your 55, he will bet his TPTK, probably somewhere like 3 BB in a 2.5 BB pot if he limped as well. If he second barrels at the turn by about 5 BB in the 8.5 BB pot, you will have earned at least 8 BB and reached your target. But this is just the skeleton of the strategy as many difficulties and subtleties arise.

You want your opponent to have a strong hand in order for him to commit plenty of his chips, so it means that he will normally have a strong hand pre flop as well, and hence he will have raised pre flop. If you are calling pre flop raises with small pocket pairs, it is not 8 BB but rather around a 25 BB profit that you must target, necessitating you to have an aggressive profile so that people are tempted to call you when you make big bets. Otherwise if you are too tight no one will call you when you hit a set.

If you want to learn more about small pairs, ask Maria Ho, a poker pro at Bodog.