Small pairs

The perfect Zen conundrum – a favourite against any unpaired hand, they’re still the ultimate fragile holding

When you’re out of position your small pairs become an untenable proposition

Let’s cut to the chase: small pairs (pocket Sixes down to Twos) are often a seductive loser – a leak that most players need to plug in their game. At best, you’re in late position, where the play of them is fairly straightforward: if a lot of people have called, and you think no one behind you will raise, go ahead and call, take a cheap flop, and hope to flop a set. You can’t get into too much trouble calling with pocket Threes when the flop comes A-K-Q. Only a true kamikaze would lose money from that flop forward, especially in a crowded field.

If the field is not crowded, small pocket pairs can sometimes be played strongly. Say you’re on the button and it’s folded around to you. Though you hold nothing more than 4-4, say, you can go ahead and raise in a bid to steal the blinds. If you get just one caller you might not even be in terrible shape on the flop. But you know what? That’s true of any two cards you might hold when you make a real estate raise (that is, a raise in late position for the purpose of stealing the blinds). Looking at a flop of J-7-2 and facing a check from a weak-loose caller in the big blind, your small pocket pair plays the same as pocket Aces. You raise, they fold, next hand.

For small pairs in late position, then, follow these two rules:
1. If there are many callers and no raisers, call along and try to flop a set – if you don’t hit, quit.
2. If there are no callers and timid blinds, raise to steal, then bet most flops as if you own them.

Out of position

Most of the time you won’t get small pairs in late position for the simple reason that you don’t spend most of your time in late position. So let’s look at other positions and see how baby pairs can turn into such a seductive loser. For the purposes of this discussion, we won’t differentiate between the blinds, early position and middle position – from the point of view of small pocket pairs, these are all bad positions.

You should fold small pocket pairs a lot, but you probably don’t because, hey, they’re pairs and you like pairs. But when you play them out of position, here are the many things you’re banking on to make the play of them worthwhile:
1. You get sufficient callers.
2. You face no raises.
3. You flop a set.
4. Your hand holds up.

Wow, that’s quite an outcome parlay. And how likely is it that everything’s going to break your way? Let’s find out…

You’re under the gun with 4-4. Since you’re looking to hit a set on the flop, your 7.5/1 shot certainly needs a bunch of customers to justify the call. In a perfect world, you’ll limp in and have a full field limp in behind you. But realistically, in what kind of no-limit Hold’em game do you consistently see seven smooth calls and no raises? So you look beyond the initial odds to implied odds. You figure that if you hit your set you can make big bets and collect big calls from the players who also limped in behind you. Remember, though, that if the flop hits your hand, then by definition it includes at least one little card, a card that’s likely of no interest to anyone else. This reduces by a third the chances of someone having hit enough of the flop to be interested in paying you off. And it increases the chance that the hands which call are the ones you’ll find troublesome.

Suppose the flop comes down Q? -J? -4? . You’ve made your set, so you make a big bet and get called (or check-raise and get called). What does your foe have? You want them to have a good Queen or good Jack only, but he could have two-pair or a straight draw or a flush draw, and while they’re not getting correct odds to draw to any of these hands (because you bet big enough to deny them that) unless you go allin on the flop (which decreases the likelihood you’ll get called, of course) you’ll have trouble betting the turn if any scare card comes. Oh, and if your opponent happens to have a set of Queens or Jacks, you’re looking at a one-outer to make quads. And we all know how often that happens…

Also, don’t forget that you have to hit your set on the flop. Hoping to hit on the turn or the river is no good, because if there’s any sort of betting on the flop you’ll have long since kissed your small pair goodbye. Unless you’re the sort of person who routinely calls bets in no-limit Hold’em on the hope of hitting two-outers. In which case you’ll have long since kissed your money goodbye.

Calling cards

So here’s the first danger of playing little pairs in bad position. You need a lot of callers – weak, loose callers at that – and you have to make your own call before you know whether you’re going to get the traffic you need or not. If you’ve got a solid read on the players downstream you may be able to predict the outcome you need. That is, you may know them to be prepared to call, and not raise, with unpaired wheelhouse cards. But what if they’re holding better than that? Don’t forget, in a full game an average of two hands will have a pair or an Ace.

Which brings us to the second point in our parlay: they might not just call – they might raise. Suppose you limp with your 4-4 and someone raises behind you. In the best of circumstances, the raiser is frisky and out of line, and all the callers are loose and clueless. For example, someone makes a small raise with A-2 offsuit and a lot of people call with hands like Q-2 suited and 10-8 offsuit. Get that kind of outcome and you can probably justify calling along and hoping to flop a set. But how can you count on that sort of raise and those kinds of calls? Especially in no-limit Hold’em where most people know better than to get involved with pure junk. Also, raises don’t mean nothing, and flat calls don’t mean nothing. Downstream action of this sort is self-selecting – it defines your opponents’ hands as the type that can crush your baby pocket pair. Granted, against A-K, you’re slightly better than even money, but against any bigger pocket pair (the sort of hand that can easily make raises or call raises), you’ll lose more than 80% of the time.

When you’re facing raises and calls from many other players, it’s a good time to remember the first rule of small pocket pairs – small pairs are never a big favourite. Well, unless you’ve got pocket Threes to someone else’s pocket Twos. Little pairs are a small favourite against two over-cards and a big underdog against overpairs. And if your small pair is facing two different unpaired hands, like A-J and K-Q, for example, it goes to the flop about a 2/1 underdog. Not the kind of odds you want to be on the wrong side of.

Even against junk holdings your small pair is not in terrific shape as you’ll probably need to flop a set in order to prosper. And then, since they’re playing junk holdings, you’ll have trouble knowing whether you’re winning. But consider this: if you’re in the sort of game that’s this far out of line, why bother playing small pairs out of position at all? Simply wait for better opportunities; in a game this loose, there will be lots.

In a not-insanely-loose game, a typical small raise scenario looks like this: You flat call in early position with 4? -4 ? . Someone raises behind you with 10? -10? . Someone holding Q? -J? calls, as does someone else with A? -9? . The small blind folds, but the big blind calls with 8? -7? . How do you like your pocket Fours now? Against this exact field, you’ll only win 14% of the time – and that’s only if you see all five cards! In all likelihood, you’ll miss, fold and move on to the next hand.

Phantom menace

The seductive menace here is how attractive the pot looks when you’re asked to call a small raise. Suppose the person to your left makes just a minimum raise and there are four callers (including both blinds) by the time it gets back to you. You’d be putting a single big blind bet into a pot already containing 11 of them. You have an overlay to your 7.5/1 odds against hitting your set on the flop. So you’re in business, right? Wrong. Your total pre-flop contribution to this pot is two big blind bets, for a 5/1 return on investment against your 7.5/1 shot. You wouldn’t be faced with this ‘favourable’ call if you hadn’t made a loose call out of position in the first place. There’s a phrase for this error – it’s called throwing good money after bad.

In short, if there’s a reasonable chance of anyone making a raise behind you, no matter what cheese the people play, when you’re out of position your small pairs become an untenable proposition – a losing play, a leak.

But what if you hit parts one and two of your parlay? Suppose you’ve had a lot of callers and no raisers. Though you’re seeing the flop under the most favourable possible circumstances, you still need to hit to win. Ideally, you’ll hit a flop like A-K-4 and get paid off by all those naked Aces and Kings. Or maybe the flop will come 4-9-10. This flop gives you plenty of room to move. You can check, hoping that someone behind you will bet with middle pair, good kicker, or even bluff into your stealthy set. Then you can check-raise, either here or on the turn or river, and maximise your advantage of flopping a set.

More often, though, you’ll find yourself staring at a bad flop like A-J-6 or 7-8-8. Now you have no wiggle room. All you can do is check, fold if they bet, and minimise your loss on the hand. And that’s the choice you’ll face almost 90% of the time.

But you still have two outs, right? You could hit a Four on the turn or the river, and in many circumstances that would be a winning hand. Once again, a rough calculation of the odds can be a siren’s song to further involvement. Driven by the desire to see this thing through, if you add your pot odds and implied odds, plus your frequent flier miles, rebate coupons and time off for good behavior, lo and behold, you almost have a call. Assuming you need a Four to win, and assuming that a Four will win, you’ve got two outs to hit it on the turn or river – roughly 8% – and if you’ve got six pre-flop and six post-flop minimum bettors and flat-callers, that’s all the pot odds you need.

But in what kind of fantasyland do you get six pre-flop and six post-flop minimum bettors and flat-callers – without any of them (or many of them) slow-playing made hands or else drawing fat? We’re working so hard to finesse the numbers to the point where you don’t lose money on the hand, and that’s an outcome you could enjoy by just not calling in the first place. And that’s really the point here – more often than not babies get you into a hole you can avoid by just laying them down at the start.

What dreams may come

But, hey, dreams do come true, right? So let’s say you get lots of calls and no raises and then a delightful 4-8-Q rainbow flop comes down. You don’t put anyone on pocket Queens because you’d have heard about that before the flop. And when you bet and no one raises, you figure that pocket Eights aren’t out there either. Now all you have to do is survive the turn and the river, and you can take this pot down.

But what kind of hands do you (not) want to be up against? • You sure hope no one is in there with J-10, drawing to an inside straight, because if a Nine hits you’ll have to pay them off. But J-10 is exactly the sort of hand you hoped would call pre-flop.
• You don’t want someone in there with Q-8, because then a Queen or an Eight would murder you with a bigger full house. But Q-8 is exactly the sort of hand you’d hope would stick around.
• You hope no one is sitting there with a pair of Fives, seducing themselves into drawing to two outs. But 5-5 is exactly the sort of hand you hope will continue to call to the river.
Yes, your set of Fours is a big favourite against any of these holdings – it’s even a slight favourite against all three taken together. But look how many excellent outcomes we require to reach this advantageous spot: loose play pre-flop; a perfect flop; and many opponents making many mistakes on the turn and river. Oh, and not sucking out. If everything breaks your way, then the gamble pays off and you win the pot. What an uphill climb!

Action junkie

If you never get carried away with baby pocket pairs then this discussion doesn’t apply to you. But if you do get carried away, pause now to ask yourself why. It’s not a favourable situation, which you probably knew even before this deconstruction. Could it be that you just want the action? Could it be that when you pick up a little pair you start thinking about how good you’d feel if your hand hit? It’s been that way for me – more times than I can count. The moral of the story then, is that even the most conscious and conscientious players let their feelings guide their choices from time to time. It’s human nature. Hell, it’s why you play cards in the first place.

And it’s why we take such pains to address the danger of small pocket pairs. So the next time you pick up a small pair in early position, where you know it won’t play well, you’ll have a weapon to use against that desire to just feel good. You’ll have a painful scenario to remind you that the best thing you can do, most of the time, is just slide that small pair back into the muck. Thus you arrive at the second rule of small pairs: You don’t have to play them at all!

Look, I’m not a fan of hard and fast rules. As I said at the start, there are times (in late position with lots of traffic or very little) when babies play just fine. Most of the time, though, they’re a reckless adventure and a longshot proposition. Remember, two small paired cards are still two small cards. And we all know that big cards rule in Hold’em.

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