The perfect start: How to play small pocket pairs to perfection

In the second part of our series examining starting hands, high-stakes cash game pro Simon Hemsworth explores the wonderful world of small pocket pairs

Small pocket pairs can be very profitable hands in cash games largely because of their ability to flop sets and hopefully win big pots. Because of the nature of cash games being played with much deeper stacks than in tournaments, you will often have great implied odds to see a flop with a small pair in the hopes of hitting a set.

Small pairs are arguably easier hands to play than other types of hands in cash games because much of your game plan revolves around whether or not you flop a set. Often it will be a case that you flop a set and then look to proceed with the hand in a way that gets in as much money as possible. Conversely when you don’t flop a set you are usually looking to make a swift exit from the hand. However, there are exceptions to this rule and also common mistakes that players make when playing small pairs. For the purposes of this article we will consider small pocket pairs to be 2-2 through to 6-6.

Pocket threesPre flop

Although general rules in poker aren’t usually good to follow, opening all small pairs from all positions in hold’em cash games will serve you fine. Opening from early position can lead to many calls behind, particularly if it’s a live full-ring cash game. This scenario is fine as small pairs play really well in multi-way pots where you either flop a set and win a big pot or don’t and fold your hand for minimum expense. Opening from a later position means you are more likely to just win the hand preflop or play a short-handed postflop pot where having initiative, combined with the strength of your hand, will allow you to win the pot most of the time. 

When there is action before you, such as an early position raise and a call, it is best to call behind with your small pair to see a flop as cheaply as possible. Squeezing does not achieve much as you will either be put to a difficult decision if someone four-bets, or see a flop in a bloated pot that will usually be unfavourable to you.

Set mining

Many of the key preflop decisions with small pairs involve whether or not to set mine.  These are also the decisions that players frequently get wrong. Your pocket pair will improve to a set approximately one in seven and a half times but you need to consider many other factors:

  • Stack sizes  
    Generally the deeper the better. A common mistake you see is people set mining with stacks that are too shallow. If someone three-bets you with a 40BB stack you will then be committing a lot of chips for only a potentially small reward. For the times when you miss your set you will usually have to fold. If you called a three-bet that shallow it has to be with plans to proceed in the hand when you don’t flop a set a lot of the time.
  • The villain
    The particular player you are against is key when determining whether or not to set mine. If a very tight player three-bets you and you hold 4-4 this can be advantageous because this tight player is more likely to have a big hand that will be difficult to fold postflop. When facing a three-bet from an aggressive player they will often have a wider range that will miss the flop more often. However, they are also more likely to barrel with bluffs so slow playing your set can be effective. It’s important to think how your opponents play and whether flopping a set will lead to you getting their stack.


  • The raise size
    The size of a three-bet will also be important to whether set mining is profitable. The smaller the three-bet the better odds you have of seeing a flop and trying to hit a set.
  • Position
    When set mining position is less important that in other situations in poker. However it is preferable to be in position where it can be easier to build a pot when you flop a set or easier to get to showdown with your pair when you don’t.

Pocket foursOn the flop

When you see a flop with a small pair how you proceed is often dictated by whether or not you flop a set. So let’s first look at a situation where you do flop a set and how the board texture dictates how you decide to play your hand:

  • You call a three-bet with 3-3 in position 125BB deep and the flop comes 5-4-3. The villain c-bets two thirds of the pot…

Here you will want to fast-play your set and raise looking to get the stacks in for a few reasons. Firstly, as the flop is very wet you want to get in as much money as possible before scare cards come on the turn or river. These are cards that could both make your hand a losing one or scare off your opponent. The villain may have a hand like J-J and there are all sorts of cards that make that hand much weaker such as a Queen, King, Ace, a heart or any card that makes a straight. By raising the villain’s c-bet you can also represent some bluffs and semi-bluffs like flush and straight draws that will convince the villain his overpair is best.

However on a drier flop, you might want to slow play your set. For example:

You call a three-bet with 5-5 in position 150BB deep and the flop comes K-5-4 rainbow.  The villain c-bets three quarters pot…

This is a spot where slow playing your set is the superior play. This flop is very dry so the villain is less likely to have hit it significantly enough to want to stack off. If you raise you do not represent many strong hands, which is arguably a good thing, but if the villain has a hand like Q-J they will have to give up anyway. By just flatting you represent weaker holdings like Ace-high or middle pairs like T-T and 9-9, which the villain can try to barrel you off. Although being 150BB deep there are arguments for just raising the flop to build the pot, with the villains’ three quarter pot bet you can sufficiently build the pot by the river, especially being in position.

Flopping a set makes a small pair much easier to play. It’s the times when you miss that are more difficult. Frequently you will just want to give up on the hand straight away on the flop, like in this example:

You call a three-bet with 2-2 out of position 130BB deep and the flop comes Q-T-5. The villain bets half the pot…

In this example you completely whiff the flop and should be looking for a quick exit strategy. It’s possible you could convince yourself that the villain has a hand like A-K or something similar but these types of hands have lots of equity against your rubbish pair anyway. It’s also highly likely the villain will barrel the turn and river with such hands and you won’t want to keep calling down with 2-2. Against anything the villain has that hit this flop you are drawing to two outs.

However, not all of the times you fail to hit a set will mean giving up on the hand entirely. Take the following situation:

You call an early position raise on the button with 6-6 and the flop comes Q-4-3 rainbow. The villain bets two thirds of the pot…

This flop is very favourable for your 6-6 despite not hitting a set. The flop is dry so is unlikely to have hit the villain very often even though a preflop early position raise is generally a strong starting hand. In this instance calling is the best play and you are hoping to get to showdown as cheaply as possible unless you improve. If the villain has missed then he is unlikely to continue bluffing without equity such as a straight or flush draw on the turn and a bet on the turn represents a strong hand like a Queen.

Pocket fivesThe turn and river

With small pairs the turn and river can bring different decisions. With sets it can be time to continue slow playing or get more chips in depending how the board changes. It can also be time to continue to be stubborn with your weak pair or give up. Let’s look at a situation where you have flopped a set:

You call a three-bet with 2-2 in position 100BB deep and the flop comes Q-9-2 rainbow. The villain bets two thirds of the pot and you call. The turn is a Ten that brings a back door flush draw and the villain bets again…

This is a spot where the turn card changes the board from dry to wet and therefore means you should go from slow playing to fast playing. When the villain bets the flop he has a very wide range including many bluffs but with the board getting more dangerous and him continuing to bet means he has many much stronger hands. Because of this it’s good to just shove your set and expect to get called by many worse hands. A drawback of continuing to slow play is there are many bad river cards that can lose us action or lose us the hand entirely like an 8, Jack or King. If the turn card has been something innocuous like a board pairing card or another low card then continuing to slow play would be fine.

Of the times when you don’t flop a set and continue with the hand to the turn there are certain situations where you will want to get stubborn with your pair. For example:

You call a middle position raise in the cutoff with 4-4 when 110BBs deep and the flop comes K-3-2. The villain makes a standard c-bet and you call. The turn is an Ace and the villain bets two thirds pot…

The turn is not a great card for you, but then almost all cards that aren’t a Four are bad. The Ace is an interesting card because it is a very good bluff card for the villain and also one that gives you more equity with a wheel draw. These factors combined mean that you can call again and re-evaluate on the river:

The river card is an Ace and the villain bets all-in…

This is a situation that would be most dictated by personal reads you have on the villain in question. Typically the Ace is a card that would be bad to bluff on from the villain’s point of view, as now any King would be more inclined to call and it’s less likely he has an Ace. However if the villain is known for crazy bluffs you might want to make a big hero call.

Real-life example: Antonius sets up Townsend

In this hand from a high stakes cash game Patrik Antonius plays his flopped set to perfection. Knowing that Brian Townsend is an aggressive player than can multi-barrel with bluffs, as well as value bet very thin, he extracts maximum value by slow playing until the river. He then puts in a big river check-raise to put Townsend to a difficult decision, which he ultimately ends up calling to hand Antonius a huge pot.

Lessons to learn

As we have discussed, much of the cash game strategy with small pairs involves whether or not you hit a set. In good poker games where your opponents find folding top pairs or overpairs very difficult, sets can be extremely profitable. Once you do flop a set the strategy is reasonably straightforward, it’s largely a case of picking the best moment to get a lot of chips in the pot. Of course you must also be prepared to fold sets if the board gets too ugly and you no longer beat the villain’s range. 

The more difficult situations occur when your small pair does not improve to a set on the flop. In such situations you have to use all the information you have at your disposal (board texture, reads on the villain, bet sizes) to decide whether to continue or not. As with all decisions in poker you must weigh up all the factors to make the best possible logical decision. This will serve you well in the long-term. 

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