Playing Small Pairs Before the Flop in Limit Hold’em Poker
Small pairs can be very tricky hands to play. In limit Hold Em games a case can be made for all of your pre-flop options calling raising and folding. As with most things in poker there is no right answer but understanding the specific situation you are in and the players at your table can help you make the right choice more often than not. Note that small pairs in no limit hold em is different, and we recommend a different strategy.
For this article we are going to define small pairs as any pocket pair from 2’s through 6’s. When you look down at your hand and see a small pocket pair you need to ask yourself some questions to decide how to proceed. The first question I would ask myself is “What game am I playing and how is the game being played?” By that I mean am I sitting in a higher limit 15-30 game where the players tend to be more aggressive or am I in a 3-6 game with more passive opponents? Is the table full of action and large multi-way pots or is the game playing tight with only 2-4 people seeing every flop? In situations where the game is more tight and/or aggressive I would lean more towards either folding or raising/re-raising. Why?
A lot of this depends on your position as well. If the action has folded to you and you are on the button with pocket fives I think a raise is clearly in order. If only one person has entered the pot for a raise and you know that player as a blind stealer or someone that raises with many hands then consider putting in a re-raise. If you have those same pocket fives and are under the gun (first to act after the big blind also known as UTG) then I would advocate simply folding the hand and waiting for a better spot to get my money in the pot. Let’s look a bit closer as to why this may be advantageous for you.
In the first situation on the button raising puts pressure on the blinds. They may fold and let you take down the pot right there or they may call with a less than strong hand. Once the flop hits if they check to you and you bet you will likely win if they miss the flop regardless of whether or not you hit your pair. They will also often lay down their hand if an ace or king hits the flop as they will give you credit for having high cards.
In the second situation re-raising a loose player gives you a great deal of information and creates a lot of advantages for you as well. Everyone acting after your re-raise will be much less likely to enter the pot without a very strong holding (although be aware of the players in your game to ensure that this is the case). You will drive out medium strength hands that are a danger to your small pair like KQ, JT and weak aces (Ax) making it much more likely that you end up with the best hand. Your opponent will also give you credit for a strong hand unless they have seen otherwise from you and will likely fold if they miss the flop. You are in a great position to follow through with your aggression through the hand and win the pot. If you’re lucky you’ll flop a set your opponent will hit the flop and your hand will be well disguised.
In the third situation you might be thinking “Why would I just fold a pocket pair? I could hit a set and win a big pot!” While this may be the case the numbers just don’t justify it. First and foremost your position is terrible. You are first to act and there are many players after you who could end up having a big hand. The more players behind you the more likely this is the case. You also don’t know if someone will raise behind you doubling how much it costs to see the flop. Secondly many people could enter the pot meaning any flop that comes is most likely going to make someone a pair bigger than yours. Your only hope is to hit a set and even then there’s no guarantee that it will hold up. You flop a set with a pocket pair roughly once out of every 7.5 times. This essentially means that when the only realistic way of winning the hand is by going to showdown and having the best hand you need roughly 7.5 to 1 odds on your money to justify playing and show a profit. Sure you can win more on future bets in the hand and that is something to be considered but remember that you will not win every time you flop a set as well. I’m sure we can all remember countless times where we flopped sets and lost to straights flushes etc.
Clearly there is no “right” way to play small pocket pairs since every table and situation is different. Understanding what factors to look for and consider when making your decision on how to play your small pocket pair is critical to your success and becoming a better player. If you’re just looking to enjoy the action and the game is wild by all means call with that small pair in early position and hopefully take down that monster pot! If you’re looking to improve your play plug some leaks and become more of a winning player then folding these small pairs in early position is something you can do to lower your variance and improve your bottom line. Until next time good luck at the tables!