learning the game

Playing Small Pairs NLHE

Playing Small Pairs Before the Flop in No Limit Hold’em Poker

The holiday season is the perfect time to take a step back and be thankful for all of the wonderful things in life. If you’re anything like me one of those wonderful things is taking all of someone’s chips with a well hidden hand. One of the best hands for accomplishing this is small pocket pairs. Just as we discussed last week when we were dealing with limit hold’em small pairs can be very tricky hands to play in no limit hold’em. The fact that we are now playing no limit does not change this fact one bit. As is true with virtually all poker decisions understanding the specific situation you are in and what factors to consider will help to guide you to the best decision.

We are going to define small pairs as any pocket pair from 2’s through 6’s. In no limit hold’em as opposed to limit the factors we are looking for change slightly. Position is important but no limit brings with it two new things to consider: stack sizes and bet sizing. It is incredibly important to take note of every player’s stack size before making your decision just as it is to bet the proper amount after you’ve made the decision to bet. Let’s examine how bet sizing and stack sizes may affect your pre-flop play.

You are in a no limit game where the big blind is $3 and the maximum buy in is $200. Everyone at the table has roughly a full buy in including you. You are on the button and look down at pocket 3’s. Three people limp into the pot for $3 and the action is now on you. What is your play? Clearly you’re never folding in this spot; you have a hand that has the potential to bust another player with the right board. This leaves you two options: call or raise.

By raising you increase the size of the pot before the flop which increases the size of the bets on every subsequent street. This is often overlooked but can have a drastic affect on the ending size of the pot and how much you stand to win. Let’s say that all the bets at the table are roughly two thirds of the pot. If you just call and five players go to the flop for $3 each the pot will be $15 on the flop. A 2/3 pot bet on the flop is $10. A 2/3 bet on the turn (assuming one player called the flop) will be 2/3 of $35 ($15+$20) or $22. Now we have a pot of $79 on the river leaving a 2/3 pot bet of about $52. But if you raise to $12 and all but one of the limpers calls the pot is now about $40 including blinds. A 2/3 pot bet on the flop is now roughly $25. Assuming one caller the turn bet will be $60 and the pot will be $210 going into the river. You would have about $100 left at this point meaning any bet should be the rest of your stack. One small pre-flop raise drastically changed the final size of the pot. Of course hands rarely play out this smoothly and a multitude of other things could occur in the hand but the concept and point remains the same.

Another small benefit to raising with position in pots and situations such as this is that you have the option to check behind on the turn if it is checked to you and see a free turn card. Few things feel better at the poker table than getting that free card hitting your set and having someone who is drawing dead betting into you on the turn.

There is a very major drawback to raising with your small pocket pair before the flop and that is causing people to fold. But wait! Don’t I want my opponents to fold? I’m more likely to win the pot against one or two opponents than I am against the whole field! This is true but you must ask yourself what your goal is in the hand. Are you trying to just win the most pots or do you want the pots that you win to be big ones? If you raise out opponents you’re eliminating people that could potentially pay you off big when you hit your set. It’s rare that you get to hit a set in no limit so you definitely want to increase the chances of getting paid off as much as possible. With four or more opponents you are way more likely to have someone else make top pair or connect with the flop in some way that enables you to get action with your set.

If you were to ask me how I like to play my small pocket pairs in this situation ideally I would want to build the pot without driving many people out. A smaller raise generally does the trick in these lower no limit games. Be careful though. An observant player will pick up on this quickly and know what type of hand you have.

Stack sizes also play in integral role in defining how you play your small pocket pairs before the flop. If the players left in the hand do not have much money in front of them the value of your small pocket pair goes down. If you hit your set no one has much money to pay you off with. A strong case can be made for simply folding the hand and waiting for a more lucrative spot. The same can be said if you have a short stack yourself. If you find yourself with only $50 in a $200 buy in no limit game (which I would NEVER recommend, that’s another whole article right there!) and get a small pocket pair dealt to you folding is likely the right play. You simply don’t hit a set often enough and won’t get paid enough when you do to make it a profitable play. You could try to raise more and win the pot against a single opponent but if you end up all in pre-flop you will rarely have your opponent in trouble. If you’re lucky you’ll be in a coin flip situation if not you’ll be dominated. Just letting the hand go and waiting for a better spot is the play here and all that changed was your stack size!

So there is no right way to play small pocket pairs pre-flop in no limit hold’em. Understanding the situation and all the factors that are important will lead you to making a solid and profitable decision. Remember to take stock of everything around you at the poker table just as we all take stock of the good things in our lives. I wish you all a wonderful start to your holiday season. Until next time good luck in the card rooms!