by Tony Dunst
Playing small pairs in hold’em can be awkward because unless they flop a set, they can be difficult to win with when the hand goes to showdown. Exactly what qualifies as a small pair is relative to the situation, but for the purpose of this article we’ll say small pairs are pocket twos through to pocket fives.
How you should play small pairs is mostly dependent on your stack size and the effective stack size in the hand; that is, the smaller stack that can be put at risk. The deeper or larger your stack is, the more profitable it becomes to play small pairs due to the high implied odds on hitting a set.
You’ll flop a set around 1 in 8 times, but that doesn’t mean you should call a raise with small pairs any time it’s for ~10% of your stack or less, which is a common error made by casual players. Just because you flopped a set doesn’t mean you’ll double up, and don’t think that because you called pre-flop you’ll get to the flop because someone may make a squeeze play on you. However, early in tournaments, when effective stacks are around 200 blinds, you can call a raise and re-raise with a small pair and still be getting the necessary price to do so.
As the average stacks in the tournament become more shallow, your options with small pairs become limited. If you’re hovering in that familiar area of 20 to 40 big blinds, small pairs should often be folded in early position. You can open for a raise with them in middle and late position, and if you’re re-raised you face a difficult decision. Most of the time you should just fold in this situation, but some players are so aggressive that small pairs become good hands to four-bet shove with over their three-bet.
If you raise a small pair and are met with a call, you’ll typically either turn your hand into a bluff post-flop if the texture is good for you to represent, or try to get to showdown cheaply if the texture is good to induce bluffs with. It’s rare that you’ll make a hand that you can bet confidently on multiple streets, so be cautious when you get post-flop with small pairs.
When your stack is below 20 blinds, small pairs become good hands to move in with pre-flop. Exactly how many blinds you should shove in what position is something that takes practice and comes with experience, but the basic idea is that small pairs have plenty of equity preflop yet are hard to play post flop, so moving all-in with short stacks is the ideal play.
Should you have active, loose-playing opponents in middle and late position, small pairs are good hands to move-in with over after your opponent has raised as long as they’re not the type of players to call shoves with suited connectors, which are actually a favourite against small pairs.
Check out this instructional video about small pocket pairs