Small Pocket Pair Poker Strategy

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Small pocket pairs tend to create lots of confusion for players preflop. But because these pairs are…well…pairs – players rarely consider folding these hands preflop and end up stacking up lots of unnecessary losses. To simplify this and avoid getting lost in the minutia, let’s agree to put 22 to 55 in this category. While these pairs may have some showdown value of their own, their true value is primarily in flopping sets and stacking opponents that won’t fold second-best hands.

Small Pocket Pairs

This explanation could make one think that playing pocket pairs is easy, but that would only be true in an ideal setting where you could dictate all the action and give yourself just the right pot odds to get involved. In real-life situations, though, you often have to play these small pockets with lower stack depth or facing big raises or 3-bets from your opponents – which changes your strategic adjustment dramatically.

Knowing what to do with these baby pocket pairs in different situations is vital. In this guide, we’ll look into some of the most important considerations when playing small pairs in & out of position, touching upon some fundamental rules in these spots to help you make better decisions in your next session.

Raising & Folding Low Pocket Pairs First In

When you’re dealt a low pocket pair, i.e. 22 through 55, it is always tempting to try and see the flop. However, from the earliest of positions like UTG and UTG+1 in a full ring game, most of your small pocket pairs should be folded. You can try and raise with hands like 55 and 66, but anything lower than those is just too optimistic.

Pocket Threes In Early Position

The fact is, you’re going to face a 3-bet way too often when you raise from the earliest positions at a 9-handed table. Since these hands don’t block any cards our opponents are likely to have in their 3-betting range, the odds are even bigger than someone behind will wake up with a big hand and put us in a difficult spot.

Of course, as you move closer to the button, you can expand your range to include more small pocket pairs. If you’re the first to act in the cutoff or on the button, you’ll want to open all of your small pockets because of several factors:

  • You’re far less likely to face a 3-bet (there are fewer players left)
  • You’re more likely to win the pot before the flop
  • If you’re called by the blind(s), you’ll be in position for the rest of the hand

As we’ll discuss in a few moments, having position with these types of hands is always advantageous and especially so when you’re the one driving the action and maintaining range advantage. This will create more profitable spots after the flop where you’ll be able to win without relying solely on flopping a set.

Facing Raises With Small Pocket Pairs

When you’re dealt a small pocket pair and are facing an open-raise, the first instinct for most players is to call and try to flop the set. However, you should consider a couple of things before deciding what to do:

  • If you call IP, will someone behind 3-bet?
  • How deep are the effective stacks?

You want to call in position as this will give you more playability and make it easier to maximize your value when you do flop a set. However, if someone behind you 3-bets or even just calls, you’ll find yourself in an awkward spot between the two players. This is not an ideal scenario for any hand, but you especially don’t want it when you have a small pocket pair.

Thus, you should be more inclined to call in later positions, namely HJ, CO, and BTN, where the likelihood of someone squeezing behind is smaller. If someone opens from UTG and you find yourself looking at 33 from UTG+2, it is perfectly fine to let the hand go. In fact, it is rooted in solid poker math, unless you’re playing at an extremely passive table where 3-bets are virtually non-existent.

Late Position Calling

The second consideration is how many big blinds there are left to play for. It is pointless to set mine against an opponent starting a hand with 25 big blinds. You’ll only make your set about 1 in 8 times, so you want the implied odds to be on your side. In simple words, you want your opponent to have enough behind so that you can win a sizeable pot when you do flop a set.

Set Mining With Pocket Pairs

A large part of a good small pocket pair strategy is knowing how (and when) to setmine preflop.  Setmining well isn’t too tough to do, but knowing what goes into it is more than half the battle!

There are many things we want to consider before we even try to setmine preflop.  The major considerations we want to look at BEFORE setmining are:

  1. The math
  2. Position
  3. The players left to act

When looking at the math we want to make sure that we are getting a good price on our setmine.  We don’t flop huge often with our small pairs so we want to make sure that the possible reward when setmining is worth the risk (our call).  This means that the effective stacks need to be deep enough to ensure we can actually win a home run pot the times we do flop a set (or better).

effective stack: the smallest of the stacks involved in a hand

Another element to the math is understanding how often our small pair will flop a big hand.  A small pair is going to flop a set or better about 12% of the time, which means it will also miss the flop the other 88% of the time.

That’s a lot of missing, but the 12% of the time we DO hit the board we hit it really hard.  We won’t win the pot EVERY time we flop a set (for the times we run into a better set or villain plays and hits a draw postflop), but we feel very confident the large majority of the time we flop big with a smaller pair.

Personally I like using the 25x rule when setmining.  This means that I want to be able to win at least 25x my preflop call when I setmine.

So if we are playing $1/$2 and villain opens to $6, I want there to be at least $150 ($6*25) in the effective stack.  Considering our hand flops huge about 12% of the time, 8.5x would be “breakeven”.  But that doesn’t consider the fact that you won’t always win a stack when you flop a set (for the times villain has AK on a low board), and you will sometimes flop a set < set.

Keeping this in mind, it means you cannot setmine when short or mid-stacking given you won’t have deep enough stacks.  The 25x rule builds a lot of safety buffer into a setmine and is a great guide to use.  That being said, it is only a guide and not the end-all-be-all when playing these small pocket pairs preflop.

Poker Setmining Math

Other considerations include position, which is a crucial element of a setmine.  For one, if we setmine in position we have extra ways to win the pot postflop.  We can stab if villain checks the flop, we can peel on good boards, and we can use our bluffing 101 poker skills when appropriate.  Being out of position makes all of these things much more difficult.  Being out of position also makes it tougher to get paid off postflop as your opponent has the ability to check behind the flop or turn and really minimize the final pot size (thus allowing us to win much less money than we need to).

And lastly, make sure to consider the players left to act.  If EP opens and you setmine from MP, there are still many players left to act (and even moreso if you are playing full ring).  Which means you could face more squeezes, something we pretty much never want to face when setmining a small pair.

Now if there are fish behind you it makes setmining even better since you can call and entice a fish to call as well…thus offering you an extra source of implied odds.  Just make sure to not be the player that constantly setmines and then gets squeezed out of every pot because you weren’t being aware!

There are other things you could consider as well, but this is a solid primer on setmining well.  If you ever find yourself setmining EVERY time you face a preflop raise with a pocket pair you are likely suffering from a common poker leak.  In fact, this is the one of the first things I check when analyzing a player’s database and it amazes me how many players incur big losses because they setmine too automatically.  Make sure to look at the entire situation before calling and THEN make your decision.  

And if you can’t call and setmine, you can always consider a preflop 3bet instead!

Baby Pairs When Out Of Position

When you’re seated in the big blind and dealt a hand like 22-66, you’ll often get great immediate odds to see the flop and combined with the implied odds, you’ll pretty much always want to defend against a single raise unless the original raiser is really short (under 20 big blinds). If they’re very short, you’d be better of making your decision before the flop, either folding or jamming if you believe you have some fold equity.

short stack setmine

However, in the scenarios where you’re not closing the action, you should be very careful with small pocket pairs and fold them as a default. For example, the UTG+2 raises, and CO 3-bets them. You can’t afford to call here out of the big blind and hope to see the flop since you’re not closing the action.

The same can be said about the small blind. Unless everyone folds to you and have an option to open, you should almost always throw those hands into the muck. It is simply too weak to 3-bet or to flat in most situations.

In general, you should be more conservative with your pocket pairs out of position because even when you do hit a favorable flop, it will be much more difficult to get a lot of value from your opponent. The fact they get to act last gives them a lot more room to maneuver and control the size of the pot – allowing them to both value bet and bluff more easily.

3-Betting Pocket Pairs

Navigating 3-bet pots is important in poker in general, but things are quite straightforward when it comes to low pocket pairs. First and foremost, these hands should almost always be in your calling range and virtually never in your 3-betting range. Exceptions may be in tournament play where ICMIZER poker software suggests to shove against a late position opener looking to get folds, but that’s about it.

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In all other scenarios, you’re achieving very little by 3-betting with pairs like 22-55. You’re inflating a pot with a hand that will hit a very narrow range of flops. By doing so, you’re essentially turning your hand into a bluff, which is not necessary as you can pick so many better hands to 3-bet bluff with.

Facing 3-Bets With Small Pairs

When you open with a small pocket pair from early position and face a 3-bet from another player, your default action should be folding. Unless you’re very deep, it is simply not worth it to call 3-bets with small pocket pairs because you’ll have to give up in a majority of spots and there is absolutely no guarantee that you’ll take your opponent’s entire stack when you do make a set on the flop.

However, if you are opening from CO or BTN, defending versus blinds 3-bets is perfectly reasonable. These players will have wider ranges, and since you have a position, you will be able to take down some pots without hitting a set.

Obviously, that is not an easy task so for that to be true, you have to understand poker ranges and board textures, and know when to put the pressure on your opponent.

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If you’re out of position and facing a 3-bet, you should almost always fold. Everything we talked about thus far, combined with the fact you don’t get to act last, make calling 3-bets with small pocket pairs a very unprofitable proposition. Simply giving up in these spots will save you a lot of chips in the long run.

Small Pocket Pairs: Weak With A Side Of Potential

The bottom line is that small pocket pairs are by no means premium starting hands. While some players on Reddit poker and some other forums stick to the mantra that “a pair is a pair” – this doesn’t have any support in proper game theory. These are fairly weak hands that can pay off if you hit the right flop, but that right flop doesn’t come nearly as often as we’d like.

So, vesting a lot of chips before the flop is a bad idea. With low pockets, you want to try to see a cheap flop, especially when you are opening yourself or closing the action from the big blind, and then build the pot once you can be fairly certain you’re ahead.

Tadas Peckaitis

Tadas Peckaitis is a professional poker player, author of the free poker book “Play ‘A’ game and be the boss at your poker table”, and the owner of mypokercoaching.com! He is also a fan of personal effectiveness and always trying to do more. Tadas shares his knowledge about both of these topics with his students and deeply enjoys it.

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