AngusD switched from pro chess to poker two decades ago and has been professionally involved in the game on numerous levels since the very beginning of online poker, including playing as a poker ambassador both online and at major festivals around the globe. He has written much about the game over the years, and brings to YPD a wealth of experience in all aspects of the poker industry. Meanwhile, his many years on the pro chess circuit (he’s an International Master and prolific author) afford him an interesting perspective on the psychology of poker.

· Published 31.03.2021 · last updated 31.03.2021

In poker, as with life, much of the time the simplest way of doing things is also the most effective. Poker’s complexity means that we’re constantly presented with opportunities to mess things up. Ironically, and perhaps counterintuitively, it’s a good idea to strip different components of the game down to the fundamental practicalities in order to be able to approach various aspects pragmatically. And the more common this or that scenario, the more important it is that we should contemplate situations in advance.

While it’s true that, the more experienced we become,  the more we are capable of adding our own personal input into how we play, tweaking and adding to conventional methods, it’s also important to note that expert players know when to be practical, and when common sense should be a priority.

A typical example of this is how differently small pocket pairs are dealt with by different types of players. Some erroneously think it’s ‘interesting’ or edgy to start getting night with it or-flop, especially against those players who they think they will be able to outplay (note that this assumption in itself is a dangerous way of thinking; it’s better – if we do indeed need to indulge in self-affirming presumptuousness – to be confident enough that we will play well, after which the rest will fall into place over time).

The result in being too ambitious with our small pocket pairs is that the difficult situation we are likely to found ourselves in when the unhelpful Flop arrives is compounded by our having over-committed pre-flop thanks to our trying to be too clever. Of course, poker is ‘situational’, but too many players use this word to try to justify playing incorrectly.

The fact is that in the vast majority of cases the right way to play when facing a (standard) pre-flop raise with, say, 55 is to just call. There’s simply no reason to bump up the pot unnecessarily before we’ve managed to make a good hand (not that 55 isn’t in itself a good hand, but that’s as a two-card hand – the criteria becomes far more demanding when three more cards are added to the mix).

So, when we have a small pair, our initial aim is to find a way to seeing the all-important Flop at as low a cost as possible. Crucially, remember, our 55 will become a set or better only around once per nine attempts. By over-investing pre-flop we’re effectively finding ourselves in a situation those other eight times that’s no different to missing the Flop after 3-betting with trash (in other words: a bluff). It’s interesting how the same players who pepper the pot pre-flop with no more than a small pair – a hand that tends to need some help along the way – wouldn’t dream of doing the same with 95o.

Having reached the Flop for a reasonable price, we tend to find our small pair hands easy to play. Most of the time we’ll not have improved, in which case it’s going to be quite obvious that we should fold in the face of a bet. Otherwise, when we do hit, it’s a case of finding the path that offers the best chance of making the most of the opportunity (assuming we have the best hand).

We must not forget when getting involved with small pairs that we take into account implied odds. A good rule of thumb in this regard is to check if we cover 25 Big Blinds – if we do, then perfect. If not, and instead our stack is so (relatively) short that we barely cover 10 BB, for instance, then we simply can’t afford to be set-mining. In fact, if we’re significantly short-stacked in a tournament we’d be more justified in shoving to a pre-flop raise with a small pair…

Have fun!

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