It’s never as easy as we’d like to know what to do with small pocket pairs which, for the purposes of this article, we’ll define as 22-55. In an ideal world we’ll see the Flop as cheaply as possible, hit a set with an Ace on the board and clean up against someone who got their desired pair of Aces and couldn’t let go.
Of course, the poker gods don’t want to make it as easy as that and, to compound the problem, being only human means that we’re quite capable of not making life easy for ourselves, either. A typically troublesome scenario is when we either find ourselves raising with a small pocket pair because we think that being proactive can put us in a better position to win the pot (but it doesn’t), or we get involved and then face a raise.
In a full ring game when we’re in early position such as UTG and UTG+1 and we’re dealt a small pocket pair like 44, we should accept that we’re in a pretty poor position (literally) that can lead us into all manner of trouble, and simply fold and keep our powder dry until a more favorable situation presents itself. That’s just good, sensible, patient practice. Note that it’s not unreasonable to consider raising with slightly higher pairs, but with 44, for example, and seriously out of position, we’re asking for trouble. At a full table we can’t complain if we open and then find ourselves facing a 3-bet, which immediately throws a proverbial spanner in the works and puts us in a dilemma we’d rather not have (and could so easily avoid). Our lowly pair doesn’t even block any cards in our opponent’s likely 3-betting range.
Circumstances change for the better (or at least strengthen the argument to open raise) as our position improves. Therefore, if nobody has yet opened and we’re in the Cutoff we can open with small pocket pairs due to the more favorable factors. First, we’re much less likely to run into a 3-bet now as there are fewer players remaining to act. We’re also more likely to win the pot uncontested, giving us a concrete incentive to be aggressive. Meanwhile, if we’re called by one or both of the Blinds we’ll have the advantage of being in position for the rest of the hand. Clearly, the position is a major factor here. One drawback of getting involved with small pocket pairs is the level of reliance on actually flopping a set, but having position means there are then going to be other spots where we can win the pot without that being a condition.
We face a raise
This can be worse for us than it might seem. There’s a tendency to almost automatically call an open-raise when holding a small pocket pair, the prospect of flopping a set being so strong a factor that we don’t concern ourselves with other considerations. But this is faulty (lack of) thinking. For one, we should be contemplating the significance of position. For example, if we call in position, what is the likelihood of someone 3-betting behind? While calling in position does make life easier and help maximise any gains should we flop a set, a 3-bet (as well as a call) would throw a spanner in the works by placing us in the middle of the other two players – an often tricky, unpleasant spot to be in generally, never mind when holding just a small pocket pair.
Another thing we should be including in our analysis of the situation is the depth of the effective stacks. Given that we’ll make our set only around 1 in 8 times, it would be silly to set-mine against opponents with stacks that are not big enough to give us the right implied odds – we need to win big pots when we do manage to flop a set in order to make up for the chips spent when the magic cards don’t appear.
From a (potentially crucial) positional perspective, it’s quite reasonable to call when in the Hijack, Cutoff and Button because we’re less likely to be squeezed in these late positions. Conversely, if we’re in early position and already facing an open-raise, then a fold is the correct play, unless we have solid evidence that 3-betting is very unlikely.