Small Pocket Pairs in Tournaments
Playing any hand in a tournament can be tricky. You have to factor in everything from hand strength to the blind levels to stack sizes and so on and so forth. Small pocket pairs are one of the most dangerous hands that you can play in a tournament for a number of reasons. First, pocket pairs do have showdown value, but it can end up costing an awful lot to get to showdown. Where in cash games you can make the best long term play and simply reload if your read is off, you just won't have that option in a tournament. If you are going to commit your stack with just a small pocket pair, you better be quite sure that you have your opponent beat.
Another problem with pocket pairs is that they are never far ahead of the competition. Even if you manage to get a small pair all in pre-flop as a favorite, there's a strong likelihood that you are only flipping a coin anyway. Very rarely will pocket fours be fortunate enough to run into pocket twos or threes, the only two hands that it has truly dominated.
One final reason that pocket pairs are dangerous is because they are the very definition of high risk and high reward. Yes, you'll likely wind up winning a sizable pot if you are able to flop a set, but there's something to be said about all of those times where you totally brick the flop. There are many pots where the obvious value in a pocket pair will only be derived if you manage to hit a set, so you are taking a large number of losses in your endeavor to hit that one set. And even then, your set might not get paid off. Small pocket pairs in tournaments are valuable, there's no disputing that, but they certainly require a bit of extra care and attention.
Small Pocket Pairs in Position
If you are in position with a small pocket pair in a tournament, you'll be working with a handful of inherent advantages. First, you'll be able to play the pot as comfortably as possible post-flop. You won't need to worry about leading into or checking into a board full of over cards. This gives you a lot of control that will save a significant amount of money that would otherwise be used in order to test the waters.
The other valuable element in position with small pocket pairs is that you can set your own price pre-flop. Since most of the action is going to be ahead of you, you won't need to worry that calling a raise will also trap you into calling a 3-bet or 4-bet. Of course, sometimes the small blind or big blind will put in another raise, but this won't happen all too frequently.
If you are in a tournament and have position with pocket pairs, the most obvious and profitable play is to see a cheap flop. Don't try and get fancy with a re-raise, because you will usually not have enough blinds to make it work. If you are going to attempt to float flops in tournaments with small pocket pairs, you need to formulate a long term game plan. In cash games, you'll have a chance to raise and take down pots on the flop or turn even when you miss, but in tournaments this could result in a busted stack. Even though you have position, getting out of line with small pocket pairs in tournaments is a recipe for disaster. Use your position to your advantage, but don't extinguish the natural value in acting last by going crazy for no real reason.
Small Pocket Pairs Out of Position
When you are out of position with a small pocket pair, especially in a tournament, you are going to find yourself in a lot of awkward spots. Depending upon your stack size, blind levels, etc., you aren't going to want to raise in many pots. The value in small pocket pairs comes in set mining, so a raise followed by a re-raise from an opponent could easily price you out of the pot.
The go-to move with small pocket pairs out of position in tournaments is to either limp or make a small raise. A small raise can be deceptive enough that it's able to extract value, but it will also generally procure smaller re-raises, allowing yourself an opportunity to remain in the pot. The last thing that you want to do with a small pocket pair out of position is to make a big raise. This will dilute the worth of your hand and will disallow the opportunity to call the majority of re-raises. Get involved with these hands, but don't put your life on the line. Small risk and big reward is the best approach in this particular position.
Value in Early Blind Levels
In early blind levels, small pocket pairs aren't going to be used as strong starting hands. They don't want to get all in pre-flop and they don't play very well post-flop in the spots where they miss. The best plan of action in early levels with small pocket pairs is to look for cheap, multi-way pots where you stand a fair chance of getting paid off. A set is almost always going to be a hand that plays very deceptively, so you'll have pots where even a limped hand is able to win an opponent's stack.
The early levels are one of the few points in a tournament where raises make sense with small pocket pairs. Though you should still be aiming to keep the pot cheap, your wealth of big blinds will allow for some pre-flop aggression. If a player raises ahead of you, call and see a flop, but if you are first to act, don't be afraid to get the action started with a small raise.
Value in Late Blind Levels
Late blind levels will often times force a small pocket pair hand into either folding or shoving. The problem with big blinds and small pairs is that they don't work well together at all. You won't be able to get any value out of a raise through calls, you can't call others' raises and expect to be profitable, and limping in will just bleed your stack dry. With all of this in mind, your only option is to try and double up or take down the pot uncontested with a pre-flop shove.
If you are in late position and have a chance to steal the blinds, don't even think before you move all in. Likewise, if you are first to act with 22 and a medium sized stack, think carefully before you raise. As painful as it might be, there are some spots where simply folding your small pocket pair is the best play. With a small to moderate size stack, you'll get called by a lot of players when you open shove.
At this point, you are then going to be in a coin flip at best in almost every hand. Instead of flipping coins, use the late levels of tourney play to steal the blinds with small pocket pairs or to bully your opponents when you have a big stack. In both of these instances, other players will call you with hands that you have beat. When you shove from early position, it's usually you who is the underdog who needs to catch up. Small pairs have value even when the blinds are high, but you really need to be sure that you pick your spots carefully.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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