Small Pocket Pairs
Small pocket pairs have different value in different situations. Unlike a big pocket pair, these hands could be relatively useless pre-flop given the right situation. Again unlike pocket pairs, they could be completely deceptive and worth a fortune in post-flop play. How you play a small pair is going to make the majority of the difference in how it turns out. If you are reckless and can't fold, a small pair is going to be detrimental to your game. If you know how to play small pairs with well-timed aggression, however, you could walk away a big winner.
In the majority of situations, small pocket pairs will have their fate determined by the time that the flop is dealt. If you can't manage to flop a set, the chances are that you are going to be playing for a cheap showdown. There's little to no value in betting out with these types of hands when they are unimproved. In addition, small pairs are going to turn into bluff catchers more than anything else. It isn't all that likely that you'll be calling down three streets against anything other than total air. For this reason, you'll need to be careful that you aren't overvaluing your hands. A lot of players get caught up in the pre-flop action, and they tend to disregard the fact that circumstances do greatly change from street to street.
When you are initially dealt a small pocket pair, you should first consider how much value it has at showdown. Though they are both small, pocket sixes are going to be worth a fair amount more in the long run than pocket twos. You have to think about all of those times where someone in the blinds catches a small pair. These are the hands that you'll lose to with pocket twos but will be able to beat with pocket sixes. While this isn't going to largely change how you play the hand pre-flop, it's worth keeping in the back of your mind.
The number one goal of small pocket pairs is to hit a set. With a big pair you'll also be looking to land sets, but you also want to dodge over cards. In this case, you actually want over cards to come, but only when you are able to make three of a kind. Playing for a set will imply that you have a decent chance of stacking your opponent(s). If you hit a set in an unraised pot, there's much less of a chance that anyone is going to pay you off. Beyond this, you'll need to be worried about even bigger hands like straights and flushes. For this reason, pre-flop play is going to determine what playability your small pair truly has.
Set mining is a common term in poker. It means that a player is looking to play their hand with the goal of only hitting their set. In a raised pot, your objective is to calculate your odds of hitting your two outer and stacking your opponent against the price to get involved. If you'll need to call $40 and have a chance to win only $200, the play will make no sense. If, however, you have a chance to call $40 and win $1,000, the play makes a lot more sense. The math isn't very complicated, but it will involve a bit of guess work on your part. You know the odds of hitting the set itself, so you'll need to estimate the chances of getting paid off to the best of your abilities. If you are forced to pay too much to see the flop, just move on. Small pairs do not lend themselves well to expensive pots.
Post-flop is both more straightforward and more complicated than pre-flop play at the same time. On one hand, you'll know that you are going to usually give up when you miss the board. On the other hand, you will need to figure out how to extract maximum value in those situations where you do manage to hit a set. Needless to say, neither of these problems are particularly annoying issues to have.
When you make nothing of your small pocket pair, your best bet is to play as passively as possible in an attempt to keep the pot as small as you can. You don't want to try and be a hero by betting out, because this is only going to cost you money in the end. Think about what will happen if you lead out on a flop of 8 6 2 with pocket fives. If you manage to get a fold, it almost certainly means that you already had the best hand and were unnecessarily risking money. If you get called, it means that you are beat and have sacrificed whatever you put into the pot. Though not always ideal, calling down will generally make more sense with small pairs than actually taking the initiative yourself.
Minimizing risks needs to be one of your focuses when you are set mining. It's easy to get trapped into playing a pot through to the river after you make a moderate investment pre-flop. The difference between a well-played small pocket pair and a poorly played pair is largely found in how the player reacts when they miss.
How you actually make the most money from your sets is up to you. The post-flop strategy should be most dependent on what happened pre-flop. If you are up against a raiser and are first to act, it doesn't make much sense to lead out into the pot. Instead, you should check to the pre-flop aggressor in an attempt to let them take control of the action. From there, you'll have the option to check raise or call, either of which will assure that you have at least made a bit of money from your hand even if you fail to make any more.
The struggle with sets and slow playing is that they are hardly invincible hands. Unlike flushes or even straights, there are many hands that can beat a set without too much trouble. You'll often times flop a set and still not even have the second or third nuts. You should gauge how slow you play your hand not only based on your opponent, but also on how likely it is that it will wind up a loser if too many more cards come out. Sets are right on the border when it comes to hands truly worthy of slow playing. You can use a passive approach to lure aggressive players into losing their stack, but you need to be careful that you don't back your set into a corner against better hands.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
Related Poker Articles