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Head Games: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance With Pesky Pairs In Tournament Play

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Apr 17, 2013


The Pros: Allen Kessler, Carter Phillips, Alex Bolotin, and Randy Lew

Craig Tapscott: What’s the best approach to playing smaller pocket pairs (2-2 through 10-10) from different positions at the table? Do you limp, raise or call reraises? What are the determining factors of how to proceed?

Allen Kessler: From early position you cannot just open limp every small pair. If you do so players catch on and can play perfectly. You must raise or even fold. Limping is fine only if you are willing to limp and showdown hands other than small pairs or suited connectors. From mid-position folding is less of an option. Limping is almost never correct either as other players have already folded. I like raising in mid-position and continuing on most flops. If someone had opened the pot before you, it’s almost always correct to call or reraise to isolate. Reraising is dangerous as it opens the door to another raise and may force you to fold in a spot where you could have set-mined for someone’s stack. From late position folding is never an option. Calling a raise or reraising is almost always correct in position. If a pot is raised and reraised ahead of you, depending upon your stack size and that of the raisers it may be a good value to call if you think it will close the action and give you a chance at a big stack with a flopped set.

Carter Phillips: When determining how to play my small and mid-pocket pairs, the most important determining factors are stack size, position, and table dynamics. With more than 20 big blinds, I am going to be opening most of these pairs if folded to me. With less than 20 big blinds, I stop opening some of these based on my position at the table, and I look to mainly be reshoving or open shoving to steal pots. When the stacks are deeper, these hands are most valuable by calling your opponents raises and trying to flop sets. These hands have huge implied odds when you flop a set versus an opponent’s raise because they may be likely to have a big hand themselves and pay you off. 

Alex Bolotin: The determining factors are your opposition, effective stack size, position, and quality of the pocket pair, because while 2-2 is a very speculative hand, 10-10 is a premium holding. As a general rule, open-raising is vastly superior to open-limping with any hand that you decide to play, but if the table is weak and limps along if you limp, limping might be best with small pairs, as seeing the flop for cheap, multiway is a desirable result. In early position, it’s probably best to fold the smallest pairs (even though nobody does), because very few flops help you, and since your average tournament stack isn’t too deep, you are lacking implied odds and can’t stand a raise. As your position improves, your options post flop increase, since the pot becomes more likely to be heads-up or three-handed, and you no longer require a great flop to win pots, as your fold equity increases. Facing a raise, you should usually call if your stack is deep enough to set-mine (at least 15 times the size of the raise, and preferably much more) with the small-to-medium pocket pairs, and with bigger ones you can three-bet with the intention of getting it in (if you’re fairly shallow), especially if the raise comes from a steal position. If you’re facing two bets cold, folding is usually going to be best, as you’re likely dominated (and not closing the betting).
Smaller pocket pairs also change value with different stack sizes: with a short stack, they’re all-in hands, they’re often unplayable with a medium stack, with a big stack the value comes from sets, and with a super-deep stack their value diminishes again, as getting over-setted is an expensive proposition.

Randy Lew: In general, I like calling raises with these hands if someone else has opened the pot or raise them myself if I’m the first one to open. I don’t think your position matters as much but the position of your opponent is more important so you can figure out if he’s more likely to have a strong or weak range preflop. Sometimes, I’ll choose to reraise these pocket pairs especially out of position to take control of the hand as you don’t flop a set that often in this game. Sometimes, I’ll consider this option if I feel that my opponent won’t pay me off often when I finally do hit my set or if I feel being aggressive goes well at the time with my overall game plan. Also, I like to separate these pocket pairs into two separate categories: small (2-2 through 6-6) and medium (7-7 through 10-10). Small pocket pairs tend to be played much more straightforwardly that you either hit or miss your set. Medium pocket pairs have reasonable showdown value as sometimes they will be an overpair or second pair to the board. So with medium pocket pairs, I like to call some postflop bets if I’m facing some resistance.

Craig Tapscott: What are the biggest mistakes you see players make with middle pocket pairs? 

Allen Kessler: Mistakes I’ve seen with small pocket pairs is calling in multiway pots for a large portion of their remaining stack. Unless they flop a set they are never getting the right price in that sort of spot. The best play is to either ship all-in and try to play heads-up with your small stack, or dump it and wait for a better spot. Also, calling big raises or reraises where the opponent’s stack doesn’t justify the odds of flopping a set is another mistake I often see.

Carter Phillips: The biggest mistakes I see most players make with middle pocket pairs is playing them sometimes too weakly. In many tournaments I play, especially at the mid-stakes, I see players who are shorter stacked with 15-25 big blinds, who try to call with these mid-pocket pairs and play flops. The problem with this is that you will be playing a guessing game against your opponent’s range and when the flop comes with overcards, you may be folding the best hand when your opponent bets. On the other side of this, when you call your opponent down with these hands, you are still playing a guessing game putting them on a bluff and they might be value betting you. The best way to avoid this mistake with mid-pocket pairs is to look for spots where you think your opponents may be opening a wide range of hands preflop, and shove all-in on them with this 15-25 big blind stack size instead of flatting. This assures you pick up the pot frequently and that when you do get called, you are playing a big pot where you are racing or ahead much of the time. 

Alex Bolotin: I think the biggest mistake is calling raises or three-bets to set mine with insufficient implied odds. You only flop a set 12 percent of the time, and the times you do you aren’t guaranteed to double your chips or even win the hand, so investing 10 percent of your stack and folding 88 percent of flops is burning money. Another big mistake I often see is players calling 15-20 big blind all-ins with small pocket pairs (“I put you on A-K”). This is a major leak, 3-3 is less than 54 percent favorite versus a random hand, and is in terrible shape vs. any reasonable range; and even three-betting a hand like 6-6 could be a mistake (if you aren’t very deep), because a big four-bet can deny you from seeing that devil presence on the flop.

Randy Lew: I think some players overestimate how often they will get paid off when they hit a set so a lot of these players will call pocket pairs very loosely if for example, they raise and get reraised thinking that if they hit a set they will win a full stack. However this is simply not the case, imagine even if your opponent is a very tight player who only reraises A-K through Q-Q plus. Sure you will win his whole stack if the flop comes low and you hit a set but what about the times when he has A-K and doesn’t hit top pair or the times an ace or king hits the flop and he has Q-Q. So if you’re playing fit or fold poker with these pocket pairs in these reraised pots, there’s quite a reasonable chance that you aren’t making as much money as you may think you are since you’ll be folding to so many continuation bets. My recommendation would probably look at how you play these pairs in these situations and see if it’s profitable or not for you. Every opponent is different though, so be careful to assume all tight preflop players play the same post flop. Lastly, if you’re not sure if you’re getting good implied odds to set mine, then start with a larger stack-to-pot ratio before getting involved. ♠