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Head Games: The Trials and Tribulations of Holding Small-to-Medium Pocket Pairs in Cash Games

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: May 01, 2013


The Pros: Ozzy Sheikh, Matt Moore, and Justin Bosch

Craig Tapscott: How do you approach playing small-to-medium pocket pairs (deuces through tens) from different positions at the table preflop in cash games? Do you limp, raise or call reraises? What factors determine how to proceed?

Ozzy Sheikh: The correct strategy for playing small-to-medium pocket pairs preflop in cash games varies quite a bit based on position, size of the pair, stack sizes, and amount of players already in the pot. The general approach to playing these hands preflop is cautious. The small and medium pairs’ set value make them profitable to raise with preflop. Whether to call raises preflop with small pairs depends on the type of player you are playing against and his stack size. The medium pairs can always call raises (but not reraises) preflop, as they hold enough showdown value to make them profitable. If your opponent is short stacked (25 big blinds or less), you can even reraise with 10-10, 9-9, or 8-8 if there aren’t too many players behind in order to isolate and give yourself a chance to win the pot two ways. The only time it is profitable to call a reraise preflop is when you are getting enough implied odds to bust your opponent when you flop a set and your opponent has a tight enough range for them to flop an overpair and stack off on those boards.

Matt Moore: I like to open all of my pocket pairs from every position. There are some extreme situations in ultra-aggressive lineups that I’ll consider folding deuces through fours in early position, but typically in deep-stacked no-limit games, pairs have too much value to be tossed in the muck. While some people elect to limp small pairs to keep the stack-to-pot ratio large, when playing in bigger games with better players, that play becomes transparent. And if your hand is face-up as a small pair, you lose the value of stacking big hands when aggressively betting a small-card board. When getting three-bet, it is the one weird scenario where you actually hope your opponent has a big hand. If I’m out of position and get three-bet by a player with a wide range, I often fold the smaller pairs, because in order for the hand to realize its value, we need to be against a hand that’s willing to put a lot of money in the pot when we hit our flop. On the flip-side if I’m three-bet by a tighter opponent, there isn’t any hand I would rather have then a small pair.

Justin Bosch: Playing small pocket pairs is one of the hardest things in no-limit. When they make a set, life is easy; when they miss, we are in a tough spot where we have a very marginal hand. The latter is, unfortunately, what happens most of the time. Our preflop decisions ultimately build off what we expect to happen postflop. While we can count on winning the pot — maybe a big pot — when we hit, because we miss most of the time with hands like 3-3, we need to plan for those times. How often can we win the pot with a continuation bet? Will our opponent let us showdown our pair? We also need to think about how we play other hands preflop. If we do not limp anything but speculative hands like 5-5 and 7-6 suited, good opponents will play well against us. Much of the time, we will not be opening, but facing a raise ahead of us. When we get closer to the button or are in the blinds in a multiway pot, we will have an easy call, since we will be getting great odds preflop and can worry less about needing to win the pot unimproved. Those same great odds we get in multiway pots evaporate when we face a reraise preflop. It can be tempting to set mine if we think our opponent has a big hand, but as we call more money preflop, we will need to stack our opponent nearly always to make our preflop call correct.

Craig Tapscott: When the inevitable overcards come on the flop, what is the best line to take to win the pot or at least be able to profitably turn your pair into a bluff by the river when you obviously know you are beat from your opponent’s actions?

Ozzy Sheikh: How to play your medium pair when overcards flop has a lot to do with your position, which pair you have, the cards that flopped, and the line of action taken up until that point. Here is an example of a hand which I recently played in a cash game. This is to show some of the thought process that goes into playing hands. Here goes: I was mid-position with 8Spade Suit 8Diamond Suit and I opened three times the blind. The button (loose player) called and we see a heads-up flop of QDiamond Suit 7Spade Suit 6Spade Suit. I continuation bet this flop to define my opponent’s range while giving myself a chance to win it right there. I got called. I expected him to have a lot of marginal calling hands, ace-highs, gutshot draws, flush draws, sevens, sixes, or queens. Turn is the KDiamond Suit. Now this card might look scary with your hand, and it could have hit his range, but it is unlikely given the range we defined. I then bet 80 percent of the pot, as I think I still have the best hand usually. He called. At this point, I still expect to be called by flopped flush draws, turned flush draws, and open-enders. The river is the QHeart Suit. I didn’t see any value in a bet since he is calling with almost all better hands, and folding all worse, so I checked. My opponent didn›t take much time before plopping out a full pot bet. At this point I put my opponent on either a queen, flopped set, or one of many missed draws. The way my opponent played this hand certainly could be a queen or even K-Q. But it is also important to see what my opponent thinks of my hand according to the line that I took. If he has a queen, he is expecting me to pay him off with A-A or A-K type hands, which there are a few of. Plus, there are many draws on the board which he could have thought that I missed. The size of the river bet didn›t make sense value-wise which is what made me decide that his bet is heavily weighted towards bluffs. I called and he showed 5Diamond Suit 4Diamond Suit for flopped open-ended, turned flush draw and missed river.

Matt Moore: I don’t particularly like turning small pairs into bluffs on most flops. The reason being is that when we bluff it’s always best to do it with our weak hands that have the most equity. For example, Q-J on a 8-7-3 flop has backdoor straight and overcard outs and a flush draw on any board typically has at least nine clean outs, but a pair of fours on a 10-9-2 board? Only two clean outs. There are a few occasions however where the board provides us an opportunity to bluff with our small pairs. Let’s say we’ve got two red threes on an ADiamond Suit 5Diamond Suit 2Club Suit board, and we think our opponents continuation bet indicates a lot of A-x type hands. This is a board I like to raise, because not only do we have six likely outs, but we are also going to be able to barrel any diamond (nine outs) and put the heat on every one-pair hand. Typically though, if I open a small pair and the flop brings two big cards, I’m okay with releasing my hand. Most hold’em players hate the check and fold play because it epitomizes weakness, but in this scenario money saved is money earned. On a flop with one big card, I’m more likely to throw out a continuation bet and potentially proceed on turns and rivers depending on my opponents’ tendencies.

Justin Bosch: The most important things to think about when deciding whether to bluff are how often our opponent will fold and how often we will improve if he doesn’t fold. When small pairs miss the flop, they have very little chance of improving. We will make a set on the turn about 5 percent of the time when we whiffed the flop, so the success of our bets depends on straight fold equity. While our chance of improving will always be the same, our chance of winning the pot will not. Some people will stubbornly peel the flop with complete air; others will cautiously fold even second pair sometimes. It is up to us to know our opponents. Versus some, we might just happily check and fold, since we have so little hope of bluffing them and so little hope of making a set later.

Even though multiple bets might fold out even these opponents, we would be better off picking hands that have a better chance of improving, like flush draws, for multi-barrel bluffs. To prepare for these moments, we should pay attention the times we bet with strong hands. With what kinds of hands do our opponents call one bet? Two bets? We can learn when we are not involved in hands, too. The loosest opponents will constantly be providing information on how they play. We can use this information to figure out whether we can bluff when our small pairs miss. ♠