Small pairs are the cute blind dates of poker. There’s an immediate sense of potential, but you don’t want to invest too much too soon.
With a little luck, small pairs can pay enormous dividends. However, being an 8-to-1 underdog to improve on the flop makes a hand like 4s 4c the poster child of unrequited hope.
The three most common scenarios when playing small pairs are:
1. Limp in, call raises preflop, fold on the flop if you miss.
2. Raise the minimum, then fold to reraises preflop
3. Make a minimum raise preflop, call the reraise if it’s small, then fold on the flop if you miss.
Using these tactics, a player has to be able to maximize the value of having such a deceptively strong hand when the set hits. The odds are around 9-to-1 for a hand like pocket 4s to outflop a hand like pocket kings (8-to-1 to hit a 4, with an 8 percent chance your opponent hits a king to remain ahead).
The odds are more than 30-to-1 against flopping a set with pocket 4s and having an opponent with two overcards (such as A-K) pair one of those overcards on the flop.
Should we be fortunate enough to turn a small pair into a set, we also have to miss straight and flush draws that could either defeat us or put fear into our opponents, keeping them from committing more chips.
If our hopes to hit trips are dashed, we’re supposed to find solace in the fact that we’ve lost the minimum, and that the value down the road will make up for the piles of “minimum” losses.
Put simply, it’s hard enough to hit trips, and it’s even harder to hit them and have your opponent confidently continue to commit chips to the pot.
The predictability of conventional small-pairs strategy will cost you profit in the long run, as players can bluff you or easily sniff out when you hit.
I was coaching a student, “Joe,” to mix up his small-pair play and avoid falling into the common routine. Here’s a hand he played in a deep-stack tournament:
With 25-50 blinds and stacks of roughly 20,000, Joe, in the hijack (two seats before the button) held 4s 4c. Action folded to a mid-position player who made it 150. Joe reraised to 350.
Reraising accomplishes a few things. First, it can win the hand outright. Joe could pocket the 150 and the blinds. Second, if an opponent calls, as Joe’s did, the strength you displayed preflop will make your continuation bets that much more believable.
Which is precisely what happened when the board came out Qh 8s 3d. Joe made a continuation bet, and his opponent folded. Win.
Had Joe’s opponent opted to reraise before the flop, it would have been to around 750-1,000. That’s less than 5 percent of Joe’s stack – still very affordable, and Joe would then know that his opponent has the sort of hand strength that would pay off Joe should he flop a 4, since his opponent would likely lead out with a bet after the flop
Since Joe was the original reraiser, his hand was far more deceptive. Provided that showdowns occur as the tournament progresses, his big-pair strategy will resemble his early small-pair strategy, which could provide further value down the line.
Try this with a willingness to whiff a few times, and you’ll be surprised by how your fortunes seem to change for the better when every chip begins to matter.
Alex Outhred has been a professional poker player and coach since 2006. He has made a World Poker Tour final table and cashed in multiple World Series of Poker events.