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How to Play Small Pocket Pairs

Small pocket pairs can be a tricky starting hand for new players to navigate. You don’t really want to fold them but they’re also not really strong enough to call huge raises either. They can also look good pre-flop but that strength can disappear when the flop brings over cards. Small pairs aren’t really a traditional drawing hand but you can hit sets with them, which are one of the single best ways to win huge pots. We dig into everything beginner poker players need to know about playing small pocket pairs.

Pre-Flop Approach

You’ve got a number of options when it comes to playing small pocket pairs pre-flop. Note: for this article we’ll define small pocket pairs as 2-2, 3-3, 4-4, 5-5 and 6-6.

You’ll probably want to fold them most of the time when you are are playing a full-ring table (nine players) and you’re in early position.

If you’re in late position (closer to the button) you’ve got some options. Here are some of the more popular ways to play small pocket pairs:

  • Call a standard opening bet
  • Open the betting with a moderately-sized bet
  • Limp or check (pay the minimum to play the hand)
  • Fold

Every single one of those options has their place but we’re big fans of either calling the opening bet or placing a bet of your own. Remember that aggression often wins in poker and even small pocket pairs do have some showdown value so a pre-flop bet might dissuade your opponent from firing a bet on the turn or river.

Meanwhile here are some less-optimal ways to play pocket pairs pre-flop:

  • Calling a huge raise
  • Open folding
  • Re-raising

Generally you don’t want to call huge raises with pocket pairs unless you have an extremely good read on a player or you’re on the short stack.

Pocket pairs are generally too good to fold on the button so you should at least limp into the hand and see what happens on the flop.

Re-raising can actually be a very smart play but you want to have a strong read on your opponents. In other words: proceed with caution.

Flop Approach

Pocket pairs are a rather polarizing hand in that you either hit the board pretty hard or you miss completely.

There’s two main things you’re hoping for on the flop:

1. Flop a set (three-a-kind)
2. Have an overpair to the board (your pocket pair is better than all the cards on the flop).

With a small pocket pair you’re generally not going to have an overpair to the board.

It’s also possible to flop two-pair or even a straight draw but those hands are fairly unusual.

Pretty much everything else is a big miss for a pocket pair. You want to be especially carefully when the board brings a lot of high cards like aces or kings. Pocket pairs get crushed when an opponent hits a higher pair and people love to play hands that have aces, kings or queens in them.

Turn & River

Once the flop has been dealt the chances of a small pocket pair improving go down significantly.

If you’ve still got an overpair you can afford to fire some bets at the pot but you’ve got to be cautious as your opponent has more chances to improve.

You’ve got to be even more careful if a flush or a straight completes on the board. Most of the time you’re probably going to want to bow out of the hand.

On the other hand if everyone has been passive in the hand you can afford to lead out on the river. Even small pocket pairs have significant showdown value and you might get a call from ace-high or even king-high.

It’s important to read the board carefully and now exactly what hands could possibly have completed by the river.

Set Mining

You may have heard the term “set mining” in regards to playing pocket pairs and it’s definitely a legitimate strategy.

Hitting three-of-a-kind with a pocket pair is referred to as a set and it’s one of the single most powerful hands in poker because it’s so disguised.

Unlike flushes, straights there’s absolutely no indication of a set on the board. Literally every single board could be hiding a flush.

One of the most common ways to win huge pots with pocket pairs is to flop a set against a player with pocket aces or kings.

Sometimes players will purposely call significant bets with express goal of flopping a set. This is referred to as “set mining”.

Keep in mind that flopping a set is fairly unlikely. On average you’ll hit a set 1 out of 8 flops so keep that ind mind when you are calling big bets.

Patience is key when playing small pocket pairs. You’re going to want to bob and weave like a boxer when playing pocket pairs. When you flop a set, you hit. When the board brings overcards, you duck.