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How do you Play Small Pairs Early in a Tournament?

Small pairs can be a deceptive hand to be dealt at any stage in a poker tournament. Sure, you know you’ve got something. But is it enough to be backing the hand and moving your game forward? The answer depends on a number of factors, not least the stage of betting and the stage of the tournament you’re at. With fewer occupied seats, the chances of weaker hands like small pairs coming through do open up. But as a default, it may be wise not to be too aggressive in your approach to the game with this type of hand.

Pre-Flop Approach

A small pair is usually enough to keep you interested in the pot pre-flop. But that does come with some limitations, and it’s often not sensible to go too far down the rabbit hole chasing after a low-value hand.

Consider the scenario of holding a pair of 4s pre-flop. If you can stay in the hand cheaply until the flop comes out, do it. But you need to be mindful that there is a lot that can go wrong from this type of hand, and an upwards of 80 percent chance on some occasions that you will lose it if you go all the way. Don’t fold too readily if you can stay in, but in the early stages of tournament play hands like these can be a dangerous temptation for less experienced players.

Limping is worthwhile if you want to see the flop, but it’s not always sensible to stick around for more aggressive pre-flop betting when you’re sitting on this type of hand. Caution is your friend in tournament play, especially early on, so you don’t want to get sucked into pointless competition with a hand that shouldn’t really justify it.

Flop Approach

If you pay to stay, you are almost crossing your fingers and hoping for a good outcome here — risky business in early tournament play, as we’ve already established. However, there may be opportunities to steal the (smaller) pot if there aren’t too many others in the hand by the time it reaches the flop stage. If cards come up supporting your hand, depending on your position it may be worth notching things up.

Later position players have the upper hand here, in the sense that they can read what’s going on from the players before them. If there is any positive betting activity at all, it’s almost certainly a good idea to get out. Unless the flop has already markedly strengthened your hand, you’re probably sitting on the second- or third-weakest hand at the table. Get out and save your money for a better play.

Patience Is The Key

Whenever you’re playing in early tournament format, you want to sit on your hands more than you want to show your game. Better hands will come along, and if the pot starts to rise on a small pair, you need to be seriously considering folding to protect your bankroll. When stronger, higher hands do come along, this leaves you with more room to loosen up, to your advantage and to the detriment of your opponents who think they’ve got you read.

While there are some opportunities for players with small pairs to make headway, it’s not really the hand of choice for those looking to finish in the money. As a result, sometimes it’s better to focus on playing the right hands. Even if you take a small burn limping along to see the flop, it’s still on average more sensible to duck out before the river so you’re keeping a lid on your liability.