Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Small Pocket Pairs: The Proven Way to Win Big With Them

how to play small pocket pairs
How to play small pocket pairs is one of the most often discussed topics in poker. And the reason why is because there is mass confusion out there about how to play them effectively.

Should you limp? Should you raise? Should you even fold them?

Well, after playing millions and millions of hands at the micros and running countless experiments and tests in Pokertracker to assess their profitability, I am going to clear up that issue today.

In this article I am going to provide you with the best ways to win big with your small pocket pairs in small stakes cash games.

 The Correct Way to Play Small Pocket Pairs

Many newer poker players underestimate the value of small pocket pairs even though they can be some of your biggest long term winners especially at the lower limits.

By the way, just to be totally clear, I am talking about specifically, 22, 33, 44, 55 and 66 in this article.

The reason why a lot of beginners discount their value is because often (8 out of 9 times) they do not improve to a set after the flop. And most of the time you are stuck with three over cards on the board and no clue where you are at.

So therefore, if you choose to play these hands passively all the time, then it is going to be pretty difficult to turn any kind of a profit with them. So many times you will just end up check/folding on the flop.

This is why when I play small pocket pairs at the micros I tend to be aggressive with them as often as I can.

What do I mean by this?
  • If I am the first person in the pot, then I am always raising with them
  • In late position situations I will often 3Bet them against weaker players
  • If I have the betting lead on the flop, I will often be CBetting or even barreling with them

I want to be clear that I do still just flat versus a raise with my small pairs plenty of the time as well. When a tight player raises from early position for instance, it would be suicide to 3Bet here. Flatting is the only play that makes any sense.

However, by finding ways here and there to play my small pocket pairs in an aggressive manner, both preflop and postflop, I am giving myself more ways to win the pot.

The person who always plays these hands passively by limping or calling and then folding when they don't hit their set only gives themselves one way to win the pot - make the best hand.

And as we know, this doesn't happen very often.

But by playing them aggressively quite a bit of the time, I give myself two ways to win the pot - make the best hand or force my opponents to fold.

What Should You Do If You Hit Your Set?

The other thing that playing your small pairs in this manner does is give you an aggressive table image. And indeed, this is the goal of my entire strategy at the poker tables, not just with small pocket pairs.

I want to be perceived by my opponents as somebody who is playing plenty of hands and bluffing up a storm.


Because this allows me to get a lot more action when I finally hit my hand. If you have folded the last 15 hands in a row and suddenly start betting and raising out of nowhere, most people are going to be likely to give you credit and even make a tough fold.

My style of play though ensures that they will never fold their over pair or top pair to me. So when I hit my set with pocket 4's for example, I am going to get their whole stack.

So how do I play my small pocket pairs when I hit a set?

You guessed it, aggressive as well.

If I am going to try and be aggressive a lot with my baby pairs when I don't hit a set, it would be crazy not to do this when I finally make the nuts.

The other beautiful thing about low stakes games is that people generally do not like to fold and a set is such a well hidden hand.

For example, nobody is going to worry for a second with their KQ on a flop of:


But our 44 is a virtual lock to win the hand with 96% equity!

baby pairs

So the bottom line for me is that when I finally hit my set with a small pocket pair this is not the time to be slow playing. On the contrary, this is the time to be getting aggressive by betting and raising.

You can't win big in poker unless you win big pots. And you can't win big pots in small stakes games by waiting for your passive opponents to bet for you.

Also, the whole reason that I build an aggressive image at the poker table is so that I can get paid off with my big hands like this.

When Should You Fold a Small Pocket Pair?

Now of course most of the time you will fail to hit your set. As I mentioned before, you can try to win the pot in these situations especially if you have the betting lead by making a CBet or even a double barrel after the flop.

And even if you are the preflop caller, sometimes you can try to take the pot away from a weaker opponent by floating and then betting the turn for example.

But you should know for sure that the most "profitable" way to play your small pockets unimproved after the flop is indeed to simply fold versus any aggression most of the time.

You have to realize that there are many pots in this game that you simply cannot win. And this is especially the case at the micros against bad players who do not like to fold.

The problem with these baby pairs is that when you do not hit your set and the board is mostly over cards, you only have 2 outs in the deck to improve to the best hand.

And if you are up against an opponent who doesn't have a fold button, you are just lighting money on fire by staying in the hand.

There is even a case to be made for simply folding your small pocket pairs preflop as well. I think the opposition is so weak at stakes like NL2 and NL5 that I always try to play these hands no matter what.

However, at NL10 and higher I will often simply fold 22-66 in early position at full ring tables before the flop (I don't fold them in 6max). The reason why is that players are smarter and more savvy at these stakes.

This means that they are less likely to pay you off in a big way when you hit your set. They are also much more likely to understand the power of position in poker and use it to their advantage.

Final Thoughts

Small pocket pairs tend to create a lot of confusion for many poker players. But really they are a very simple set of hands to play.

On occasion you will hit a set with them which is going to be a virtual lock to win the hand against almost anything that your opponent could have. You should bet strongly for value against most players at the lower stakes in these situations.

But far more often you will miss your set and be facing three over cards on the flop and no clue where you are at. If you have the betting lead (which you should a lot), then you should simply make a CBet and try to take it down quite a bit of the time.

If you were the preflop caller though (or your opponent has raised your CBet on the flop), then you should simply fold your hand most of the time and cut your losses.

Small pocket pairs will never be as profitable as middle or premium pocket pairs but when played correctly at the lower stakes there is no reason why they can't all be decent long term winners for you.

Let me know how you play your baby pairs in the comments below. Do you have any tips or tricks on how to get extra value out of them?

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small pockets


  1. I really enjoy yours articles Nathan. I also finished your book CTM today, I hope that the advice you give there, will improve my winrate. Thanks and keep posting.

    1. Thanks Mateusz and all the best at the tables!

  2. I 3bet them when on the BTN vs a CO raise. I also 3bet them from the blinds vs a late position opener. Ranges are alot wider and I get a ton of folds. I tend to set mine with them vs early openers.

  3. good article as always nathan! i agree with everything written besides that i would always include the small pockets as well in my early opening range on a full ring table NL10 or higher. Reason being: if wouldn't include them i could never represent a strong holding on a raggedy small flop like 237 rainbow e.g.. But having them in my range gives me a better feel to cbet them even in two opponents. They are the perfect range balancing low cards i just need to have from early positions to rep the low flops. What do you think?

    regards Pentti

    1. Thanks Pentti,

      There are many different opinions on this. I still play them every once in awhile. The bottom line is that I don't think it makes much difference longterm whether you include them or not.