Playing Small Pairs in No Limit Cash Games

By Adam Jacobs - Verstehen on the Low Limit Forum

Terms used in this article:

Set: A set is three-of-a-kind where you hold a pair in the hole. Sets are very strong hands with many benefits, but the most obvious benefit is that they are well disguised.

Small pair: "Small pairs" mean the starting hands 22-88. Any pair above eights has at least a 1/4 chance of flopping an overpair. What distinguishes small pairs is that they usually do not make overpairs; instead, you are playing mostly to make a set.

The Benefits of small pairs, or Why Should I Raise 22 in early position?

Many players who are new to no-limit hold 'em cash games are surprised to hear experienced players advocating an opening raise with any pair from any position at the table. Especially if your poker career began in limit hold 'em or seven-card stud, you may see this as reckless, overly aggressive advice.

It is not reckless or overly aggressive. This article will review the reasons for playing small pairs, the benefits and drawbacks of these hands, and play on the flop with and without a set. We will outline a general strategy for playing small pairs before the flop and on the flop.

Players with experience in limit hold 'em know that small pairs should mainly be played in multi-way pots. This is not true in no-limit hold 'em because pot sizes can be extremely large even in 2-player pots. If you make a set heads-up, you may make 100 big blinds of profit or more.

Widening your range

You will be dealt AA or KK less than 1% of the time. Since you would like to be raising more than one out of one hundred hands, you need to add some other hands into your raising repertoire. Many players only raise big card hands like AK, KQ and AQ. The problem is that selecting such a narrow raising range makes your opponent's job - reading your hand and responding to it - too easy on the flop. If the flop is 742, then you have obviously missed the flop and your opponent will know this. If you are only raising face cards and big pairs, then your opponent has too easy a time figuring out what to do.

The main benefit of raising small pairs is to widen your range. This means that your opponent has more difficulty figuring out your hand on the flop. If you are routinely raising hands like 44, then a 742 flop is frightening. Your opponent with 99 has a pretty good hand, but he may go broke if you have a set. If he raises you on the flop, he will lose a big pot when you have a monster like KK, but also when you have 44 or 22.

The beauty of raising small pairs that an AJ7 flop is still scary. If your opponent holds 99 on that flop, he will probably fold when you bet your fours. But he had you beaten, so you have gained a significant victory since he folded the better hand.

Small risk, large reward

When you raise small pairs, you are making a small risk that may lead to a large payoff. If make your set, you will win as much as 100 big blinds from your opponent, possibly even more in a multi-way pot. If you do not make your set, you will either win a small pot with a continuation bet, or lose a small pot if your opponent bets at you.

A small pair is a hand that will rarely lose a large pot, but will often win both small and large pots. You win small pots when you steal the blinds, or when your opponent misses the flop and folds when you bet. You win a large pot when your opponent makes top pair but you make three-of-a-kind.

Your opponent with AK or even AA, meanwhile, is dealing with reverse implied odds. He will either win a small amount against you when you miss completely, or lose a large amount when you make a well-disguised hand.

Disguised monsters

Poker theorists have noted that you do not always want to flop the best hand in hold 'em. In David Sklansky's original strategy book "Hold 'Em Poker," he points out that making four aces is a terrible flop to AK or AA in the hole, since you will almost never make any money. You have crippled the board, meaning nobody else can have much of a hand because you have all the good cards locked up. Even if your opponent was originally excited about his KK, he will obviously be worried about aces on the board.

The nice thing about small pairs is that an unbeatable hand can still get paid off. If you raise:

You Hold:   And The Flop Is:
Two of Clubs Two of Spades
Hole Cards
Eight of Hearts Two of Hearts Two of Diamonds

people will hardly assume that you have four-of-a-kind. You can get action on these flops from players with two hearts, an overpair, 88, or maybe even a single 8 or AK.

Achieving multiple goals

By raising small pairs, you can achieve different purposes at different times.

There are three general purposes for betting:

[list]To get your opponent to call with a worse hand; When you make a set on the flop and someone calls with a pair.
To get your opponent to fold a better hand; when you bet with 44 and someone folds 99 on a scary flop.
To protect your hand against draws. When you bet the flop and your opponent calls with just overcards or suited cards, you have protected your hand by not giving a free card. [/list]

The liability of small pairs

Getting re-raised

This is the main problem with playing small pairs. You open for a raise with 44 in middle position, and the button comes back over the top for a big re-raise. Whether you fold or call is a matter of preference. There is nothing wrong with folding. First of all, there is almost no hand you are far ahead of. Unless he has threes or twos, you are a very small favorite against common re-raising hands like AK and AQ. Worse, you are a 4:1 underdog against any bigger pair like TT or QQ.

If you call, you are playing only for set value. This means that you are not planning on putting any more money in the pot unless you make at least a set of fours. The one possible exception is if you get a flop like 532 where you have an open-ended straight draw.

Should you call a re-raise with a small pair? That depends on three things:

1) Stack sizes: if you and your opponent both have very deep stacks, it's a good idea to call because you could win a massive pot.

2) Position: If the re-raise came from the blinds, you are in a better situation. When you makes your set, your opponent will almost surely come out gunning on the flop. That guarantees that you get more money in the pot.

3) Opponent tendencies: more experienced opponents will be able to get away from big hands. If you have 33 on a flop of K93, they may avoid losing a massive pot with AK.

If you are in doubt about any of these, folding a small pair pre-flop is fine. Remember that you should play big pots with big hands; with small pairs, keep the pot small until you have a big hand like a set or full house.

Bad hands have good equity against you

If you raise with

Four of Diamonds Four of Clubs
Hole Cards

you are hoping that someone with

Ten of Diamonds Seven of Clubs
Hole Cards

folds. They have a bad hand and should fold even if no one raises; but some players just like to call, and some like it even more in a raised pot. The problem with small pairs is that they are not favorites pre-flop against almost ANY hand.

Problematic Play against short stacks

You should not be raising small pairs if there is a very short stacked player in the blinds. If you raise 55 and they shove in from the blinds, the odds usually dictate that you call.

The problem is that many short stacks wait until they get aces or kings, and then move in. At the very least, they are waiting for a pair, a decent ace or two face cards. If you call with your small pair, you are playing into their strategy and making it profitable. Just fold and find a new table, or play tight until the short stack busts out.

General recommendations for pre-flop play with small pairs

You may wonder why you should raise limpers. The reason is that you now have two ways to win the pot; if you make your set, or if you miss your set but your opponent is afraid you have an ace or a high pair. Limpers often have medium strength hands like 87 or J9; when the flop comes AQ3, they will probably fold even if you don't make a hand.

Play on the flop

Flops you want:

Ideally, you want to flop a set. However, even when you make a set, the texture of the flop matters quite a bit. Flop texture simply means how likely it is that someone else has a hand or a draw.

Example: An early position player raises. You call a raise and the big blind calls preflop:

You Hold:   And The Flop Is:
Three of Diamonds Three of Spades
Hole Cards
Ace of Diamonds Jack of Clubs Three of Hearts

This is a great flop for your hand. Someone probably has an ace; even better, it's unlikely that the next card will beat you since it cannot make a flush. Unless someone has KQ and is drawing to an inside straight, your hand will probably be good on the turn as well. If you bet and get called, that is an ideal situation. If the turn is

Ace of Diamonds Jack of Clubs Three of Hearts   Nine of Spades
Flop   Turn

an opponent with AK has no chance of winning this hand - he is drawing dead.

If you hold the same 33 and the flop is:

Three of Hearts Four of Hearts Five of Hearts

This is a less favorable flop. Someone with AK is probably not going to put much money in unless they have at least one heart.

If you bet and get raised, it's probably by a hand that is beating you (like

Six of Clubs Seven of Clubs
Hole Cards
King of Hearts Jack of Hearts
Hole Cards

or has a good chance of drawing out on you like

Six of Hearts Ace of Spades
Hole Cards

However, you can make a full house even if your opponent has a straight or a flush, so it's not a hopeless situation.

Making a set in position

In position facing a bet:

If you're going to raise, make it a reasonable size. Raising small to "price them into calling" is a clear signal that you have a big hand. Make a raise to about three times their flop bet. If you're short- stacked, then just move all-in. Your opponent may think you're trying to bluff and call with top pair or even less.

Calling for deception with a set is fine, but be aware that the turn card may hurt you. If the next card could complete a flush or a straight, you may be better off raising the flop to protect your hand.

In position facing a check:

Bet. Your opponent may think that she is trapping you if she flopped top pair or an overpair, so bet and give him a chance to call or raise you.

Too often players decide to get tricky with sets and check behind. Very rarely is it wrong to bet. If there is any kind of draw out there, bet. If your opponent is loose, bet. If you think your opponent has a pair in the hole, bet - otherwise you are giving him a free draw to a higher set. When you bet with a set, it is not a semi-bluff, hoping to get the other player to fold a better hand; it is a bet that you hope they will call.

Sometimes the original raiser will check-fold and you'll think "I should have let him catch up." Don't worry about it. He probably just raised with two overcards and missed, or maybe he had a smaller pair than yours. You will make more money in the long run just betting.

In a multiway pot this is even more true. BET, DON'T CHECK BEHIND. Someone will pick up a draw to something if you check.

Making a set out of position

The problem with being out of position is there are two outcomes you hope to avoid. The first is that you bet the flop immediately and your opponent folds. The second is that you check-raise and they fold. Of these two possibilities, check-raising is better in some respects. First of all, you win more money when your opponent doesn't have a hand but continuation bets. Secondly, some people just don't like being check-raised and get a bit irrational. They may play back at you with top pair. They may convince themselves that you are betting a draw aggressively.

The good news is that many low-limit players are incapable of checking behind once they have raised. If you check it to them after they raised, they will bet, and usually a pretty hefty amount. This means that you can often check-raise with a set out of position. If you have 66 and the flop is KJ6, check it and raise a decent amount. Hopefully someone with top pair will pay you off.

Lead betting a set is also a fine strategy. If you think your opponent will raise or even just call, betting out with a set is better than check-raising, because you would hate to give a free card to someone with a weak straight draw who would have called anyway.

Sets are easier to play out of position than almost any other hand, so you can't really go too wrong with any of these approaches as long as you're getting money in the pot early.


Many players check-call with a set out of position. The problem with this approach is that it can be obvious that you are trapping with a big hand. If you check-call and then make a bet on the turn, most players will fold and you haven't gained any more value than you did with the check-raise.

Remember that in position, a call frequently makes good sense, but out of position a call is a red flag. Check-calling is a form of slowplaying, and while it's not necessarily wrong, it's not often necessary either. Check-calling works best when your opponents have seen you check-call with draws or pairs; they may misread your strategy and pay you off.

When you miss your set

Continuation betting

Sometimes the flop is so uncoordinated that your small pair in the hole is probably the best hand. If you raise

Five of Clubs Five of Hearts
Hole Cards

and get one caller in the blinds with a flop:

Eight of Spades Three of Diamonds Three of Hearts

It's pretty likely that your 55 is still the best hand. There is no flush draw, no straight draw, and it's not very likely your opponent called with an 8 or a 3. Unless they flopped a full house or have a bigger pair in the hole, your hand is probably good here. If the pot is heads-up and your opponent checks, you should definitely bet.

If your opponent has two high cards, he may check and call your bet here. That's not bad - when someone calls your bets with a worse hand, it's never bad. You just have to be careful if a face card hits on the turn.

When NOT to bet

Occasionally you should take a free card with a small pair in the hole. If you are in a four-way raised pot and the flop is

King of Clubs Queen of Diamonds Ten of Hearts

it's almost impossible that this flop missed everyone. Someone has a pair, two pair, or a draw to a straight. If you think your opponents call with the common high card hands - AK, AQ, AJ, AT, KQ, KJ, KT, QJ, QT and JT - then every single one of those hands is now beating you. If you bet the flop, better hands will call or raise.

If it's checked to you, check behind. The reason is that if a 4 hits on the turn, you are now beating every one of those hands except AJ. Even against AJ you will win almost 25% of the time. It's now possible that someone with KQ, QT or KJ will pay you off.

General recommendations for flop play with small pairs

Set over set

Obviously, your opponent may also be calling or raising with small pairs, and she too can have a set on the flop. Every once in a while, you will lose with set over set. This is quite infrequent and usually very hard to get away from. If you have 77 on a flop of KT7, you need to push this pretty hard. If your opponent calls, he could have TT; he could also have QJ, AK, KT, 98, T7, K7 or any number of hands you can beat. Sometimes on the river you'll see a bigger set and think that you should have let it go.

Don't feel bad if you lose set over set, it's usually very hard to get away from. It will happen very infrequently; you will only make a set about once every 100 hands, and the frequency of two sets at the same time is almost too small to be concerned with.

Good luck at the tables!