One of the key areas in short handed limit hold’em games as opposed to full ring games and no limit games is identifying the relative merits of certain hands. Depending on what form of poker that you playing and what table dynamics are in operation then many hands play differently depending on the game.
One of the types of hands that many players misplay in short handed limit games is small pairs and by small pairs I mean all pairs up to pocket fives. Here is a common thought process of a typical player in a six handed game. They get dealt 55 on the button and it gets folded around to the player on their immediate right who raises to $20 in a $10-$20 game.
The player with the fives is a decent limit player who understands about the importance of aggression and isolation with position and creating dead money and all the rest of it. He knows that he is in a re-raise or fold situation and feels that folding would be playing too tightly in this six handed game and does not want to be pushed around too much so elects to re-raise to $30.
He figures that this aggressive move will drive out the remaining blinds and get the hand heads up with position against a lone opponent with him having the initiative and being able to represent many flops even if his set does not come in.
This is not a bad way to play the hand because nearly all of his objectives are met most of the time. His aggressive re-raise does indeed drive out the blinds and get it heads up most of the time. His action does indeed create much dead money and dead money can change -EV situations and make them positive.
In fact this was a very successful tactic several years ago when the games were weaker but there are problems in today’s online environment in making plays of this nature. Small pocket pairs fall into the category of hands that lose a lot of value in short handed games and especially aggressive short handed games and most of the games at $10-$20 and above fall into that category.
You cannot re-raise someone into submission pre-flop and expect to gain the initiative post flop. The problem with the pocket fives is that your hand is essentially made pre-flop and is difficult to improve. Most of the time, a pair of fives will be all you have on the flop and even by the river.
You could get lucky and flop some sort of draw to go with your pair but most of the time this simply will not happen. This is where pocket pairs start to struggle against decent aggressive players post flop. When the flop comes KJ8 and your opponent leads out on the flop with a $10 bet then what do you do with your pocket fives?
Or they check and call your flop bet or check raise you then what do you do?
The point is that small pocket pairs simply cannot stand heat most of the time post flop and heat will be what you will get with many players and especially at the higher limits. So the +EV that you thought your aggressive pre-flop play was obtaining may be just an illusion if you are being forced into folding too often post flop.
I think that some of this confusion stems from players knowing that a small pocket pair has an edge when played to showdown against big unpaired cards, the only problem is that hands do not always go to a showdown. In full ring games where it is far easier to put players on specific hands then it is easier to three bet with a hand like 3-3 if you have a very good angle on your opponent and his likely hand.
But short handed limit hold’em games are a totally different kettle of fish as your opponents will be raising on much wider ranges so it is much more difficult to put them on hands. You can end up if you are not careful laying down a hand like 4-4 when it is the best hand and paying off to the river when you are drawing to two outs.
Do not get me wrong here, I am not saying that you can never three bet with a small pocket pair or never open raise from the button. What I am saying is that too many players over value small pocket pairs in short handed games and they duly pay the price for failing to recognise the fact that they lose an awful lot of value in those types of games.
Carl “The Dean” Sampson can also be found playing free poker