Playing Small and Medium Pocket Pairs in No-Limit Hold’em by Greg Mueller

Ring Game Play

In ring games, I like to build a really small pot when I have these hands in early and middle position. Sometimes I’ll make a min raise; other times I’ll just limp in. I want to keep the pot small when I have a small or medium pair because I lay them down if I’m faced with a large re-raise.

If I min-raise or limp in and an opponent makes a small raise, I can call, but if I open with a big raise and my opponent comes over the top, I’m not usually getting the right odds to call. By keeping the pot small, I have a better chance of seeing a flop and I may pull other players into the hand. Then if I do flop a set, someone’s going to pay me off. To me, the biggest moneymakers in No-Limit ring games are small sets, like 2s and 3s, because they’re so disguised.

A lot of players get overly aggressive with the middle pairs: 8s, 9s, and 10s. They raise before the flop with them, but if the blinds fold, they’re only going to win a small pot. I’d much rather try to win a big pot by flopping a set. If the flop comes J-8-2 and I have pocket 8s while my opponent has a hand like K-J, I’m going to win a big pot a lot of the time.

If I’m in late position and have a small or medium pair, I’ll raise in hope of taking the blinds if nobody else has entered the pot. If one of the blinds calls, I’ll try to win the pot with a bet on the flop, but if both blinds call my raise, I’ll be more cautious. Against multiple opponents I’m trying to flop a set. If I don’t and there are several overcards on the board, I’ll check if it gets checked to me and I’ll probably fold if one of my opponents bets. If I’m in late position and someone in early position raises pre-flop, I’ll generally just call and hope to flop a set.

Tournament Play

In tournaments you have to treat small and medium pairs much differently that you do in ring games. You have to play them more conservatively because you can’t usually rebuy. In fact, I will often fold 2s, 3s, 4s and 5s under the gun in tournaments. In ring games, I always play these hands because of my implied odds. Even if I lose 15 of these hands in a row, I can always rebuy. In a tournament, if I lose five times in a row, it’s going to really hurt my stack.

How I play small pairs in tournaments often depends on the size of my chip stack. If I have a big stack and get dealt a pair of 3s or 4s, I might raise, hoping to win the blinds and antes. However, if I’m on a short stack and in late position, I might just move all-in.

In tournaments I try to stay away from middle pairs because they can cause big problems and tough decisions. Let’s say I call a pre-flop raise with pocket 9s and the flop comes 10-4-2. In a ring game, I would check and call or possibly check-raise trying to find out if my 9s were good. In a tournament, however, that’s scarier because you really have to be careful about the amount of chips you use to get this information.

My decision is easy when there’s an Ace or King on the flop, but when the flop is 10-4-2 and I’ve got pocket 9s, it becomes very difficult. You can’t fold every time, but you don’t want to get too crazy in these situations either. Middle pairs are so difficult to play that I notice that I often find my best tournament results come when I simply stay away from them.

The beauty of small and medium pairs is that they very rarely get you into trouble. However, when they do, it really hurts. When the $2,500 No-Limit Hold’em event at this year’s World Series of Poker* got down to the last three tables, I opted to defend my blind with pocket 3s. The flop came J-8-3. My opponent and I got all our money into the pot, but as it turned out, he had pocket 8s. When you do flop set over set and you have the bottom end of it, you really get punished. But when that’s not the case – and it usually isn’t – you’re going to be in great shape.

Greg Mueller