Flopping three of a kind with a small pocket pair is one of the main sources of profit in online NLHE cash games. With that in mind it's very important you learn how to play these small pairs correctly. Specifically I'm talking about pairs 22-77.
It's common practice for many winning players to simply limp into the pot or cold call a raise in the hope of flopping a set and then simply fold their hand after the flop when they miss. While this may be a winning plan against average opposition at small stakes or in very loose games there are many situations where this unimaginative play is simply the wrong approach. There is more you can do to increase your profit with these holdings and there are four main factors you need to consider before deciding how to play your small pair: Stack Size, Position, Your Opponent(s) and History.
Like any good NLHE ring player you should be buying in for the maximum and topping up to the maximum buy-in for the table whenever you take even a small hit, so we will assume for the purposes of this article that you are always sitting with a minimum of 100BBs. This gives you the best possible implied odds to play small pairs.
Equally as important as your own stack size are the stack sizes of your opponents. You should know that you will flop a set 11.8% of the time or 1 in 8.5 (7.5 to 1 as a ratio) so when facing a raise of 4BBs by a short stacked player with lets say a stack of 35BBs at the start of the hand you should fold your small pair. Although you're getting odds of slightly more that 7.5 to 1 on the call you actually need more than this for the call to be profitable for reasons I will discuss further in this article.
Firstly with regard limping into the pot, this is fine if you are in early position in a full ring game but bare in mind that if you don't do this with other hands then your hand will be telegraphed and you're less likely to get much action when you flop a set than if you had raised, which is why in 6-max games you should always open raise with these hands, even from first position unless your opponents are playing particularly badly and will allow you to limp in cheaply and get paid off handsomely.
From the blinds is where small pairs tend to be played incorrectly most often, especially when facing a raise from one opponent in a steal position (button or cut-off) and unless stacks are very deep you should be re-raising against one opponent most of the time and sometimes folding. Cold calling a raise with a small pair heads up is usually unprofitable so don't do it unless you're facing an early position raise from a player likely to have a big hand and the effective stacks are deep.
When set-mining, the money you lose every time you call, miss and check-fold needs to be made up for when you do hit your set. Think about this for a minute. Let's say you're in the big blind on a $1-$2 6-max table and the button raises to $8. You are dealt 33 and just call the extra $6 and check fold every time you miss. That's 7.5 X $6 gone down the drain so when you hit a 3 on the flop you have to make sure you extract at least $45 from you're opponent every time just to break even playing your small pair like this. How on earth are you going to do that when the button's range is so wide? While this may seem glaringly obvious, remember that your opponent also will need to have a real hand for you to get paid off.
Yes I realise I am ignoring the times you flop a straight draw, hit and get paid or by some miracle win at a showdown where both players have checked it all the way but these situations are very rare. Believe me, you are just throwing away money playing small pairs passively heads up and remember you will sometimes flop a set with a small pair and lose, and when that happens you lose big. By now you should be realising that 7.5 to 1 is nowhere near enough. It's more like somewhere between 12 to 1 and 16 to 1 depending on the situation but obviously less if you are certain your opponent holds Aces or Kings.
Almost all players have a reasonably wide raising range from the button and the cut-off and will fold most of these hands to a re-raise. Also, there are a lot of hands they will call the re-raise with but fold after the flop. Hands like AJ,AQ,KQ other small pairs and some suited connector hands will all have to fold if they miss assuming you are good enough to make a continuation bet on the right flop, which is another reason why you should be re-raising from the blinds against most of your opponents and taking control of the pot. Also be very aware of when it is wrong to continuation bet with your unimproved small pair. If you're reasonably sure your opponent isn't going away or the flop has helped him then obviously check-folding is fine. Don't assume you have to always follow up a pre-flop re-raise with another bet on the flop.
When there are limpers pre-flop and you are not in the blinds it is fine to limp in but you should sometimes raise, especially on the button. Even if you get called, you don't need to hit the flop to make a profit and when you do your hand will be nicely disguised. A lot of the time you will just take the pot down pre-flop. You should be happy to do this a lot. In 6-max games blind steals should make up over 25% of your overall profit which is another reason to play small pairs aggressively.
Knowing the range of hands your opponent holds is a huge deciding factor in how you should proceed with you small pairs.
For example at a $2-$4 NLHE table you raise in the cut-off seat with 4-4 to $15 and the player on the button makes a re-raise to $48. You both have stacks of 100BBs at the start of the hand. The player on the button is a good wining player who plays about 22% of his hands and almost never cold calls a raise pre-flop. What this means is, the range of hands he will decide to re-raise you with on the button is pretty wide and for that reason you should fold your small pair because it's unprofitable to play it for set value. In this situation you should probably only play pairs 88 and above (even 88 is borderline)
Let's take a different type of opponent in the same scenario. This player is a much weaker opponent. He plays around 35% of his hands but only raises pre-flop about 4% of the time. You can be pretty sure this player has a big hand in this situation and you can also be pretty sure he will be unable to fold an over-pair even on a dry flop. Against this player you can call his pre-flop re-raise profitably to mine a set.
When facing two opponents (there has been a raise and call) you should almost always just call with your small pair especially when in the blinds since on the flop you will have the wonderful position of being able to check into the pre-flop-raiser and have the caller act before you, meaning the pot could potentially have built up quite a bit when you flop a set the and action has come back to you. Having said that when first to act with a flopped set against multiple opponents you should also sometimes lead out strong in the hope of getting raised, especially when the board is draw heavy.
Although this is of less importance to the other factors it's worth considering since once you move up levels more and more of your opponents will be aware of your history, how you've played your hands in the past (particularly against them) and they'll also be aware how you might perceive their own table image.
If you have been re-raising a lot pre-flop then be careful. The more often you re-raise the more likely it is for your opponent to 4-bet you (re-raise again) or to at least call and not go away on the flop. This is where you need to think hard about all of the factors I've already outlined and decide which of the options available to you is the right one. Call, Fold or Re-raise, because against players you have a lot of history with potentially any option could be plausible but one option the most optimal.
So you've flopped a set, now what?
Generally speaking, you should always attempt to play your small sets fast and get as much money into the middle as early as possible. It is always easier to extract chips on the flop because bets on turn and river are respectively greater signs of strength and earn more respect.
If you have been the aggressor pre-flop then you should just bet out with your set most of the time, but of course on dry flops (flops where there is no obvious draw) it is sometimes fine to check. On draw heavy flops you should almost never slow-play not just because your opponent can outdraw you but because as a bonus he can put you on any number hands other than your monster making it harder for him to fold. Also on draw heavy flops some cards will kill your action (for example when a possible flush lands) so bet and raise early.
If you flop a set, bet out and get raised it's often a god idea to then just call. If you feel putting in another raise will lose your customer then call and on the turn you have two very reasonable options available to you. You can lead out again or check raise. Which option you chose depends entirely on what you think your opponent will do. Quite often he will check behind on the turn even with top pair top kicker (a hand most players should be good enough not to go broke with) which is where leading again is best.
When out of position to the pre-flop raiser check-raising is the standard approach, but against a particularly aggressive opponent check calling and allowing him to bluff further streets is fine too. If you have reason to believe your opponent has a big hand then you should never ever slow-play. Raise and re-raise as much as you believe will be enough to get your opponent to commit all of his chips on the flop.
Finally please do not become one of the players who check raises the minimum then bets too much on the river. This is exactly how you won't make enough money from flopping sets because you're playing your hand face up and making it very easy for your opponent to get away cheaply.
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