There are many different opinions regarding the best way to play small pairs from early position. In my opinion, though, there’s one option that’s clearly the best when playing these hands in no limit hold’em tournaments.
The value of small pocket pairs comes from the possibility of flopping three of kind and winning a sizable pot. To that extent, playing this type of hand is a low risk/high reward proposition.
If you get lucky and hit a set on the flop, you’ll have a great chance to win big, especially if one of your opponents hits the top pair on the board. And if you don’t get lucky, well, it’s usually pretty easy to fold your hand.
So, here’s how you can play small pairs from up front.
Move all-in. This play immediately turns your small pair into a high risk/low reward proposition. If an opponent calls your bet, he’ll either have two overcards, like A-K, or worse, he’ll have a pair higher than yours.
The benefit to moving all-in is that you’ll win the blinds a high percentage of the time since your bet will probably be very large in comparison to the blinds. An all-in bet would likely force out any opponent who was thinking about playing a marginal hand.
Moving all-in with a small pair from early position only makes sense when you are severely short-stacked and desperately need to pick up the blinds.
Fold. This, by far, is the safest play. Small pairs simply aren’t hands that have to be played from early position, particularly if you’re in an aggressive game with plenty of raising and reraising before the flop.
If you feel outclassed at the table, fold your hand. If your chipstack isn’t quite short but isn’t healthy either, folding is a reasonable option.
Limp in. This is how most players play this type of hand. But there’s a problem with this approach. Limping in can easily turn your bet into bait for an aggressive player who’s waiting to attack from a position of strength. He’ll see your limp as a sign of weakness and just might opt to raise you back.
Also, because it’s so common for players to limp in with small pairs, your hand can become transparent; a skilled opponent will have you pegged for holding a small pair.
It’s never a good thing when an opponent has a solid read on you pre-flop. And limping in just screams small pair!
On the other hand, limping in often induces a multi-way pot which produces better value for your hand. It also reduces your investment since you’re putting in the absolute minimum.
Make a small raise. Now, in my opinion, this is the very best option.
First, you’ll have a chance at picking up the blinds because your opponents might fear that you have a strong hand since you raised from early position. Second, other players probably won’t look to attack a small raise. They’re more likely to just call with a hand that they would have raised with had you limped in instead.
For example, if your opponent has a hand like pocket nines, he might elect to call your small raise rather than reraise. Had you limped in, he might have attempted to take control by reraising a much larger amount than your initial small raise.
As with most poker-related concepts, it’s always best to mix up your play and use all of your available options from time to time. But when dealt a small pocket pair in early position, making a small raise should be your go-to play.
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