Why You Should Always Play Small Pocket Pairs in No-Limit Texas Holdem

By Randy Ray in Poker
| October 9, 2020 5:34 am PST

I don’t play as much poker as I did back in the boom days, but I still love to visit my favorite Las Vegas poker room from time to time.

And whenever I do enjoy a leisurely session of $2/$5 No Limit Texas Holdem at the Orleans, I’m always struck by how forward many of the regulars can be.

No, I’m not talking about unwanted advances or anything of that sort. Instead, I’m talking about the unsolicited advice that seems to stream my way after playing any meaningful pot.

Perhaps it’s my venue of choice at the Orleans – home to a revolving cast of grizzled regulars who call the place home – but the poker table seems to breed a deeper sense of familiarity among players.

A stranger I might not know from Adam, one who wouldn’t make eye contact if we were walking down the sidewalk, can easily bend my ear for a few minutes of well-meaning “wisdom” on how to play the game.

And in most cases, these knowledge bombs dropped in my direction tend to take the form of hard and fast rules to live by.

  • “You know, you should NEVER cold call a three-bet like that unless you have a premium pocket pair.”
  • “Seems like you play a different style than I do, but good players ALWAYS see another card with a flush draw and two over cards to the board.”
  • “The goal is to NEVER get to a flop holding cards you don’t feel comfortable fighting all the way to the river with.”

I like to let advice like this go in one ear and right out the other, knowing full well how the game of poker really works.

First of all, nobody who knows how to play the game well spends their time teaching opponents how to play better – not at the table anyway.

Secondly, the players spouting maxims like these are generally weaker players who rely on rules to make their decision-making process that much easier.

And finally, No Limit Texas Holdem is about as fluid a form of poker as you’ll ever find.

 Every decision point is based on a multitude of variables.

  • Stack size
  • How many chips are already in the pot
  • Table position
  • Board texture
  • Your reads on an opponent.

Thus, you’ll find little need for binary rules that don’t leave much room for analysis and assessment of the particular variables in play.

Nonetheless, I know full well why rules like these have taken root at Texas Holdem table.

The game takes, as World Poker Tour (WPT) champion and broadcaster Mike Sexton once famously declared, a “minute to learn, but a lifetime to master.”

For rank rookies and beginners who haven’t dived deeply into the intricacies of poker strategy, using a few handy “Do / Don’t” rules to guide their play in tricky situations is an essential developmental step.

By sticking to a rule like “Never limp in with your pocket Aces if you don’t want to see ‘em cracked,” a player still learning the ropes of Texas Holdem can serve themselves quite well.

And eventually, as their knowledge of higher-level strategy improves, that same player can begin exploring the various scenarios in which limping with pocket Aces is indeed the correct course of action.

This post is devoted to exploring the flip side of that coin, so sit back and strap in for five reasons why you should always play small pocket pairs at the Texas Holdem table.

Bear in mind that most poker strategies are not absolute and their use should be varied depending on the context.

But the five reasons found below do cover insights into why playing small pocket pairs is generally preferable to not playing them at all.

1. Good Chance of Flopping a Set

Detractors of playing small pocket pairs point to the odds against landing three of a kind, a feat better known as “flopping a set.”

When you connect with 4-4 on a flop like K-8-4, having that hidden three of a kind in hand gives you a powerful holding that will be ahead of everything else except for a higher set.

And when you’re opponent happens to have the goods with A-K, for top-pair and top-kicker, they’ll be happy to get all of their chips in holding a hand that’s essentially drawing dead.

Flopping sets is a major component of No Limit Texas Holdem game play, so players who catch pocket pairs of any size usually call preflop to go “set mining.”

Critics of the set mining strategy love to tell you all about the odds against, mentioning that you’ll only connect with a perfect flop on 1 in every 8.5 tries with a pocket pair.

That equates to an 11.8 percent probability of success, which isn’t very strong when it comes to Texas Holdem equities.

But what if I told you the odds of flopping a straight holding something like J-10 are vastly inferior, clocking it at 76 to 1 (1.3 percent)?

And if you have two suited cards in the hole and hope to flop a flush, you’ll be facing even stiffer odds against of 118 to 1 (0.8 percent).

As you can see, when shooting for monster hands in No Limit Texas Holdem, trying to spike a set is much easier than flopping a straight or flush.

2. You’ll Only Get So Many Chances to Set Mine

Most poker players know the odds of getting dealt pocket Aces, the mother of all pocket pairs, by heart – 220 to 1.

Those odds hold firm across the board, so you’ll always have 1 in 221 odds to land any particular pocket pair as the dealer prepares to dole out the cards. Along the same lines, landing any pocket pair at all clocks in at 18 to 1 odds (5.55 percent).

But when we break things down into pocket pair groupings, landing precisely the 2-2, 3-3, 4-4, or 5-5 offers only a 54.3 to 1 shot.

That tiny 5.55 percent chance of scoring any pocket pair makes playing these hidden made hands essential to long-term success in Texas Holdem.

After all, your opponents playing unpaired hands like A-K will only have a 29 percent chance to find a pair on the flop, making your pocket pair a big favorite right off the bat.

And when it comes to the small pocket pairs specifically, you’re only going to see them once every 50 deals or so on average.

Cutting them out of your range altogether removes a significant portion of your pocket pair possibilities from play, putting you at the mercy of the five-card board in hopes of making a hand worthy of taking to showdown.

Simply put, pocket pairs are too valuable to pass up given their set mining potential coupled with their rarity.

3. Flopping a Set Can Win You a Big Pot

One of the greatest thrills any No Limit Texas Holdem player can experience occurs when you first glance your set card sliding out on the flop.

You’ve managed to beat those 7.5 to 1 odds against, turning your lowly pocket pair into a powerful three of a kind that is almost assuredly ahead of the pack at this juncture.

All that awaits now is to find the perfect approach to goad your unsuspecting opponent into punting off their entire stack with an all-in wager.

When it finally happens, following a minute or so of preflop anticipation, flopping a set can feel like a surge of electricity flowing straight through your body.

And that’s especially true when you do the deed holding a small pocket pair.

These “rag” cards are generally connected to unplayable hands like 7-2, 9-3, 10-4, and J-5.

Only when they come together to form a pocket pair do cards like the 2, 3, 4, and 5 really become playable.

Opponents who see a flop come down A-J-3 are going to focus in on the big cards like Ace and Jack, while ignoring a 3 that doesn’t seem to affect anything at all.

I mean, there was a big raise preflop right, so who would be playing a hand with a 3 in it anyway?

Well, if you’re set mining with 3-3, the culprit just so happens to be you.

And with a big card heavy board already showing, all you need is one opponent with an Ace or a Jack in their hand to become your mark.

Many of the most momentous hands ever shown on the World Series of Poker (WSOP) or World Poker Tour (WPT) broadcasts feature flopped sets taking down flopped one- and two-pair holdings.

It might take a few fruitless attempts before it happens, but when you finally do flop a set – setting an unwitting opponent up to send you their stack whole – the feeling can be downright addictive.

4. Small Pocket Pairs Are Easy to Get Away From

One of the primary dangers associated with playing mid-tier pocket pairs like 9-9 or 10-10 concerns instances when you don’t flop a set, but still hold a playable hand anyhow.

Let’s say you have pocket Jacks and call a big raise, only for the flop to fall 10-9-3 to miss your set possibilities.

Even though you didn’t find a set this time, you still have an over-pair to the board that seems eminently playable.

So, you proceed to plow ahead, calling the original raiser’s increasingly steeper bets through the turn and river, whereupon you both show down your holdings.

You still have the board beat with one pair of Jacks, but the other player coolly turns over Q-Q to claim the pot.

This big pair vs. bigger pair scenario is known as a cooler in poker lingo, and you’d be surprised at how often it seems to happen during a heated No Limit Texas Holdem session.

Now then, ask yourself how the exact same hand would go if you held 4-4 instead of J-J?

You’d probably still call the preflop raise to set mine, but when the flop came 10-9-3 you’d miss it altogether.

Third pair with a 10 and a 9 out there already doesn’t bode well for future success, so when the player with pocket Queens goes for another bet, you can easily get away from your fours and find the fold button.

Risk mitigation to avoid coolers like this is a big reason why many Texas Holdem experts actually prefer to play small pocket pairs over their mid-rank counterparts.

5. It Hurts to Fold a Pair Before the Set Flops

Up above I observed how flopping a set can feel like a bolt of electricity, sending your hair standing on edge and causing you to sit up straight in anticipation of the fireworks to come.

Well, if that’s true, missing your flopped set somehow feels so much worse…

It’s an utterly empty feeling, a wave of despair and regret washing over you while you kick yourself for playing too “tight.”

In fact, the feeling of self-loathing which accompanies a missed opportunity to play a flopped set can be so overwhelming that many low-stakes grinders simply play every pocket pair they see by default.

I’m not advising that route, as the introduction to this page makes clear, but adopting a loose and liberal preflop style with your small pocket pairs is a great way to avoid the pain associated with missing sets.

Conclusion

The beauty of a poker game like No Limit Texas Holdem is how everybody can be right and wrong at the same time.

Even the most elite poker pros on planet Earth spend their downtime disagreeing vehemently on the relative merits of one play over another.

And for the rest of us mere mortals, falling back on rules of the road to govern the trickiest decisions is an effective way of removing all of that doubt from the equation.

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