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A pair of sevens down to deuces is regarded as a small pair. In Texas hold’em, how should you best play such a hand?

Expect to be dealt a small pocket pair about once an hour. In addition, if you happen to start with a small card in the hole, there is a reasonable chance it will pair up on the flop (or after) when a matching card falls on the board. Today, let’s focus only on the case when you are dealt a small pocket pair in the hole – before the flop.

Rarely will an unimproved small pair win the pot at the showdown. With eight opponents at the table, it is probable one of them will either be dealt or will catch a higher pair or better. Needless to say, playing a small pair can be dangerous to your poker health.

Decision Time

First – and very important – you must decide whether to stay to see the flop. The Hold’em Algorithm can help you make that decision. Much depends on your betting position. In an early or middle position, you need not tax your brain. Muck that small pair! That will save you some chips – more so, if you call and an opponent then raises, and you decide to call that raise because the pot has grown.

In a late position, it’s worth calling to see the flop – but only if the Hold’em Caveat is satisfied – a multi-way pot (three or more opponents staying in) with no raises. Always look to your left to see if an opponent is gathering chips, preparing to make a raise. (That’s a valuable tell.)


The odds against catching a set on the flop are high – about 8-to-1. Hence, it is wise to invest as little as possible. After all, you are most likely to miss; and then, would (wisely) fold to a bet on the flop. Even worse would be calling a raise before the flop. Much too costly – a very poor investment! The multi-way pot requirement is to make your investment worthwhile should you make your set.

Of course, if you are the Big Blind and no one raises, you get to see the flop for free. Never refuse a free card. In the Small Blind, it would be OK to pay half a bet to see the flop – as long as the Hold’em Caveat is satisfied. Starting with a small pocket pair, your goal is to connect to a set on the flop. Then you have a strong hand that could win that pot.

If the flop does not help you, be prepared to fold; with just two outs, the odds against connecting on the Turn or the River are much too high. But, if everyone checks to you, checking along gets you a free card on the Turn. Maybe you’ll get lucky.

There is one more way to go, especially if you have an image as a tight player because you have been mucking your holecards almost every hand. If the flop appears very weak – no honor cards, little chance for a straight or flush – and it has been checked to you, consider making the bet. Actually, it’s a semi-bluff. Be sure to use the Esther Bluff tactic. Just be sure there is no calling-station in the pot with you. If everyone folds, you win a small pot; it will pay for several Blinds.

How Best to Play Set

Any set – three of a kind – is a powerful hand; but a small set is quite vulnerable. It is not uncommon for two players to make a set in the same hand. Suppose you connect with a set of fives on the flop. To build the pot, you decide to slow-play; just call any bet. That’s a big mistake. An opponent holding a pair of sixes, who would have folded to your raise, catches a third six on the Turn. And, you lose a nice-size pot. Small sets need to be protected.

“The Engineer,” a noted author and teacher in Greater Los Angeles, is a member of the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame. Email: [email protected].

About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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