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Starting with small pocket pairs – 7-7 down to 2-2 – requires tough decisions, even for skilled hold’em players. What is the best way to play them?

With a pocket pair, on average, you will catch a set on the flop only 1 out of 8.5 times. It’s a longshot. Failing to connect on the flop, your set is even less likely on the turn or the river.

Unless someone happens to have been dealt a higher pocket pair, you are a small favorite over most non-paired holecards – provided its heads-up. But, with more than one opponent you are an underdog and the more opponents staying to see the flop, the worse it gets.

In no-limit games you can resolve this dilemma by making a big preflop raise (in conjunction with the Esther Bluff tactic), forcing out all but one of your opponents. (At least, that’s the goal.) But, in limit games, when there are just two players preflop, the pot is usually “chopped.”

Each player takes back his bet. Next hand. Consequently, in a limit game, most experts agree, small pocket pairs play best against a large field that offers high implied pot odds: a multi-way game (three or more opponents staying to see the flop). Then, there is likely to be a good-size pot at the showdown. That compensates for the poor card odds to catch the set.

That’s only part of the story. These days, preflop raises are quite common in limit games. A double bet is too costly to stay to see the flop with your small pocket pair, considering the high card odds against catching your set. There is always an exception: If the raise is made after you bet, then it costs you just one more small bet to call the raise.

In that case, as long as it’s a multi-way pot, a single raise usually is worth calling to see the flop. Just be sure there is not likely to be another raise after you call. If you happen to be seated to the immediate right of the raiser, you can see how many others call the raise. Plus, you will be closing off the round of betting so there cannot be another raise after you call.

Evaluating the Flop: Most often, you will not improve your small pocket pair on the flop. Don’t rush to muck your holecards. If the flop is checked all around, you get a free card to see the turn. (Never refuse a free card. The turn card could bring you a set.)

Bear in mind your opponents are likely to hold honor cards if they called to see the flop, especially after a raise. In a multi-way pot, if two honor cards flop on the board, at least one opponent is bound to connect. Most likely he will make the bet so you can easily fold your small pocket pair.

If no honor cards fall on the flop, then your small pocket pair may still be in the lead. (Remember, your opponents have no idea as to what you are holding.) This is a good time to bet out – just as you would make an Esther Bluff. If they all fold, you take the pot!

If a small pair falls on the flop, that could also be in your favor. Chances are none of your opponents in the hand has a matching card in the hole. So bet out – and hope they all fold. But don’t despair if you get one call.

Having previously evaluated this opponent, you can make a pretty good guess as to the range of hands he might be holding. If he’s a tight player, be cautious; he may be well ahead of you. If he’s a loose player and doesn’t reraise you, he is likely on a draw. Hope he doesn’t make it.

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

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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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