Small, middle pairs playing Texas Hold’em Poker

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How often can you expect to be dealt small or middle pairs? According to Tom Green (Texas Hold’em Poker Textbook; visit: www.PokerTextbook.com), the chance of being dealt any pocket pair is 1 out of 17; about 6%.

Middle and small pairs (J-J down to 2-2) represent 10 out of 13 of these hands. So you will be dealt such a hand about 5% of the time – infrequent but often enough for you to be prepared when it happens.

Preflop: You are the button with such a starting-hand. According to the Hold’em Algorithm (Ref. Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision), all these hands (J-J down to 2-2) are playable from late positions.

How should you bet this hand? That depends on the texture of your table and your opponents, how many see the flop, and whether there have been any raises. (On the button, you will get much of that information before you must declare.)

If only one limper calls the blind, then consider making a raise. If both blinds fold to your raise, the limper may also fold; you gain that “dead money” (minus the casino’s share). If the limper calls to “protect his investment,” then it’s heads-up.

Unless he has a bigger pair (the odds are against it), your pocket pair is somewhat favored over his hand – even if he has two overcards. In the long run, you will be a winner under these circumstances.

Two options: In a multi-way pot (three or more opponents calling the big blind, and no raises) many astute players will just call. That’s called “set-mining.” The odds of flopping a set are low – less than 11% probability; one out of nine hands. So it is best to invest as a little as possible (no raises). Also, prefer a multi-way pot for high implied pot odds – if/when you do flop a set. (That satisfies the Hold’em Caveat as described in the 3rd edition of my Hold’em Algorithm book.)

An alternative option is to raise preflop from the button. In a limit game, most of the players who had already “invested” one small bet, will call your raise. That builds the pot you expect to win should you catch your set.

What’s more, with more chips in the pot, marginal hands are more likely to stay in when you make your set, and then bet for value – more chips for you! There is yet another benefit you gain by raising preflop: Your opponents now “read” you as having a hand strong enough to raise preflop. They may even be fearful of you because of your perceived power.

So, on the flop, they all check to you, giving you the option of getting a “free card.” In case you didn’t connect on the flop, you get another chance on the turn. In a limit game, the turn bet is double that on the flop, so you effectively save half a big bet by making that preflop raise.

Which is better? How can you decide whether to raise preflop to “reduce the size of the playing field” – RSPF – or just call the blind to set-mine. If you can RSPF down to one or, at most, two opponents, there is a reasonable chance your small or medium pocket pair can make it to the river.

The problem here is you can never be sure your opponent doesn’t make a better hand, in which case it can be costly or you can be bluffed out. That’s why, from the button, I generally prefer to just call to see the flop going for the set, while using the Hold’em Caveat with a small pair (7-7 down to 2-2).

If the flop leaves you with an overpair to the board, a raise (like a semi-bluff) may win the pot for you. If there are overcards to your pair, and you don’t connect on the flop, be prepared to fold – unless you get a free card should everyone check. (Of course, if you sense weakness in your opponents, consider semi-bluffing on the turn.)

“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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