Playing Small Pocket Pairs
The last time I sat down to play no limit holdem and played a hand with pocket fives I got a very interesting piece of advice from the guy sitting to my left. He said “when you get dealt pocket fives, run the other way as fast as you can”. I can’t remember exactly how that hand turned out for me (for him to make such a statement suggests that I lost) but it’s not unthinkable for a small pocket pair to wind up beating a better pocket pair or maybe even a couple of overcards. The percentage of times it will happen however is fairly low, and what’s worse is that you can easily find yourself throwing good money after bad in pursuit of that low percentage even after you realize that your low pair isn’t really a very good hand. What you need to do before this happens is to decide based on several factors how much (if any) you are prepared to risk to chase a favorable outcome when you have a low pocket pair.
The first thing that you must realize when you are considering any kind of bet on a small pair is that unless you can get all of your opponents to fold, virtually your only chance of success is to draw a set (three of a kind) or better. Moreover, if you don’t draw that set on the flop you are probably going to need to throw even more more chips into the pot to see the turn and river cards. And if you are with any substantial number of players at the table the likelihood is that at least one of them is going to be betting on a decent hand and thus the amount of chips you will be asked to throw in at that time will often be too much to risk compared to the odds of eventually getting your set.
Let’s start by looking simply at those odds. To get an idea of how often you are likely to face this situation to begin with, your chances of getting dealt any particular pocket pair (such as pocket fives) are about 0.45%. But since there are four possible low pocket pairs (22, 33, 44, 55) your odds of just getting dealt a low pocket pair are 0.45 x 4 which is 1.8% – so 1.8% of the time, or about every 56 hands you ought to be getting dealt a low pair. Next, assuming you have been dealt a pocket pair, we take a look at the odds of getting a set on the flop – and your odds of doing this are about 12%.
Do you think that having a 12% chance of picking up that three of a kind on the flop is a good thing? Well if you do, you probably won’t any more when you find out that the odds of any one of the other players at the table making a pair on the flop with just one of their hole cards is about 33%. And since the better players at holdem poker will usually be betting with higher hole cards like J, Q, K, A, it’s pretty likely that the card they pair is going to be higher than the cards that make up your low pair.
Now assume for a minute that you have paid to see the flop, and assume also that you did not get your set. What do you do now? The obvious answer is that it depends on whether the rest of the table is betting post flop, and how much they are tossing into the pot. But the most important fact is that your odds of getting that set are now down to 4% on the turn, and another 4% on the river.
In analyzing odds, you can certainly make a case that the 4% chance on the turn added to the 4% chance on the river brings your chances up to a total of 8% if you play through to the last card. But for some pretty technical reasons this kind of additive calculation on the odds should only be performed if you know for certain that you are planning to go all-in.
Finally, you need to make any decision based on the other usual factors that are important whenever you play texas holdem – your position in the betting order, the number of players at the table, the pot odds and the size of your stack. If you want to bet pre-flop on a low pocket pair then you are advised to be calling in late position so that nobody will be able to bet after you, and even then the best bet is one where you only need to match the big blind. If you don’t get your set on the flop and you still want to bet the low pair then you had better be very stingy with your chips and throw in only as much as the pot odds warrant. With only a 4% chance of getting the card you need however, you won’t be able to bet a whole lot. Maybe nothing at all.
- Low pocket pairs are a low value hand and must be played carefully if at all.
- The way to win with low pocket pairs is to draw a set on the flop.
- The odds of turning a pocket pair into a set on the flop are about 12%.
- The chances of turning a pair into a set after the flop are only about 4%.
- Pre-flop bets on low pocket pairs should be calls from late position and should probably not exceed the big blind.
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