small pocket pairs strategy tournaments

How to Play Small Pocket Pairs in Tournaments

The disguised nature of a flopped set makes small pocket pairs very profitable. However, although they are profitable for most players, some tend to play them wrong in certain situations.

A common mistake, for instance, is flatting too many small pocket pairs versus early and middle position opens. This is one of a few scenarios we’ll consider in this article.

We’ll also discuss how to determine which small pocket pairs to open with two different stack sizes: 30bbs or more, and less than 30bbs. Along the way, we’ll discuss playing small pocket pairs postflop.

Let’s get to it!

How to play small pocket pairs with 30bb+

With a deep stack (30bb+) in tournaments, small pairs are profitable hands to open and flat versus opens from most positions. We will not discuss 3-betting with small pairs, mostly because they generally don’t play well as 3-bets when deep.

Let’s start with flatting versus opens with small pocket pairs.

Many players always flat with small pairs when 30bb+ deep. We all love flopping sets, but flatting is not always the most profitable line.

(Note that the ranges below assume there are antes in play.)

Let’s assume we are UTG+1 and UTG opens. These are the pairs we should continue with:

ep vs ep range small pocket pairs are folded

We need to play tight in this early position vs early position battle considering the open-raiser’s tight range and the many players behind. Flatting hands like 44, 33 and 22 in this spot would be ambitious at best, and a big mistake at worst.

Editor’s note: When deep (80bb+) in soft live tournaments, flatting the lower pocket pairs can be a fine exploitative adjustment as long as the raise size isn’t especially big–even without antes in play. This is because the threat of a squeeze behind is minimal and our opponents will make enough costly mistakes postflop to make up for our loose flat. 

It is fairly intuitive how our range changes as positions change–we play looser as we and the open-raiser get closer to the button–but let’s run through a couple more examples.

Middle position (or UTG+2) versus UTG example:

mp vs ep most small pocket pairs folded

We’ve added a couple medium pairs, but the small pairs (55–22) are still absent from this range. If we are a position or two closer to the button–in the LoJack or HiJack–we can comfortably add 55 as a flatting hand.

The next loosest spot, Cutoff versus UTG open, is the first example in which we continue with all pocket pairs:

lp vs ep all small pocket pairs

We can comfortably flat all the small pairs, here, because we are much less likely to be squeezed out of the pot with only three players behind. We can also flat all small pairs in the small blind unless the big blind is an aggressive squeezer. In earlier positions our likelihood of being squeezed is much higher, in which case we have to either fold or hit a set on the flop—a difficult situation to be in, made worse by being out of position.

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How should we incorporate small pairs into our open-raising range?

The answer depends on whether or not there are antes:

  • With antes in play we can profitably open-raise all pairs from any position (except for the small blind, where limping and/or a mixed strategy is fine).
  • Pre-ante, we want to tighten up and avoid open-raising small pairs (22–44) from early and middle position. We can begin opening all pairs in the LoJack.

We can definitely make adjustments if we are in a tough tournament or have aggressive opponents behind. In these scenarios, folding 22–55 in early and middle position post-ante is completely acceptable. On the other side, if our table is full of passive nits, it’s fine to open-raise all pocket pairs pre-ante.

Playing small pocket pairs postflop

We will not cover how to play small pairs postflop when we hit a set because playing for value is (fairly) straightforward in those situations (our fast-playing vs slow-playing article sums it up well).

Much tougher is playing a small pair postflop when it doesn’t hit a set. Let’s take a look at an example.

Poker Tournament. Blinds 500/1000/100. 75,000 effective stacks.

Hero is dealt 4♠ 4♣ on the button
2 folds. Villain (MP) raises to 2,200. 2 folds. Hero calls. blinds fold.

Flop (6,800): K 7♠ 2♣

What do we do when Villain c-bets? What do we do when Villain checks?

Let’s start with facing a continuation bet. We will be continuing when we’ve flopped a pair or have 88–AA (if, for some reason, we didn’t 3-bet preflop), as well as some floats that have backdoor equity, such as Q J. With such a wide continue range already, it is completely acceptable to let go of 33–66. 

We prefer hands like Q J or A2s over 4♠ 4♣ in this situation because the former has more playability on future streets. Consider how each hand fairs on the turn and river:

  • With 4♠ 4♣, we have just 2 outs and no backdoor draws when we are behind. We will have to fold to a turn bet on any non-4 turn.
  • With Q J, we have 6 outs to make a pair that might be good, and can pick up equity with any ace, ten, nine, or diamond. Picking up that equity makes playing later streets much easier, as we gain the ability to bet, raise or call down.
  • A2s has 5 outs to improve and loses to basically the same number of hands as 44.

Let’s move on to our strategy when Villain checks.

We are going to want to do a lot of checking back with small pairs on this flop. Betting would essentially be turning our pair into a bluff, which is unnecessary because we have other, more effective hands to bluff with in our range. This will also result in us having a too high bluff-to-value ratio on the flop. We would rather bluff with hands that have backdoor straight and/or flush draws that allow us to barrel on later streets when we pick up equity. Additionally, small pairs have enough showdown value to make some calls on later streets.  

When do we want to start bluffing small pairs? Small pairs can frequently end up in the bottom of our range on many run outs, and in these situations, we may need to bluff when checked to on later streets even though we have some small amount of showdown value.

A key point to remember is that small pairs are generally not good at blocking our opponent’s value range, so don’t get too carried away with barreling small pairs as bluffs.

How to play small pocket pairs with less than 30bbs

We have play small pairs quite differently with less than 30bbs. In particular, we need to open and flat fewer small pairs because the incentive for hitting a set isn’t as great, and we will be forced to check/fold too many flops. (Learn about open-raising with a short stack more generally with this article.)

Although we tighten our calling and opening ranges with small pairs, as we get shorter small pairs make for great shove and re-steal opportunities.

Let’s do a quick quiz for this example: How many small pairs do you think we can profitably shove from the button for 20bb? Take a moment to think and click “Show” when you’re ready for the answer.

Spoiler InsideSelectShow

It’s worth noting that just because shoving a small pair is profitable doesn’t mean it’s the correct play. We have to take other factors into consideration, such as table strength, the players in blinds and on the button, ICM, and so on.

It’s advisable to study where shoving a small pair is or is not profitable. An in-depth understanding of how small pairs perform in common open-shoving and 3-bet shoving scenarios will improve your short stack play.

Speaking of 3-bet shoving, let’s talk about shoving over opens with small pairs.

Suppose an opponent opens to 2.2bb from the HiJack and we are in the small blind with 25bb, playing 9-handed with a 10% ante. We hold 2d 2s.

Let’s figure out whether or not we should shovel our 25bb into the pot.

We will assume our opponent is opening a reasonably standard 32% opening range from the HiJack post-ante:

open-raising range

Now let’s take a look at our equity against this range:

small pocket pairs equity versus open range

22 has 44.61% equity versus the open-raiser’s range

For starters, we definitely cannot flat call here. We would be playing to hit a set or fold, which is not a profitable move with our stack size.

We can, however, profitably shove. Our hand might technically be behind the HiJack’s range (44.6% is less than 50%), but our shove will generate heaps of fold equity. Our opponent will snap fold a good portion of their range–hands like 86s, A5o, and J7s will never call–and when they do call, our 22 will still have solid equity. For example, if our opponent calls the 25bb shove with 88+, AQ+, KQs, and AJs, we win almost 35% of the time.

Wrap up

Playing small pairs correctly in tournaments is crucial—they practically print money when played correctly! We’ve only briefly discussed how to play them according to stack size, but the key points to remember include:

  • When playing deep, we can flat call and open-raise many small pairs.
  • Avoid flat calling small pairs against early and (some) middle position opens.
  • Avoid flatting small pairs with less than 30bb effective stacks.
  • Leverage small pairs as shoving hands and re-jams when short, especially from late position or against late position open raises.

Note: Ready to become a more well-rounded and profitable poker player? Learn expert strategies for the most consequential situations inside the Upswing Lab (tonkaaaap covers most tournament stuff). Find out more here>

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Your everyday MTT grinder from Toronto, Canada. Also happens to play professional lacrosse.

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