I recently spent two weeks doing commentary for the new Asian Pacific Poker Tour. The quality of play was surprisingly good but I did notice that many players tended to misplay small pairs before the flop.
There are few steadfast rules in poker but general rules abound. Here’s one general rule that applies to No Limit Hold’em tournaments: Avoid playing coin flip situations for all of your chips.
An example of a coin flip situation is when one player has a pocket pair while the other has two overcards, like pocket sixes against 10-J, or the classic confrontation between pocket queens and A-K. Even though the pair would typically be a small favorite in these races, it would be a mistake to overstate their value. And while pocket sixes would be a favorite over the seemingly more powerful A-K, that same hand would be a huge underdog to any higher pair.
You can never be certain whether your opponent has a hand like A-K or pocket jacks before the flop, so take the cautious route and avoid playing big pots with small pocket pairs. It doesn’t make sense to risk all of your chips when the most likely best case scenario is a 50/50-ish coin flip against two overcards, and the worst case is competing as a 4-to-1 underdog.
Despite the fact that pocket sixes are a heads-up favorite against Big Slick, I’d feel more comfortable playing big pots with the A-K. That’s because in the best case, A-K would be a substantial favorite over an opponent who didn’t start with a pair. In the absolute worst case, an opponent might have pocket aces or kings. That, however, would be very unlikely since I already hold one of each card. In all other situations, my A-K would only be a small underdog against other pairs.
So, you can play a bit more aggressively with a hand like A-K before the flop. If another player comes in for a raise, consider reraising all-in. It’s unlikely that you’ll be up against pocket aces or kings, you’ll be a big favorite against A-Q, and even if your opponent calls the reraise, there’s still a reasonable chance that you’ll be in a winnable race against a smaller pair. That’s not all that bad.
Keep in mind, though, playing small pocket pairs can be dangerous. Yes, you might occasionally decide to reraise all-in before the flop, especially if you sense that your opponent is bluffing. Your overall prospects to win, however, just aren’t very good. The only time to consider that play is when there’s a reasonable chance that your opponent would fold before the flop. That probably won’t happen, though, if he’s already committed a large percentage of his chips. Similarly, if your all-in reraise would only cost him a few extra chips, you can be pretty certain that he’ll make the call.
Here’s the bottom line: Avoid confrontations when playing small pocket pairs. Don’t call large bets or all-in bets. The only time to consider calling an all-in bet with a small pocket pair is when your opponent is severely short-stacked and the call won’t do too much damage to your stack.
Now, if you’re the one playing on a short stack and another player has raised the pot in front of you, it’s reasonable to fold your small pocket pair. However, if you’re the first player to enter the pot, don’t hesitate to move all-in. Be aggressive in this situation because you’ll have a chance to win the blinds and antes without having to see a flop. Even if you do get called, you’ll often find yourself in a winnable race to the finish.
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