Small pocket pairs

I wanted to share my knowledge with the hands that I prefer to play in poker for the different strategies they involve and their profitability : small pairs
To clarify, by small pairs I mean from 22 to 77, beyond that threshold 88+ falls into the medium/high pairs and are played in a different way.

I also wanted to mention that I am French and that some parts may be difficult to understand :sweat_smile:

Small pairs in cash game :

I’ll start with 6-max cash game, my preferred game format.
In this format any pair can be opened in any position :


However, beware of the huge rake on the real money tables in micro stakes(NL2 to NL10) and the increasing level of play.
If you are new to these and feel uncomfortable post flop, here are the pairs you can raise preflop as an example :


For preflop on soft tables like replay tables, opening your hands at 4x is probably best, but 3x is not a mistake as long as you don’t go below that.
However, with small pairs in early position the limp strategy is often the most lucrative on this kind of table for at least two reasons :

  1. with a lot of passive players there are very few raises at these tables and therefore we will see the flop at a lower cost with a small pair which is a false good idea with other hands
  2. we will play the hand against several players which is usually unfavorable but it becomes advantageous with a small pair since with these hands we play mainly to hit a set

Be careful not to limp 88+ because these pairs start to have post flop playability and it’s necessary to raise to play head’s up.
On the other hand overlimping medium pairs is sometimes the best option if you are out of position and many players have limped before you.

A situation that often happens is that you get 3-bet when you hold a small pair.
In this case you can find various 3-bet call ranges by position that tell you which pair to pay, or if you don’t like to learn there is the 10 in 15 out rule that works all the time.

10 in 15 out rule

To put it simply with a small pair the amount of the raise to be paid must not exceed 1/10 of the opponent’s stack if you are in position and 1/15 out of position.

In fact, with a small pair, you play mainly to hit a set on the flop, which happens 12% of the time = 1 out of 8 times.
Obviously the opponent’s stack must already be sufficient to compensate for the 7 times out of 8 that you don’t get your set (even if part of the time you will win at the showdown with just your pair).

  • But where do 10 and 15 come from ? :

When you hit three of a kind there is a natural margin of error that means you won’t take everything from your opponent every time, so we need the opponent’s stack to be bigger than 1/8 of the raise to cover this margin of uncertainty.
So we give ourselves 1/10 in position and 1/15 out of position (a bigger margin out of position obviously) on simple tables, and on more advanced tables we will follow the same principle by giving ourselves 1/12 in position and 1/17 out of position.

As an aside : in real money beyond NL10+ it becomes necessary to use 1/15 in position and 1/20 out of position against the best players of these limits, it’s up to you to adapt this rule to your opponents.

It’s important to remember that this rule does not apply with 88+ because these stronger pairs do not play only for three of a kind.

So in the following example I am on the button in a tournament with JJ and my opponent 3 bets me 11BB, the effective stack is 61.5BB and I have to pay 7 blinds, so I need 10X because I am in position against him : 7*10=70>61.5BB
Here if we follow the rule JJ is a fold but I obviously paid because JJ is a strong pair that will win by itself against a good part of his range.

  • Examples :
  1. You are playing at a replay poker table, you have 22 UTG 200BB deep and for the sake of the example we’ll say that you open 4BB instead of limping.
    The button 150BB deep 3bets you 12 BB (3X in position against you), everyone else folds to you and you are out of position.
    To make a profitable call the amount to be paid multiplied by 15 must not exceed the effective stack which is 138BB(150-12).
    Here the amount to pay is 8 blinds (12BB - 4BB), 8*15=120 < 138 so you can pay even if it seemed instinctive at first.

  2. If in the same situation, still 200BB deep in your case, it’s not the button but the BB 100BB deep that 3bets you 16 BB (4X out of position compared to you) you are here in position against him to call : (16-4)*10=120>84
    In this situation the opponent’s stack is too low to make a profitable call, he needed more than 136BB at the start of the move for you to call.

The big advantage of cash game tables on replay poker is their great quality that I have never found elsewhere.
Indeed, the tables vary from head’s up to full ring and you can cave in up to 200 blinds and play with a large stack depth, resulting in the case of small pairs that you can call most 3bets and still be profitable (even if there are very few 3bets on replay poker).

A cash game table on replay :

On most other platforms (free or not) you can deposit a maximum of 100BB and it becomes rarer to be able to pay a 3bet favorably.
For example 100BB deep from the HJ you open 22 3BB, SB 100BB deep 3bet 12BB(4X out of position against you), on a slightly hard table you want 12X in position :

(12-3)*12=108>88BB(100-12), it’s a fold

If villain is a recreational player :

(12-3)*10=90>88, it’s still a fold

Now some postflop concepts of exploitation with small pairs in the most recurring spots :

1) If you don’t have a very good postflop level don’t hesitate to overfold your small pairs

Call will often lead you to have to fold turns on which another overcard will put you at a further disadvantage.
As said earlier, these hands are mainly played for a set because they are difficult to maneuver if you don’t hit, so the general strategy is to check to the river to hit your showdown value.

  • Examples:

In this first case I am not the original aggressor which already justifies the check, but even having raised preflop I would have had an easy check on this flop against 2 players.

In this second case I am the original raiser with 77 but I did not c-bet because taking value on the flop with 3rd pair is very difficult and will require me to check almost every turn(c-bet is not a mistake here but from experience the check is better and easier to play).
Also according to GTO, pairs are among the worst hands for developing multi barrel bluffs as they usually offer very few draws to rely on.

2) you hit your set

Here everyone has his own way of making money out of this hand because you can’t really play three of a kind badly but it’s important to optimize your earnings, so I’ll talk about exploitation :

  1. With bottom set you do not block anything so you can bet the pot on every street and even overbet in multiway pots and on wet textures.

  2. With middle set you block the middle pair which is not very important but inevitably a few less hands will pay you, in this case I will vary my sizing around pot, 3/4 pot and even 2/3 on textures with few draws or when I play head’s up.

  3. Finally the “less lucky” scenario is paradoxically when you have top set because you block the top pair of the board.
    It’s therefore important to vary your game with checks on dry textures and small sizings on the other types of flop (1/3 pot, ½ pot, and sometimes 2/3 is possible if the flop is very dynamic and that there are several opponents).

  • Examples:

With bottom set in multiway pot the minimum sizing is usually pot.
When someone bets 1BB consider this action as a check and never look away from the sizing you would have done by betting on your own, so in this hand I raised to the pot as I would have done if he had checked.

In the next hand I am the original raiser with QQ.
On the flop many players check or are too conservative with their sizings when they hit the nuts but I don’t block the top pair and the flop contains 2 diamonds.
3 / 4 pot or 100% pot becomes logical to make money against these two types of hands that will never be thrown by my opponents on the first street.
With AA I would have bet between 1/3 and 1/2 pot maximum to make queens and flush draws pay.

Here in a tournament after a flop checked by all players the turn opens a second flush draw, so I used here an overbet (not expensive enough in hindsight) to capitalize against Aces checked on the flop, flush draws and possibly pairs + gutshot.

Now one last idea to give you some guidelines for playing with your future sets on replay :

On replay poker my recent opinion is that with a flopped set the check raise is the best option in general (except against a very passive player) because the depth of the stacks makes it harder to build a PSB river.
Indeed when playing with an effective stack of 200BB+ against your opponents the check raise becomes the only way to create a sufficient pot to take everything from the opponent on the river.

Small pairs in tournaments :

It’s been a long time since I’ve been a tournament player so this is the part I’m least familiar with so feel free to share your observations and correct me :+1:

Similarly, the 10 in 15 out rule still applies, but the format involves stack depths averaging around 30 blinds instead of 100 or 200 blinds which changes the way we approach each hand.

A tournament final table on replay :

In the case of small pairs with low stack depths it’s harder to respect the 10 / 15 rule when you face a 3bet and you are also less profitable when you hit your set.
So below a depth of 50BB your level of requirement becomes greater when it comes to opening small pairs.

When I play online tournaments here is the default range I use with my small pairs :


This is a personal range that I built from a combination of different resources and my beliefs and it does not take into account push or fold situations below 20BB as these charts are easily findable.

The most important thing is to remember some basic concepts that this range illustrates :

  1. the less deep you are the more exigent you have to be to play a small pair

  2. preflop the SB position is perhaps one of the most complex to maneuver in tournaments because with 22+ in BvB battles many strategies exist depending on your pair and the effective stack : open fold, shove, open call, limp call, limp 3bet shove, open 4bet, etc…

  3. as in cash games it’s possible to use the limp on very easy tournaments in early positions, so 20BB deep I will for example fold 33 UTG / HJ most of the time but I sometimes limp this same hand when my table is exceptionally passive

A tournament hand where I limped 44 in early position 50BB deep :

In conclusion one of the biggest differences between tournaments and cash games is surely the depth of the stacks which changes the game radically.
Indeed, small pairs become less strong in tournaments and the same goes for small suited connectors which were very powerful in cash game.
On the other side, hands that don’t go to the nuts like Q8, A7o or K9 are stronger in tournaments whereas they were anecdotal on 100BB+ cash game tables.

Finally I will quickly mention the situations under 20BB in tournaments

In this case you are supposed to use a push or fold strategy but you will still have enough depth to raise hands.
However below 10BB, opening your hands or limping puts you in an extremely weak position, so the push or fold strategy becomes obligatory.
In this case you either fold or jam because you no longer have the depth to play the different post flop streets normally.

There are rare exceptions of course, such as if you have AA 5BB deep SB against the BB, in which case the limp is the option I use to double my stack

Here are the push or fold charts below 20BB, taking into account the presence of antes or not and applicable without considering the ICM and when all players folded before you :

(You will notice that with antes you have to jam with a looser range because there is more dead money in the pot)

In the case of small pairs these hands can be jammed in almost every position with less than 10BB.

In fact small pairs are some of the best hands for double up your stack or resteal (i.e. stealing the pot from an original aggressor).
This can be explained by the fact that between the times your stack is paid out and you play a 50/50 against two overcards and the times the table folds and you win the pot straight away this moove seems logically lucrative at these low stack depths.

  • Examples :

1-Two years ago this hand took little thought for me because it’s a recurring spot.
In a BvB battle with 11BB shove is the best move to steal the blinds, and limp is not an option because 66 has very poor playability 11BB deep against the chip leader of my table.
Besides it’s just what the push or fold charts recommend.

2-Here I am in the CO with less than 20BB.
Considering my position with few players after me and considering my stack jam seemed the best move to steal blinds and antes.

3-With the same hand I played differently here because this time there were no antes and I was in middle position with a bigger stack so I decided to overlimp 55 on a passive table where I’ll easily see the flop and eventually hit a set against several players.
In tournaments of 10 € or more, folding is the best option here because one of the players to my right would often have raised and I wouldn’t have had the odds to pay.
In the same case, even with 40BB I could not overlimp on a difficult table because the effective stack of the table is 24BB maximum (remember it’s not my stack depth that decides if I can play a hand but the effective stack).

Feel free to submit your observations especially on the tournament part that I have the least knowledge of.

Obviously this topic is not intended to cover all possible strategies with small pairs, for example I did not mention ICM situations with small pairs.
I wanted to eventually open some players minds to the beauty of poker in terms of the flexibility that this game requires for hands that look very similar at first sight but are played very differently depending on a lot of factors.

good luck on tables and never believe anything someone named madhof says :+1:

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There are errors on my part in the paragraph explaining the 10 in 15 out rule.
Correct paragraph :

"When you hit three of a kind, there is a natural margin of error that means you won’t take everything from your opponent every time, so we need the opponent’s stack to be larger than the amount to call multiplied by 8 to cover that margin of uncertainty.
So we give ourselves 10X in position and 15X out of position (a bigger margin out of position obviously) on simple tables, and on more advanced tables we’ll follow the same principle by giving ourselves 12X in position and 17X out of position."