Same Hand, Different Game Vol. 3: Small Pairs


In poker, sometimes the hand you hold has differing capabilities depending upon the game that you’re playing. What would be a great hand in one form of poker will, in essence, be total junk in another discipline of the game. In this continuing series of articles, we’ll examine particular hands and what strategies a player should put in place because the same hand isn’t always the best in different games.


Small Pairs – Hit Or Get Out


When it comes down to the small pairs – and in this instance, we are talking about pocket fives through pocket deuces – your basic option of play is to look for hitting the set. Because these particular pocket pairs are so small, the flop could – and more than likely will – bring any card that can crush your hand. The proper approach that we will discuss, dependent on the game, will help you to maximize the value and, when you are in a difficult situation, get away with the least amount of chips lost.


Texas Hold’em


In Texas Hold’em, the pocket pair can be wielded pretty easily. You can, unless betting gets vastly out of hand, make the call. When you have the small pair, though, you have to adopt the philosophy of “hit or get out.” Unless you catch that set – about a one in eight chance – you will more than likely have to exit the hand as the board will present cards that will put your opponents ahead. Unless you have a great read on your opponent, you will more than likely have to muck your hand if you do not hit that set.

The reason for this quick muck is the simple mathematics that having the small pair presents. Pre-flop, the small pair is a slight favorite over A-K or A-Q, but it is crushed when it comes to higher pocket pairs as it is about an 80/20 underdog. Thus, if the flop doesn’t bring that set card and there are paint cards or an Ace, you can pretty much figure that you have been out-flopped.

If you catch your set, a player has a multitude of options available to them. You can either slow play the set and look to draw some more chips from your opponent or pound the board with bets (especially useful if you are against an aggressive player). Slow playing is dangerous as it is possible that, if you allow your opponent to draw, they could catch a better set if they are playing a larger pocket pair. Be mindful also as to the board texture and be on the lookout for either straights or flushes that come to light.


Omaha Hold’em


With Omaha, the small pair is even more problematic than playing it in Texas Hold’em. This is a game that, if you don’t catch a set on the flop – or at least the turn – you are looking at getting rid of the hand because you more than likely won’t take it down with your small pair. When you add in the factor of playing High-Low, then the decisions take on another turn.

While hitting the set in High-Low may be good enough to take the high half the pot, you really are looking for the board to pair to make a boat (and try to dodge an opponent who is sitting on their own pair that makes quads). Caution should be at the forefront of your mind here as you can get into a betting war that depletes your stack when you are sitting there with the second best hand.

If you have any of the small pocket pairs, you have to take a look at your other two cards to judge whether you can make a solid low hand. If you have a suited Ace to go along with one of your pair cards, you have a possibility of drawing to the low hand if the board falls right or to a nut flush for the high. You could also potentially have some sort of running combination that could draw into a straight (if you had 4-3-3-2, for example) which would be worth playing.




As we talked about earlier in this series, pocket pairs are something that definitely need to be avoided in Razz. With the small pairs, however, there are some options that open up for bluffing and/or for taking the hand outright.

The small pairs have a great deal of potential because, if your combination is good, you are two-thirds of the way to earning the low. You should preferably be gated – with one of your pair in your hidden cards and the other showing, such as (3-2) 3 – and have your opponents all showing cards higher than yours to make a move on the pot. If you have your pair hidden, you would need an Ace or six showing to be aggressive and be the low card showing.

In Razz, however, you have to remember that you have to almost draw perfectly over the next four cards to catch the low hand. If your pair hits another like card on Fourth Street – using the example above, let‘s use (3-2) 3-2 – then you have a complicated decision. If you have shown strength and bet your hand, fellow players may give you credit for being four-fifths the way to making a low hand. If you get called or raised by someone, however, you have to be ready to ditch the hand as your two pair is death in the game of Razz.

Although you may be able to bluff with another low card on Fifth Street – such as (3-2) 3-2-A – you still have not made a hand and are looking for the last two cards to hit perfect. A bet here may well take the pot but, once again, if you are played back at, you have to be ready to get rid of the hand. As always with the game of poker and especially with non-community card games, be aware of the potential that your opponents are displaying and get out when it looks as though you are beaten.


Seven Card Stud and Seven Card High-Low


In these games, the small pair can be a very effective tool, especially if they are a hidden pair. If you are fortunate enough to be able to pull a third card on one of the streets, you can be aggressive with them and often get players who have two pair to come along with you to the river. In this instance, your payoff would be quite large. But there are some factors that you have to keep in mind before you start counting those chips, however.

If the two other cards to your pair are part of the face up cards, then you have to consider whether it will be wise to continue on with the hand. If you are holding pocket fours, for example, and both of the fours you covet are up in two other players’ hands, the best you are going to be able to do is two pair (barring hitting trips somewhere over three of the next four cards). In most cases, the small pair is not going to be enough to win the hand as someone else will have built a much better holding.

For the most part, your opponents are going to be showing a great deal more than you can muster with your small pair. You also have to consider the texture of an opponent’s displayed cards and judge whether you can beat what they are showing or, in some cases, insinuating that they have. If someone is showing four suited cards or has two pair already in the up cards, your measly pair should have already been in the muck. Remember that you want to be able to have some ammunition when you have your larger hands; calling along and looking to hit aren’t going to conserve your chip stack to be able to do that.

In Hi/Low, you have to consider the same options that you did in Razz. Unless you catch a card to make the set and take the high, you shouldn’t be in the hand. If you are looking at the low hand, you have to have that Ace in the mix to allow you to go on in the hand. Always remember your goal in a Hi/Low game is to scoop the entirety of the pot rather than split it, though.




The small pocket pair, if played correctly, can win large pots when you hit and have a minimal expenditure when you miss. The most important thing to remember when playing the small pocket pair is to get away from it when you miss either the set or your draw; if you have a mindset that says “well, I might catch on another street,” the small pocket pair can be devastating to your play. When you do miss, the small pair is definitely not the best hand to have, no matter which game you’re playing. In the next segment of this series, we will take a look at big Aces and how in different games they can be used to their ultimate capabilities.


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Earl Burton
Earl Burton is a veteran journalist in the poker industry, having covered the game since 2004. He has played the game much longer, however, starting out playing in family games at a very early age. He has covered tournaments across the United States, including the World Poker Tour, the World Series of Poker and various charitable events. Earl’s background includes writing for some of the top poker news sites in the industry as well as other poker media outlets that include Poker Player Newspaper and Canadian Poker Player Magazine. Earl keeps an unblinking eye on the poker world, offering coverage of news from the industry, tournament action, player interviews, strategy and his opinions on the game. Whenever possible, Earl will also step to the tables to demonstrate that there’s more than just writing talent behind his poker game!


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