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How to Play Low Pocket Pairs in Cash Games

Get in cheap, try to flop a set, and hope your opponent pays you off.

This oversimplified approach is probably how most of you play your low pocket pairs. It’s a fairly valid approach, but it’s incomplete. Unless you want to leak money with your low pocket pairs, you’d be wise to employ a more in-depth strategy.

In this article, we’ll follow a complete roadmap of how to play these hands preflop:

It’s common to feel lost after missing your set on the flop, however, so we’ll conclude the article with some postflop guideline.

Let’s get going!

Playing a low pair without deep stacks

Since the value of low pocket pairs largely comes from making sets, we need to make sure that we are deep enough to realize this value when given the chance. With 30–50bbs, for example, our low pairs are significantly less valuable because there simply isn’t enough money behind to win. In other words, we won’t win enough when we hit a set to make up for the times we miss.

With an extremely short stack of <20bbs, low pocket pairs become playable again, but at this depth functioning best as shoves. This is because we’ll fold out hands that have significant equity on us (any two over cards will have close to 50%), while also ensuring that we realize all of our own equity (which will, again, usually be close to 50%).

Open-raising with a low pocket pair: do’s and do-not’s

Whether we can open-raise low pocket pairs depends on our position.

At a 9-handed table, they should be folded from UTG and UTG+1. We won’t be able to profitably defend our hand versus 3-bets from these early positions, and with so many players behind us it is fairly likely we’ll face some aggression. Playing low pairs out of position versus a caller is no cake walk either.

From UTG+2, we can open 55, but fold everything lower. At a full-ring table we’ll fall short of realizing the equity needed to justify opening our weakest pocket pairs.

By contrast, at a 6-max table we can usually open-raise all of our pocket pairs from all positions. The exception is on tables with many loose players, where the threat of aggression behind makes the lowest pairs a fold from UTG. Inexperienced players should consider folding the lowest pairs from UTG regardless of the players at the table in order to avoid challenging postflop situations.

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Facing an open-raise with a low pocket pair

As with opening ranges, the profitability of calling with pocket pairs depends on our own position, but also that of the original raiser.

There are only two positions from which we can always call an open-raise with our low pocket pairs: the big blind and the button. We can defend our big blind with all of these hands for a couple of reasons:

  • We close the preflop action, so we aren’t at risk of being 3-bet squeezed out of the pot.
  • We get a good price on a call.

Calling from the button with these hands is profitable because of our positional advantage and the reduced chance of a player squeezing behind.

More marginal are times when we’re in the CO or HJ facing a raise from our immediate right. While we can call with 55 and 44 at some frequency, calling with pairs worse than this can be problematic. If there are aggressive players sat to our left, we are likely to face squeezes that make flatting with hands like 22 and 33 (and sometimes even 44 and 55) a losing play.

For all earlier positions, we simply can’t call raises with any of our low pocket pairs. Given how strong opening ranges are from UTG and UTG+1, we will severely under-realize our equity. Plus, it’s more likely we will get squeezed out of the pot by one of the many players behind.

Just imagine calling from LJ with 44 facing a UTG raise. Suppose we then go to the flop heads-up, the flop comes 872r, and UTG c-bets. Even on this relatively low and unthreatening board, we are in a tough spot and will too often be pushed off our equity (whether we are ahead of behind). We should do our best to avoid such unfavorable situations. 

We should also avoid flatting from the small blind when facing an open-raise. This is again because of our positional disadvantage—too often we’ll miss the flop, face a c-bet and be forced to dump our hand. However, we should consider cold-calling from the small blind when the player in the big blind is unlikely to squeeze, especially if the raise size is small.

Editor’s note: You can play low pocket pairs more often in low-mid stakes live games. Preflop squeezing is uncommon in these games, so it’s unlikely we will be blown off our hand preflop. Additionally, postflop spewing is common in live games, which increases our implied odds.

Can I 3-bet low pocket pairs?

The short answer here is ‘no’ for a couple reasons.

First, when 3-betting light, it’s best to choose hands based on their blocking potential. We want to bluff with hands that reduce the likelihood our opponent has some number of strong hands. A5s is a classic example, since it reduces the likelihood that our opponent holds an ace.

The second reason to avoid 3-betting low pockets pairs is because of their uneven post-flop equity distribution. In jargon-free terms: a hand like 22, though potentially a very strong hand, in fact makes a very strong hand on very few boards (i.e., only ones that contain a 2).

Compare this with connected hands such as 76s or ATs, which can make high-equity hands on a variety of board textures (strong two-pair combos, straights, flushes, etc.). Profitable postflop barrel spots with suited and connected hands are common because of their drawing potential, but such spots are uncommon with low pocket pairs because they usually only have 2 outs to improve.

Only from the small blind should we consider 3-betting small pairs. And even then it should only be against opens from later positions, and never when facing a raise from an early position. Our positional disadvantage is so severe from the small blind that we can attempt to negate it by 3-betting to take the pot down without seeing a flop. But if we get called we should approach the flop based upon our overall range, not just our hand specifically (more on this in the postflop section).

Facing a 3-bet as the preflop raiser

Unless we’ve opened from the CO or later, we shouldn’t consider defending with low pairs versus a normal sized 3-bet. The only exception is if effective stacks are extremely deep, and we’re facing aggression from a fishy player. Our implied odds are through the roof in this spot.

We can defend most liberally in blind-versus-blind situations, and in later positions facing an SB 3-bet. Since raising ranges are much wider in these spots, our defending ranges should be widened in response. We can call with all of our pocket pairs from the SB when facing a BB 3-bet—and the same applies from the button when facing a 3-bet from either of the blinds.

When making these calls, it’s helpful to be willing to call down on boards that don’t connect with our opponent’s 3-betting range. On disconnected, low/middling boards, we have to put our capes on and make a call sometimes to avoid being exploited by solid and aggressive players. 

Postflop play: what if I don’t flop a set?

Without flopping a set, it’s usually best to take the passive line and check-fold in multi-way pots. But in heads-up scenarios, sometimes we’ll often need to put up more of a fight to maximize our expected value.

Utilizing range advantage

Our postflop action must be dictated by what our overall range is and not just the particular hand we are holding. This is important to remember with low pocket pairs. They rarely make a strong hand, but we need to be able to represent one in circumstances that allow it.

For example:

100NL Online. $100 effective stacks.

Hero is dealt 3♠ 3 UTG
Hero raises to $2.50. Only BB calls.

Flop ($5.50): A K 2

We have a massive range advantage on this board: we have all sets and strong two-pair combos in our range, whereas it’s unlikely that the BB player has them (we would expect AA, KK and AK to 3-bet preflop). We can c-bet often as a result. Even though 33 has little equity to improve, we can c-bet (using a small size) and barrel certain cards given the strength of our overall range. This bet also has the benefit of denying equity from hands with two overs that will certainly fold (such as 87s).

Weak pocket pairs will often times have very little showdown value while being one of the worst hands in our range, so it is perfectly reasonable to turn them into bluffs sometimes.

Harnessing the power of blockers & equity denial

We can also play our low pocket pairs aggressively when we block the nuts and can feasibly represent the nuts.

Consider the following example.

$2/$5 Live. $500 effective stacks.

Hero is dealt 4 4 in the BB
3 folds. LJ raises to $15. Only Hero calls.

Flop ($32): 7 6 3
Hero checks. LJ bets $20. Hero raises to $72.

Since we have a bunch of value hands we can check-raise on this board (54s, 77, 66, 33, 76s), we can select plenty of hands to bluff with for balance. Using 44 in this scenario is a worthy candidate—we block the nuts, our hand benefits greatly from equity denial, and we have outs to a make a straight.

Taking these lines with your weakest pairs when appropriate is an integral part of maximizing your EV.

That’s all for today!

Feel free to leave questions, comments and suggestions for future articles in the comments below.

If you want to further step-up your knowledge of low pocket pairs, check out this article on playing low pairs in tournaments.

Good luck at the tables!

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