Brunson: Playing small hold ’em pairs early


Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in the London Telegraph in 2005.

Doyle Brunson index.

Historical note: The following explanatory note didn’t appear in the series, but was sent with each column as submitted.

Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson stands unchallenged as the most celebrated poker player who ever lived. In 2005, at age 72, he won an unprecedented 10th championship gold bracelet at the World Series of Poker. He is among the few living members of the Poker Hall of Fame, and his books  are the bibles for poker professionals.. Through www.poker1.com and www.doylesroom.com, Brunson has teamed with Mike Caro, today’s premiere poker educator, to offer a free learning experience to players worldwide. This column is founded on  those collaborative teachings.


Doyle Brunson

Nothing confuses an amateur hold ’em player as much as a small pair in an early position. When you must act early, with a herd of players waiting to pounce after you make you’re decision, peril surrounds you. Commit or fold?

Imagine you look at 4-4 on the first round of betting, before the flop. Should you just make a commitment to the pot by raising or by just calling? Or should you simply fold? Even experts argue the merits of various decisions. One thing’s for sure, though. As poker authority Mike Caro has written: “Most players lose money for their lifetimes by even playing small pairs in early positions.” I agree.

But that doesn’t mean the small pairs are always unprofitable. It just means that non-experts don’t play them correctly. The trick is to play them when they’re profitable and not otherwise. In no-limit hold ’em games, small pairs can pump out income faster than a wildcat oil strike. When you start out with 4-4 and see a flop like A-K-4, especially with no two cards of the same suit, be prepared to win a lot of chips. How well you play from that point on, though, will determine just how many.

Inhospitable flops

Unfortunately, most flops aren’t hospitable to a small pair. The odds against catching one more of your rank on the flop, making three-of-a-kind – or rarely catching two and making four-of-a-kind are formidable.

To be specific, it’s a whopping 407-to-1 against flopping four of a kind and about 7½-to-1 against seeing at least one more four occur on the flop. And you can catch that four and still not be safe. For instance, if three of one suit flop, you’ll worry about facing a flush – now or on the final two cards. And if the flop is 4-Q-Q, you can get burned if someone holds a queen and later makes another pair for a bigger full house than yours.

It’s hard for a person to win without catching a four, especially when facing more than just a single opponent. Yes, against just one opponent, that lowly pair might hold up and be enough to win, but – even then – it can be expensive finding out, and I recommend you strongly consider vacating the pot against a bet. That’s true of any bet in limit or no-limit games, but especially true against a sizable no-limit bet.

The most encouraging flops, other than the rare ones that contain a four, are ones with all low cards. For instance, if you see 7-6-2, you won’t want to give up your pocket pair easily. You might well fold, even then, but not always, because you don’t want to encourage opponents to run over you. In fact, you might want to take an aggressive stand sometimes, betting or even raising. Those who say you should always surrender unless you improve your small pair to at least three-of-a-kind don’t fully understand that hard-and-fast rules won’t cover all hold ’em situations.

Going to school

Here’s where a man needs to go to school on his opponents. If faced with a bet here, search your soul and ask yourself whether that player, right now, is likely to wager on two big cards, hoping to force you out of the pot. Against that type of opponent, I’ll frequently call or raise.

But, don’t get tied to the hand, either. Remember the dangers. You could be facing a hand like A-7 or A-6 (bigger pairs than yours with ace kickers) or a set of three sevens or three sixes, if an opponent also started with a small pair higher than yours. Now, I’m not much to worry in a poker game, but you should be a tad concerned about facing a bigger starting pair.

The simple truth here is that when you play a small pair from an early position in full-handed hold ’em, you should be doing it in a game without aggressive players waiting to jump and thump you. And then you should hope to either catch three of a kind or better or see a flop that’s likely to have disappointed your opponents. Otherwise, run like jackrabbit across the road before a truck squashes you. You’ve got no business pursuing that pot.

The right way or no way

If you can’t play small pairs right, don’t play them at all. The truth is, if you always fold these hands from early positions, you won’t be sacrificing much. Only if you play like the experts can you make money with small pairs early. And that means simply calling, not raising, in early seats unless you’re in psychological command of your table and able to push weak opponents around. Or it means often folding if aggressive players wait to act after you.

And it means usually checking and folding on the flop whenever you don’t either catch a matching rank or see a flop that looks pitiful to other players. Stick to that basic policy and you won’t do what most average players do – lose money with small pairs in early seats.

After all, if a hand is destined to lose money overall, you might as well just fold every time and save that money. — DB

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