McHaffie: MCU lesson 045 / Small pairs

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Poker Player newspaper in 2005.

This is part of a series by Diane McHaffie. She wasn’t a poker player when she began writing this series. These entries chronicle the lessons given to her personally by Mike Caro. Included in her remarkable  poker-learning odyssey are additional comments, tips, and observations from Mike Caro.

Diane McHaffie index.

Diane McHaffie is Director of Operations at Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy. She has traveled the world coordinating events and seminars in the interest of honest poker. You can write her online at

Diane McHaffie

Lessons from MCU

— With bonus content by Mike Caro (pending) —

Lesson 45: Attacking the blinds with small pairs

Many hold ‘em decisions appear obvious, but others I find mystifying, even after two years of Mike’s teaching. One of the most confusing is what to do when I’m holding a small pair in late position after everyone’s folded.

For instance, if we’re on the button holding 3-3, and only the two blinds remain, what do we do now? I consulted Mike and here’s what I understand:


  1. Don’t rule out the possibility that you might want to fold! That advice surprised me, because I assumed that a small pair was likely better than what either of the opponents in the blinds held. So, I supposed – incorrectly – that you automatically called or raised.Mike said no. Usually the hand is only worth a little money if played perfectly. And against superior opponents, you should possibly surrender it, rather than risk being outplayed. If you’re already a word-class player, you probably can successfully challenge tough opponents. I can’t, because I’m still learning from “the Mad Genius of Poker” and passing those lessons along to you.So, I’ll heed the advice to sometimes fold. That’s especially important in a no-limit game, where the blinds are often going to shoot back at you. You’ll probably have to fold then, and lose money you could’ve saved had you folded in the first place.
  1. If you raise, any player who calls your 3-3 is likely to have two overcards. That means he’s likely to pair and beat you. You very often need to make three of a kind, even against a single opponent who starts without a pair.
  2. Against two opponents, forget it! It’s very rare that a small pair will hold up, since you have four overcards against you.
  3. The best you can usually hope for against two or more opponents is that they hold each other’s ranks. That makes it less likely they’ll pair those ranks and it means there are fewer different ranks you need to fear on the flop and beyond. Of course, you won’t know whether or not your opponents hold the same ranks, so you won’t be able to push your small pair harder when they do.
  4. The real disaster with small pairs is that an opponent could be holding a larger pair to begin with. Then, you need to make three of a kind or a miracle straight or flush to escape.
  5. Even if your pair holds up and none of your opponents makes a pair, you’re still likely to face a bet and to fold. It’s too expensive to call bets with small pairs unless you have a rare insight into how an opponent plays. Mike says you must expect to be bet out of the pot often when you have a small pair, so your original investment is often lost.
  6. The problem with just calling with a small pair on the button – after every one else has folded — is that you invite the small blind to come in cheaply, and you’re often facing two opponents. Hands like 3-3 will usually make more money against just one opponent.
  7. I learned that the best play with 3-3 and other small pairs when you’re first to enter the pot from the button is to raise players who don’t adequately defend their blinds. These are usually timid opponents who you can leverage your positional seating advantage against, even if they do call.And, if they don’t call, you win the blinds immediately. Mike explains that the combination of these two factors makes this raise right against timid opponents.

Target Timid Opponents

To sum up, it’s all right to fold a small pair on the button. Just because everyone’s folded, don’t feel you need to attack the blinds. Should you decide to play a small pair in that situation, make it a raise (if it’s no limit, a small raise) and target timid opponents who often surrender their blind bets.

In the future, that’s how I’ll approach that small-pair-on-the-button situation in hold ’em. I’ll be folding often and raising only as Mike advised. Maybe that’s the way you should do it, too. — DM

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