The ugly truth about small pairs in hold ’em

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (1993) in Card Player magazine.

Many experienced hold ’em players believe it’s usually profitable to call in an early position with a small pair. I say it ain’t so. Consider this:

1. It’s almost never correct to call first with a pair of deuces, threes, fours, or fives from a middle position. That’s because in order to have an expectation of profit, you must face a long line of potential callers. In a middle position, after several players have already passed, that line simply isn’t long enough.

2. Unless you’re in a blind position, that small pair is seldom profitable to call with if someone raises before the action reaches you.

3. If you enter the pot, you’re hoping to see a lot of players call (but not raise), then you’re hoping to flop trips, and then you’re hoping your hand wins. In fact, you’re hoping for too much.

4. Too many players act as if a pair of deuces comes with a guarantee that if you flop three of a kind, you’ll win the pot. Don’t you act that way! Not only might you flop trips and later get them drawn out on, but also, rarely, you might flop trips at the same time someone else flops bigger trips or a flush or a straight. Or, if they don’t flop it, they might still make it and beat you.

5. Some players see only a small difference between a pair of deuces and a pair of sixes. But you don’t need to suffer a set-over-set flop to see the difference. A horrible thing that often happens is that you end up against just one opponent and so you don’t fold. In that case, you can lose an extra bet or two when neither hand helps and you showdown the smaller pair, or when the board contains one large pair, or—significantly—when the board contains a big pair and a small pair, such as kings and threes.

In that last situation, your opponent will proudly show his kings and sixes, and you’ll have to play the board.

To make it even worse, occasionally three-of-a-kind larger than your pair will land on the board. In that case, anyone with a pair other than deuces will beat you. For instance, if you hold 3-3 and the board is K‑3‑5‑5‑5, you flopped trips, but ended up playing only one three. A single king would annihilate your hand!

The voice of an idiot: In general a small pair isn’t as good as you probably think it is, even in a loose game, even with nine opponents still to act, even if those opponents seldom raise, even if you can outplay them beyond the flop, and even if a little voice inside your head is screaming for you to barge into the pot.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it once more. My research shows that, in many cases, from an early position, pairs smaller than sixes do not show a profit in a typical game against average opponents. Deuces and threes definitely don’t. Am I talking limit or no-limit hold ’em? I’m talking both. So, stop playing tiny pairs.

What happens if you don’t take my advice on this? Not much. If you’re a winning player, you’ll earn a little less in the long run, but it won’t change your lifestyle. But why squander that extra profit you could have used to buy sardines? You see what I mean? — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


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  1. Fold small pairs to any raise and also in early position. Almost always have to hit one of your cards on flop to win.

    Mike? I would like to have your thoughts on Bitcoin poker. I’m starting to play some of that and so far I like it. Bitcoins allows a player to be anonymous and they are easier and faster to cash out or deposit.

    I haven’t been here in a while, don’t know if you remember me.
    good luck, twoto2too

    1. Hi, Stanley — Of course I remember you — from my DoylesRoom days. I’m familiar with BitCoin, but not expert enough to render an opinion about how safe it is to use for poker games. I have mild to medium doubts because of the recent disaster with one of its key transaction entities. (You can read about that anywhere.) Nobody really controls the system and its founders are obscure or unknown. (Satoshi Nakamoto is a key advocate, but his role is unproven.) So, there’s no one to complain to, if you’re dissatisfied. However, it might be a good, reduced-risk way to play. There are competing payment systems that have recently entered the game, also. — Mike Caro

      1. Thanks for your reply Mike. Yes I miss the good old days at Doyles Room playing with you guys. The Mt Cox did give bitcoins a bad rep but I think it will not only be the future of US poker but the future. Either Bitcoin or something like it.The site I play on the most have already partnered with cash sites and growing each day. (WPN) You can use cash or bitcoins to register to a tournament. If you win you can cash out in bitcoins or cash.

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