Thursday, September 9, 2010

Early Position with Small & Medium Pocket Pairs

In the last episode of this series we discussed how to maximize our EV on small and middle pocket pairs in loose passive games. Now, let’s take a look at how these hands play in other types of games.

TIGHT-PASSIVE (Weak-Tight) Games

These games feature players who understand that they need to play tight in order to profit but who don’t have much bite to their game. The players in these games often do a lot of “setmining” and are thus very easy to read. They will very often limp into a pot, call a “standard” raise, and then check-fold the flop if they don’t spike their set. Obviously, since these players are so predictable it is easy to take advantage of them. Remember, we make money in poker when players make mistakes. Look for the mistakes your opponents make and then do whatever you can to make sure they make those mistakes more often and that they are more costly. The biggest mistake that weak-tight players make is that they fold too often - even when they are in position. They will very rarely put you in a difficult spot or punish you for getting out of line when you are out of position. In my experience, you can often find these types of games a couple levels up from the smallest stakes offered at a given location. (For example, you currently might start finding these players in the $.25/.50 and $.50/1 online games.)
Since these tight players consistently put money in the pot, only to abandon the pot unless they have a very good hand, these hands play well when you raise them in early position. This will give you the initiative and will allow you to get the pot heads-up or 3-way. This is a good spot to be in, as these opponents will often fold to your c-bet. Plan to make your money by raising a small enough preflop that you will still get called and then bet a lot of flops (sometimes you will be putting in action on the turn/river as well). These players will sometimes fold a better hand to your flop bet, giving you the pot. Conversely, you won’t make a lot of your money from when you actually do hit a set, because they will rarely have a worse hand that will put a lot of money in. These types of players only put in money with big hands, so they aren’t offering good implied odds. Essentially, against these players your fold equity goes way up and your implied odds go way down. You maximize against these types of players by grabbing up all their blinds and orphaned pots when they miss the flop.


These games are of various varieties. I am grouping loose and tight games together, because the aggressiveness is what determines your play more than other things. These games feature players who play aggressively both before and after the flop. They open up properly in position and punish players for playing out of position too often. They call flop bets with a wide range with the intention of bluffing the turn. They also may 3-bet with a wider range of hands. Abridged version: They are tough.

One of the problems with raising these hands in early position is that 3-betting really takes away from the value of your hand. With 100 big blind stacks, you will very often have to fold to a 3-bet. In aggressive games you are going to get 3-bet more, which in turn makes raising less favorable. Another argument against raising is that good players will not go away so easily on the flop. If your raise gets called, then your c-bet will still get called a relatively higher percentage of the time than in a weaktight game. This leaves you out of position and not committed to getting all in. Unfortunately, a turn bet by your opponent forces you to make a decision for your stack. This is not a fun place to be. The problem with merely being out of position is going to be so huge against a tough player that you will really have trouble making a mark. Say that you raise preflop with 2-2 and the flop comes down Q-6-5 with a flush draw. You bet out and get a call. Now what are you going to do? Your tough opponent can be calling the flop with a queen, ace-high, a flush or straight draw, a monster. It is tough to know whether or not you are good, so now here you are, out of position with a big pot brewing and up against an opponent who is going to make you make mistakes as more money goes in and is going to not make very big mistakes when you happen to hit a hand (which is happening a very small percentage of the time). This will be a fairly common scenario when you raise with one of these hands in early position in these games.

Unfortunately, limping doesn’t offer many better options when the players are good. These types of players will often raise you in late position to exploit their positional advantage. They will be raising enough hands that it will cut down on your implied odds. The more hands they raise, the less often they have anything good. If they often have a marginal hand, then you won’t be able to stack them very often. It is true that you will be able to pick up a c-bet a higher percentage of the time, but this pales in comparison to winning 100 big blinds a larger percentage of the time (as you would against lesser players).

These games are very situational and you will have to rely on your judgment to figure out what will be the best play. If you are in a loose and aggressive game where many pots are multiway and you expect to often be 3-bet, but also expect to see a raised multiway pot often, it may be best to limp these hands in. If the pot is raised and multiway, you will still be able to get good value out of playing to hit a set, because the players are loose, the pot will be bigger (meaning players will get their stacks in quicker) and because pocket pairs do well in multiway pots. If you are in a loose and aggressive game where many pots are 3-bet and heads up, it may be best to raise these hands with the intention of occasionally 4-betting them. You are taking advantage of your opponent’s mistake of 3-betting you too lightly. Of course, with the lesser of these hands, you are pretty much 4-betting as a bluff, and with hands like JJ and TT, you 4-bet because your equity is good against their 3-betting range.

In very tough and reasonably tight games, it works out that your smallest pairs (and this really goes for all of your hands) are probably not as profitable in early position. Hands like 66-22 are just not as strong in a game that doesn’t offer implied odds and features opponents who will take advantage of position. Your best play may be to either: A) Fold the weakest of these hands (say 66-22) a majority of the time, or B) Limp these hands more often, but also limp other big hands like AA and KK, so as to make it a mistake for them to automatically try to steal your limps.

If you are going to be folding these hands a majority of the time, then I would still suggest occasionally raising with them as a way to balance your play so that your early position raises are not just the nuts. Limping these hands is actually playing these hands for what they are worth. However, you need to take your entire strategy into consideration. You have to add some deception so that your limps don’t mean pure weakness. You will have to limp some strong hands. Both of these are ways to try to limit the amount of money you put in preflop with your weaker hands. In general, you don’t want to have as big of preflop pots when you are out of position with 2-2 as you do with AA. This minimizes your positional disadvantage while still giving your game some deception. If your opponents are going to be playing sticky postflop, then they are cutting down on your fold equity, but at the same time, they won’t offer huge implied odds because they aren’t going to be as willing to stack off light (although they will stack off, or at least put more in a pot a bit more often than in a weaktight game, because they will sometimes make some all in semi-bluffs and things of this nature). In effect, you will be making money with these hands with a somewhat equal combination of winning before showdown and winning at showdown.

When you take either of these options, you will tend to have a strong range in early position when you raise. That being the case, your opponents will not really be able to take advantage of you as often by playing their position on you (especially if you mix up your play by throwing in some raises with hands like suited-connectors on occasion). This will make it more difficult for them to steal against you, because you will often have a strong hand that you aren’t going to fold. Still, you won’t be offering huge implied odds, because you will not just stack off on a whim and your range is wide enough that your opponent won’t know precisely which hand you have. This balancing strategy puts up a good defense against tough opponents when you are most vulnerable. The real key is to balance things out so that you make good raises, folds or limps at the right time or in such a way that your opponent can’t completely and accurately determine the exact nature of your hand and put you in difficult decisions. You want to make things more difficult for your opponent to respond.

In reality, you shouldn’t be in too many games this tough, so your best bet is going to be estimating which opponents are most likely to give you action and what mistakes both you and your opponents are likely to make given your hand. Is there a player who is 3-betting like crazy and everyone is just getting out of his way? In that case, let’s raise and go for a 4-bet with JJ. Are there two or three opponents who tend to just play a hair too loose but don’t 3-bet that often, who love to raise limpers and so you are likely to end up heads up and out of position without the initiative? Then let’s raise it and take the initiative ourselves, and maybe we will end up with a three- or four-handed pot. That’s not a bad result. If all else fails, sometimes fold those hands and/or use a randomizing strategy so that your opponents can’t narrow your range so much. But remember, just because you limp doesn’t mean you can’t 3-bet. To be perfectly honest, your best option may be looking for a different table!


It is true that often times the games will not fall into one of these nice three categories, but that’s what makes poker fun! You have to assess your opponents and figure out where the money will be flowing from and then go from there. Also, the stack sizes can completely change how to play these situations. Be aware of all the variables. The correct play of these hands in early position is extremely situational.


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