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Playing Small Pairs in NL Full Ring

There is a tremendous sub-culture of players who see small pocket pairs and get carried away with their profit potential. Personally I play pocket pairs very sparingly in full-ring NLHE games. The modern online poker environment is getting tougher by the month and players are getting better and average pot sizes are shrinking although there is good reason to believe that they may have bottomed out.

As soon as average ranges tighten then optimal strategy will be to expand your own range but that is not the point of the article. So the implied odds for certain hands are falling and have fallen. I think that you need to treat players with a lot more respect now. The players at the bottom levels are bad but they are bad in different ways than before.

Also the arrival of minimum stacking is another nail in the coffin for players who set mine too much. There simply isn’t the right amount of implied odds in many situations to limp in early position with pocket pairs or to call raises with them having no other plan but to hit or fold. I will still play small pocket pairs, but I am far more selective in how I play them.

For instance, I will steal raise with them from position if it has been folded to me, but then again that, strictly speaking, isn’t a steal as a small pocket pair is likely to be the best hand. So I am trying to create a situation where I either win the pot pre-flop or get it heads up with position. Open limping in middle or late position rarely gets the proper implied odds anyway.

If it has been raised by an UTG player and called in several spots by decent sized stacks, then I will call raises like that. There are more players to give me action if I flop a set and the implied odds are better. Obviously another situation where limping is good with small pocket pairs is when you are completing in the small blind. This is one of the few situations where you are getting good pot odds as well as implied odds.

I was playing in $6 games on 888poker as part of my $100-$10,000 challenge and was actually surprised at how much the players at those levels knew about the game. Don’t get me wrong, the play on the whole was very bad, but it wasn’t bad in the same way that it would have been a few years ago. More players were folding, more players were raising from position and more players were picking spots trying to pick up easy chips.

These are plays that players at the $6 levels would not have been doing several years ago. This all became news to me in my first ever session today when I had to learn and adjust quickly. I limped several times with small pocket pairs expecting multi-way pots and hoping that someone would pay me off but there was either a raiser in late position or there were no more limpers.

I expected this at NL50 or even NL25 but not as low as NL6. What this shows is that the implied odds for certain hands simply aren’t there! The key to these games is to stick to value only with high cards and treat it almost like a limit game in principle. Even in higher ring games then the implied odds with speculative hands isn’t there. If you are looking to fit or fold with pocket pairs or suited connectors or even suited aces then in my opinion you are leaking money.

I cannot see the situation getting any better either. Of course there will always be times when you stack an AK with 66 on flops like A-10-6 but at the lower levels, many of the players are not holding full-stacks anyway. They may have received poker education but most are not CardRunners disciples and are not topping up their stacks immediately when they should.

At the bottom tiers, there are very large quantities of risk adverse players who are merely playing poker for recreation, but who do not want to risk serious money either now or at any time in the future. I think the key to making money in today’s low-stakes games is to treat the players with a little more respect than you would have done a few years ago. This means bluffing less and value betting more.

Carl "The Dean" Sampson can be seen at his blog http://www.pokersharkpool.com and 888poker.

Carl Sampson

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