Playing small pocket pairs is not easy from anywhere at the table, but it can be a particular challenge when you are in early position. There are a number of different ways to play small pocket pairs in early position, and the right way will vary from game to game and limit to limit. The best way to determine what works best is simply through practice, otherwise known as trial and error. The odds are that you are not going to land on the most profitable formula in your first few rounds, but over a significant sample size, you might just find a strategy that really works.
The real value in a small pocket pair is in its potential to hit a set, full house, or even quads. If you enter the hand with a small pocket pair and work your way to showdown, the chances are that your unimproved hand will not be the winner. Having said that, giving up on a busted small pocket pair is not all that difficult to do. Part of the value in small pocket pairs is that you know you are either going to play them hard or not play them at all. There really aren’t going to be too many situations where you will have a pocket pair and not have a clear decision as to how to move forward. Yes, you could flop some sort of straight or flush draw, but this is hardly the path to riches. Play your small pocket pairs with the best case scenario in mind, but with a blank board as the most realistic outcome.
A popular strategy, especially in micro stakes games, with small pocket pairs is to simply limp in. the logic behind this play is that it will not cost a lot of money if the hand misses, and it will keep the pot small enough that a raise can be called. The flaw with this thinking, however, is that an open raise will have handful of side benefits. Open raising with any hand in early position will allow you to assert the position of dominance in the hand. Early position raises almost always mean strength, so you will have the ability to push around opponents even in the situations where you end up missing the board. The fact that you made a raise pre-flop will often be enough to convince your opponents that you actually have a strong hand. How are they supposed to tell the difference between when you have pocket fives and pocket kings? Now, if you decide to limp into the pot, you will hardly be able to convince your opponents that you actually have a strong hand. Not only does it not make sense for you to have a strong hand if you limp in, but the pot will be small enough that players will pay to see whether you are telling the truth.
In addition to all of the above negative side effects to limping in, you will also be playing your hand face up. Again, according to your particular game and limits, an open limp followed by a flat call pre-flop is a dead giveaway for a small pocket pair or even suited connectors. This will make it exceptionally difficult to extract value when you flop a set, assuming that your opponents are capable of analyzing your play to this degree. If you are playing in an easy micro stakes game, players won’t be prone to folding their big pocket pairs no matter what, so you may still be able to limp in and hope for a great flop. You have to analyze whether or not your hands will be able to identify your hand for what it is. If the other players wouldn’t fold jacks if you showed them your pocket aces, you are sitting in one of the few games where limping in with small pocket pairs can be profitable.
Many of the benefits of raising vs. limping in early position are the exact reasons why limping is bad. For example, a limp exudes weakness and makes it difficult to take away pots post-flop, whereas a raise allows for aggressive plays that push people off their hands. Raising is not something that you do in conjunction with the immediate value of your hand. Yes, a raise should have some connection to the hand that you are playing, but pocket queens and pocket fours alike are both hands that are worth raising with in early position. It is how you play your hand post-flop that will really determine whether you are able to make money.
A noteworthy clause to raising with small pocket pairs in early position is that you will need to consider the situations where your raise will be re-raised. In these spots, you have to be willing and able to let go of your hand. Most of the time, a 3 bet is going to be enough to warrant a fold with a small pocket pair out of position. The exception to this rule would be when a 3 bet is made, it is reasonably sized, a few people called, and there is no pending 4 bet. In other words, if you make an open raise to $4 in a .50/1 NLHE game with 33 and the player to your immediate left re-raises to $12, you could safely call this bet, regardless of whether or not anyone else called. Ideally you will be playing against a stack that makes set mining worthwhile. Now, if in this same situation, the player to your left raised to $20, you should only make the call if a number of other players call the bet and there are proper implied odds. One of the few benefits to limping in with small pocket pairs is that you will only need to contemplate calling an open raise, with 3 bets being an afterthought. Aggression carries added variance along with it, but raising is definitely the most lucrative way to play a small pocket pair in early position.
Post-flop can definitely be even more tricky than pre-flop when you have a small pocket pair. If you brick the flop completely, it won’t be much of a challenge to give up your hand, regardless of what happened pre-flop. You can easily cut your losses and move onto the next hand. If you happen to hit the lop hard, however, you will need to critically analyze what the best game plan is from here on out. You should gauge the strength of your opponents, the likelihood that you will be outdrawn, and how much money the other players have. If you feel your opponents are very strong, you can either lead out or plan to check raise, both of these options can work quite well. If they are weak, leading out is still the best bet. A weak player is unlikely to bet at all, and if they do, they will fold to your check raise. Plus, there is a shot that you will allow them to draw out on your. To sum it up, check raises are OK, but only against opponents with strong hands.
The turn and river are impossible to strategically plan for, as they almost always depend on what happened pre-flop and on the flop. The last two streets are where you will really need to extract value, and this should be your main contention. Slow play still has its place, but overdoing it can lead to a lot of trouble. Maximum value is the ultimate goal of any big hand. You can make money pre-flop and on the flop, but the big pots are often built on the turn and river.