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SNG ABCs: Small Pocket Pairs
Small pocket pairs - which I would define as 22-77 - can be tricky to play at the best of times.
In a sit-and-go, with rapidly increasing blinds, they can be downright maddening.
It may feel like they should be all-powerful, but depending on the blinds they can range from being a robust holding to extremely worthless.
In other words, you have to learn how to play them right or risk floundering as an SNG fish forever.
When the Blinds Are Low, See Cheap Flops
In the early stages of a sit-and-go, small pocket pairs are very valuable. The blinds are low and your stack is big.
Most sit-and-gos start with around $1,500 in chips and the blinds start out at $10/$20 or $10/$25. Either way you have between 60-75 BBs.
At this stage of the game you can limp with your small pocket pair and hope to hit a set.
Sets are an extremely strong hand. If you're lucky enough to hit one versus your opponent's top pair, you have a good chance of doubling up.
If you can double up early in a sit-and-go, it will make the rest of your tournament substantially easier.
Thus, it's advisable to try and see cheap flops when the blinds are small.
The key word being "cheap:" it's OK to call a 3x-4x raise if there are a few players in the pot, but getting into the habit of limping small PPs early and calling large raises when out of position is a good way to waste buy-ins.
The rare times you do flop a set are not going to counteract the amount of money you bleed when you limp-call before the flop only to check-fold on the flop.
As Play Progresses, Limping is Out
The middle stages of a sit-and-go bring bigger blinds and a changing table flow.
Generally, sit-and-gos start out loose and tighten up after the $25/$50 level.
This should change the way you play your pocket pairs. No longer can you limp from any position hoping to get lucky and flop a set.
Now you're risking too big of a percentage of your stack.
At $25/$50 you may still limp from late position after a few limpers, but you're better off playing a raise-or-fold strategy.
The $25/$50 level is in fact an awkward blind size. If you raise to $150 and get called, the pot will be at least $300 after the flop.
Now if you continuation bet into that and get called, you've put in about 20% of your stack.
If your opponent is still calling, your hand's likely not good. You have to fold, sacrificing your money invested.
That's why raising from early and mid position is not a good idea. In that context, at $25/$50, low pocket pairs are practically worthless.
You cannot limp-call a raise profitably and, for the reasons above, you can't raise profitably.
You should just muck these hands.
As the blinds increase - say from $50/$100 onward - you should begin opening up your game even further.
At this stage, limping should be completely eliminated from your arsenal. You should be looking to gradually increase your stack by stealing blinds.
You're playing a raise-or-fold strategy, and pocket pairs are an excellent steal hand. You can raise 3x the big blind, and often you'll win the hand without showdown.
However, the beauty of pocket pairs is that you can still win the hand at showdown.
If you're under the gun you don't need to change your strategy much.
You should still be mucking 22-55, although if you notice the table is playing very tight, you can start bringing in 66+ for a raise.
Remember, your goal is to win the pot without contest.
Playing a pot out of position with an underpair can be tricky, so play smart.
Re-Stealing and You
Re-stealing in the right situations is one of most important skills a sit-and-go player can have.
Good sit-and-go players are stealing frequently.
They are doing so with weak hands, which means if you play back at them they fold and you can win both their raise and the blinds.
Pocket pairs make great re-steal hands. If you find your blinds are getting raised by a serial blind stealer, you can play back at them with your small pocket pairs.
To do this, you must have fold equity.
You're not looking for a call. Your goal is to take the pot down without a fight.
Let's take a look at two examples. One is a proper re-steal with a small pocket pair, and another is a bad re-steal.
Example No. 1
Blinds are $50/$100. Your stack is $2,400. Small blind's stack is $2,400.
Play is folded to the small blind, who makes it $300. You know your opponent would open very wide in this spot.
You are in the big blind with 4♣ 4♥. You elect to move in for $2,400 total and he folds.
Example No. 2
Your stack is $900; small blind's stack is $5,000. Play is folded to the small blind, who makes it $400.
You are in the big blind with 4♣ 4♥ and elect to move in for $900.
He calls, getting 2-1, and his 6♣ 7♥ wins the race.
See the difference between the examples? In Example No. 1, in order to call your opponent would have to put $2,100 more into a $2,700 pot.
Getting just over 1-1, he would have to have a monster to call.
In Example No. 2 you shove for $900 and your opponent only has to call $500 more in a $1,300 pot.
In this example he's getting almost 3-1.
Your opponent is never ever going to fold getting nearly 3-1 with a decent chip stack.
Now you're relying only on hand strength rather than relying on fold equity with hand strength as a backup.
When the Blinds Are High
Once it gets to the late stages of a sit-and-go, there is very little play.
Most players sit on a 10BB stack. If you have less than 10BBs your strategy is very easy: you shove, or you fold.
Any pocket pair is good for a shove with less than 10BBs.
If you're called you're likely 50% to win. But again you're looking for folds, not calls.
A Word of Warning
Just because you should be willing to shove any pocket pair does not mean that you should also be calling all-ins just because you have a pair.
Aggression is the key - it gives you two ways to win.
If you are calling with small pocket pairs, that signifies a leak in your game. You're basically calling and hoping to win a coin flip.
You do not want to flip for your tournament life, even if you have 10BBs. You're better off folding and waiting for a pot where you are first in.
Pocket pairs look nice but they are only ever a big favorite if your opponent holds an underpair, which is unlikely.
Although they are great to push with, they're not great to call with.
Your Best and Worst Enemy
Small pocket pairs, due to their sliding scale of usefulness, can be your best friend and your worst enemy.
Playing them can sometimes be a frustrating experience.
But if you look to play them in position and you don't fall in love with them, they can actually be very profitable hands for you.
Start looking for situations early when you can limp and hit a big hand and start looking for good steal opportunities later when the blinds are bigger.
In the middle you can mix raises and limps from late position.
If you do this, you'll minimize the time you spend in trouble with pocket pairs and maximize the times you put your opponents to tough decisions.
More beginner strategy articles from Dan Skolovy: