If you've played six-max cash games with any frequency in the past few years you'll have noticed that aggression levels have reached epic proportions.
So where in that sea of raises and reraises do small pocket pairs belong?
Pocket pairs are very strong drawing hands. When they hit, they make big pot hands. Sets are big-money hands so when you flop one, you should be willing to get it in with impunity.
Sets are such large money-winners that at lower stakes there are players known as "set miners" who do nothing but play super tight and "mine" sets, doing their best to get all-in when they hit.
This tight, super-basic strategy is even effective enough to beat the smallest stakes ... which should give you an idea of how powerful sets are.
Set Mining Isn't Enough in 6-Max
In today's low- to mid-stakes games you're going to have to do a lot more than set mining to win. These games are very aggressive. You should be too: aggressive play picks up pots.
Pocket pairs are such big hands and these games are so aggressive that when it's folded to you, you can and should bring in any pocket pair for a raise. Limping in a six-max game is a no-no.
Six-max is about aggression and if you can't raise the hand pre-flop, you most definitely shouldn't be limping it.
6-Max Games Reward Aggression
In six-max games there are fewer opponents who act behind you than there are in a full-ring game. This is why you can raise more hands - there are fewer people to wake up with a hand behind you.
Six-max games reward aggression, so if you are first in with a pocket pair, raise it up.
"Dan, your logic doesn't make sense. You tell me to raise my pocket pairs, but they only flop a set 11.8% of the time. What do I do the other 88.2% of the time?"
Well, I say to you, my young padawan, you play poker.
Fire a continuation bet. You still do have a pair; since most hands miss most flops, you will still likely have the best hand.
It is up to you to find out where you stand in the hand by putting your opponent on a range. If you think you have the best hand and your opponent will call with worse, bet. If you think your opponent will fold, bet.
What Hands Should I Raise with in 6-Max?
The thing about playing the TAG/LAG style is that you will be raising with a wide range of hands before the flop. You will also be continuation betting on the flop with a slightly narrower range, but still frequently.
When you're betting the flop with both made hands and bluffs, you become a very difficult player to read. When you are a difficult player to read, your opponents will be more willing to pay you off when you make your hand.
Yes; they will also play back at you when you don't have a hand, but you can then safely fold and it should only lose you a couple of small bets. When you hit and they play back at you, you stand to win several big bets - or their whole stack.
This is why pocket pairs are so strong. When they flop, they flop hands strong enough to go to war with stacks over. This is why raising first in with a pocket pair is your best possible play with it.
You will often win the pot initially with your raise; other times, you'll take the pot down with a continuation bet on the flop; still other times, you'll win when you flop a set.
When you raise with your pocket pair before the flop it gives you the most ways to win.
How to Play Pocket Pairs to a Raise
When there is a raise in front of you, you have to play pocket pairs a little bit more gingerly. Many six-max players three-bet these pocket pairs religiously. I believe this is flawed thinking.
As I discussed in the "don't overuse the light three-bet" article, three-betting a hand like a pocket pair is counterintuitive.
Pocket pairs are too strong to fold. You'd obviously like to continue with the hand, so calling is the best play. Three-betting will often cause your opponent to fold before the flop, giving you no chance to actually win his stack.
You may win more small pots, but seldom will you stack him. Also, you risk being reraised and forced to fold your three-bet and the equity you have invested in the pot.
Your best bet when playing small pocket pairs against raises is to flat-call and play poker on the flop. Three-betting them is just fancy-play syndrome and does nothing to increase your overall expectation.
What Happens If I Raise and Get Reraised?
This is a tricky spot. If you raise before the flop and find yourself reraised, you should fold most of the time - unless your opponent is a compulsive three-bettor or your stacks are very deep.
Even if your opponent is a compulsive three-bettor, you should seldom just call. Be aware of your position and your image.
Unless the stacks are deep you are not getting the implied odds to call for set value; if you are out of position it further complicates things.
You will be out of position against a three-bettor on a flop that is often going to miss you. You are almost always going to be forced into check-folding. Instead, your best bet is just to fold and wait for a better spot.
If you're in position against a three-bettor you should still likely fold. If your opponent is a serial three-bettor, you may call with the intention of bluffing later or four-bet him as a bluff.
This should be done very seldom, and only versus a player you know you have fold equity against. The bulk of the value of small pocket pairs comes when you flop a set.
It isn't going to happen all the time, so if you're going to be playing them fast before the flop, you had better have some fold equity as well.
Small Pocket Pairs are a Drawing Hand
Small pocket pairs are a drawing hand. Always remember that. You cannot call large three-bets pre-flop if you want to have a positive expectation.
Most of the value in small pocket pairs comes from when they flop a set, which will only happen 11.8% of the time, as mentioned. The rest of the time you will be left with an all-overcard board, which is why it is better to be the aggressor.
When you are the aggressor, you have significantly more ways to win - you can win pre-flop, on the flop or at showdown with the best hand. Pocket pairs are big hands when they flop sets, but are also very troublesome for newer players.
Play them strong like you would any other good drawing hand and you'll do fine.