Small and Medium Pocket Pairs in No-Limit Hold’em

“In No-Limit Hold’em, small and medium pocket pairs can be bankroll killers for some players. But if you play these hands correctly, they’re going to be big winners for you in the long run.”

Greg Mueller professional poker player





In ring games, I like to build a really small pot when I have these hands in early and middle position. Sometimes I’ll make a min raise; other times I’ll just limp in. I want to keep the pot small when I have a small or medium pair because I lay them down if I’m faced with a large re-raise.

If I min-raise or limp in and an opponent makes a small raise, I can call, but if I open with a big raise and my opponent comes over the top, I’m not usually getting the right odds to call. By keeping the pot small, I have a better chance of seeing a flop and I may pull other players into the hand. Then if I do flop a set, someone’s going to pay me off. To me, the biggest moneymakers in No-Limit ring games are small sets, like 2s and 3s, because they’re so disguised.

A lot of players get overly aggressive with the middle pairs: 8s, 9s, and 10s. They raise before the flop with them, but if the blinds fold, they’re only going to win a small pot. I’d much rather try to win a big pot by flopping a set. If the flop comes J-8-2 and I have pocket 8s while my opponent has a hand like K-J, I’m going to win a big pot a lot of the time.

If I’m in late position and have a small or medium pair, I’ll raise in hope of taking the blinds if nobody else has entered the pot. If one of the blinds calls, I’ll try to win the pot with a bet on the flop, but if both blinds call my raise, I’ll be more cautious. Against multiple opponents I’m trying to flop a set. If I don’t and there are several overcards on the board, I’ll check if it gets checked to me and I’ll probably fold if one of my opponents bets. If I’m in late position and someone in early position raises pre-flop, I’ll generally just call and hope to flop a set.

In tournaments you have to treat small and medium pairs much differently that you do in ring games. You have to play them more conservatively because you can’t usually rebuy. In fact, I will often fold 2s, 3s, 4s and 5s under the gun in tournaments. In ring games, I always play these hands because of my implied odds. Even if I lose 15 of these hands in a row, I can always rebuy. In a tournament, if I lose five times in a row, it’s going to really hurt my stack.

How I play small pairs in tournaments often depends on the size of my chip stack. If I have a big stack and get dealt a pair of 3s or 4s, I might raise, hoping to win the blinds and antes. However, if I’m on a short stack and in late position, I might just move all-in.

In tournaments I try to stay away from middle pairs because they can cause big problems and tough decisions. Let’s say I call a pre-flop raise with pocket 9s and the flop comes 10-4-2. In a ring game, I would check and call or possibly check-raise trying to find out if my 9s were good. In a tournament, however, that’s scarier because you really have to be careful about the amount of chips you use to get this information.

My decision is easy when there’s an Ace or King on the flop, but when the flop is 10-4-2 and I’ve got pocket 9s, it becomes very difficult. You can’t fold every time, but you don’t want to get too crazy in these situations either. Middle pairs are so difficult to play that I notice that I often find my best tournament results come when I simply stay away from them.

The beauty of small and medium pairs is that they very rarely get you into trouble. However, when they do, it really hurts. When the $2,500 No-Limit Hold’em event at this year’s World Series of Poker* got down to the last three tables, I opted to defend my blind with pocket 3s. The flop came J-8-3. My opponent and I got all our money into the pot, but as it turned out, he had pocket 8s. When you do flop set over set and you have the bottom end of it, you really get punished. But when that’s not the case – and it usually isn’t – you’re going to be in great shape.

Greg Mueller

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Josh Arieh on Going Pro

Josh Arieh has won more than $4 million in his poker career.



Tips from professional poker playersHow did you know when it was time to go pro?

For me, turning pro wasn’t a decision I made, it was something that just kind of happened. I have always played poker, well at least since I was 18, and it has been a great source of income since then. In the beginning of 1999 I quit my last job to start my own business (a private courier firm). I ended up getting screwed out of the business by the guy I was going to partner with, so my only source of income was poker at the time.

I began to play more and more, and was considered one of the best rounders around Atlanta at the time. I decided to hit the road and play some tournaments and had great success, winning my first WSOP bracelet in May of 1999.

I kind of got a bit off the topic, but my best advice is just take it as it comes. When you are confident enough that a “real job” would end up costing you money because of the hours that it takes away from your poker, that’s when it’s time to start rounding. Best of luck to you when you finally decide to turn pro. Take it slow and don’t allow yourself to tilt. There is always a poker game somewhere, so there’s no need to be playing if you’re not at the top of your game.

Pro poker tips and adviceWhat’s your best advice on getting over a slump? Stop playing?

Man, I know how you feel. It’s definitely the worst feeling in the world thinking that your opponent is going to beat you no matter what happens. You have to ask yourself one question: Are your opponents getting better, or are they just getting lucky? If they are getting better, it’s up to you to improve as well. If they are getting lucky, just stick to what you are doing and the old adage “the cream will rise to the top” will soon take place.

Buildina a poker bankrollAny advice on moving up in limits? I want to build my bankroll and 1-2 no-limit or 6-12 limit just aren’t cutting it.

Don’t be afraid to take a chance at a bigger game once in a while. Wait until you are feeling real good about your game and until you see a game that looks ripe for the picking. If you take a hit, go back to the game that you beat on a regular basis. If you win, don’t be afraid to take another shot at the game. That’s how everyone moves up in limits. Unfortunately everyone isn’t blessed with a huge bankroll to start playing big limits right away. If you’re good enough (and lucky enough), you will put together a few good sessions in a row and you will have an adequate bankroll to play 5-10 NL on a regular basis.

I’m not saying jump right up into the 5-10 game, I’m simply saying, take a shot at the 2-4 or 3-6 game… if you find it’s too hard, go back down to what you’re comfortable at. I think 5-10 NL is the goal to make a good living as a pro. Best of luck in your mission. Keep me posted on how it works.

getting started as a poker proI’m attempting to start a poker career with very little money, is this possible? Is it possible to get a good business plan together and get investors for a bankroll?

If you are a proven player with good networking skills, it’s quite easy to find investors. Poker is very popular these days and there is a lot of dead money out there. A winning player can make great money in poker. My best advice is start on your own. It’s much easier on you if you start small and build up yourself. That way you get to make all the decisions yourself and never have to answer to anyone. Don’t be afraid to start small. If you’re good enough you can get in a game that makes you about $1,000-$2,000 a week in no time.

Don’t rush it though. A poker player’s worst enemy is lack of patience. Every top player out there has paid his dues. Even Doyle Brunson and Phil Ivey were playing $1-$2 limits at one time or another. I have very clear memories of driving home from $2-$4 limit poker games and slapping myself in the head because I lost $100! Losses come, you can bet on that. But it’s the great players who learn from those losses and use them as a strong foundation for a long career of winning poker.

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Continuation Betting

Here’s the latest pro tip from Andy Bloch. This poker professional was a member of the renowned MIT Blackjack team and is nicknamed “The Rock”. 

Andy Bloch is a member of Team FullTilt

When you raise pre-flop in a game of No-Limit Hold em and are called, you’re faced with a decision when the flop hits the board. Should you put out a continuation bet on the flop or should you check and let the turn come off for free? Of course, there are a variety of factors that will effect any decision in a hand of poker, but if I was the one who raised pre-flop, I’ll put out a continuation bet on the flop a large proportion of the time.

I can afford to put out a lot of continuation bets, whether I hit or not, because my post-flop bets are usually pretty small – about half the size of the pot. Pre-flop, I normally raise to three times the big blind, then on the flop, I’ll put out a bet of the same amount. When I bet these relatively small sums, I don’t put a whole lot at risk. If I get check-raised on a flop that I missed, I can fold without having lost a whole lot of chips. Most of the time, however, my opponents will have missed the flop, so my small bet will win me the pot right there.

While I prefer to put out continuation bets on most flops, there are some situations where checking is the right play. For example, say I raised with K-T and was called by the big blind. The flop of A-J-2 gives me a gutshot straight draw. I know my opponent in the hand likes to check-raise on top pair. When he checks to me on the flop, I’m happy to check behind and have the free draw to the nuts. If my opponent hit something like two-pair, I could double up if the Queen comes on the turn.

I also like to check the flop in hands where I’m either very far ahead or very behind. Say I raise pre-flop in late position with pocket Kings. The flop comes A-J-3. Here, my pair of Kings is either very far ahead (if he missed completely or has something like pocket 5s) or is very far behind (if he hit an Ace). In a spot like this, I don’t want to get check-raised and I don’t want to just give up, so I’ll often check the flop and then call a bet on the turn. I can then try to get a read on my opponent if he bets the river. The worst thing I can do in this sort of situation is to put out a big bet on the flop and then call an all-in check-raise.

As with every aspect of poker, it’s vital that your continuation bets don’t become predictable. If you check every time you miss and bet every time you make top pair or better, then you’re opponents will know exactly how to play against you. They’ll be able to bet any pair with total confidence. So occasionally, you’ll want to check when you hit top pair on the flop. Your hand will be disguised and you’ll stand to win a big pot if you hit trips on the turn. Showing that you can sometimes check a good hand will keep your opponents off balance.

It’s a good idea to put out frequent continuation bets, but also be sure to look for spots where a check may be to your advantage. If you’ve got a draw or hold a hand that will be difficult to play for a raise, a flop check may be your best play. Also be sure to mix up your play – being unpredictable is vital to playing winning poker.

Andy Bloch

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Poker Pro:Buying in Short in Pot-Limit Omaha

Lee Watinkinson professional poker player

It’s amazing the difference that two cards can make. As opposed to Hold ’em where players have two hole cards at the start of each hand, Omaha starts each player off with four cards, which makes both pre- and post-flop play much more challenging, especially for those who are new to the game.

In fact, Pot-Limit Omaha can be so complicated that when playing it in a ring game, I think your best move is to buy in for the minimum – especially if you’re not as experienced as the other players at the table. Even if you’re a really good player, it’s an advantage to buy in short because it will be a lot easier to make a move when you get dealt a big hand.

Let’s say you get Aces before the flop. If you’ve bought in for the minimum, you’ll often be able to get most of your chips into the pot pre-flop, which should always be your goal when you know you have the best hand. Once you get your chips in, your opponents won’t be able to push you off your hand. You will be able to see all five cards on the board while they’ll be trying to bet each other out of the pot. If you’re a beginning player, you’re not going to get trapped or outplayed because you’re already all-in.

Or let’s say you flop a set. Once again, if you’re short you’re going to be able to get all your money into the pot and if a scare card comes – for example, one that could give your opponent a straight – you won’t have to figure out what to do with your hand. If you had a big stack in this situation and were playing against a very aggressive player, he might bet the pot on the turn and you wouldn’t be able to call.

Conversely, let’s say you’ve got a strong draw and it’s a multi-way pot. If you’ve bought in for the minimum, you can stick everything into the pot and you’ve got a good chance of tripling or even quadrupling up. Your opponents won’t be able to bet you out of the hand because you’ll have already shoved all your chips into the pot.

There are some advantages to buying in for the maximum, but only if you’re a strong player who can put your opponents on a hand and you’re really confident in your ability to outplay them. Then, when a scare card hits the board, you can be the one forcing your opponents off their hands by making a huge bet. You’d also be wise to buy in for the maximum when there’s a really weak player with a big stack sitting at your table. In that situation you’d want as big a stack as possible so you could take advantage of the weaker player.

Your position at the table is also an important factor when deciding how much to buy in for. If there’s a weak player with a big stack on your right, then you might want to buy in for a lot of chips. But if there’s a tough player with a big stack sitting behind you, even if you think you’re a better player than he is, you’d still be better off buying in short.

When playing Pot-Limit Omaha in a ring game, my philosophy has always been to buy in short. I suggest you do the same, especially if you’re new to the game.

Lee Watkinson

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A Hand in Poker History: Doyle vs Gold

High Stakes Poker 3 – 2006 WSOP Champion Jamie Gold’s first hand.

Doyle vs GoldDoyle Brunson raises to 2K with AQ, everyone folds around to Jamie Gold, who calls with QT. Always the gambler Daniel Negreau also calls with 5-2 Clubs and we see a flop.

The flop lands 6-K-J and its checks all round. The turn is the ten of clubs, giving Doyle the absolute nuts.

Doyle fires out of the gates and raises to $8,000, Gold decides to try to make a move and re-raises to $20,000. Negreau quickly gets out of the way folding over to Doyle, who begins his poker lesson.

Doyle looks at Gold and casually jokes “This is real money here Jamie. How much did you start with…” Jaime replies “$100,000”. Doyle pretends to have forgotten his cards, re-checks his cards and replies “OK, lets go” and re-raises to $100,000.

Gold quickly folds muttering, “I’m not ready for that!” Now that was an understatement.

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Goin’ Pro

Chris Ferguson won his first Main Event in 2000 and is still going strong“Should I quit my job and play professionally?”

“Should I drop out of school and just play poker full time?”

I get these questions all the time and I always give the same answer: “Unequivocally, absolutely not. No way.”

Clear enough?

If you want to explore being a professional poker player, you have to start out doing it part time. Spend your off hours thinking about poker and studying the game. Read and play and learn.

Before you even think about quitting your job to play full time, you should be making more money at poker than you are in your current employment. Don’t think that one big tournament win provides all the evidence you need that you’re ready to play professionally. You should be showing consistent profit over a period of at least six- months. Only at that point should you even entertain the idea of becoming a full-time pro.

Even then, you should be wary about taking such a step. Poker is a great pastime, and playing it casually is a lot of fun when you love the game. But when you become a pro, you have to play poker five or six days a week. In time, playing cards will start to feel a lot like a job. I happen to love every occasion I get to play, but for many people, it can become a grind.

On the tournament circuit, you can play well and still go months – or even years – without a big cash. In ring games, the hours can be brutal. When you’re a cash-game pro, you want to be playing when the other players are off their game. This means you should start late, when people are getting tired and gambling a little more than they should. So you might play from 11PM through the morning, and sleep most of the afternoon. Keeping these kinds of hours can be difficult for those who want to maintain a more traditional social life.

Another risk is that you may not play enough. It can take a lot of self-discipline to put in enough hours at the table. With no boss on your tail, you might find it tough to put in the hours that you need at the times that are most profitable.

Before you make drastic changes to your life – before you even ask the questions posed at the start of this article – you should know that poker will work for you. You should have long, profitable periods that serve as evidence of your abilities. You should have put in enough hours to know that you can really enjoy the game, even when it becomes the center of your professional life. You should know that you can endure some long, tough, unlucky stretches.

If you’re really sure you’ve got what it takes and poker does become your career, I look forward to meeting you at the table.

Chris Ferguson

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