One of the most common questions that I receive from students is “how do I play small pocket pairs from early position”. Like most everything in poker the answer is it depends. But in this situation the best course of action is actually quite complex. You see when you raise with a small pocket pair and get called in several spots if you do not flop a set you are usually forced to continuation bet bluff on the flop. You may very well have the best hand but it is usually very difficult to get called by worse.
Let us take a look at an example. Say, in a $5-$5 game we raise with 33 under the gun and get two callers. The board comes out K♣ 7♦ 2♠. When we bet is it possible to get called by a worse hand? Usually not, but does that mean that we should not bet? Of course not. This type of flop is what I like to call an A+ board texture. It is very difficult for anyone to continue on, especially against a reasonable under the gun raising range, with anything less than a king. If you are not comfortable bluffing good board textures than I’d highly suggest that you not raise in early position with small pocket pairs and under the right conditions you can even fold them. There are other boards that are favorable to these types of hands as well. Say the flop comes out 8♠ 2♣ 2♥. We bet with 33 and get called. The turn is a K♦. We bet again and our opponent folds 7♠ 8♠ face up. Much like raising with high cards we can use good turn cards to bluff people off of the best hand.
Now, should we be raising and bluffing multiple streets versus a table that is extremely loose and call happy? Definitely not. Well what about limping then? Limping can be a viable strategy with small pocket pairs if the table dynamics are such that people play relatively passive preflop. And his is the type of table profile of your typical $5-$5 game or lower. Usually people are not punished for limping in from early position and up front limping will sometimes cause a cascade effect that will make others limp in the pot as well which is something that you definitely want to happen. The best case scenario is that you flop a set against someone else’s top pair—especially of they were to fold that hand preflop to a raise say with a hand like KJ or QT.
As you move up to levels of $5-10 or higher where isolation raises becomes more rampant it can be very difficult to limp on from up front because you will be always facing a raise from out back. And against tougher competition it is very easy for good hand readers to realize that you have a pocket pair when you limp call. If you do not mix up your game post flop with bluffs I player can correctly bluff you out of the pot most times when you miss and fold their value hands when you do hit a set and suddenly come to life. One of the ways that you can counter this is by occasionally throwing in a limp reraise with a small pocket pair to dissuade players from habitually isolation raising your limps.