Low pocket pairs. Easy to muck yet the key to a goldmine. Most books rightfully put them on the list of unplayable, or marginal hands. Yet time and again you’ll find people playing them, raising them, and somehow making money from them. Admittedly some of those players are getting lucky, but some have a very specific goal: set mining. That is, playing a low pair and hoping for three of a kind on the flop. If done right it can be lucrative. If done wrong it is an easy way to lose money.
Imagine you are Chris Ferguson, it is late 2008 and you are holding pocket aces. To your right Phil Helmuth has raised and Phil Ivey has called. You put in a solid reraise. Helmuth folds and Ivey calls. The flop comes 5♥ 3♠ 9♣ and Ivey checks. You put in a 2/3 pot bet and Ivey reraises pot. You call and the turn comes 9♠, to which Ivey announces all-in.
The difficulty in such a situation is Chris having to decide whether Phil has a set or is playing a high pocket pair, queens or kings, aggressively. It’s highly unlikely Phil has a nine, but is possible that he was just making a bluff on the flop. It’d be a rather risky play, but not something impossible for this calibre of player. In this case Chris called and lost, but with pocket aces on that board it might not have been the wrong action.
This of course demonstrates the potential value in playing small pairs. If the flop turns up a set there is a large amount of money to be made. How the flop is played is vitally important, and it hinges very much on how the pre-flop action played out. Making this play can be hazardous.
In preflop action a player with a small pair may lead out with a small bet. Perhaps 2-3BB. Should they only get callers the situation on the flop becomes difficult. Their opponent could be playing some other small pair or any ace. If the flop doesn’t hit, the low pair is now quite a weak hand. It should be folded versus any reasonable bet. A player who is checked to in last position may however make a bluff. That is of course just added value in playing any hand from late position.
Suppose however that the flop does show a set, how should it be played. Consider first that this occurs only 11% of the time. This is important for odds. Pushing too aggressively at this point and knocking out the other players will make for poor odds. A player putting in 3BB preflop will need to get at least 30BB in the pot to be worthwhile long-term. Given very light action preflop however, even a modest bet would likely send the other players to the muck. Slow-playing is required in this case to make money, but it has the inherent risk of giving free cards.
In this situation a player with a high ace making a pair is the best chance of getting paid off. Given the low preflop action they will likely think top pair top kicker is good. Thought it won’t be good enough to slow play so they will likely be betting. A player who flopped a set would rather let their opponent build the pot for them.
A missed flop, or low preflop action, is a common situation with low pairs. It is the primary reason why most books advise against playing them. If the flop doesn’t make the set then the low pair is likely dominated. If the pair does improve to a set, there is a good chance that the weak pre-flop callers will simply fold to any bet.
In contrast to a a single bet, a reraise preflop indicates strength in the player’s hand. Sometimes it may win the pot outright, which is a good outcome for small pairs. The raise also gives a few more options on the flop. In particular, if the flop is showing only low cards it is unlikely the other player improved their hand. Anything less than a high pair and they will fold to another bet. Strangely this tends to apply regardless of who made the raise. A player who calls the reraise is also announcing strength and has similar options on the flop.
So regardless of who raised preflop a player holding the low pair would likely fold versus any bet on the flop. In particular if the board is showing any high cards, or even a couple of overcards, the likelihood is simply that the low pair has lost. In addition to high pairs, the other player could have easily raised or called with a medium pair, such as tens or jacks, or a high ace and made a pair. Calling a bet with a small pair is losing proposition.
The most lucrative situation is to make the set when the other player holds a high pair. Again, if they are holding less than a high pair they will likely fold versus any moderate bet. But a player who repeatedly folds high pairs will be labelled a coward and frequently outmanuevered. Thus they are almost compelled to call a bet with a high pair. It is also possible to play against one high community card if the other player has paired up with AQ or AK. Though here caution is advised as there is a reasonable chance of three kings or queens.
Courage is also required for the player with the set. Ideally they wish for an opponent that will bet or raise their high pair. As the chance to flop that set is so low, a bit of pot building is definitely needed to give it long term value. It is very important to watch for possible straights and flushes. Keep in mind that a tight player is unlikely to be bluffing when the fourth heart comes up on the river and they move all-in. Though three of a suit is still normally safe, since a player holding a high pair can’t have the flush.
High Implied Odds
Set mining is a very risky activity with possibly high payouts. The immediate odds of playing small pairs are actually quite poor. Large pots coming from the perfect circumstances however can make up for this. The goal is to minimize the sacrifices such that the final payout represents a positive EV. Many players are not so good at making sacrifices. Too often they will be unwilling to fold their small pair against a mixed board. Worse, they’ll miss the flush or straight on the river and call an all-in move with their lowly set.
While lucrative, the danger is ever present. A player who has a hard time folding, or is somewhat less attentive, should heed most advice and simply not play small pairs. Proper set mining is, as with most strategies, a patient, delicate game.