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The Most Repeated Lie in Poker

16 September 2010, By:
(Or the Right Price to Call With a Small Pair)

Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels once said: "If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it."

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I don't want to give any credit to this disgustingly sick and twisted man, but this quote has its merits, even in poker.


One of the most repeated lies in poker surrounds the "right price" for calling a raise with a small pair to try and catch a set.

It's been perpetuated so many times, in fact, that most players have stopped questioning it.

The Theory of the Right Price

The theory comes in different variations, but this is basically what everybody says:

  1. The odds of catching a set are 7-1 - meaning every 8th hand you'll hit a set (which is true btw).

  2. To call a standard 3-4xBB raise with a small pair the raiser must have at least 10 times the original raise in his stack.

  3. You can now "afford" to lose the seven hands in which you don't flop a set. And when you do hit your set, since it's a well-disguised hand, you can now win your opponent's whole stack.

  4. You have positive expected value (EV) with this play.

Sounds waterproof, doesn't it?

Every poker player knows this is how small pairs are supposed to be played.

But they're wrong.

The Big Problem

The big problem with this theory is that people confuse "you can win your opponent's entire stack" with "you will win your opponent's entire stack."

The truth is, having a set doesn't even mean you'll automatically win the hand - let alone your opponent's entire stack.

Playing devil's advocate for a moment, the following things could also happen when you turn your small pair into a set - situations poker folklore doesn't seem to consider.

  1. Your opponent folds when you bet or raise.

  2. Your opponent hits a stronger hand. Sets aren't unbeatable, you see.

  3. The board gets nasty (four to a flush or straight, etc.) and you can't get all the money in even when you're ahead.

These scenarios will happen more often than you might think and they strongly affect the value of calling a raise to catch a set.

Without getting too deep into the math, your opponent must have a lot more than 10x the raise to make the call right.

I'd say it's closer to two buy-ins!

A Different Version of the Same Mistake? No.

"But aren't you making the same mistake now?" you might be thinking.

Missing the set doesn't mean you'll automatically lose the hand. It is possible to win some hands without setting on the flop.

If you, for example, are up against a player who regularly fires a continuation bet on the flop and then gives up when he's called, the chances of winning with the small pair obviously increase.

You can either win by hitting a set, making your opponent fold a better hand or, in some cases, even win a small pot with the best hand at showdown.

The problem, though, is that the same people who agitate for the "traditional" right price to catch a set also love the term "pump it or dump it."

This means that if you don't flop the set, you should more or less consider the hand dead.  You don't bluff with it and you don't make any hero calls.

If that's the case, the traditional way of playing small pairs is clearly overpriced.

Keep this in mind the next time someone raises and you instinctively move the mouse to the call button with a pair of 3s.

Is it really the correct play?

Further Reading:
The Most Unfairly Maligned Move in Poker
The Most Neglected Street in Poker

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