Playing Small Pairs with Big Kickers in Seven Card Stud


How well you play the marginal hands is crucial to how you perform in any variant of poker. Small and medium pairs are very tricky hands to play in Seven Card Stud. Many players play them too often and passively and end up leaking money. Others may fold them too much and thus miss out on many potential profitable situations.

Seven Card Stud for Advanced Players by Sklansky, Malmuth, and Zee is a top notch resource on the game of Stud. It’s an older book but still highly relevant to how the games are played today. The book provides some tremendous guidance on how to play small and medium pairs profitably. This article will attempt to build on that discussion and will focus on situations where these hands are playable due to the fact that you have a large kicker. Next month’s article will focus on playing medium pairs that are playable due to having a straight flush kicker.

Playing Guidelines – 3rd Street in an Unopened Pot

Unless you are in a steal position, you should tend to play these hands only when your cards are completely live. If you run into in a better hand you need all of your outs to fall back upon. A two flush does add some value but not enough to overcome a dead hand.

A hand such as (A♠4)4♣ should often be open-raised in an attempt to take down the antes. If you are looking at a set of cards behind you such as 7, 5, K♣, K♠, and 2♣ a raise is mandatory. If you run into a pair of kings it isn’t that much of a concern because at least one of their cards is dead. With one king exposed, (A♠4)4♣ has around 49% equity versus (K6)K♠. And be prepared for this because when there are two kings on board you will run into a pair of kings more often than when there is only one. Individually each player with a king up is less likely to have a pair kings, but cumulatively the probability is slighter higher that at least one of the players has kings. But you still need to complete the bet as you may win the antes uncontested, have a greater chance to limit the field, and you fare just fine from an equity standpoint as long as the aces and fours are all live.

If you raise (A♠4)4♣ your hand can still playable even if you get re-raised twice. For example, if you get raised by a queen and re-raised by a king not only can you call but you should probably cap the betting. Against two larger pairs you typically have around 30% equity. Thus you fare well enough equity wise in a three-way pot and the queen will sometimes fold. From his prospective he could be up against a couple of powerful hands. If you get the player with the queen out, your equity goes up from around 30% to 45%. You then get to take the hand heads-up with the positional advantage.

Playable Situations – Previously Opened Pots

If another player has entered the pot before you it is very important that your kicker is an over card to the pair that you most likely may be facing. For example, if you have (4♠K)4♣ you can play against a queen door card. But if you have (4♠J)4♣ and a queen has already entered the pot your hand is not nearly as playable. You have a pair of fours and are building jacks up while your opponent can easily have a pair of queens and is drawing to a larger two pair. You don’t want to continually put yourself into spots where you have both the second best hand and the second best draw so early in the hand. This is true in all types of poker.

Let’s walk through some specific examples from a $20/$40 game with a $3 ante and a $5 forced bring in bet:

Example 1
Suppose you are to the right of a deuce bring-in and the player to your immediate right open-raises with a king up. You hold (A♠4)4♣ and all of your cards are live. This is a clear re-raising situation.

Many players looking at deuce and four will try to steal 100% of the time with a K♠ door card even when they have two “napkins” underneath. Against this range you have around 57% equity. A re-raise will cause him to fold the very worst of these hands such as (27♠)K♦. You are ahead but this is can be considered a victory due to the dead money in the pot.

In addition, frequent re-raising makes you tougher to play against. Players in front of you will tend to tighten up their open-raising standards which will give you the opportunity to steal more antes. It will also help balance your range so your hand will not be face up the next time you re-raise with (A♠A)4♣.

When your opponent just calls your re-raise you will have the positional advantage and thus the ability to often take a free card at some point in the hand. 5th street is a key decision point for many players so tend to bet 5th street to give your opponent the opportunity to fold. Your opponent may have made a loose peel on 4th with a busted drawing hand and his high card king. Taking the free card on 6th street is an option if you still have not improved by then.

If at any time in the hand your hand falls high it means you now have a strong hand with either aces up, trip fours, or a pair on board. So losing the positional advantage will not hurt you as you have a hand that can be bet for value.

It’s not a big deal if you happen to run into a pair of kings and are re-raised. With a live hand and an over card kicker you typically have around 45% equity and have only put in 42% ($63/$149) of the money on 3rd street. Then you have position in the hand and unless your opponent’s board gets very scary you have the necessary pot odds to goal the way to 7th street.

Example 2

Suppose you have the same hand but are now the low with the 4♣. A 5♠ limps and a J to your direct right raises the limper. The best play is probably to re-raise the jack. There is a good chance the 5♠ will fold and thus you get to play the jack in a heads-up pot with a little extra dead money. Catching a king or queen will cause you to be high and act first but these cards provide more potential overcard outs.

In general whenever you have the opportunity to play 3rd street heads-up with initiative as opposed to a three-way pot as the caller you should make an attempt to do so. It gives you a much greater chance to win the pot without a hand. While the J is more likely to have a pair of jacks when he raises a limper than if he opened the pot; it’s still not guaranteed. Many players will raise a drawing hand or even hands such as (8K♠)J. If he bricks out on 4th and 5th, then your bets may win the pot. If he does not fold you will often have the option to give yourself a free card on 6th street.

Example 3

Here’s an example where you should exercise some caution. Once again you are the bring-in with (A♠4)4♣. An early position player with a K♠ up raises and is smooth called by a J. Your hand definitely has enough value to call and see 4th. On 4th street the K♠ catches the Q, the J receives the T, and you receive a useless seven. The jack caught a straight flush card which is a very dangerous card for his range.

If the king bets on 4th he is more likely to a strong hand because he is betting into two players one of which may have a strong draw. It is still early in the hand and thus you should avoid putting money in the pot with against both a strong hand and a potential strong draw. The pot odds are tempting but this is disciplined good fold that you should be making. One must always consider reverse implied odds. It is likely that you are building a payoff hand.

Chasing the Larger Pair

Once again we are holding our favorite hand the (A♠4)4♣. Our hand is completely live so we complete the bet to $20 on 3rd street in an attempt to pick up the antes or at least limit the field of players. You are then re-raised by a tight uncreative player right next to you with a K♠ door card. You decide to just call as you believe it is more likely than not that he does have kings. So let’s examine the situation in more depth and determine whether or not we still should tend to go to 7th street even though just two bets were put in on 3rd.

In this situation you have typically have more implied odds than reverse implied odds. If you make aces up you can often get in a check-raise. If you make trip fours he may not believe you would raise 3rd with such a small pair. But if he pairs his board you can simply fold.

To aid in this analysis we need to examine the probability that your opponent makes a hidden two pair along the way. Assume your opponent started with a pair of kings and caught the 7 as his 4th street card. What is the probability that the seven made him two pair?

For the sake of illustration let’s first ignore the knowledge of any other cards folded on 3rd. We are assuming that our opponent has a pair of kings so that leaves 47 “unseen” cards. There are three sevens unaccounted for so the probability your opponent has a hidden two pair is (3/47) = 6.4%.

On 5th street if his board shows K♠76♣ there are now 46 unseen cards and 6 sevens and sixes that would have made him two pair. So on 5th the probability is (6/46) = 13.0% and on 6th street with a board of K♠76♣ 3 the probability is (9/45) = 20.0%.

Other exposed cards will change these numbers somewhat. Let’s assume that none of your opponent’s board cards have been seen on 3rd street so he appears to be working with a completely live hand. We will also assume that you do not catch any of your opponent’s cards along the way.

If the table is eight handed and no sevens, sixes, or threes have been seen the odds would be as follows:

4th street = (3/40) = 7.5%
5th street = (6/38) = 15.8%
6th street = (9/36) = 25.0%

This would represent the worst possible situation for you so let’s use them in our analysis. If we are correct to chase a probable larger pair even when our opponent’s hand appears to be completely live, then we are certainly correct to do so when some of his cards are dead.

Unless your opponent pairs his door card, calling on 4th is automatic due to the size of the pot and the smaller 4th street bet. Thus the first real decision point would be on 5th street. Here are some sample equities on 5th street based upon whether or not your opponent has improved:

5th street when villain has not made two pair
(A♠4)4♣7♠9 – 34% equity
(K2)K♠76♣ – 66% equity

5th street when villain has made two pair
(A♠4)4♣7♠9 – 19% equity
(K6)K♠76♣ – 81% equity

On 5th assuming that your opponent started with a split pair of kings and has completely live cards our opponent paired his hidden hole card 15.8% of the time. Thus your weighted average equity is approximately [(84.2%)(34%)+(15.8%)(19%)] = 31.6%.

You are getting pot odds of 4.7 to 1. This translates to a target equity of around (1/5.7) = 17.5%. You are getting quite an overlay, and also have implied odds on future betting. Thus it is quite an easy call.

On 6th street we are getting 6.7 to 1 and thus require around 13% equity to proceed.

6th street when villain has not made two pair
(A♠4)4♣7♠98♠ – 25% equity
(K2)K♠76♣3♦ – 75% equity

6th street when villain has made two pair
(A♠4)4♣7♠9♦8♠ – 11% equity
(K6♥)K♠76♣ 3 – 89% equity

We will estimate that our opponent paired his hidden hole card 25.0% of the time. Thus our weighted average equity is [(75%)(25%)+(25%)(11%)] = 21.5%. So in this situation you have another easy call.

7th street play is typically straightforward. If you improve your hand to aces up or better you raise your opponent’s bet or bet if he checks. If you make a lesser two pair you should probably just call an opponent’s bet. If your opponent checks, you should value bet any two pair.

Your opponent’s board is not draw heavy so if you don’t improve it is a safe 7th street fold against most players. The chances that this tight opponent re-raised on 3rd with a hand worse than a pair of fours and bet every street are very low. You are getting 8.7 to 1 on the river so your hand needs to be best around 10% to make this call. Against a tight player your hand is probably good far less than 10% of time. Shrugging your shoulders and automatically calling due to the size of the pot is a mistake. Although if you have any doubt whatsoever it is not a huge mistake to call and there is some inherent value in being able to sleep at night.


In Seven Card Stud, your ability in playing the more marginal hands such as small pairs with big kickers can make the difference between a winning and losing player. On 3rd street these hands should often be played aggressively in order to steal antes, limit the field, and defend against players who may be stealing. When it appears that you are up against a larger pair you will often be forced to chase all the way due to the size of the pot. Hopefully this article is a useful guide to playing these hands in a more profitable manner.

Next: Playing Medium Pairs with Straight Flush Kickers in Seven Card Stud->