In Part I, we discussed why this hand is so powerful and how to play it before the flop. In Part II, we discuss play at the Flop, Turn, and River.
Playing Pocket Aces Pre-Flop
Just because your starting hand strength is higher than your opponents doesn’t guarantee you will win. Granted, with two Aces, you are likely to win 86% of the time. But that has to be tempered with the fact that many of your wins will come by virtue of your correct pre-flop raise that will drive everyone to fold. You win 100% of the time with pocket Aces for all hands that end before the flop. Win percentage invariable goes down for starting hands of strength when you enter the unpredictability of the flop. Here’s why. Most poker hands do not improve that much after the flop. So, pocket Aces gives you the most insurance against the majority of flops that will not improve your villain’s hand(s).
But from time to time, the Villain’s hand does catch up to you. Your opponent holding a lower pair does hit his 1-in-8 chance of making a set. The guy with King Queen suited lucks into two-pair, trips, a draw, or even a made flush/straight. So while the starting hand strength of pocket aces is very high, to ultimately win the pot after the flop and subsequent streets, it needs other hands to “fade” (i.e., not improve enough to beat 2 Aces). At the same time, your options to improve above a pair of Aces rest in hitting the long odds of catching one of the remaining Aces on the flop. As discussed earlier, the more players going to the flop, the greater likelihood someone else will improve to beat pocket Aces.
There are flop textures which should be encouraging to you when holding pocket Aces. One is the obvious “Yahtzee” flop where you hit a full house with A66. You can win a lot of chips if you are fortunate enough to catch someone with 76s or even A6. Here, there is little point in betting. Show weakness and check the flop and the turn, to allow your opponent to bluff at you or even hit a card to improve his hand and become trapped. Once he bets, then it is time to close the trap on him with a raise. You can’t really worry that your opponent has flopped a vastly unlikely 4-of-a-kind. If he does, you have a good bad beat story to tell.
Things are a bit different when you do flop a set of Aces. You can’t always slow play the flop against multiple opponents. If there are flops like 8♥ 9♥A♠, which could make someone’s straight, flush, or even straight flush, you have to go on the offensive. Depending on stack size, your best play might even be all-in, because some people with draws will gladly go to their death chasing the draw.
Sometimes, the safest flop for pocket Aces are raggedy flop such as 3♥7♦J♠. Only the craziest players would have called your raise with hands that would mesh with that flop. The only concern might be if your opponent has pocket Threes or Sevens himself.
More dangerous flops to you and your two Aces contain three high cards, such as JQK, or QQT. It’s very likely for these types of flops to hit your opponent real hard. At this stage, if you are uncertain about “where you are” in the hand, make a “probe” bet for about half the pot. A strong raise could spell trouble for you. Of course, he could just have AK. How confident you are about your hand at this stage should be based on what you know about your opponent through observing his starting hand selection and aggressiveness.
If there is one fundamental flaw with pocket Aces, it’s this: many players treat pocket Aces as “The One Ring.” Like, somehow they are invincible. They’re not. You will establish yourself as a perceptive poker player when the textures of the flop and the betting pattern makes you instinctively fold pocket Aces. Knowing when you are beaten when you hold a big hand is a very powerful weapon in the poker player’s arsenal. In a 4-way pot, you hold A♠A♥ and are last to act on a flop of : T♦J♦Q♦ – the three players ahead of you are betting, raising and re-raising. Maybe if you had A♦, you could play on. But common sense says you are way behind here, so fold. Don’t fall in love with your Aces. They are simply a pair that is very strong pre-flop. But in a multi-player pot after the flop, without improvement, they are still simply a pair.
The point of all this is that people have a tough time convincing themselves that pocket Aces could ever lose. It happens. Even 72 offsuit will beat aces heads-up about once out of eight times. Lower pairs will crack aces about 13.5% of the time. That’s the one (and possibly only) beauty of pocket Deuces; if you don’t catch a third deuce on the flop, you can simply dump your hand guilt free. That type of logic does not apply nearly as easy when you have AA.
As a training tool, I developed the “Seven Warning Signs of Cracked Aces.” They are:
1) A flop with three of the same suit
2) A flop with three consecutive cards in rank (e.g., 7 8 9)
3) A paired board
4) Two or three non-Ace “Broadways” on the flop (e.g., T. J, Q, K)
5) An innocuous looking flop with a strong betting pattern from a flat caller pre-flop (smells of a set)
6) A bet and raise by two or more players in front of you after the flop
7) A smooth call in a draw-rich board
Even if one or more of these warning signs appears, it may not be all over for you yet. If three diamonds do flop and you hold the Ace of Diamonds, you have some outs to redraw the nut flush on the turn and river. If you are pot committed, the chase might be the best play.
As much as it will hurt – and it will hurt – there are times you will have to take your pocket Aces and chuck them into the muck. Grit your teeth and demonstrably fling them with extra wrist action if it makes you feel better (just don’t put out someone’s eye). If you have two black Aces and three hearts (Warning Sign #1) come on the flop, you are probably up against a flush if there is a bet and a raise (Warning Sign #6). It’s simply amateurish and downright stupid to take pocket Aces to the death with no regard to what cards are on the board. A good player simply does the assessment and says [My Hand] < [Your Hand] before it costs them more money. Admittedly, if you’re the player who is very tight and selective with their starting hand criteria, it hurts a lot more for us than the usual suspects who will call a raise with anything. You also have to understand that this is exactly what great players will do. They’ll try to make a small investment with some off-the-wall hands hoping to catch a big flop and take out someone they have catalogued as an ultra-tight player for all of his chips.
Let’s look at a practical example of pocket Aces after the flop:
Pocket Aces vs. “Da Flusher”: A Lesson in Protection
For the sake of conversation, we’ll say we are very early in the tournament and the blinds are at 25/50. You get two black aces in middle position and it’s folded to you. You open the pot for $150. You get just one caller, from the cutoff seat. He’s played a pot or two and won a nice one when he showdowned Q4s and hit two pair .
The flop: 9♥ 6♥ 3♠
Evaluate everything. You are aware of the two-suited in hearts. You are also aware that your friend likes to play suited hands. You also know that there are 375 chips in the pot. You are first to act (a disadvantage to you). What shall we do?
Option 1: The Value Bet –Your pre-flop raise compels you to continuation bet. Your overpair of two Aces are probably a winner at this point, but not a hand you would ever consider slow-playing. The standard play with big pocket pairs is to adhere to the “Raise First, Bet First” approach of play. If you raise pre-flop and are first to act at the flop (or it is “checked to the raiser”), you need to execute the continuation bet. Even if you didn’t have pocket Aces and instead had Ace-Queen, you still want to C-bet even though the flop missed you. But with an overpair and facing a board with two of the same suit, giving the villain a free card is an egregiously terrible play. You must protect what most likely is the best hand. If you are so cravenly mousy that you don’t want to pump any more into the pot for fear of the third heart hitting on 4th Street, then you are not cut out for no-limit hold’em. Try Old Maid.
You always want to bet with the best hand that is vulnerable to falling behind at the turn. But there are other dimensions than simply betting because you think you have the best hand. You want your bet to accomplish one or more of the following:
To optimize accomplishing all three objectives, a bet of about 2/3 the size of the pot (250 here) is appropriate. If the villain swung and missed, it’s a big enough bet to dissuade him from chasing. If he got a piece of the flop, it’s a right-sized bet to keep them in. If the villain calls, you have gained some actionable intelligence about his holdings.
With the two-heart board, the flat call, and the knowledge that he plays marginal hands that are suited, you are reasonably correct to surmise that you are dueling against “Da Flusher,” one who lives and [usually] dies by chasing flushes and playing anything suited. The great poker pro T. J. Cloutier puts it so eloquently, “Draws are death in no-limit.”
The villain has about 2-to-1 against (1.9-to-1 to be more precise) chance of making the flush by the river or about one out of every three times. A decent player recognizes that a pot offering you more than 2-to-1 for you return on your investment (i.e., the amount of the call), it is correct to call. If the pot offers less than 2-1, it is mathematically incorrect to call. But some players are so allured to flushes that nothing short of a sledgehammer across the back of the hands are going to keep them away from reaching for chips. But even expert players will make the call. They are also considering the implied odds – the additional windfall of additional chips in the event he/she will gain should they hit their flush and elicit a call (up to and including your entire stack).
The 2/3-pot value bets at each street is the one play that will potentially garner you a lot of chips against Da Flusher. You should suck him in with a 2/3-pot bet on the flop, and another 2/3-pot bet again if the turn comes off-suit (which it will most of the time). The beauty of this is that if the Villain calls your 250-chip flop bet, the pot at 4th Street is now up to 875 chips. Now you hit him with a 600-chip bet when a rag like [5♣] comes up on the turn. He’s still going to call, getting around 2.5-to-1 pot odds for his call. With drawing odds now 4.1-to-1 against, you are still manipulating the pot to make the call technically incorrect, but still enticing to Da Flusher.
If the river is a non-heart card, you may not be able to get a call from another value bet, unless Villain wants to blow you out of the water with a bluff (or incorrectly suspects you were also semi-bluffing all along). A better scenario is that he pairs on the river (He has K♥Q♥ and the board is 9♥ 6♥ 3♠ 5♣ K♦). You may be able to extract all his chips.
Option 2: The Deterrent Bet — With a hand like pocket Aces, you might want to make a bet to the effect of, “Read my lips! Do not call!!” So instead of the value-oriented bet of two-thirds the pot, try making a pot-sized bet of 500 chips here. This puts the pot odds at below 2:1 (1.75:1). If you are even more risk-aversive or feel your rival has no clue of pot odds, pump it up to even 900 chips. A deterrent bet like that should make it crystal clear that the pursuit of the flush may be too costly. But some flush chasers cannot help themselves. All-in provides even more deterrence – but you will still get callers, especially as you get into the latter stages of a tournament.
Is this the most profitable way to play the hand? If he folds right there, probably not. However, it is a prudent way to play the hand, to guarantee that you get equity from your pocket Aces. Anytime you rake in chips throughout a tournament, it is a good outcome.
So which play is better: The deterrent bet or the value bet? With a hand like pocket Aces, you must seek chances to not only win the pot, but to win a major pot. With an innocuous flop, seek the value bet. With a potentially dangerous flop such as a flush draw, one of you should pay with their stack to gamble – and it probably won’t be you.
And remember, there are times when you’ll play this hand perfectly, your opponent will play it incorrectly, and you’ll get unlucky and lose. It happens. If you still have chips, it’s not a disaster. You play on. However, do not for a second hold onto some feeling of entitlement – “I fricking shoulda won!” – that often comes with cracked Aces. If you do, you’ll play the subsequent hands badly, and true disaster will come. Poker players require short memories when it comes to bad beats.
The Bottom Line
At this point, I hope you get the picture. Getting Pocket Aces is one of the most fortuitous and profitable scenarios in all of Hold’em. Possibly in all of gambling, period. The beauty is they are so easy to play before the flop. Don’t play it like some French chef conjuring up a gourmet dish out of root vegetables. Play it like a steakhouse broiler cook with an exceptional cut of rib-eye. Prep it pre-flop per time-tested recipe of raising and re-raising. Then cook it on the later streets to perfection, by betting against hands that were unlikely to improve on the flop.