This is the second of a series of discussions on each of the 169 starting hands of Texas Hold’em. It is aimed primarily for the tournament No-Limit player. We begin with the best of all hands in poker: Pocket Aces. Part I discusses why this hand is so powerful and how to play it before the flop.
Pocket Rockets, Bullets, American Airlines. Whatever you like to call them, two Aces in the hole is the #1 most powerful starting hand in Texas Hold’em. Period; no debate; end of discussion; ‘nuff said. My nickname for Pocket Aces is, “The Equalizer.” It is the one starting hand that invariably transcends skill. For a single hand, any gambler would sweat their life savings on the worst poker player in the world holding pocket Aces over Phil Helmuth or any other poker pro holding anything else.
There are reasons for having these opinions. First, two Aces in the hole are a very dominant hand over all other pockets card combinations. Pocket Kings are a huge 4-to-1 underdog against them. So for every five times your Aces goes up against Kings, you win four of them. Any lesser pocket pairs have roughly the same odds against. Big Slick, AK, is decimated down to a mere 13% chance of overtaking two Aces on the board. Something like Ace-Deuce will lose 94% of the time. It takes goony hands like 76s to get the best odds of cracking Aces, albeit it’s still just 22%.
Second, no other poker hand performs better. From this writer’s ledger, of the 1,552 times I received pocket Aces in live tournaments, online tournaments, and cash games, I took down the pot 1,340 times. That comes out to an incredible 86% win percentage. No other hand even comes close. No matter how many players are in the pot, pocket Aces still will win the most pots and the most money. Anyone who advocates that a suited connector like Jack-Ten suited is better in a multi-way pot is talking out of his arse.
Finally, pocket Aces is often a tournament-life changing hand. If all goes to plan, you are going to gain a lot of chips. With near certainty, this writer can attest that for every major cash I have ever had in a NLH tournament, pocket Aces was a critical hand that led to triumph. Conversely, any bust-out in a tournament often had a common theme: I didn’t get my Aces.
The only downside is pocket Aces (like any other pocket pair) don’t come by that often. Of 1326 two-card combinations that can be made from a 52-card deck, there are only six combinations that yield two Aces. Therefore, the chances of being dealt pocket Aces are just 220-to-1 (or once every 221 hands). In a typical tournament, where blinds are increasing in the 20-to-30 minute range, you are looking at getting pocket Aces around once in a tournament. It’s not statistically unusual to go multiple tournaments without seeing them.
Playing Pocket Aces Pre-Flop
It’s hard to screw up pocket Aces, but it can be done. If played incorrectly pre-flop, or betting all your chips after the flop, when the texture of the board and the betting patterns of the other players tell you it’s time to hang it up, your Aces will lead to your tournament demise. How does one play their Aces incorrectly pre-flop, you ask? If you merely call your pocket aces in a multi-way pot, you are probably going to lose. In a hypothetical hand 10 players calling and going into the flop, your AA has just a 31.36% chance of winning the pot. Yet, you will hear great players do just that – call with pocket Aces with multiple limpers. When they do it, they are called, “creative poker players.” When you do it, you’ll be called, “Idiot.” The pros are trying to trap, either by hitting a set on the flop or a maneuver called the “New York back raise,” where an early limper is hoping to snare a late “squeezer” (i.e., someone who will push their chips all in with several callers pre-flop in hopes of getting them all to fold).
I’m not a big advocate of these fancy-dancey plays. By employing the power of raising and re-raising during a full tournament table, you are cutting down the number of players in even the most aggressive tables. With raising and re-raising, you capitalize on AA’s ability to win pots consistently. With such a prohibitive advantage when dealt this powerful hand, you need to think beyond just winning the pot. You want to win the pot with maximum profit. Therefore, in Tournament No-Limit Hold’em, regardless of position or tendencies of players, it is ALWAYS CORRECT to raise your pocket aces. If there is a raise in front of you, it is also ALWAYS CORRECT to re-raise. If the pot is raised, re-raised, it is even ALWAYS CORRECT to go over the top and go All-In. The corollary is also true, it is NEVER (AND I MEAN NEVER) CORRECT to fold pocket Aces before the flop in any situation (even the Bubble). If someone goes All-in pre-flop, it is ALWAYS CORRECT to call. In no-limit, you are never the dog going into the flop all-in, heads up with another player. This is a Poker 101. You want this scenario anytime and every time you can get it. Where else are you going to come out on top nine out of eleven times? If you’re not willing to max out your bets with the best hand in Texas Hold’em, then you are playing the wrong game. And that’s how you play the Pocket Aces.
Let’s look at some practical examples:
Scenario: Level III of an NLH tournament, Blinds are 100/200. Starting stack was 3000. You are fairly card dead and stand at 2600 chips. Two red aces wake you up.
Your Position: Big Blind
Set-up: At a full table, the Under-the-Gun (UTG) limps for 200. Four others join the “family pot.” Pot is 1000 when it gets to you.
Your Response: A standard raise of 3-to-5 times the amount of the big blind, or around 800 chips is not going to get the desired result. If the UTG is a perceptive player and has a good drawing hand like a small pocket pair or suited connector, he will gladly accept your proposition knowing that their 600-chip call will give them 3-to-1 pot odds to call. Each subsequent caller gets a juicier price for the same call. The last player to act gets an incredible 7-to-1 price and is compelled to call with anything. You need to execute an isolation raise, so named because it increases the likelihood of either an All-in re-raise or limits you to a single caller:
Amount of Reraise = [(R + Number of Callers) * Big Blind] (where R is your typical standard raise. Usually, anything from 3 to 5 times the big blind constitutes a standard raise. For this example, we will assume R = 4)
= [(4 + 5) * 200]
= [9 * 200]
However, if you are going to put over half your stack into the pot on the pre-flop raise, then you are compelled to simply put your entire stack of 2600 chips into the pot. This raise ensures the hands you want to fold (like the drawing hands) do fold, and the one hand you want to stay in, like pocket Tens, AK, or KQs hang in there.
The Result: You get everyone to fold except for the deep stack with Kh9h. He’s been gambling all day, so he’s expecting to flush out. You pucker a bit at the flop when JhJc9s hit the board. The turn is another heart – the Ace of hearts and you smile a bit at the meaningless river when 5 of hearts lands. You increase to 4400 chips. That’s definitely not smooth sailing yet, but you have navigated out of rocks and shoals and have wind in the sails.
Scenario: Stage 1 of an NLH tournament, Blinds are 25/50. Everyone starts with 3000 chips. You lost an early pot speculating on the blinds and are now at 2600.
Your Position: Button
Set-up: It’s very loose early on. An early raise to 150 is called by three others when it comes to you and your pocket rockets.
Your Response: At such a loose table, with the pot already at 675 and the blinds waiting to act, by all means re-raise your rockets. If you were dealing with just the single raiser in early position, you could shoot for 3-to-5 times the amount of the raise, or around 600 chips. However, the problems contending with so many loose players should give you concern that the raiser and callers will call the 600-chip bet, deluded by the fact the initial raiser is getting 3-to-1 on their call. Subsequent callers are getting even better pot odds. Therefore, you should want to pick the right raise. All-In is okay, and strongly recommended for the novice player in this situation. But use the isolation raise, so named because it raises the outcome of either an All-in reraise or limits you to a single caller:
Amount of Reprise = [4 * (Amount of Raise)] + [# of callers * (Amount of Raise)]
= [4 * 150] + [3 * 150]
This re-raise is sure to ring alarms inside the head of even the wildest players and give those holding legitimate (but inferior) pocket pairs a very tough decision.
The blinds fold, and the player who put in the original raise bites, and pushes All-In. The others, with their KQ or pocket sixes make the smart folds. You call, of course.
The Result: You and the Mr. UTG Raiser turn them over. He has Pocket Tens. Yes, you will meet these players. The pot is at $6125. Your Aces hold up and Mr. UTG is leaving the table. Now had you called, as many as six rivals (assuming the blinds called the discounted raise) would be fighting you for a $1050 pot. Had you re-raised too little, you might still be dealing with four players. Either case, you are inviting your Aces to get cracked. Which scenario would you rather take?
You should never apply the brakes on pocket Aces pre-flop. It’s as easy as “ABR”: Always Be Raising. You act first, you rise. People limp in front of you, you rise. Someone rises ahead of you, you re-raise. You raise, they re-raise, you 4-Bet. They shove, you shove.
Yet, you will hear so-called experts advocate calling a raise with your Aces in the hole. They are looking for the trap. On paper, it sounds good. Imagine you’re at the big blind with two Aces and pre-flop action begins when the cut-off raises 4 times the big blind (we’ll say 400 here) with King-Queen-off. It’s folded to you. With conventional wisdom, you re-pop him for 1200 or so. It may be plenty enough to chase him away. The sharks will tell you, “All you made was 550 chips with the best hand in poker. Hardly worth the trouble.” Why not call the raise. Then when the flop comes out Ks5c4d, you have an outstanding chance of taking his entire stack if he elects to take his top pair to the death.
However, that very same trap can ensnare you as well. Let’s make that flop KsQc4d. Now, you are the one losing your chips when you can’t get the scant outs you need. You see, by re-raising, you might chase out King-Queen, because King-Queen may have the sense to know he can’t play on. But far superior hands that are absolutely crushed by pocket Aces, like QQ, JJ, and AKs, will not be able to beg out (especially if they have been running cold). They’ll be saying to themselves, I haven’t had anything better than Ten-Five since the tournament started and you think I’m folding my Jacks to you? His best hand of the tournament is a huge 4.5-to-1 underdog.
All things considered, there is a business case for calling a raise with pocket Aces, IF AND ONLY IF, you are the last player to act pre-flop and you are up against a single raiser. I don’t recommend this as the majority play. Perhaps, you can apply this strategy to about 25% of the scenarios described precisely as above.
Of course, there will be some “donkeyfish” out there who believes he can trap two or even three players by limping into a multi-way pot with pocket Aces. The donkeyfish licks his chops as the flop comes out. The harsh reality that will ensue for our “sophisticated” limper is that the majority of flop textures are going to mesh with someone else’s hand much better than pocket Aces. They typically will lose to sets and made draws. Of course such players who lose in such catastrophic fashion will invariably curse the heavens, deride the player’s ability of why someone would even think of calling T9 (even if he was getting 5-to-1 to call), or deride the very core of pocket Aces, announcing to the poker world (via chat box) as his avatar is removed .
“I NEVER WIN WIT %^&**^@ ACES! DID U SEE THEM STUPID DONKS CALL WIT THAT CRAP?! I HATE %^&**^@ ACES. ACES %^&**^@ SUCK! BULLSH#T!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
In actuality, the poker IQ of this table just increased by 1000 points.
I can give you other tragic scenarios; but you hopefully get the picture. If you try to get cute and slow play pocket Aces by just limping or even calling a raise with multiple callers, you are allowing other players to get into the hand for a decent price. All the callers affect the pot odds to encourage them to hang on to their drawing hands until the river. They may have to endure some heat to get there; but when they river their straight of flush, your windfall becomes a tornado that sucks away your chips. Of course, they lament of their “bad beat” they took. In reality it’s their bad play for not narrowing or eliminating the field with a raise.
Raise and re-raise pocket Aces pre-flop to increase the likelihood of getting all-in with one or no more than two players.