I was playing a NLH tournament last weekend when a hand came up that I actually see quite frequently and it never ceases to amaze me how players misplay it. You would think it would be a piece of cake when you are deal the best hand in no limit holdem: pocket aces. Playing pocket aces can be a little confusing for novice players, I will readily admit that, but there are 2 basic mistakes that many players will make every time they see this hand.
It was early in the tournament and the blinds were $100-$200 when an older guy in early position made it $1500 to go after a player had limped in ahead of him. We had not been at the table long, and it was early on, so with that kind of bet, of course everyone folded assuming he had a big hand. He flipped over A-A as he mucked and muttered something about at least he avoided a suck-out.
What he really did was gain $500 in chips with the best starting hand you can be dealt. With a starting chip stack of $10,000. Adding $500 to your stack falls somewhere between being as important as ‘jack’ and ‘shit’.
This is really a dumb play at this point in the tournament. If you make it so obvious that you have a big hand by your bet size, you will likely accomplish just what this fellow did and get everyone to fold. Sure, nobody sucked out on him, but he didn’t come even close to maximizing his profit on this hand. Hands like this don’t come up much in tournament play. In fact, they may not come up at all. When they do, you have got to get some value out of them.
The next time I saw this hand was a little later in the tournament. It was played by a younger guy in middle position. Two players had limped-in in front of him and he limped as well. The button limped and the small blind completed and I saw the flop from the big blind with my junk 9-2 hand. So to recap, there are now 6 players in the hand, or 5 opponents for Mr. Aces.
The Flop was 6-7-8 rainbow and rather than go through each street, we will jump to the end of the hand where the small blind ended up taking down a huge pot with his 9-5 suited that he was allowed to limp-in with, when his straight held up. The guy with A-A was left cursing his ‘bad luck’ and complaining about suck-outs. What he really did was make his own bad luck.
Against one other random hand pocket Aces will be somewhere around an 80% favorite heading into the flop. Sometimes more.
Against 2 other random hands, A-A falls to a 60%-ish favorite pre-flop.
Against 3 other random hands, you are now down to 50% chance of winning the hand.
Against 4 random hands: about 40% of time pocket Aces will win.
If you allow 5 other players into the hand, pocket Aces will ‘hold up’ a little better than 30% of the time.
Quite obviously this guy was trying to avoid just taking down the blinds like the older fellow did, but he went about it all wrong. He took a dominant hand and made it less than a 50/50 favorite by not raising preflop. And then he wonders why his Aces were ‘cracked.’ They weren’t cracked, they were totally misplayed.
When you have a big hand, particularly in tournament poker, you have got to raise. How big your raise is should depend on how you read the table and the players sitting at it. Ideally you want someone to call your raise so that you end up isolated against that player playing heads-up for a big pot. Or perhaps with a couple callers; one who goes away when he misses the flop and one who follows you to the River and pays you off. No matter what your read is (and it won’t be perfect every time) you need to avoid limping-in with big hands like A-A as well as making massive raises that price everyone out of the hand. Remember this and you will get a lot more value from these types of hands.