Saturday, June 20, 2009

Contemplating Cards: A-A

[I've been thinking about blogging a series on specific starting hands for a while now. Today's post is the first in what I hope will be a series of blog entries that correspond to each of the 169 unique pre-flop starting hands one can be dealt in Texas Hold'em. I don't plan to post these entries sequentially (or even regularly) but I would like to try tackling all the hands over the course of the next year or so. We'll see how it goes.]

Hand: A-A
Sklansky Group: 1
Nicknames: Rockets. Bullets. American Airlines. Top Gun. Mastercards. Pig Eyes.

ACES! Boy, how we all love to look down and find these two cards underfoot. If you're anything like me, you always get a little start when you're dealt rockets in your pocket. Aces are the strongest possible starting hand in Texas Hold'em, and for good measure. If you run the hand out against a random opponent, A-A wins approximately 85% of the time. If you run it out against a single opponent who has a top 20% hand, it still wins nearly 85% of the time. Even if your opponent holds a top 5% hand (i.e., 88+,AJs+,KQs,AKo), rockets still hold up over 82% of the time. Only if your opponent holds a random wired pair does your aces fall to 80% equity, which is still damn good. Preflop aces are the bomb.

Against more than one opponent, the equity of aces still retains a ton of strength. Against 2 players, aces hold up ~73% of the time; against 3 players = 63%; against 4 players = 55%. Not until you face five or more opponents do your aces actually fall below 50% equity. Even against 9 random opponents, aces are still likely to win 31% of the time, or nearly 1 in 3 times.

Further, as I blogged a month or two ago, equity is only part of the story. More important is the Expected Value, or EV, or running aces against multiple opponents. As we saw then, your EV is at a maximum when you get all your money in with aces against seven or eight opponents. Even though the hand only wins one in three times in this situation, the amount won more than makes up for it.

So, knowing all this, how should one play aces? Answer: as hard as possible pre-flop. The goal with aces before the flop, almost without exception*, is to get all the money into the center of the table. If you do this, you've maximized your expected value, which is what you're trying to do with every hand you play in poker.** In other words, the ideal situation with aces preflop is to get all the money in preflop, have essentially everyone call, see five cards on the board, and win lots of money. Sounds simple, huh?

Now, the trick to all of this, course, if we're talking about preflop action. Once the first three cards of the flop come out, all bets are off (pun intended). This is where a lot of folks get married to their aces and end up losing a lot of money by not paying attention to board texture and the strength their opponents are representing. If the flop is scary looking (e.g,. K-J-T, three to a flush; and you don't have the suit in your hand) your aces have now dropped from an 85% chance of winning against a single opponent, to being just a 50:50 coinflip. If there are two opponents in the pot against you on this ugly flop, your chance of winning is now just 30%, which means you're in negative EV territory... and you should fold. Yes, fold!

In the book Poker Wizards, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson is quoted as saying, "If an opponent calls and sees a flop with you, you have to pay attention to the situation. If you bet on the flop and get called, bet the turn and get called, and bet again on the river and get raised, you can be sure your aces are no good. Three bets of around 2/3's the size of the pot is really the most that you want to invest with aces in that situation, not four bets or more." He then goes on to say that check-calling may be a better strategy once you're at the turn. This also gives your opponent a chance to bluff on the river, which you can just call.

Okay, to summarize: it is generally not advisable to slow play aces. There may be instances when you're sitting upstream of a maniac that you just know is going to reraise you. In this case, you might limp-reraise all-in against him.*** But generally speaking, slow playing aces is a bad idea. Don't succumb to fancy play syndrome (FPS) with your rockets. Raise, reraise, and re-reraise preflop... and then reevaluate on the flop, slowing down if necessary and, gasp, even folding now and then. The goal with aces really is to win big pots (via preflop action) and lose little ones (via caution once you've seen the flop). Remember, aces are just a single (albeit strong) pair. Nothing more, nothing less. Keep that in mind next time you're dealt rockets in your pocket.

All-in for now...
*there are very few instances where you want to fold aces preflop. In a cash game, you basically never want to fold the hand before the flop. Tournaments, however, are a different story. Let's say you're on the bubble of a flat payout structured single-table SnG. You're a short stack in the big blind, and are thrilled to see the rockets, as you're certainly going to shove preflop when the action gets to you. But wait a minute! The medium stack UTG player shoves, and then then button (who has the same size stack as the UTG player) calls for all his chips. Now maybe you want to throw your aces in the muck; i.e., if one of these other two players dies (which they most likely will), you will squeek into the money. Mathematically speaking, "taking the hill" in a SnG is more important than trying to win the thing outright. In this case, you're probably best off by folding. Yes, folding. Of course, if this were an MTT, with an exponential payout structure, getting all your money in on the bubble in this situation (and maximizing EV) would be the goal. You probably would never fold aces in that situation...

**If you were to bet every time you had a positive EV situation, and folded everytime you had a negative EV situation, you would be a very, very rich person at the end of a year playing poker.

***If you limp-reraise all-in PF, you might as well turn your hand upright on the table. Most thinking poker players will immediately put you on aces or kings if you do this; limp-reraising all-in is an old-time tournament strategy for accumulating chips, especially from EP with a monster PF hand, and most decent players are very aware of it.

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