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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Poker Stories: Folding Aces


Another in my continuing series of poker stories.

In Texas Hold'em, the most dangerous starting hand is a pair of aces, but the danger is not entirely for the opponents. It's common knowledge that those aces can win you a small pot, but can also cost you a huge one -- and the more players in the hand, the better the chances of your aces being cracked.

Anyone who has played hold'em has been on both sides of this dilemma, from that euphoric feeling of looking down and seeing AA to that gut-punch feeling of seeing an opponent stacking up your chips after the hand plays out.

It can happen easily, particularly in a deep-stack cash game, where the player with aces puts in a standard raise in early position and gets three or four callers. When the flop comes out, showing an ace, the raiser bets and everyone folds and he/she takes down a few chips. But if the flop doesn't contain an ace, any of the other opponents could have two pair or a set (three-of-a-kind), and when you bet your aces this time, there's going to be a raise, and you'll have to figure out where you stand and whether it's worth committing more chips to the pot.

Just last night, I cracked an opponent's aces with 66 in my hand, four-way action, and a flop of K64 with two hearts. He bet, I raised, the other two players folded, and he called. I think he put me on a big king or a heart flush draw (or both), so he called, no doubt planning on check-raising me on the turn. That's exactly what happened. When the next card was the queen of clubs, he checked, I bet, and he moved all-in. For a moment, I thought he might have kings or queens, but I can't lay down a set of sixes in that situation -- set over set is a rarity, one of those things we chalk up to "that's poker" -- so I called and won the hand when no ace came on the river.

It wasn't a matter of my out-playing him. It was simply the allure of pocket aces, which aren't as almighty as they seem. I try to remember that, and once even laid down a pair of aces before the flop.

It was in a local tournament. We were down to five players, I was third in chips, and sitting in the big blind. The first player to act had the shortest stack at the table, so few chips that he wasn't going to last much longer with the blinds and antes going up soon. We all knew he was desperate, so when he looked at his cards and announced "all-in," everyone knew it didn't necessarily mean he had a very strong hand.

The next player was the chip leader, who checked his cards and announced he, too, was all-in. This seemed like an isolation play, meaning he probably had a pair of some kind, assumed that the short stack didn't, and was willing to race against him heads-up. However, when the next player checked his cards, he also moved all-in -- and then the fourth player, without hesitation, did the same thing!

That's when I looked down at my cards and saw AA. Normally, I'd be happy to put all of my chips in pre-flop against an opponent in that situation, but this required some thought because it wasn't going to be heads-up -- my aces had to hold up against four other players. I remembered reading an article a few months earlier that described a similar scenario, explaining that while the aces were certainly the best hand, they were not a favorite to win. If we were heads-up, the odds would be 80-20% in my favor, but five-handed, I was only about 48% to win.

In other words, about half the time, I'd either be out of the tournament (if one of the players with more chips won) or I'd lose a substantial enough number of chips (if one of the short stacks won) that I'd be crippled going forward. But if I folded, I'd not only stay in the tournament, but my relative position might change. It could play out so that the two chip leaders' stacks were reduced enough to put me in the lead, or close to it. Or the two short stacks might be eliminated, leaving just three of us to play it out. Since I had been playing well and felt I knew how my opponents played, I was willing to take my chances with either of those scenarios, so I folded my aces (without showing them, of course).

Since everyone else was all in, they had to turn over their hands which were, in order: AK, 44, QQ, KK. The short stack with ace-king said, "I guess I need an ace." I didn't tell him I had folded two of them. The guy with the kings, meanwhile, stood up excitedly -- and then sat right back down when the flop contained a four and no picture cards. With no ace, king, or queen on the turn or river, the chip leader's pocket fours had just eliminated three opponents simultaneously.

My bullets had dodged a bullet and I moved up one notch on the payout board to second place, but he had such a huge mountain of chips that I was a preemptive underdog. I jokingly asked if he wanted to chop the prize money 50-50 (combine the amounts that would be awarded for first and second place and then divide them evenly). Naturally, he passed on my offer, and proposed we split it based on chip stacks, but that would have left me with less than second-place money. So we played on for another ten minutes before a deciding hand, the details of which are unimportant other than I lost. It wasn't the outcome I was hoping for, but it could have been worse -- I could have played those aces and ended up with less money by finishing third.

I don't tell these stories to prove anything about my poker skills. I'm an average recreational player, and like everyone else, I've had my share of aces-cracked disappointments. So, I try to keep them in perspective and not get overly upset when I look down at the pocket rockets, three-bet pre-flop, and get everyone else to fold. It may mean fewer chips, but it also means a lot less drama.

Read more of my poker stories here.