Poker Strategy With Jonathan Little: How Not To Play Pocket Aces
A Hand From A Recent Poker Tournament
I recently played a large pot in a major poker tournament that beautifully exemplifies the exact opposite way you should play pocket aces. At 200-400 blinds with a 50 ante, everyone folded to me on the button and I raised to 1,000 out of my 30,000-chip effective stack with 10 10. The small blind folded and the big blind, a loose, aggressive player, reraised to 2,200. While I expected this specific opponent to reraise more often than most players, his abnormally tiny reraise size made me think his range was quite strong. Most players will reraise to between 2.7 and 3.5 times the initial raise when reraising from out of position. They want to have some chance to steal the pot before the flop because playing large pots out of position usually is not ideal. Notice a small reraise ensures I will at least call and see a flop.
My opponent’s small bet sizing led me to believe my opponent had a much stronger range than normal. Even though I thought my normally loose, aggressive opponent had a strong hand, I decided to call 1,200 more, hoping to improve to a set and realize my implied odds.
The flop came 9 8 5. My opponent bet 2,300 into the 5,050 pot. I don’t think this nondescript half-pot bet indicated much about his range. I imagine he would make this same bet with his entire range. Even if his range is only big pairs, A-K, and A-Q, I should still call because A-K and A-Q should make up a larger portion of his range than pairs. Raising is not a good option because it will induce my opponent to fold his unpaired hands and continue with his paired hands. You rarely want to make a play that essentially forces your opponent to play well. So, I cautiously called to see what develops on the turn.
The turn was the 10. My opponent checked. At this point, I thought he was usually giving up with an unpaired hand. However, he may be taking a cautious line with an overpair or he could make an optimistic check-raise bluff with A-K. When you think your opponent’s range is weak and your range could realistically be strong, as mine certainly could be in this situation, you should make a small bet. I bet 2,900 into the 9,650-chip pot.
To my surprise, my opponent check-raised to 9,000. At this point, it is important to think about how your opponent expects you to proceed. If he thinks you will only go all in with two pair or better, then you should strongly consider calling. If you think he will call if you go all in every time if he has an overpair, you should go all in to ensure he cannot get off the hook on the river. In this hand, I thought my opponent was particularly strong, which led me to believe he would not fold if I went all in for 15,450 on top of his 9,000 bet. As expected, my opponent instantly called with A A and I won a nice pot.
So, where did my opponent go wrong? In this exact hand, he was destined to lose a large pot no matter how he played his aces. However, it is important to play your premium hands in a manner that allows your opponent to stay in the pot with a wide range. If my opponent made a normal-sized preflop reraise, perhaps to 3,200, I would have either called or reraised. Of course, my opponent would be thrilled if I reraised, which would allow him to put in a five-bet. On the flop, his small preflop reraise forced me to just call, taking away my option to raise. Notice if he reraised larger preflop and bet larger on the flop, I simply could not fold due to my hand’s strength.
On the turn when he checked and I bet small, he should only call my bet. By check-raising, he forces me to continue only when I have two pair and better made hands. When I went all in over his turn check-raise, he should have folded, assuming I could beat all overpairs. By playing pocket aces in this manner, he gave me the opportunity to cheaply draw to my set and then paid me off for the maximum when I was fortunate enough to improve. It is worth mentioning that if I did not improve to a set on the turn and my opponent continued betting, I would have almost certainly made a tight fold. If the turn was a low card and he checked, I would have either checked behind or bet small with the intention of folding if check-raised. If you want to succeed at poker, you must learn to make big folds when the action clearly indicates you are beat.
In general, when you have a premium hand against a competent player, you should act in exactly the same manner as you would with the rest of your range. This will make you much more difficult to read compared to if you choose your bet size based on your hand’s strength. By making it easy for your opponents to make the correct decision, you leave significant money on the table. Don’t get fancy with your premium hands. ♠
Jonathan Little is a two-time WPT champion with more than $6 million in tournament winnings. Each week, he posts an educational blog and podcast at JonathanLittlePoker.com, where you can get a FREE poker training video that details five things you must master if you want to win at tournament poker.
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