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When To Fold Pocket Aces

by Ed Miller |  Published: Aug 19, 2015

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Ed MillerMy friends and students often come to me with hands where they start with pocket aces preflop, but their opponents apply pressure postflop, and they aren’t sure if or when they should fold. There is a systematic way to analyze these situations that should help you to find the right decision more often.

A friend asked me about a $2-$5 hand he played during a cash game at the World Series of Poker. He had a $750 stack, and his opponent had him covered. His opponent made it $20 in early position, and a player called. He was in the small blind with AClub Suit ASpade Suit, and he reraised to $80. The original raiser called, and the other player folded. There was $185 in the pot, and they had $670 behind.

The flop came 10Club Suit 5Diamond Suit 2Diamond Suit. He bet $100, and his opponent raised to $300. He called.

The turn was the 9Heart Suit. My friend checked, and the opponent shoved for $370 more. My friend wanted to know if I thought he should call or fold.

Two principles are at work here. The first is that most $2-$5 players won’t bluff for stacks. So when someone shoves all-in on the turn, it’s quite likely he’s got a hand he thinks is good. This principle presents the main argument for folding.

The second principle is that pocket aces are a really good hand that’s hard to beat. This principle presents the main argument for calling.

Resolve this conflict, and throw in a dash of pot odds, and you have your answer about how to handle pocket aces under pressure.

This flop is, generally speaking, an excellent one for pocket aces. First, the cards are disjointed, which makes it less likely the opponent flopped two pair. Since the opponent open-raised from early position and then called a reraise to $80, it’s quite unlikely he has 10-5, 10-2, or 5-2. So the main hands he could have that are beating aces are 10-10, 5-5, and 2-2. There are three possible combinations of each set, making nine total possible hands that have aces beaten. It’s also possible that this player would fold the small pairs 5-5 or 2-2 before the flop, though for this analysis we’ll assume that he’s seeing the flop with every pair.

Also the top card is nice and low, which could embolden an opponent holding kings, queens, or jacks. There are six possible combinations of any unimproved pocket pairs, so that makes 18 total combos of overpairs below aces.

Finally, there is a flush draw on the flop, as well as a small possible straight draw around the five and deuce. These facets permit the opponent to hold combination hands and draws such as KDiamond Suit 10Diamond Suit, ADiamond Suit 4Diamond Suit, ADiamond Suit KDiamond Suit, and so forth. While these hands have considerable equity against pocket aces, these are hands aces can profitably play against.

So here’s the bottom line. There are nine bad hand combos. There are 18 good hand combos. And there are a few more combo draw hands that are slightly good to be against. Even if we assume the player is never bluffing, pocket aces are a clear play in this situation.

Now, you might argue that the situation is worse than that because the opponent is shoveling money into the pot. I don’t necessarily agree. It’s possible that an opponent might not want to raise the flop and shove the turn with J-J. But it’s also possible he wouldn’t want to do that with 10-10, as most players tend to slowplay top set on boards like this one.

Overall, I think this opponent could just as easily hold K-K or Q-Q as any of the sets. Since there are 12 combos of those hands and only nine of the sets, it’s a clear indicator to put the money in.

I would simply have shoved the flop. But as played, I’m definitely calling the turn.
This analysis will tend to hold in most cases when the stack-to-pot ratio (SPR) is four or lower. On this hand, the pot on the flop was $185, and the remaining stacks were $670, so the ratio was 670-to-185 or about 3.6. Without a strong read, on most flops it’s hard to fold pocket aces with an SPR that low. There will usually be some clear second-best hands your opponent could hold that make you want to play.

On a 10-5-2 flop, those hands were K-K and Q-Q. On a K-5-2 flop, that hand is A-K and possibly K-Q. On a Q-5-2 flop, they are K-K, A-Q, and possibly K-Q.

If you make the cards more connected, two pair becomes possible. But more draws also become possible at the same time. So in 10-9-3, your opponent can now hold combos of 10-9. But he can also hold Q-J. And he can still hold K-K and Q-Q.

It’s hard to fold pocket aces on the flop, and when the SPR is four or below, by the time you bet the flop and get raised, you’re usually either committing to the hand or folding.
So when is it right to fold pocket aces? When stacks are deeper, and your $2-$5 opponent continues to apply pressure after the flop, it’s a sign you should let go.

Say it’s a $2-$5 hand with $950 stacks. You open for $20 from middle position with AHeart Suit ADiamond Suit. A player calls on the button, and both blinds call. There’s $80 in the pot and $930 behind, for a stack-to-pot ratio of 11.6—well over four.

The flop is 10Club Suit 9Diamond Suit 3Spade Suit. The blinds check, and you bet $60 into the $80 pot. The button calls, and the big blind calls.

The turn is the 8Heart Suit. The big blind checks, and you bet $150 into the $200 pot. The button min-raises to $300. The big blind folds. While this raise is an ominous sign, you have pot odds to call against two pair, and your opponent could still hold something like K-K, Q-Q, J-J, or J-10, so you call.

There’s $700 in the pot, and your opponent has $570 behind. The river is the 2Heart Suit. You check, and your opponent shoves.

I’d fold against typical $2-$5 players. It’s clear from the action that an overpair is your likely hand. Most $2-$5 players would check down K-K or Q-Q here. Typical $2-$5 players also won’t turn a hand like J-10 into a bluff here. The shove means you’re probably beaten by a set or straight.

Final Thoughts

Losing with pocket aces is a hand most players remember above all others. It’s the hand they take home to analyze and reanalyze. “Maybe I should have folded here?” They think, “Should I have just checked the flop?” Most of this second-guessing is unnecessary.

It’s rarely wrong to get your money in on the flop holding pocket aces. The exceptions are when more than one opponent wants to get it in with you or when the stack-to-pot ratio is very high.

Later on in the hand, pocket aces can become “just another” one pair hand—just a bluff-catcher when opponents apply the pressure. Think systematically, and then trust your decisions. ♠

Ed’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site redchippoker.com.