Pocket Aces: you got to love them

If you are a professional poker player or a profitable amateur cash games regular, you can stop reading now as you know everything in this article. Otherwise if you are beginning to play Texas Hold'em poker or if you have been playing for a while but want to learn more about bettering your game, feel free to continue reading.

Let us first jump to the conclusion. The theory in this article is that there is a fundamental skill differentiating winning from losing players. This skill is the ability to fold aces post flop in cash games. Tournament play may slightly differ, but in general the idea is the same.

So what is the big deal about folding bullets post flop, as Phil Hellmuth likes to call his pocket aces? Everyone knows that pocket aces are the strongest hole cards, but what is remarkable about aces is that they are not just the strongest hand. They also dominate all other hands by far.

The top four hands in NLHE are generally believed to be AA, KK, QQ & AKs. To measure their relative strength, let us look at the probability of winning against a random hand. The chances of winning are 85%, 82%, 80% & 67% respectively for these four hands. These are statistical average assuming getting all in pre flop with one of the four hole cards defined above, versus a random hand, i.e. any two cards. Note that based on this measure, top pairs have similar chances.

As (almost) all players know how to fold their garbage hands, let us now look at the same probability of winning, but assuming that the opponent only plays his best hands, such as the range {66+, AQ+, AJs, KQ}. These are the 16 strongest hands (yes, I know it depends on who you ask).

Now the chances of winning are 84%, 73%, 64% & 54% respectively. Notice how pocket aces kept their predominance, but not the other hands, which all dropped significantly in probability of winning.

Furthermore kings seem close to aces with respect to the chance of beating this specific range, with 73% chance versus 84%. But if kings face aces directly in a heads up situation, they are big underdogs with only 18% chances of prevailing. All this shows that pocket aces are the uncontested super-gorillas of pre flop NLHE.

You will have pocket aces only once every 221 hands on average. For action junkies like me, and I am not the only one, it seems like an eternity. So each time we see aces, we get the adrenaline rush and start licking our lips. We build high expectations and are ready for the killing. Folding them? Are you kidding?

Pocket Aces: to Fold or not to Fold?

You are probably aware of the concept of win rate (WR). The win rate is measured in big blinds (BB) per one hundred hands. A player with a WR of 1 BB/100 wins an average of 1 big blind every 100 hands. If he plays in a NL100 game, that is one dollar per 100 hands.

One interesting statistical analysis routinely performed on hold'em databases is to look at the profitability of each possible hole cards. This is done by using the win rate. Let us focus on the 13 pairs for now. Typically the big pairs come on top with huge win rates, usually over 100 BB/100. Of course as expected the win rate decreases regularly from AA to 22.

There is a cutoff point where pairs start to lose money, and this is normally around 66. Every pocket pair from 55 to 22 has a negative expected win rate. Incidentally "fold small pairs in NLHE" is a bonus tip from this article.

This decreasing win rate of pairs is a recurring pattern touching all poker players, the good, the bad and the ugly. Even the top pros cannot make money consistently with 44, because this hand is simply too easily dominated.

Because of this decreasing win rate, no matter how you play, you will always make more money with QQ than with JJ. In addition, you will always make money with the strongest hand, pocket aces.

This is the important point here. Pocket aces are so strong that nobody loses money with them over the long term, even the loosest whales. This implies that people do not worry about playing aces well or poorly, because this is a hand that takes care of itself. Even if they play them with no skill, pocket aces will still bring them money. Pocket aces are so strong that these hole cards are profitable for all players.

If you have bullets, close your eyes, go all in, raise all in, and you will make money on average given the astronomical expected value of pocket aces. This is true. If your aces are cracked, this is just bad luck, there is nothing you can do about it. And this is were lies the borderline between great players and the rest. Because it is possible to do better than average with AA, but it requires the ability to fold your aces post flop.

Pocket Aces: when to Fold post flop

Of course pocket aces win big pots. But often they win small pots or lose big pots. The reason is simple. As you should almost always raise them pre flop, you will face few opponents, who will fold if they miss the flop. This leads to winning many small pots.

On the contrary if there is significant betting action post flop, it means that your aces are facing a big hand or a big draw. The pot will be large only if aces have a high risk of losing. With just two outs to make a set, aces have few ways to improve. Bullets are just a pair, and when a big pot builds up, there is usually one hand stronger than a pair involved.

So when should you fold aces? This is an art, and this is why it is the borderline between the pros and the rest. Situations when you must fold your pocket aces are more or less obvious. The most obvious case is when the board is paired. Most players will not attempt a big bluff and large bets almost surely indicate a trip. In this case it is not worth the risk and folding is recommended.

Another rather obvious situation is when the board has 3 cards of the same suit. If your opponent is a solid regular making large bets, it is almost certain that he has hit the flush draw, unless he wants to protect a set. You are behind in both cases. If he is a maniac or an unknown, you may still be ahead, but it is risky.

Straight draws are obvious too, but less obvious to see, especially when there are no connectors on the board. Exert caution and discernment when such risk exists. This is the type of scenario where it is recommended to pull on the brakes.

One less obvious situation is when aces face a set. The set is the arch nemesis of pocket aces. As the player with a set will almost never fold, betting your aces with the goal of getting all in by the river no matter what is an infallible way to donate your entire stack.

I must say that sets are probably the most frequent case of pocket aces losing large pots. If your opponent calls your bets quickly, min raises you, donk bets, or raises all in at the turn or river, these are good indications that your aces are beaten.

This happens most commonly on rainbow ragged boards such as 973, where the opponent called your pre flop raise with a medium pair with the intent of set mining. If you see resistance on such innocuous board and assuming that the straight draw does not hit, chances are your opponent has a set or at least two pairs.

Folding aces is a high level skill. Board texture, opponent's style & poker tells are the key determinant in assessing the chances that your aces have been cracked.

One common error is to bet your aces way too aggressively. Often people make much bigger bets with pocket aces than when they have hit two pairs on the flop. Remember that two aces are just one pair, the best pair yes, but still only one pair. It is not considered solid play to regularly commit your entire stack with one pair.

When you make a big bet, most pairs will fold but most hands above one pair will not. So making large three barrel bets with only a pocket pair of aces is a recipe for disaster. Usually smaller and less bets can achieve the same result.

Pocket Aces: the secret that only the pros know

My conclusion is another tip that can significantly improve your results. Here it goes:

Now let us see how you can improve your win rate by playing your aces better. Remember that you will get aces once in 221 hands, and they will lose about 15% of the time. This assumes that you play heads up and this assumption is close enough if you make it a habit to raise aces pre flop in order to make thin the field.

This equates to getting aces cracked once every 1500 hands on average. Typically this will involve a big pot as said earlier; let us say for illustration that this is a 60 BB pot on average.

If you make it a habit to fold your aces in the face of big aggression when your antennas tell you that you are probably beaten, you may save half the chips that you would have put into such big pot, or 15 BB. 15 BB per 1500 hands is 1 BB/100.

If you train yourself to fold your pocket aces when all your alarm bells are telling you that they are cracked, you could improve your win rate by 1 BB/100. This is an unbelievable result that you can achieve by just following this simple rule. This secret is known to all poker pros. Now you know it too.