I know I’m not alone when I say that a lot of my opponents in No-limit Hold’em (NLHE) games will stay in the hand if they have Ace-anything as their hole cards. Sure, I play A-x sometimes, but mostly it’s A-10 or higher or it’s when I’m in Late Position and most of the players ahead of me have folded. But what I’m talking about here is those who will cling to their A-x hands through thick and thin; what I call “Ace huggers”. It usually doesn’t take long to identify them because they’ll frequently go to the showdown if they have any prayer whatsoever of winning the hand. Consequently, this is a group of opponents from whom you can extract some $$$ if you understand how to play against them.
Don’t get me wrong here, the Ace is an important card and I know it – it obviously wins when you both have nothing – and it’s tough to beat when an Ace comes on the flop. But is it worth playing every hand? The answer to that is No. Those who will hug their Aces are doomed to failure in the long run, particularly when the other card is a 9 or lower. Let me show you some stats, using A-8 offsuit as the “average” hand our opponent is playing. There are five basic situations an Ace hugger will face:
1. A pocket pair: 2-2 to A-A versus A-8
2. Two lower cards: 6-7 versus A-8
3. One lower card and one higher card: K-J versus A-8
4. One Ace, lower second card: A-5 versus A-8
5. One Ace, higher second card: A-10 versus A-8
Case #1 is probably the rarest and is the classic “race” situation, when the pair is lower than both cards the hugger is holding. But it’s not really a race, which implies a 50-50 probability. For example, 2-2 versus A-8 in a one-on-one confrontation shows the pocket deuces have a probability of 53% vs. 47% for the A-8. And if you hold 7-7 versus A-8, the probability for the 7s is more like 57%. Naturally, as the pocket pair gets larger, its probability of success increases because the pair now dominates the Ace’s kicker. Your hand of 10-10 versus A-8 has a probability of success in the 71% range and A-A will win 93% of the time. Yes, you’re going to get a pocket pair only one hand in 17 on average, but when they do come, if you’ll play them aggressively against the ace huggers, the $$$ will come your way, plain and simple.
Case #2, where you have two lower cards than the hugger is more common and, to be fair, more difficult to win. Let’s say you have 6-7 suited in the small blind and a raise comes from the Button. That player may or may not be an Ace-hugger, but you may very well be up against A-x because that’s a great hand to use for “stealing” the blinds. Again, I’m going to assume the raiser has A-8 offsuit, but I’m going to ignore the implications of the $$$ you already have in the pot, even though that actually makes your probabilities even better. If your suited 6-7 does not share a suit with the raiser, your probability of winning is about 42%. If the raiser’s Ace is of the same suit as your hole cards, the probability slips to 40%. If both of the raiser’s cards are of your suit, your probability of winning is about 36%. Of course, you have no way of knowing what suits your opponent holds, so it’s probably fair to just consider yourself a 40-60 underdog in this hand.
Case #3 is tricky and a lot of what I’ll say here applies to # 2 also. By playing one higher card and one lower card, most of the time you’re going to be a 55-45 or thereabouts underdog. But you do have two “live” cards that will likely interfere with the hugger’s Straight and of Flush-making ability. With me on that? Your cards are live because they’re of different ranks than your opponent’s cards, plus if you hold a hand like K-J, your opponent’s ability to make a Straight and perhaps a Flush is diminished because you have some of his “outs”. I placed an emphasis on Straights and Flushes here because those are the hands that can really mess up your great hand, like Two-Pair, a King-high Straight or a King-high Flush. When you know your opponent is an Ace-hugger and s/he has limped into the pot (as they so often do), how to play your hand becomes more a case of pot odds than anything else. Let me give you an example using KsQc versus Ad8d, which is about as bad as it can get. Your probability is exactly 40% and your opponent’s probability is 60% if we ignore ties (see how much this is like Case # 2?). With a 40% probability preflop, it makes sense for you to get involved with the hand if the pot is giving you 1.5 to 1 or better odds. So, if the blinds are 25-50 and the hugger limps along with two other players, the pot will be 225 when it gets to you. Should you limp in, the pot is offering over 4 to 1 odds, which is great, but you won’t have any idea on where you stand with the hand. If you make a standard 3x BB raise of 150, you’ll be getting – drumroll, please – exactly 1.5 to 1 odds. The Ace-hugger will likely call (they’re known as “huggers” for a reason) and perhaps some of the other limpers will also call, so in this case 1.5 to 1 odds are the minimum, but of course with others in the pot, you’re probabilty will likely be lower. Should someone other than the hugger reraise, you’ll probably have to fold, but before you do that, ask yourself if that player was trapping by limping with a pocket pair – in which case you’re probably toast – or if you will still have decent pot odds (say, 2 to 1) to call. A lot of players will limp in Early Position with middle- and low pairs, like 88 to 22, but when someone raises, it seems to bring out the gambler in them, so they’ll frequently reraise. Since I’m assuming you’re going to raise here with only a decent hand, to imagine you still have a probability of over 33% isn’t unrealistic, so if the pot odds are still good, call. Remember, even against a small pair (22 to 88) a hand like K-Q is still at 40+% probability preflop.
The flop will reveal a lot to you. If the hugger is still in and no Ace comes on the flop, but one of your cards pairs, you probably have the best hand. However, if an Ace does fall and you don’t have Two-Pair, it’s probably time to fold if the hugger bets. I say “if” because many players check when they have top pair on the flop. If the hugger bets the flop, you may be up against Two-Pair, depending upon what s/he has as a kicker. If the hugger checks, it’s good for you in any event because you might be able to improve your hand. However, if I made Two-Pair or better on the flop, I’m betting when it’s checked to me, whether or not an Ace fell. Sure, I might lose to Aces up (Two-Pair with Aces), but my bet here will better define my position in the pot. If the hugger has only a pair of Aces, most likely s/he will just call with the idea that I’m betting second pair (the next card lower than the Ace) and a pair of Aces are still good. If the hugger raises me, it could be s/he is afraid of a Straight or Flush draw that’s on the board or s/he already has Aces up. Personally, I’d perceive the latter as being most likely and would fold. I don’t need to win every pot.
Case #4 is when you have an Ace with a lower kicker. In my example of A-5 versus the hugger’s A-8, you’re a 2 to 1 underdog with a probability for winning of only about 35%. If the pot odds (2 to 1) warrant a call and you do so, hitting Two-Pair on the flop is the best chance you’ve got. Of course, your opponent may hit a better Two-Pair, thus rendering your hand useless, which is why I won’t typically play Ace-little against most Ace-huggers. I really want to stick with A-9 or higher, like I’ll explain in Case # 5. Being dominated like this sucks.
Case #5, where I have an Ace with a higher-than-average kicker moves the odds to my side, so I will play this hand against known huggers. For example, A-10 (my namesake hand) is, in NLHE poker all but worthless in Early Position. However, if I can limp in against an opponent who will play Ace-anything, I’ve got a fighting chance. In such a confrontation, my probability is nearly 70%, so even making or calling a raise can be profitable, especially if it gets me heads up with the hugger. If an Ace comes on the flop, I’m betting if first to act or will raise if my opponent acts first and places a bet. The trick here is to define my hand: Am I up against Two-Pair? A re-raise by my opponent will trip an alarm that’ll at least slow me down to a check-call mode. If there is no Ace on the flop, my opponent may have paired his kicker, which leaves me with a 20% or less probability. But I’ll never know that unless I either bet or raise. Depending upon my opponent’s reaction, I’ll fold or call – it may be a mistake (or timid play) to go into check-call mode, but I sure don’t want to risk my tournament on a hand where I have no pair. For me to continue with an A-x hand against a known Ace-hugger, I really need to have paired my Aces. Beyond that, it’s an easy hand to get away from.
Like most of my lessons in this section, I’m not trying to present an “ABC” way of playing, but am trying to get you familiar with some of the odds you need to know and some of the concepts for playing various hands. We never know exactly what hands our opponents are holding – at least in a preflop situation – so to say you should play every hand of A-10 or whatever only in one way is not going to make you a successful player. I like poker so much because I like solving puzzles and, while there’s usually only one way to solve a puzzle, there are a lot of ways to win a hand at poker.
I’ll see you here next time.