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The Truth About Aces In Hold ’em

Knowing when to take advantage of them is the key

By Mike Caro


I hate it when I begin one of my columns with statistics. I must decide whether to restructure the column or to simply mention, like today, that I hate it. I need you to think about this…

I teach that there are three classes of starting hands in Hold ’em, consisting of 169 categories. Class A is for pairs, covering 13 categories ranging from ace-ace down to deuce-deuce. The remaining 156 categories are divided into 78 Class B hands, which are cards of the same suit, and 78 Class C hands, which are unpaired cards of different suits. The categories within those B and C classes range from ace-king down to three-deuce.

It’s important to understand that not every one of the 169 categories has the same chance of being dealt to you. There are 1,326 possible exact-rank, exact-suit starting hands that fit into those 169 categories. Specifically, any Class A category (a specific rank of pair) has six members, any Class B category (specific ranks of two suited cards) has four members, and any Class C category (specific ranks of two unpaired, unsuited cards) has 12 members.

So, the odds of being dealt any category of hand are:
Class A (such as A clubs A hearts, 7 spades 7 clubs, or 4 diamonds 4 clubs): 220-to-1 against;
Class B (such as A hearts 7 hearts, J spades 10 spades, or 8 diamonds 2 diamonds): 330-to-1 against;
Class C (such as 9 clubs 4 diamonds, A hearts K diamonds, or 7 diamonds 6 spades): 110-to-1 against.

There’s only one best starting hand, and obviously it’s a pair of aces. And at a slow-moving nine- or 10-handed no-limit hold ’em game with 22 or so deals per hour, you can figure on getting this hand only once in 10 hours of play. So, how powerful is a pair of aces?

In terms of money earned, a pair of aces is up to 50 percent more profitable than a pair of kings—the second-most profitable hand! That’s a big difference.

Even so, a pair of aces wins less than half the time if you give five opponents random cards and deal through the showdown. Since aces are so rare, but lose so often, it’s understandable that players sometimes come unglued when—after an all-day wait—they finally get aces, only to suffer a tragic outcome.

Let’s say you have aces in an early position. Should you raise big and try to limit the field of opponents, making it less likely you’ll be drawn out on? Or should you just call or, perhaps, raise small, inviting opponents in. Well, it turns out that in most circumstances, you’ll make more money confronting three or four initial opponents than just one or two. But it requires steady nerves to invite opponents in, knowing that the more who accept the invitation, the more likely you are to lose.

You’ll win much more often by chasing players out when you hold aces, but you’ll earn less money. I’m not prepared to give you a “perfect” formula, but here’s what I teach. Unless game conditions dictate a different solution, when you have aces early, raise two-thirds of the time. If it’s a no limit game, a standard-size raise of about two-and-a-half times the size of the big blind seems to produce excellent results. One third of the time, I recommend just calling.

So, how do you decide which times to raise and which to call? You might base your decision on your opponents’ traits. But if you don’t have a clue at the moment, try this: There are six possible exact-suit combinations of aces. Only two (one-third) are of the same color, using a traditional two-color deck (A clubs A spades and A diamonds A hearts). If those are your aces, just call and be deceptive. Otherwise raise.

It’s a formula that will serve you well whenever you’re in doubt.

Hot tip from the Mad Genius of Poker
In poker, knowing exact odds doesn’t matter much. And being able to calculate complex probabilities in the heat of poker combat won’t add much to your profit.Despite this, I’m obsessed with statistics, having calculated complex charts on poker. You don’t need to do this time-consuming math to excel. My stats serve mostly to satisfy curiosity.

Sure, you need a good grasp of how often hands will occur and how likely they are to improve. But precision beyond that has only mild benefit. When it’s your turn to act, you have only seconds to decide. If you concentrate too hard on getting odds exact, you’ll be wasting time you could use to make more important decisions regarding tells and tendencies of opponents.

Yes, you need to know approximately how strong hands are, and you need to gauge your prospects reasonably. But the notion that you must make lightning-fast calculations under pressure is a poker myth.—MC

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