As a no limit Texas holdem player, nothing beats looking down and squeezing your hole cards to reveal the prettiest sight in all of poker – pocket Aces.
Affectionately known as “pocket rockets,” “American Airlines,” or simply “the blades,” pocket Aces is the best possible starting hand one can hold in Texas holdem. And when you finally sneak a peek and see those double “As” staring you in the face, even a seasoned poker pro will feel their heart skip a beat and their hair stand on end.
But as poker legend Doyle Brunson once wisely observed, there’s a particularly tricky aspect to playing pocket Aces. According to old “Texas Dolly,” pocket Aces offer players a stark “boom or bust” scenario:
“The fact is, with a pair of Aces … One of two things will usually happen.
Either (1) you’ll win a small pot, or (2) you’ll lose a big pot.”
That’s an oversimplification of course, but you get the point – pocket Aces often compel you to put a chunk of chips into the pot, but they can easily be ran down by inferior starting hands.
Therefore, the problem for players sitting on a pair of Aces preflop boils down to protecting the premium holdem hand’s inherent equity. Unless you can thin the field by applying preflop pressure, folks taking a flop with smaller pocket pairs or suited connectors have a good chance of connecting with the board to beat you by the river.
For this reason, poker strategists have long advised players to take an aggressive tack when they’re lucky enough to score a ride on the rockets. By playing your huge hand “fast” – another word for raising early and often – the objective is to protect your pocket Aces from potential harm and secure the small pots Brunson alluded to in the process.
On the other hand, some savvy poker people believe that “slow playing” pocket Aces – or taking a passive line of flat calling and checking to trap – is the best way to earn maximum returns on your monster holding. By adopting this approach, players who have a higher tolerance for risk are balancing the threat of losing a few pots along the way against the potential for winning an opponent’s entire stack when they fall for the trap.
If you hang around a Las Vegas poker room for a while, you’ll inevitably hear players stake their claim on one side of this debate or the other. Each camp will have their reasons at the ready, regaling you with bad beat stories when their slow-played pocket Aces were cracks, tales of triumph when fast-played blades brought back a huge score – and vice-versa.
And that’s really the beauty of analyzing no limit Texas holdem strategy. Depending on a whole host of variables – stack sizes, table position, how many chips are in the pot, and an opponent’s playing style just to name a few – the “correct” answer can vary wildly from hand to hand.
Nonetheless, you’ll inevitably hear poker enthusiasts talk about their strategic insights using rules based on absolutes and extremes. And naturally, many of the most oft cited rules when it comes to no limit Texas holdem concerns the “right” way to play pocket Aces:
“If you ALWAYS raise with your rockets, you never have to kick yourself for allowing rags to reach the flop and deliver a bad beat.”
“I NEVER let my opponents into the pot without paying a hefty price preflop when I have Aces in the hole.”
“Anyone who doesn’t believe in ALWAYS raising their pocket Aces is either a fish or too rich to care about losing big pots.”
On that note, I’d like to dive deeper into the details on both sides of this age-old poker debate. This page will discuss five reasons why players should always* raise when they catch pocket Aces, and I’ll follow up with a companion piece with five more reasons why you should never* play the A-A aggressively preflop.
*Obviously, rules advising anyone to “never” or “always” adopt a certain strategy are defective by nature. no limit Texas holdem strategies should be flexible and fluid based on variables unique to that particular hand and situation. But the five reasons found below do explore reasons into why playing pocket Aces aggressively preflop is preferable to a slow-play approach.
1 – You Only Catch Pocket Aces Once Every 220 Hands on Average – So You Better Make Them Count
The statistical probability of landing pocket Aces – or any pocket pair for that matter – stand at 1 in 220.
That means you have odds of less than one-half of one percent to look down and find the game’s best starting hand. And those are just the inherent probabilities mind you.
Knowing all this, why would anyone waste such a rare opportunity to win the pot by messing around with a slow-playing centered strategy?
Well, one of the main reasons is actually based on those longshot odds. Just picture yourself patiently waiting for your perfect spot, waking up with pocket Aces, and making a basic raise – only to see every opponent fold their mediocre hands without a second thought.
Sure, you get to scoop the blinds (and antes in a tournament), but those chips are a mere pittance when compared to the towering stacks you planned to pillage. Fear of “scaring” the fish away when you’re armed with pocket Aces is a prime reason why many players prefer slow-playing the hand over raising preflop.
But as the 10-time World Series of Poker (WSOP) gold bracelet winning Brunson made clear, winning a small pot is vastly preferable to losing a big one. And as you’ll learn in the next section, losing with pocket Aces is much more likely than most players would imagine.
2 – Pocket Aces Aren’t Really As Strong As They Seem Once Community Cards Hit the Board
Whenever somebody suffers the cruel indignity of losing a big hand with pocket Aces, the situation is immediately dubbed a bad beat.
But for every miraculous two-outer on the river to give a smaller pocket pair a life-saving set, you’ll see plenty of A-A losses that can be attributed to basic poker probabilities.
One of my favorite tools to play around with when I’m interested in exploring poker hand equities is a holdem odds calculator. This invaluable resource lets users set up specific hand vs. hand scenarios to see exactly where various holdings stand statistically against one another.
And as you’ll see when you start experimenting with holdem odds calculations, pocket Aces are much more vulnerable than they appear – especially when your opponents are playing small pocket pairs.
For example, let’s take the classic “cooler” situation which pits pocket Aces against pocket Kings, which just so happens to rank as the second-best starting hand in Texas holdem.
Assuming both players hold the same suits, A-A vs. K-K lends the rockets an 82.36 percent chance to win by the river, the “cowboys” 17.09 percent equity, and a 0.54 percent longshot that they’ll wind up chopping the pot in a tie.
Now then, 82 percent equity in any hand is a great spot to put yourself in, but you’ll still lose with Aces vs. Kings roughly 1 in every 5 times these huge hands collide. And because a pocket pair’s rank doesn’t really matter when it comes to flopping a set – even three deuces is enough to topple two Aces – this 82 percent win rate holds true whenever you have rockets against a smaller pocket pair.
The odds are a little better when your opponent holds “big slick,” or the Ace-King hand that so many poker players love to squeeze. Per the holdem Odds Calculator, pocket Aces will beat A-K suited 87.23 percent of the time, while losing at a 11.51 percent clip. Still though, knowing you’ll lose a little more than 1 in 10 tries with A-A vs. an utterly dominated A-K is a sobering thought to say the least.
We’re talking about reasons to raise preflop to protect pocket Aces, and raising will seldom force top-tier hands like K-K and A-K out of the pot. With that in mind, let’s see how a few less powerful hands play out against the best possible starting hand.
An old maxim of poker wisdom says that J-10 suited is the best hand to hold if you have to take on pocket Aces. And indeed, the sweetest suited connector in the deck will wind up overcoming A-A on 21.55 percent of random deals.
The odds are actually even better for 8-7 suited (22.87 percent), 7-6 suited (22.87 percent), 10-9 suited (22.61 percent), and 9-8 suited (22.47 percent), proving the immense potential held by these eminently playable hands.
Here’s the thing though… most players will happily fold their mid-range suited connectors, but only when faced with a hefty preflop raise. Without that pressure play in your arsenal, you can expect to suffer a “bad beat” a little more than 1 in every 5 tries with pocket Aces.
3 – If You Want to Win a Big Pot, You’ve Got to Build it Early By Raising Preflop
This tip is deceptively simple, but it bears repeating because so many players mistakenly believe they can pump up the pot on later streets rather than preflop.
Take that A-A vs. A-K situation that seems to crop up so often in a heated no limit Texas holdem game as the perfect example. When you’re opponent has big slick, they’ll be happy to call of a big raise before the flop based on A-K’s ostensible potential to flop top-pair and top-kicker.
But with two of the Aces they need already gone, and only three Kings in the deck to work with, it’s far more likely that they’ll miss the flop and wind up with nothing but two high cards. When this occurs, most players will simply accept their fate and fold to your single continuation bet on the flop.
Conversely, by putting the pedal to the metel preflop and raising big – even going all-in if the stack to blind ratios support it – you’ll find yourself playing the best possible hand against dominated opponents with significant pots on the line.
If you’re going to lose 1 in every 5 times with pocket Aces anyhow, the goal should be to make the most of those winners by maximizing the pot size early and often.
4 – Raising on Pocket Aces Can Actually Serve to Disguise the Strength of Your Hand
Remember when I mentioned how rough it is to watch the whole table fold around right after you squeeze pocket Aces?
Well, this all too common phenomenon has prompted many recreational poker players to adopt the slow-play strategy as a countermeasure. As their reasoning goes, pocket Aces is such a strong holding that it can afford to let a few raggedy hands see the flop – THEN they can punish the fish who connect with inferior pairs and drawing hands.
Of course, the holdem Odds Calculator has already revealed that thinking to be erroneous, as many marginal hands still have a decent shot to win out over the rocket ships.
Even so, the fact that most small stakes players prefer limping in or flat calling to trap with their A-A makes raising an effectively deceptive alternative. When your opponents are expecting you to play passively preflop with monsters, while raising to bluffing on your mediocre hands, putting in a sizable raise early on can trick them into thinking you don’t have the goods.
5 – Nothing Stings Worse Than Watching Your Pocket Aces Get Cracked by Rags
Finally, anybody who has ever played no limit Texas holdem knows the deep pain associated with losing on pocket Aces.
You wait and you wait, then you finally catch the killer hand everybody hopes for, only to see some bozo beat you with a perfect flop or miracle river card. Along with the loss of your stack, a bad beat delivered to your pocket Aces can feel like you’ve lost so much more. Mere moments ago, you had visions of stacking the table chip leader and going on a major heater, and yet here you are now rebuying into the game with the last of your bankroll.
If that fate doesn’t sound up your alley, raising and playing aggressively preflop with your A-A is by far the best preventative measure. It won’t work all the time, but you’ll definitely find yourself winning more small- and medium-sized pots while avoiding the catastrophic losses that pocket Aces can endure on a bad beat.
Whether you’re just learning the game, or you’ve played no limit Texas holdem since the halcyon days of the “Poker Boom,” catching pocket Aces is a thrilling experience every single time. You’ll immediately start sizing up opponents and their stacks, your mouth watering at the idea of devouring all those chips when you flip over the dreaded A-A. But you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men, so this dream scenario can easily turn into a nightmare if you’re too passive preflop.
Now that you know about five reasons to always raise preflop with pocket Aces, be sure to check out the second part of this series on why you should never play the blades aggressively.