Tournament loss of $47,000 on aces with $9,000 stack

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

The first time I ever heard this question was in the late 1970s. At that time, I hadn’t bothered to analyze hold ’em, but that didn’t stop me from promptly providing the correct answer.

I was playing at the now-extinct Rainbow Club in Gardena, California. A player I’d never heard of then and haven’t heard of since, “Bobby the Bullet,” had driven from Alabama. He’d stopped and played a few hands in Las Vegas, and then he decided to come see what Gardena was all about.

He sat on my right and had the annoying habit of engaging me in conversation when I was involved in a pot and he wasn’t. “Whatcha like about this game,” he wanted to know. This was a combination of youthful curiosity and bad manners, I guess.

“Faster pace than jacks-or-better,” I told him matter-of-factly, starting to raise the pot. “And there’s more skill than lowball,” I continued, after splashing the appropriate amount of chips in front of me.

Bobby the Bullet, who insisted that “My friends call me just Bullet,” continued to talk while three of us tried to concentrate on the pot. Finally, Fred, an older opponent who usually had an even temper, snarled, “Hey, show some respect! We don’t talk while other people are in the pot in Gardena!”

No talking at the table. Well, just when the Bullet seemed to be reacting angrily to this surprise scolding, half the table burst out laughing. “We don’t?” somebody questioned. “Hell, Fred, you’re always talkin’ when I’m in a hand.”

Anyway, I won the pot, and things lightened up. The Bullet, though, never stopped enlightening us about hold ’em. He just couldn’t figure out why we wanted to play draw. We explained that hold ’em and stud weren’t offered in California cardrooms – only lowball and five-card draw.

The Bullet just kept losing and losing. And the more he lost, the more he swore that draw poker was the worst game he’d ever had to sit through.

Another hour and another thousand dollars deeper into his bankroll, he said he was bored. But he was only bored for another 30 minutes, and after that he was broke.

A hunter’s game. He finally rose from the table, trying to force a feeble grin. “If you guys ever get down my way, we’ll play a hunter’s game, not a game for little boys. And I do mean hold ’em.”

That part stuck in my mind all these years – a hunter’s game, he called it, lifting a make-believe rifle, taking aim, and making a soft bullet-like whisper. I tried to put it all together, his name Bobby the Bullet, the reference to hunting, and his invitation to come to Alabama and play. But before I could unscramble it in my head, he unexpectedly slammed his palms face down on the table, hard enough to rattle everyone’s chips.

And then, relishing the tense silence he had created, said, “Draw poker is for pansies,” and walked away.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I’m telling you all this. Well, if the Bullet had disappeared right then, I wouldn’t be telling you. But he didn’t. After leaving the floor, he suddenly reappeared, tapped my shoulder, and said, “They say you’ve got a good mind for poker. Let’s say you’re at Binion’s in the hold ’em tournament. Would you ever throw away a pair of aces before the flop?”

Important question with an obvious answer. Even though I knew very little about hold ’em, I answered immediately, “Sure.”

“That’s right,” is all the Bullet said. And then, seconds later he walked away, and this time he really was gone for good.

So, Bobby the Bullet was the first one to ask me if you should ever throw away aces before the flop in a hold ’em tournament. Since then, I’ve heard that question asked – sometimes of me, sometimes of others – dozens of times.

Years have passed, and the answer is still the same, still yes. And it’s so easy to prove, you wonder why the question fascinates players as much as it does. Want the easiest proof of all?

OK. There are three of you left in a tournament, and $750,000 remaining to be awarded. The money will be divided as follows: $400,000 for 1st (40% of an original $1,000,000 prize pool); $250,000 for 2nd (25%); and $100,000 for 3rd (10%).

Right now, you have $9,000 in chips (plus $1,000 invested as the big blind), and Jack has $369,500 in chips (plus $500 invested as the small blind), and Jill has $370,000 in chips and is first to act.

Just as you look at the cards just dealt to you and see a miraculous pair of aces, Jill moves her entire $370,000 stack into the pot. You begin to say, “yum-yum” when Jack adds his $369,500 to the $500 already blinded. Both your opponents are all-in. Should you call?

Of course not! If you call, the best thing that can happen is you’ll triple from $10,000 ($9,000 stack plus a $1,000 blind) to $30,000, and you’ll have second place secured, because one of the other opponents will lose a massive side pot and be eliminated. But the worst thing that can happen is one of these two opponents will beat your aces, and you’ll settle for third place.

How likely is that to happen? About one-third of the time! That’s right, considering what players might hold in this situation, your chances of winning are no better than two-out of three. So, two out of three times, you’ve got second place secured and you have $30,000 versus $720,000 in your quest for the championship. But one out of three times you take third place and are out. If you pass, you’ll always have $9,000 left, have second place secured automatically, and be facing $741,000 opposing money in your heads-up battle.

How does calling with the aces work out mathematically? Not very well, I’m afraid. Assuming equal skills among players, and ignoring slight complicating factors regarding blinds, all-in bets, and split pots, your position in this tournament is worth $251,821.86 if you throw your aces away, and only $204,166.67 if you call.

An expensive mistake. Yes, most sophisticated players understand this concept. But I suspect many would play the aces anyway. That’s because they don’t grasp the magnitude of the mistake. Put plainly, you would be making a $47,655.20 mistake by playing your aces. And, my friend, that’s a pretty big mistake for a player with only $9,000 in chips in front of him!

While I used one of the most obvious examples of when you should pass aces, there are many more. And, it means you should start thinking about exactly which hands you really do want to play toward the end of a tournament when there’s a chance other players might be eliminated. You’ll be surprised how many hands you can throw away. — MC

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Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.

16 thoughts on “Tournament loss of $47,000 on aces with $9,000 stack”

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  1. I have thrown aces many times and always at final tables. The reasoning was that I was out of position somewhere in the field and there were two raises in front of me. I assume one of the raises is another pocket pair and the other another ace kicked high. Either way although I may be leading preflop but there is a high likelihood that after the flop my lead has diminished or is gone and while assuming another ace is out there my chances of tripping up are minimal. And then there’s the obvious reason for folding them and that is the hope that another player is eliminated thus increasing my payout.

  2. Same scenario Mike except you are UTG. The others are in for 500 & 1000, you have 10k and look down at pocket aces. What’s the play? Personally I like the shove here and hope for one caller. If you get both, you are still a 2:1 favorite. I can see flatting and looking at the flop but with only 10bbs I favor the shove. Thoughts?

  3. If it was the first hand in a main event type tourney ($5,000+ buy-in), and you have 4 all-ins before you look down at pocket aces, would you call? The percentage of winning decreases immensely, due to the amount of players in the hand, and I believe a fold is in order. Let them fight it out, and live to play another hand.

  4. easy answer ! how about QQ preflop, not in $ yet, UTG (you have covered )raises 4x, you call w QQ ,and MP (has you covered) shoves . do you call or fold.

    I folded and many at table laughed as 99 big stack lost most to JJ , and I would have tripled.

  5. I was in a tournament today which only paid three places. I was short stacked maybe 5 big blinds. Five players left. Two of the players were having a raising war. I was in a folding war. lol just hoping the other player, who was playing only when he got a good hand would get in the pot with the other two. And it happened. Allin, allin and a allin call by the passive player. One of the aggressive players won the pot and knocked both out and I got 2nd place. Then one asked the passive player why he would call there? Then I heard the same answer that I have heard 1000 times. “I don’t care about min cashing, I play to win”. twoto2too

  6. HI, Mike:
    I agree with your strategy of folding pocket AA, in the situation as you explained it (when both big stacks are all-in, in front of you pre-flop). But perhaps a better question to ask might be “what to do if you are in between the two big stacks instead and only the person on your right is all in so far” and you have pocket AA. I think the other big stack has to call if he has pocket KK or Aces and the short stack has to call, obviously. I think it’s unlikely to plan that the two big stacks would go all in against each other while the short stack is still at the table. They should wait for the short stack to blind himself out, so that they guarantee themselves 1st and 2nd place locks. It’s also silly for either of the big stacks to go all-in ahead of the other big stack, without pocket Aces, and risk getting called and ending up 3rd place.

  7. I was playing a 2/5 cash game in Tampa. I was on the button and UTG raised to 30 bucks, the player to his left re-raised to 60 bucks and the next two called the re-raise. There was 217 in the pot. I pushed my 400 bucks all in and flipped over my pocket Aces. Everybody folded and I made a quick 217 relatively risk free.

  8. I folded AA preflop to a raise and reraise 2 out of the money her locally a few years back. Come to find out it was KK vs 10-10 and of course the 10 hit the board and eliminated the Kings and would of eliminated my Aces. This was with about 30 left and I ended up making final table and finishing a solid 3rd and making a nice chunk. Since then I have had Aces busted many times preflop and sure I will again. Its Poker ladies and gentleman.

  9. Save your time hunting “Anonymous”, there are better things to do. I folded AA today! I was deep in a satellite and had two monster stacks to my left that were shoving any two to try to bust the short stacks. I continued to fold my way to success and entry :)
    Mike, as a regular reader of your tips, new and old, please keep them coming, and thanks for all of them.

    1. Why would you leave an anonymous comment like that?

      This is Poker1 and I’m Mike Caro. Who are you?

      Could you describe why you think my mathematical analysis is invalid? Can you give insight into what you think is conceptually wrong with the entry?

      You have just invalidated your entire existence and no matter how long you live or what good deeds you do in the future, you can never walk proudly on this earth again. What you’ve done is the most despicable act imaginable, and I will hunt you to the ends of the earth to right this injustice.

      Okay, so did you get the reaction you were seeking? Let me know if your psychological needs require a different response. I’ll try to accommodate.

      — Mike Caro

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