Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2004) in Poker Player newspaper.
Suppose you’re at a hold em table, minding your own business, and suddenly a professional player in first position slams a raise into the pot before you even look at your cards. Well, there aren’t too many hands you’re going to play in this situation. Because early seats are vulnerable in hold ’em, with so many opponents waiting to pounce later, you know that a pro usually isn’t going to barge into the pot early without a high-quality hand.
Fine. But what do I mean by “high-quality hand”? If you’re impatient, you’re going to hate this answer. But here it is, anyway. In the earliest positions, in a full-handed, limit hold ’em game (nine or 10-handed), these are the only hands you can safely play and be sure of long-range profit: 1. A pair of aces; 2. a pair of kings; 3. a pair of queens; 4. ace-king (either of the same suit or of mixed suits); and 5. ace-queen of the same suit.
Where’s the rest?
Hey! What happened to the rest of the list? There isn’t any “rest” of the list. Sure, in some games and at some times, you can mix it up and play more hands. I do. But you won’t be sure they’re profitable in all situations.
Now, let’s get back to our game. The pro in seat one has raised and now you look at your cards, and – oh, gosh – you have a pair of aces! That’s the strongest starting hand in the known hold ’em universe, so obviously you can’t fold. But should you raise or just call? There’s the question.
Just call. There’s the answer. Yes, sometimes I’ll raise just to mix up my game and keep my foes off-balance, but my primary tactic here is to call. Why? It’s because I don’t want to chase opponents out of the pot. Now, you’ve probably read that you should try to chase opponents out of the pot when you begin with aces, hoping to limit the field and protect your hand. And I hear the voices of reason worldwide, crying out to the Mad Genius, “Say it ain’t so!”
OK, relax. It ain’t so. They’re wrong, and repeating their argument with more emphasis doesn’t make it so. You see, when you have aces, you have a hand so strong that you welcome players coming to challenge it. The more the merrier? Pretty much, though not exactly. In truth – based on examining a database of over 10 million hands played for real money online – there is a point at which there are so many players gunning against your aces that you’d rather have fewer of them. The point of diminishing returns comes at about five or six opponents. But, even if you have five or more trying to shoot you down, the penalty isn’t great. Your profit will still be sizable in the long run, although you can get very frustrated along the ride, seeing the majority of your aces get beaten.
You just need to prepare yourself emotionally for the roller coaster ride, when you decide to let players in, rather than chase them out. Think more profit from each opponent — until a high number of opponents are chasing you, at which point the profit levels off and each additional player adds nothing or even makes your hand slightly less profitable. But, also remember that this extra profit per player comes at the price of frustration. You’ll lose a greater percentage of pots when you’re competing against a greater number of opponents.
Do you re-raise sometimes in the situation we’re imagining – where the raiser in first position is sitting right next to you and you, when you hold aces and must immediately follow that raise? Yes, you do. But when you do, you should be thinking about building a bigger pot and winning more profit, not about limiting the field and surviving.
When opponents come into the pot against your aces, they’re losing money on average. So, where does that money go? Well, gosh, you’re the one with aces, so it goes eventually to you. Therefore, your raise is not intended to chase players out – it’s intended to gain more money from opponents who play against you. Yes, the raise might chase them out, but that’s the sad part, not the goal.
Think about this: When you chase opponents out, it’s more likely to be the weakest ones. The ones with the stronger chances will probably stay. That means any raise intended to limit the field often risks “succeeding” by limiting the field in the wrong way – by scaring off the opponents with the weakest hands against which you’re advantage is greatest and leaving yourself stranded against the strongest hands against which your advantage is least.
In the situation we’re discussing, you should raise sometimes, but just call most of the time. And when you raise, it’s to build a bigger pot for your aces, not to limit the number of opponents. Despite what you may have heard, that’s the truth, and I wanted you to know it. – MC
33 thoughts on “Mike Caro poker word is Aces”
“on average” is your mantra – you dont win tournaments despite saying your the best – cash game your advice works – tournaments no.
once doesnt play enough tournaments to get the edge to work out – its one game
cash game – every hand is a new game
Nick, please stop! Your comment, this time, is fairly mild. But people know what you’re up to, and that’s why we so rarely respond. I intend for Poker1 to be a place for comfortable and intelligent conversation. For others who might not be aware, I hardly ever play tournaments for reasons stated here in over a dozen articles. But I’m very proud of my batting average in those I have played. And, as I’ve stated (making you partially right, despite your intent), survival is related to profit in proportional-payout tournaments. For that reason, you often should be less likely to use this advice in those events. But the article wasn’t about tournaments, was it? And, just so you know, this rare response isn’t targeted particular at your comment above, but at the totality of your comments here and on other forums under various names. — Mike Caro
Thank you for putting nick, nlcatter, nicklecatter and the rest of his aliases in his/their place.
I dont like 47% odds over 3 players, I keep getting busted out of tournament , CASH sure, no problem
Hi, Jonathan —
That’s not necessarily true. Many times you can bring out the overly aggressive nature of some pros on later rounds by simply calling. In fact, occasional trickery should be reserved mostly for use against astute opponents.
Just calling with aces is a valuable alternative play against all opponents for different reasons. Don’t be afraid to just call and see what favorable things might develop.
Yes, it’s okay to raise, especially in a no-limit game. You’re addressing a situation in which you describe no weak players remaining to act after you. You’re correct in thinking that factor weighs on the side or raising and against calling. Other factors, such as the nature of the pro and his current mood, might help you decide. It’s a tough choice, but it’s okay to just call.
Hi, Jonathan —
When you have a strong hand, your mission isn’t to keep the pot small against super-aggressive opponents. It’s to get the pot large by letting them do the betting and, at the same time, reducing the risk that they will fold.
I need your help with this thought. You say that if you raise, you risk chasing out the weaker hands. You risk isolating yourself against the better hands.
But aren’t the hands like QQ or KQ suited the hands that you’ll make the most money against? I can’t imagine that you’d lose much money by chasing out someone with 45 suited, since they’re only likely to continue if they flop 2-pair or better.
You always want weaker hands against you. You make a good point about 5-4 not hanging around to pay you significantly more money unless it connects for at least two pair. But you still get something. Even a single call from a weak hand is better than nothing — which is what you get when you raise. Again, you should often raise, anyway, but when you do, expect to lose action from the weakest opposing hands.
By the same token, you wouldn’t want to isolate yourself against a better hand if you held something like KJ. If you were only likely to get called by a strong ace or better, you wouldn’t want to raise with that KJ on the button, right?
That’s true. Unfortunately, you can almost never know this in advance.
I guess if you were in a game that was so tight, you couldn’t profitably raise with KJ on the button, you should find another table.
Usually if someone makes a raise before the flop and I’m out of position, I’ll reraise with Aces because otherwise it’s very hard to extract any money on later betting rounds unless they hit something big. They’ll use their positional advantage to slow down after the flop unless they make a two pair or better.
Don’t you find it hard to make any profit when you’re first to act?
Hi, Simon —
Thanks for contributing. I’m not sure I understand the first part of your comment, but, yes, it’s harder to make money when you’re first to act.
I’m sorry, I was just trying to say that I haven’t made it a habit to slow play out of position.
Hi, Simon — Got it. Actually, slow playing from early positions is often more profitable, because many opponents wait to act behind you who can do your betting for you. And you have the advantage, by just calling, of not chasing them and their loose money out of the pot. However, you shouldn’t slow play regularly from an early seat, only occasionally. — Mike Caro
I’ve been following your advice and it has been working! Thanks so much! On this topic about holding aces, I’m having a little cognitive dissonance that I hope you can help with? Before the flop, you can confidently inflate the pot by raising. On later betting rounds, you can rarely inflate the pot confidently because a pair just isn’t very strong. Shouldn’t I be building the pot while I know that I still have the best of it instead of keeping it small?
Hi, Nicky — Often, yes, but not necessarily. Sometimes you can let others build a pot for you, even beyond the first round, if you’re lucky enough to connect on the flop or thereafter. Calling has built-in deception in many cases. So, mix it up. Usually raise. But spice your strategy with a good share of just calling. — Mike Caro
What if you’re sure that your targeted bad player won’t exit the pot to a raise but all of the other players (good or bad) may end up leaving? Do you universally not believe in isolating with aces? Isn’t one bad player that’s willing to go broke enough?
Hi, Nicky —
That one player might be enough, but usually you want more players. When you hold aces, it doesn’t matter as much whether your callers are weak or strong. In fact, sometimes it’s the strong ones who are most likely to hang themselves.
What if you’ve just sit down at a particular table for the first time? Every player is unknown to you and you’re facing a raise when you wake up with pocket aces or kings? You have no idea if they’re going to take it all the way to the end or not. You don’t know anything about anyone. If you just call, you won’t know when you’re still good after the flop, if they keeping betting into you. Would you still call here or take the initiative before the flop usually?
Hi, Tyler —
If an unknown player raises from an early seat and I’m also in an early seat or a middle one, I’ll often just call with aces or kings, hoping to trap others. I’ll sometimes raise, though. The later my position, the more likely I am to raise. Even though, in your example, I know nothing about the other players, I’ll try to quickly determine their states of mind by looking for visual clues. So, there’s no absolute answer here.
even when I raise ACES the board flops a st for the QJ who called, and a flush draw for the Ace 5 who was short stacked all in. i have to call the post flop bet, and watch the flush come!
to be honest, the way aces have been playing out for me recently, I’m tempted to start folding them. saying that, I know there are positions where folding is sensible… late in a tournament, on the bubble, short stacked, just wanting a cash etc, etc, I’ve just never done it, can’t ever see myself doing it. anyone here ever actually folded AA before the flop?
Mike, I have to agree with you totally. Statistically speaking, and keeping rough track of my AA hands, there is a slight advantage to limping pre-flop. The other added advantage to this, IMO, is that when you do fire out after the flop, the other players generally put you on a much weaker hand and tend to call more with a pair, top or mid usually. My experience is mostly live, 1/2 and 2/5 NL.
Hi, Mike —
Taking surprise aggression after seeing the flop is, indeed, a powerful tactic that belongs in any pro-level playbook.
Thanks for the feedback and for leaving us your first comment. Please note that after this initial comment, subsequent ones will appear immediately without need for moderation.
Welcome to our Poker1 faimily.
mike- i am thinking along this line. In most situations- or all situations; when you have aces preflop, you can always go all-in. That play will eliminate any thoughts of how to play the hand from the flop onward- if the board looks scary. ALSO- you can use my quip: " In the end- we all get rivered" – Nelson Briefer
I believe this is because you are lumping together the “always fold” hands with the “forced folded” hands caused by our raise. It is possible that in certain games I am correct and in others you are, but I find it very hard to believe in todays poker climate. What do you think the average fold to one bet and a fold to cold 2 bet ranges look like?
Mike, you are truly wrong about “raising leaves the hands that fair better against our aces in the pot”. The hands that get squeezed out actually ARE the better ones against aces. The easiest way to think of this is thinking about: are people more likely to call two cold with suited connectors (the nut possiblities vs aces) ((and pairs albeit to a lesser extent)) or one after a caller? Raising in most cases actually isolates the range we fair the BEST vs, that being said I do agree people often are too worried about limiting the field and losing less often(an emotional attatchment) than making the most profitable play.
Hi, Esko —
Thanks for making your first comment and joining our Poker1 family.
I appreciate your thoughts. But just so you know, my research shows clearly that the average hand you’re up against is stronger after you raise and are called than if you just call. It’s the weakest hands that tend to fold. While you also have an advantage against the ones that call, you don’t have as large an advantage in the long run against them. This factor isn’t necessarily enough to stop a raise. Often, you should raise, anyway.
I just stumbled upon your site and am loving it so far. What forms of poker do you commonly play nowadays? Have you joined the NL bandwagon (go wherever the action is?).
I agree with you that one shouldn’t play scared with aces. But in no-limit I find myself compelled to reraise preflop if there are several callers before me. The reasoning is that I would usually reraise with AK, JJ+ and perhaps AQ to “take the dead money” without seeing a flop, so I should also do it with AA.
Finally, could you give me some advice for beating 1/2 No-limit games at the casino? I usually play six-handed games online at the microstakes, and have a hard time adjusting to casinos where limping is the norm. Because my bankroll is limited (<1000) I am playing weak-tight with a very transparent strategy. I dislike playing like that, but it seems to be profitable against opponents who don't know any better. The caveat, of course, is that I need to get dealt good cards because my winnings come from showdowns, and there are sometimes long stretches of folding and folding.
Hi, Martin —
Glad you stumbled upon Poker1 and welcome to the P1 family. Although the site isn’t ready, there’s plenty of content already here, so early visitors like you will, hopefully, find value. That’s why I opened P1 to the public during the building process, which you can follow from the “Log of changes” on the home page.
To answer your first question, I play mostly hold ’em these days, when I play at all — about half no-limit and half limit. I seldom enter tournaments, for reasons you’ll see often explained here. Basically, I’ve become a hermit in the Ozarks, where I commune with the furry forest creatures, and seldom play or make public appearances. My whole world is more and more being rolled into this web site.
I agree that you should usually raise with aces in a no-limit game where you already have several callers involved in the pot.
I think you’re on the right track with the 1/2 no-limit games. Patience is rewarded against the typical loose field of opponents that tend to populate these games.
Theoretically, you can play more hands against loose opponents, just not as many as they do. However, in these smaller casino games, the rake is a critical factor. Many hands that would be marginally profitable if there were no rake become small losers with the rake, and you shouldn’t play these. That means a great deal of sitting and waiting.
Good luck with your no-limit adventures.
I always limp in with Aces in Early Position and if a decent raise I go all in.Is this correct.Ray from OZ.
Hi, Ray —
Thanks for joining us at Poker1!
I base my conclusions on millions of hands of computer simulation and on analysis of both actual and theoretical hands. It’s usually at least marginally okay to just call in hold ’em when in an early position before the flop.
That doesn’t mean you should always do it. It’s better — against most opponents — to mix up your decisions by sometimes calling and sometimes raising. I tend to raise more often than call, but I call more frequently than most professionals. The more apt you are to be raised by aggressive opponents waiting to act, the more you should tend to just call. There are other considerations, too, and you’ll find some that I’ve written about here at Poker1 in the future.
Many experts believe it’s almost always wrong to just call. That’s silly. Their reasoning is that one of the callers, who might otherwise have folded, might come back to beat you. While that’s true, you usually want them to pay for the opportunity. You should be willing to lose more often in order to make more profit in the long run. The opposite is often true in tournaments, though, where survival overwhelms average per-pot profit. There you often need to reduce risk, and chasing out opponents with a medium raise often accomplishes that.