I played the World Series of Poker Main Event for the first time in 2006 and like all rookies, I was involved in endless discussions of “The Hypothetical.” You know, it’s the first hand and you’re in the big blind. Five players move all-in. You look down at pocket Aces. What do you do?
Some first-timers insist they will fold, and plenty more at least entertain the idea. Chances are that no one has to face The Hypothetical, but what about the more plausible nightmares at the beginning of a deep-stack online poker tournament? What if you raise with Aces and get four callers? What if you have Queens in the big blind after a raise and re-raise? The early stages of a big tournament can be mortal terror for a neophyte.
Experienced players make fun of the rookies’ discomfort, but they ignore the underlying issue at their peril: with a giant stack and a lot of action, a premium hand like pocket Aces can quickly lead to trouble.
This is why I think there are a lot of times when pocket 5s are better than pocket Aces. In fact, when I get pocket 5s, I may want to be against pocket Aces. This idea synthesizes advice I received from three of my expert collaborators on The Full Tilt Poker Strategy Guide: Tournament Edition.
In his chapter on pre-flop No-Limit Hold ‘em, Andy explains how your goal with A-A is to get all your chips committed when you’re a huge favorite or are playing against a single opponent. The deeper the stacks, the less likely you are to accomplish these objectives.
Chris’ philosophy is to minimize the number of difficult decisions you have to make during a hand, and maximize the number of difficult decisions your opponents have to make. With enough chips for betting throughout the hand, a player with an over-pair faces decisions that get more difficult on each successive street.
In his chapter about online No-Limit Hold ‘em tournaments, Richard explains how tournaments have two phases: the “implied-odds” phase and the “showdown-value” phase. When stacks are deep, you want to accumulate chips with hands that offer the best implied odds – hands that can make the nuts and/or out-flop an opponent willing to double you up with a “superior” starting hand.
Playing Aces can be dangerous when you and your opponents have deep stacks. In contrast, a small pocket pair like 5-5 can’t get you in much trouble. Given that you’re going to flop a set approximately 1 time in 8, how do you know when it’s worth playing small pairs if you only have a 12% chance of making a strong hand?
For the answer, you should consider the following factors:Stack size – If it costs more than 12% of your stack to see the flop, you’re not getting the right implied odds. Adding in the times when you make a set but don’t get a big payoff, you need at least 15 times the size of the raise (probably 50 times the big blind) to achieve the risk/reward ratio that lets you call with small pocket pairs. (In these calculations, the relevant stack size is the smaller of your stack or your opponent’s.)
The best situation is being in late position, calling the raise of a tight player in early position. Ol’ Tighty probably has the kind of hand that will pay you off if you hit. In late position, you can even possibly call a re-raise with a small pocket pair. You need more than 8 times the cost of the call, but not much more – the re-raise suggests a hand that will pay you off. (You have to consider, however, that anyone left to act may push all-in before the flop.)
In early position, there’s a temptation to limp with a small pocket pair so you can call a late-position raise. That’s a mistake for several reasons. You give away information about how you play (both in this hand and in the hands where you don’t open-limp), create a limper-friendly hand that is unlikely to win you a big pot, and make it easy for Mr. Aces in late position to make a giant re-raise to chase you (and other limpers) out.
All streets after the flop are Easy Street. If you miss, you have an easy decision to fold. If you hit, you have an easy decision to play fast and get that over-pair or top-pair/top-kicker to try to push you out (especially if the flop suggests you might be moving with a drawing hand). With small pocket pairs, post-flop position isn’t that important, and that’s rare in No-Limit Hold ’em. If you join me in taking the advice of these outstanding poker pros, you can be causing, rather than suffering from, nightmares in the early stages of a tournament, whether it’s online or at the WSOP Main Event.