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Thinking Poker: When Ace-King Misses

  • Andrew BrokosAndrew Brokos
Thinking Poker: When Ace-King Misses

Poker can be a brutal game. Whether or not you believe that “it’s not gambling when you’re good at it,” the fact of the matter is that it’s easy to lose any money you put on the table. Of course no one enjoys losing, but many players try so hard to avoid this painful possibility — or eventuality, really — that they end up missing many profitable opportunities.

Perhaps you’ve learned already that it’s usually a bad idea to fold {K-}{K-} preflop. There are many situations where getting all in with kings is correct not because you are sure your opponent does not have {A-}{A-} — that’s often impossible to determine — but because you’re sure he could have at least a few hands weaker than your kings, such as {Q-}{Q-} or {A-}{K-}. When you consider all the possibilities, you see that getting all in is correct, even though there’s a chance you’ll end up putting your money bad.

It’s quite common in poker that a certain play is correct — that is, it has a higher expected value than your other options — even though the worst-case scenario which could result from that play is quite undesirable. If you focus on avoiding those worst-case scenarios at all cost, then you’ll miss many profitable opportunities and ultimately win less money over the course of your career than if you’d accepted more risk.

A less obvious example of the same worst-case scenario thinking occurs when players decline to re-raise with {A-}{K-} because they are not sure how to proceed if they are called and then miss the flop. It’s important to recognize that this is, though not quite a worst-case scenario, one of the less good outcomes you’re likely to get after re-raising. If you focus excessively on how much you dislike this outcome, rather than on how profitable some of the other possible outcomes are, you are making the same mistake as the player who folds kings preflop for fear of aces.

When you re-raise {A-}{K-}, there are, broadly speaking, four possible outcomes:

1. Everyone folds, and you win a small-to-medium pot without a fight.

This is an extremely good outcome, so even though it may not happen frequently in a loose game, it nonetheless contributes a lot to the profitability of the play.

2. One or more players call, and you flop top pair with top kicker... or better!

This is an even better outcome than the first one, though there’s more risk and variance involved. You won’t win every time, and when you do lose you’ll probably lose a lot, but you’ll usually win a big pot, and not infrequently you’ll win a very big pot.

3. Someone four-bets you.

Depending on the situation this can be either very good or moderately bad, but it’s rarely a disaster. {A-}{K-} is often a good enough hand with which to shove all in preflop, and if it isn't, then your opponent must have an extremely tight four-betting range, which means that this situation will very rarely occur. Although there’s even more variance and potential for big losses, this isn’t ultimately an outcome that costs you money.

4. One or more players call, and you miss the flop.

Even this is not a disaster. Continuation betting the flop may well show a small profit — though this, too, is a high-variance play where it’s easy to deceive yourself by focusing only on the worst-case scenario — but the most important thing to recognize is that it probably doesn’t have to. The other outcomes are so good that even if you checked and folded every time you saw a flop without an {A-} or a {K-}, you’d probably still show a profit on the three-bet.

Do you see the parallel to getting it in with pocket kings preflop? The worst-case scenario may be unpleasant, but you can’t let that alone guide your decision. You have to weigh the good against the bad and choose the option with the highest expected value.

Sometimes — more often than you’d like — an unpleasant situation will arise, and you may well lose money. That’s what you’re signing up for when you sit down at a poker table. There’s no way to avoid big losses and tough decisions altogether, and trying to do so is actually one of the best ways of ensuring that you’ll lose money over the course of your poker career. You might lose it slowly, but you’ll miss out on so much potential profit that you won’t win in the long run.

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