The true mark of a No Limit Hold’em novice is his or her complete unwillingness to throw away a poker hand that contains an ace. This single mistake probably costs more players more chips than any other. The truth of the matter is that AX combinations are a favorite against most hands.
Therefore, there is a time and a place for playing any ace high hand, but in general the hands are long term losers. The problem that arises from playing your small and medium aces, A9 for example, is the negative implied odds that are attached. To put it simply: you will rarely be able to create a large pot playing A9 unless you are beaten.
Many new poker players have a philosophy about AX starting hands – they see an ace, they see a flop. That’s a very bad habit to have, and it simply must be broken. You cannot continue to play every ace you’re dealt from every position and expect to hold on to your bankroll very long. A9 is just above the middle of the road, as AX hands are concerned, so I think it will serve as the best example to use. Remember that other ace X combinations like A4o and A6o are even worse holdings. When playing No Limit Holdem, the object of the game is to maximize your wins and limit your losses. Ace 9 is a trap hand that will tend to win small pots or lose large ones. Let me explain.
Most raising and calling hands in No Limit Hold’em poker contain an ace. If you are facing an early position raise and you are contemplating calling with your A9, let’s just think about what kinds of hands that raising player could have. If he’s not a complete maniac, we can likely put him on a relatively small range of hands, because there just aren’t many hands that are strong enough to raise with from early position. Let’s assume; AA, KK, AKs, QQ, AKo, JJ, TT, AQs, 99, 88, AQ, AJs, AJ, 77, ATs, or KQs. That’s a very loose list of starting opening hands from early position. Personally, I’d usually only open with 99 or better.
But even if our opponent is fairly loose and could have opened with any of those hands, how many of them are we beating right now? One, we are only ahead of KQs, and only by a small margin. Of all the hands that contain an ace, we have a smaller kicker. That means we are about a 4 to 1 dog to those hands. The worst thing about running into an ace with a larger kicker, though, is not the fact that we’re unlikely to win. It’s the fact that we are very likely going to lose a big pot if we hit our ace on the flop. Now, let’s assume the best case scenario. Let’s suppose our opponent opened with KQ. Now if the flop produces an ace, we’re not going to easily make much money in the hand because our opponent is not going to risk a lot of chips without holding the top pair. The combination of its difficulty in winning large pots and the ease at which it loses large pots makes A9 an extremely difficult hand to call a raise with. Usually you should just throw this hand away.
When to Play Ace High Hands in Hold’em
There are times and places to play your ace high combinations. I’d like to talk for a moment about some of the times it might be OK to play A9o. Let’s suppose you are in the middle to late stages of a NLHE sit ‘n’ go tournament. You started ten-handed with blinds of 10-20. Each player started with 1000 chips. Now, you are in the fourth blind round, 75-100, and you are short stacked with only 900 chips. This is a situation that requires you to aggressively attack the blinds in order to survive. I would move all-in with any medium or better strength hand any time no one enters the pot in front of me. A9 certainly qualifies in this spot. When the blinds are extremely high compared to your stack, implied odds considerations go entirely out the window. If you are called down by a bigger ace high hand, you’re probably going to lose. That’s the only risk in being dominated. You won’t have to worry about making the difficult types of decisions often facing you with top pair, weak kicker.
When the blinds get large and you are short stacked, it’s often wise to just limit your mistakes to one by moving all-in right from the beginning. My rule of thumb is, any time I have less than 10X the big blind, I’m playing one bet poker. In doing this you apply maximum pressure on your opponents to fold their hands and give you the blinds, which you are happy to take. When you have less than 10X the big blind, just picking up the blinds will add at least 15% to your stack size. In earlier rounds you have to worry about losing a large number of chips in relation to the blind money that you are contesting.
Remember that all pots start as a battle for the blinds and/or antes. When the blinds inflate, aggression rules the roost. Things like post-flop playability and position become less of a factor. “First in vigorish” and big cards become more important. First in vigorish refers to the edge that comes from being the first player to put your chips in the middle. It stems from the gap concept that states “it takes a better poker hand to call a raise with than to make a raise with.”
The fact that your hand is a favorite against a couple random hands also makes A9 a perfectly legitimate blind-stealing hand. When playing at sit ‘n’ go tournaments, I usually like to save my blind-stealing attempts for later rounds when the blinds are more worth stealing. But the blind thief in me would never be able to pass on a position raise with A9 before the flop. If every player folds to you on the button, or maybe even on the cut-off seat (one before the dealer), you can go ahead and fire out a little bet. I know it doesn’t make Sklansky’s top ten hand list, but it’s plenty good to justify a steal attempt. My entire bankroll is built upon stolen blinds. I have it down to a science. You need to build a tight table image and only raise with solid values in the first two or three blind rounds of a sit ‘n’ go tournament. But if everyone folds to you on the button and you have A9, you’re gonna have to play.
Another time to play A9, or any ace high hand, aggressively is when you are in one of the blinds and you are contesting the pot against another one of the blinds. If you are in the small blind and every player folds to you, go ahead and bet. Now, if you are in the big blind and everyone folds to the small blind who just completes the blind, go ahead and bet. You should really think of blind vs. blind play as a mini “heads up” game within a poker game. A9 is certainly a strong enough raising hand in heads up Hold’em, so it qualifies as a raising hand against the other blind. Until next time, Good “luck!”