The Phases of Aces

Not once but twice in my session the other day someone had the chance to go all in pre-flop against me with pocket aces, and declined. What’s strange about this is that aces are the nuts pre-flop. If you’re not going to get your money in with the best hand, what exactly are you trying to do at the poker table?

It’s actually a little more complicated than that. In Omaha, aces aren’t in fact a hand, but a range of hands. Ace-ace-jack-ten double-suited is a much different – and better – hand than ace-ace-seven-deuce with no suits. Additionally, aces aren’t nearly as powerful in Omaha as in Hold’em. In Hold’em aces are about 85% to win against a random hand. In Omaha it’s only 65%. Nonetheless, aces are still favored against any non-aces starting hand. So why didn’t they go all in?

I’ve found there are certain patterns in how people play their aces in Omaha. At first, they go nuts with them. This is probably because most people come to Omaha from Hold’em, where aces are incredibly powerful. They raise pre-flop, raise post-flop, and keep betting until all the money’s in. This may work for a little while, but inevitably it costs them some big pots, because it’s not really a good strategy in Omaha. On the flop an overpair with nothing to go with it is often nearly worthless in Omaha, especially against multiple opponents. After losing a few pots where they overplay aces, novices soon learn to be more circumspect. Often, they’re helped along by advice from an old-timer that aces are nothing special in Omaha. Not exactly true, but common wisdom nonetheless.

In the next phase of their aces development, they do an about face, and play them incredibly passively. They almost never raise them unless maybe they can get all in – and sometimes, like I was saying, not even then. Many players are very concerned that if they raise pre-flop they will “advertise” their aces, so they play passively to keep them concealed.

And this is where many players’ development with aces stops. You might think that given a long enough time frame, feedback would eventually push players towards an optimal strategy. But in poker at least there appear to be ruts – places where quirks of psychology or the game itself push players into bad strategies that they can’t escape from. Playing aces passively is a very common example of this. It’s a well-known facet of our psychology that negative experiences have stronger and longer-lasting effects than corresponding positive experiences. Many players fixate on a few very negative experience with aces, causing them to undervalue them from then on.

So what’s a better strategy with aces? Well it is true that effectively revealing your cards early in the hand with a lot of money left to play for is a huge problem, one that will be exploited ruthlessly by good opponents. For that reason raising with aces and no other hands is a very bad strategy. As is often the case in poker though, the best strategies turn out to be quite aggressive. Rather than concealing your aces by playing them passively, it’s usually a better idea to play a lot of hands besides aces aggressively. This disguises your hand while keeping raising in your arsenal, which is very powerful. You certainly want to be able to put more money in the pot when you have a great hand.

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