Ever lost your cool at the table? Asked another player where they are hiding their four leaf clover? Told them to take the horseshoe out of their you-know-where? We’ve all been there. It can be frustrating to lose hand after hand, but this is the poker world live in. In “The Value of Ace-King” we reveal the odds of a few pre-flop hand matchups to show that you will never be 100% to win. This provides real evidence that there is only so much you can do in a poker game and the rest will be determined by luck. Our goal is to ensure that you are putting your money in with the best chance to win given the cards left in the deck, over and over again. What keeps winning players calm when getting unlucky is their awareness that each game is one point on a much larger dataset. You can’t lose every all-in over the long run. Eventually you will be deep in a tournament, win a 50/50 race, and make some money. The rewards for these deep runs are far greater than all of the other buy-ins that were lost along the way. I recall investing $22 into an online tournament and winning $25,000 ten hours later. Train yourself to look inward on every knockout and determine if you were mathematically ahead when the money went in. This process will teach you that you are in control and whatever that specific opponent did is unimportant in the long run.
Winning players also have strict bankroll management strategies. We strongly recommend not investing more than 5% of your poker bankroll into any one buy-in. This will ensure that you are able to view poker as a fun game and not let the money sway your decision-making. There are online buy-ins for less than $1 if you are looking to start building slowly. “Cashing,” or making it to the money, in about 1 out of 6 tournament buy-ins is a good initial goal. This means that you can still make profit by “getting unlucky” in 5 tournaments and cashing in only 1. Eventually a cash will turn into a final table.
So how do we put ourselves in the best possible position when all-in? We must look at a number of variables, with the most significant being stack size and table position. Grab a sheet of paper and draw a table with 9 seats. Add the button, small and big blinds. Now write “10bbs” over each seat (bb = big blind). We’re going to start this exercise from one seat to the left of the big blind (called under the gun). Write “88+,AJ+”. Now move one seat to the left and write “88+,AJ+” again. One more time “88+,AJ+” in the seat to the left. You should have 3 seats with this hand “range”. For the seats in middle position (the next three seats) write “77+,A10+”. For the button, write “66+,A9+,KQ”. For the small blind, “22+,A2+, KJ+”. Don’t worry about the big blind for now. What you’ve just created is a 10 big blind all-in chart. A “+” symbolizes “or better”, for example, 77+ symbolizes a hand range from 77-AA and A10+ means A10-AK. Hands like K-Q and 66 should be folded if they do not appear in the range.
Notice how the hand ranges weaken as you move around the table in your chart. This happens because there are fewer potential callers to your left. Take a hand like 2-2 for example. 2-2 will be about 50/50 against any two over cards and about 20/80 against any higher pocket pair. When we are dealt 2-2 from under the gun, there are 8 other players that can potentially wake up with a higher pocket pair, putting us at an extreme disadvantage. Now compare to having 2-2 where 7 other players have already folded and you are in the small blind. There is about a 6% chance that the big blind will be holding a higher pocket pair, so you will most likely get a fold and win the blinds and antes or be in a 50/50 race if called by two over cards. This scenario can be described as “unlucky if the big blind has us dominated or 50/50 when called.”
In order for this particular chart to have value you must have 10 big blinds and the action must fold to you. I’ve asked you to create this in hopes that you come across a scenario where you have 10 big blinds, are holding A-Q under the gun, and know to move all-in. Or maybe you are in the small blind with A-2, then the action folds and you shove. The chart should serve as a guide, but also have you asking, “what about 5 big blinds from the button?”, “20 big blinds from the cut off?”, “what if someone raises in front of me?” The Poker Model has all-in hand ranges for any combination of table position, stack sizes, and other potential all-ins. Consider this the start of a longer conversation about when to put your money in pre-flop. Fill out the contact form with your specific questions as always.
Before we jump into this example, grab a clean sheet of paper (or flip your old one to save a tree) and draw a 9-person table with a button, small and big blind. Elliot and I will spout tears of joy if you are able to write in the number of big blinds that each player has on your chart from the image above. As a reminder, take the number of chips in a player’s stack and divide by the big blind. Fill all 9 out and get comfortable with the thought process, this is how you will start all tournament poker hands moving forward. Get used to doing this fast and you will be able to play more than 1 table well at a time. There is no better way to maximize the value of a 6-10 hour session then to be able to multi-table. At the height of my poker career, I was able to start 12 tables within a two hour window and play how The Poker Model suggests. See the stack, divide by the big blind, repeat. Today you’ve been let in on a secret that will empower you to quickly learn what players are going all-in with. It’s not always pocket aces.
In the image above, a player is all-in for about 6 big blinds from early table position. Earlier we learned that a 10 big blind all-in could be a range of around 88+ to AJ+ and probably not lower pocket pairs and other Ace or King-High hands. If the all-in had been 10 big blinds, it would be unwise for me to make the call because I’d be about 50/50 against some of the pocket pairs (8-8,9-9,10-10) and be dominated by all of the other possible hands (about 70/30 against). I would need a hand better than most of the hands in the 88+ or AJ+ range to call because I can expect my opponent to have a hand of that strength. Generally speaking, facing a 10 big blind all-in holding A-K is a great position to be in because your opponent may have A-J or A-Q, while facing a 10 big blind all-in holding A-J is not so great because your opponent may have A-Q or A-K. The above is not always so black and white and it is not our intention to over-complicate these situations. Do your best to try some all-in hands and we’ll do ours to share more resources.
In this hand, the player does not have 10 big blinds, however. With fewer chips, players move all-in with weaker hands. They must do so in order to stay alive as the blinds and antes take chips from their stacks. For a 6 big blind stack from early position, The Poker Model predicts a potential hand range of low suited connectors+, any pocket pair, any Ace, or any King. Now we’re talking. My A-J will be a favorite to a much larger range of hands now and it is in my best interest to call. The highest hand I would fold here would be 7-7, A-9 or K-Q because of the potential action behind me.
I’m fairly confident that I’m mathematically ahead of the 6 big blind all-in with my A-J because my hand beats all low suited connectors, lower ace or king high hands and is 50/50 against most pocket pairs, but what if the players behind me pick up a hand? It’s an interesting question. If I just call the 6 big blind all-in, then I’ll leave myself with about 13 big blinds and have my tournament life. The problem with this approach is that if a player behind me goes all in then I’ll know I’m beat and will have donated 6 big blinds to a pot that I’m not even in! If I had a much larger stack (+35 bbs), then I’d consider making the flat call because if a player moves all-in behind me I can still fold and have plenty of chips left. I would make this play if player’s stacks to my left are on or around 25 big blinds. With players on my left having shorter stacks, like 10 big blinds, I’d have to call their all-ins knowing I’m behind due to pot odds. More on pot odds elsewhere in the blog.
With more chips there is also a play where I can min-raise the 6 big blind all-in and make it harder for players behind me to get involved. I’d only do this if players to my left had much deeper stacks in an effort to isolate and keep my tournament life regardless of if they pick up a big hand behind me. If players to my left all had 6 big blinds, then I would have no reason to fear their over the top all-in.
The main takeaway here is that nothing is for certain. The 6 big blind all-in may have A-A or the player on the button may have K-K. Remember above that this is one data point on a larger set. We can be fairly confident that A-J is dominating the 6 big blind all-in and that the players behind us do not have a hand.
I choose to move all-in with my 19 big blind stack in hopes of isolating the action (getting all other players out of the hand – see Small Stack Isolation). We can be confident in this play that it is unlikely players behind us will have a hand and also because we should be beating the range of hands that the 6 big blind all-in is holding. In order for a player behind me to call an initial 6 big blind all-in, with a 3-bet 19 big blind all-in on top, they would need a premium hand like A-K, J-J, A-Q, Q-Q, K-K, or A-A (JJ+, AQ+). Because I’m holding an Ace and a Jack in my hand, it lowers the odds of my opponent holding some of those hands. While my tournament is now at risk, I realize that it will be unlucky for me to lose this hand. As a review, it is unlikely that a player behind me will catch a big hand and the range of hands from the initial all-in is so wide that I should be ahead. Anything can happen, let’s see what the outcome is.
The plan worked. All of the players to my left folded leaving me isolated with a hand that I am dominating. They must have had worse than my A-J. Additionally, the 6 big blind all-in has A-5. We were able to determine that his hand range was wider due to his short stack. This allowed us to justify playing the hand against him with a good, but not great hand like A-J. We’ve dodged a few bullets, but played the hand well.
Now for the exciting, gut-wrenching part where everyone loses their cool; the runout of cards. I’ve made the correct moves, have my isolation, and am still only 70% to win the hand. As a poker player I have done my job. There is nothing I can say or do to win at this point. My opponent is looking to hit one of the 3 remaining 5s in the deck or some straight or flush and has about about a 30% chance of doing so. Try to enjoy the ride as the cards come out.
Nice! My hand holds up and I win a nice pot. I feel good for a few moments and then, you guessed it, check out all of the new stacks at the table to determine big blinds for the next hand. There will be more all-ins coming soon with different big blind sizes, table position and hands.
It is our hope that we have let you in on a valuable secret in poker today; that we can use the number of big blinds in a player’s stack to determine a range of hands that they may have when moving all-in. In today’s example, this knowledge allowed us to be fairly confident that we were ahead of another player without ever seeing a Flop, Turn or River. This concept changed the way I saw the game and was a major factor in understanding other areas like this. The answers are in the numbers, not the facial expressions.