The first time I ever heard this question was in the late 1970s. At that time, I hadn’t bothered to analyze hold’em, but that didn’t stop me from promptly providing the correct answer.
I was playing at the now-extinct Rainbow Club in Gardena, California. A player I’d never heard of then and haven’t heard of since, “Bobby the Bullet,” had driven from Alabama. He’d stopped and played a few hands in Las Vegas, and then he decided to come see what Gardena was all about.
He sat on my right and had the annoying habit of engaging me in conversation when I was involved in a pot and he wasn’t. “Whatcha like about this game,” he wanted to know. This was a combination of youthful curiosity and bad manners, I guess.
“Faster pace than jacks-or-better,” I told him matter-of-factly, starting to raise the pot. “And there’s more skill than lowball,” I continued, after splashing the appropriate amount of chips in front of me.
Bobby the Bullet, who insisted that “My friends call me just Bullet,” continued to talk while three of us tried to concentrate on the pot. Finally, Fred, an older opponent who usually had an even temper, snarled, “Hey, show some respect! We don’t talk while other people are in the pot in Gardena!”
No talking at the table. Well, just when the Bullet seemed to be reacting angrily to this surprise scolding, half the table burst out laughing. “We don’t?” somebody questioned. “Hell, Fred, you’re always talkin’ when I’m in a hand.”
Anyway, I won the pot, and things lightened up. The Bullet, though, never stopped enlightening us about hold’em. He just couldn’t figure out why we wanted to play draw. We explained that hold’em and stud weren’t offered in California cardrooms – only lowball and five-card draw.
The Bullet just kept losing and losing. And the more he lost, the more he swore that draw poker was the worst game he’d ever had to sit through.
Another hour and another thousand dollars deeper into his bankroll, he said he was bored. But he was only bored for another 30 minutes, and after that he was broke.
A hunter’s game. He finally rose from the table, trying to force a feeble grin. “If you guys ever get down my way, we’ll play a hunter’s game, not a game for little boys. And I do mean hold’em.”
That part stuck in my mind all these years – a hunter’s game, he called it, lifting a make-believe rifle, taking aim, and making a soft bullet-like whisper. I tried to put it all together, his name Bobby the Bullet, the reference to hunting, and his invitation to come to Alabama and play. But before I could unscramble it in my head, he unexpectedly slammed his palms face down on the table, hard enough to rattle everyone’s chips.
And then, relishing the tense silence he had created, said, “Draw poker is for pansies,” and walked away.
Now, you’re probably wondering why I’m telling you all this. Well, if the Bullet had disappeared right then, I wouldn’t be telling you. But he didn’t. After leaving the floor, he suddenly reappeared, tapped my shoulder, and said, “They say you’ve got a good mind for poker. Let’s say you’re at Binion’s in the hold’em tournament. Would you ever throw away a pair of aces before the flop?”
Important question with an obvious answer. Even though I knew very little about hold’em, I answered immediately, “Sure.”
“That’s right,” is all the Bullet said. And then, seconds later he walked away, and this time he really was gone for good.
So, Bobby the Bullet was the first one to ask me if you should ever throw away aces before the flop in a hold’em tournament. Since then, I’ve heard that question asked – sometimes of me, sometimes of others – dozens of times.
Years have passed, and the answer is still the same, still yes. And it’s so easy to prove, you wonder why the question fascinates players as much as it does. Want the easiest proof of all?
OK. There are three of you left in a tournament, and $750,000 remaining to be awarded. The money will be divided as follows: $400,000 for 1st (40% of an original $1,000,000 prize pool); $250,000 for 2nd (25%); and $100,000 for 3rd (10%).
Right now, you have $9,000 in chips (plus $1,000 invested as the big blind), and Jack has $369,500 in chips (plus $500 invested as the small blind), and Jill has $370,000 in chips and is first to act.
Just as you look at the cards just dealt to you and see a miraculous pair of aces, Jill moves her entire $370,000 stack into the pot. You begin to say, “yum-yum” when Jack adds his $369,500 to the $500 already blinded. Both your opponents are all-in. Should you call?
Of course not! If you call, the best thing that can happen is you’ll triple from $10,000 ($9,000 stack plus a $1,000 blind) to $30,000, and you’ll have second place secured, because one of the other opponents will lose a massive side pot and be eliminated. But the worst thing that can happen is one of these two opponents will beat your aces, and you’ll settle for third place.
How likely is that to happen? About one-third of the time! That’s right, considering what players might hold in this situation, your chances of winning are no better than two-out of three. So, two out of three times, you’ve got second place secured and you have $30,000 versus $720,000 in your quest for the championship. But one out of three times you take third place and are out. If you pass, you’ll always have $9,000 left, have second place secured automatically, and be facing $741,000 opposing money in your heads-up battle.
How does calling with the aces work out mathematically? Not very well, I’m afraid. Assuming equal skills among players, and ignoring slight complicating factors regarding blinds, all-in bets, and split pots, your position in this tournament is worth $251,821.86 if you throw your aces away, and only $204,166.67 if you call.
An expensive mistake. Yes, most sophisticated players understand this concept. But I suspect many would play the aces anyway. That’s because they don’t grasp the magnitude of the mistake. Put plainly, you would be making a $47,655.20 mistake by playing your aces. And, my friend, that’s a pretty big mistake for a player with only $9,000 in chips in front of him!
While I used one of the most obvious examples of when you should pass aces, there are many more. And, it means you should start thinking about exactly which hands you really do want to play toward the end of a tournament when there’s a chance other players might be eliminated. You’ll be surprised how many hands you can throw away.