It’s easy to get carried away when you peek at your first card and it’s an Ace. But how much use is it when it comes with junk?

Ace-rag, Ace-junk, Ace-x – whatever you call an Ace with a small kicker, the fact remains that in no-limit Texas Hold’em, little Aces are big trouble!

Now, if you’ve been playing Hold’em for a while, I guarantee you can identify with the following situation. And if you’re new to the game, trust me… you’ll find out.

Consider this typical hand: You’re sitting in late position with A-3, and it’s not raised to you, so you happily call along. The flop comes down A-x-x and it’s checked around to you. No one seems too excited about the Ace, so you take a shot at the pot. A foe in early position raises and it’s folded round to you. Now you have a problem. Is your opponent slow-playing a better Ace, or has he put you on a steal and decided to play back at you? The weakness of your kicker puts you in a tough spot. Discretion being the better part of valour, you could decide that you’ve been caught (semi-) stealing, and release your hand. But what if you have the best hand? You’d certainly hate to throw away a winner. So what do you do?

Let’s imagine you decide to call along, and when the dust finally settles, you discover that your opponent has A-J off-suit. Not a good enough hand to bet from early position, but easily good enough to tangle with you and your late position (possible steal) bet. In the end you find that you’ve lost the hand, a big chunk of chips and, not incidentally, your cool.

This is the bane of bad Aces, summed up in the following fact: little Aces usually lose to big Aces. In fact, losing to big Aces is what little Aces do better than anything. So while it’s true that an Ace is the best card you can have in Hold’em, don’t get carried away with its supposed strength. Like a certain type of ham actor, it needs a strong supporting cast. The cast in this case is a good, strong kicker. Without it, your Ace is often perilously exposed, which is why some people call Aces with low kickers naked Aces. Let’s look at some of these naked Aces and see if there are any worth playing.

Suited A-x – flush ’em out

Of all naked Aces, suited ones are the most playable because they have the potential, of course, to make the nut flush. You should try to play bad suited Aces in volume pots with lots of callers and no raisers. This will generally give you correct odds to call along pre-flop, and possibly correct odds to call again on the flop if you pick up the nut flush draw and don’t have a big bet to call. You may also have some semibluffing opportunities, if, say, your suited Ace hits a flush draw but is still the best hand even if it fails to improve. This could happen, for example, when you pick up the flush draw, another player picks up a worse flush draw, and no one else has anything. In that instance, your post-flop bet has a chance of taking out most of the field and leaving you heads-up against someone who thinks they’re drawing much more live than they are.

Take this, for example. Say you’re in late position and you see an un-raised flop four-handed with A-6. The flop comes 8-5-2 . Not much out there for anyone to get excited about… except some poor unfortunate holding K-J . That player probably thinks they’re drawing to 15 outs, but in reality only his over-card outs are good. If they don’t improve, you’ll win the pot, and if he improves to a flush you’ll probably get your hands on his entire stack.

Overcoming kicker trouble

Sometimes the suited nature of your Ace can neutralise the weakness of your kicker, or at least give you an escape hatch on the hand. Suppose you’re holding A-2 suited in the big blind and see a flop of A-x-x, with just one of your suit. It’s hard for you to bet in early position here, since anyone holding an Ace will have a better one than yours. While it’s nice to think that you can bet out and get hands like A-9 and A-10 to fold, in today’s no-limit wilderness, such thoughtful tightness is rare. Besides, if you can get players to fold to your early position bet with a bad Ace,

you can get them to fold with anything, and that’s called a bluff, not a bet with a bad Ace. In this instance, then, you check and, if you’re lucky, everyone else checks too, giving you a free card. Should the turn card come suited to your Ace, you pick up a flush draw to go with your top pair, no kicker. Now you can bet out, knowing that if you don’t have the best Ace (because people may trap with big Aces or a set) at least you have the best draw. Typically, a mid-to-good Ace will now raise for value, blithely unaware that you’re drawing to the nuts. If they don’t raise enough, and you’re getting pot odds to draw, go ahead and call. Should your bingo card come – a card completing your flush – you’re in position to value bet back at him. He may interpret your bet as a bluff and pay you off, or he may just give up on the hand. Either outcome is good for you.

Note that this trick can also work if you hold A-x unsuited and the turn produces a third card suited to your Ace. There’s a problem though. With three suited cards on board, someone may already have the flush. If you take big heat, you’ll have to fold. Sure, you’re still drawing to the nuts, but someone with a made hand will not (or should not) let you draw cheaply. Moreover, with three suited cards on board, one in your hand, and two presumably in a foe’s hand, you’re down to just seven outs, making it that much more unlikely that pot odds will justify a chase.

A-x unsuited – low tops

One reason people get excited about middling suited Aces, hands like A-8 and A-9, is that they’ll often encounter a flop like 8-3-2 or 9-6-4, and fancy themselves to be driving the bus with top pair, top kicker, otherwise known as ‘top/top’. We’ve talked about top/ top before, in our discussion of A-K two months ago, and noted big slick’s happy ability to flop top/top two different ways. Little Aces, of course, do not have this strength. They can only flop top/ top one way – and it’s a fragile way at that.

Suppose you get frisky with A-9 and raise from late position, getting a call from the button and another from the big blind. What do you reckon these players have? Better Aces and pocket pairs are the likely candidates, candidacies that you don’t discount, but nevertheless feel safe against when the flop comes down 9-x-x. Ignoring for the moment the possibility that someone has flopped a set, are you really leading in the hand? Someone could easily have pocket Tens or Jacks, and even someone with over-cards is drawing live, unless you bet big enough to protect your hand. And what if they play back at you? Are you willing to commit your whole stack in this situation? If you did, you would have to be hoping that they were betting on a bluff, a draw, or a vast overestimation of the strength of an under-pair. There’s a saying I heard that goes: When all the money goes in the middle, top pair/top kicker should not be good enough to win. If it is, someone has made a mistake.

Can you count on your opponent being that someone? Would they push with K-9 or pocket Eights? Or did they semi-drag an over-pair that is now, truly, in command? Or did the other player, in fact, flop a set? Now your top/top has become an untenable mess. This is a mess you can easily avoid, though, if you just do this one thing right: fold bad Aces. Fold ’em early and often. Take pride in being the sort of player who doesn’t get seduced by the mere presence of an Ace in hand. Many others do, you know, and you can do quite well at their expense if only you don’t fall into their trap. Don’t be shy about giving up on medium Aces, either. Remember, there’s not much difference between A-9 and A-2 when your foe holds A-K or A-Q – you still have to hit your weak kicker to win, and you still have to have that kicker stand up. Trust me when I say that players who treat their bad Aces like bad medicine are players who can master no-limit Hold’em.

A-x unsuited – ‘any Ace’ line

It was in a little Colorado cardroom, more years ago than I care to count, that I first observed the phenomenon of the ‘any Ace line’. A game that’s said to be below the any Ace line is one where everyone will play any Ace, no matter how small, in any position, no matter how weak. Now it happens that that game was fixed limit Hold’em, and in fixed limit, the play of bad Aces is generally more promiscuous (though no more correct) than in no-limit. Nevertheless, many Hold’em players get way too loose with bad Aces, and thus we can say that every Hold’em game has its own definable any Ace line. Your job is to figure out where, exactly, that line lies.

Will your foes play Ace-rag only if suited? Will they open from middle position with middle Aces? Will they play only ‘good’ Aces, like A-J and above? This last piece of information is especially handy to have, for not only will it keep you from being trapped in a bad kicker situation, it’ll hand you a marvellous steal opportunity when the board comes coordinated or low (or coordinated and low) and you know that your foe likely has only over-cards, which he may be willing to surrender to a bet.

All of this, of course, falls under the heading of… Know Your Foes. If you know how your foes play their Aces, then you also have the key that unlocks the rest of their game. After all, you can expect that someone who calls raises with A-4 suited to be loose in other ways as well. And conversely you can expect someone who treats bad Aces with the circumspection they deserve to be sensibly tight elsewhere. In a sense, then, the play of Aces defines your enemies completely. It’s a microscope through which you can study them and analyse their play.

A-x – the big conundrum

As it happens, if you’re using the play of Aces to go to school on your foes, the smart ones among them are using that same filter through which to analyse your play. This presents a conundrum. In the name of playing bad Aces correctly, you should usually fold them; however, in the name of being unpredictable and inconsistent, you sometimes have to mix up your play. After all, if you always folded naked Aces, though you’ll be playing sufficiently tight, you’ll be giving away far too many consistency clues to your thoughtful and observant foes. With that in mind, consider mixing up your play of weak Aces as follows:

• Value suited Aces: being suited adds only 3% of overall value to a Hold’em hand. That is, a suited hand will win only 3% more often than the related non-suited holding. And while that 3% is not nearly enough to turn a fold into a call or raise, it is enough to use as a method for mixing up your play. If you fold all unsuited naked Aces, but call or raise with the suited ones, you’ll be sufficiently tight in your play of bad Aces, yet sufficiently unpredictable that your opponents can’t reliably put you on a big hand when you get involved. Given that you’re going to get out of line sometimes (as everyone does), try to save your reckless adventures for when you have suited cards, at least, on your side.

• Value position: It’s not news that position is critical in Hold’em; even so, a bad Ace that gets to act last is much less likely to get trumped by a good one than a naked Ace that wanders blithely into that trap from early position. So, again, if you must play junk Aces, try to play them from late position, and especially try to play them in unraised pots. That way, if the flop isn’t favourable, you’ll be able to get away from your hand cheaply. And never forget that a bad Ace is a drawing hand. If it’s suited, it’s drawing to a flush. If the kicker is a wheel card, it’s drawing to a straight (but only an inside straight). It’s also drawing to two-pair, which can be a sweet, and well camouflaged, hand. But all of these draws taken together don’t make up for the fact that bad Aces are seductive losers if you keep calling only to get outkickered.

• Value (but don’t overvalue) two-pair: As just mentioned, Ace-x does a good job of hitting a well concealed two-pair. This is worth drawing to, especially if you have position over your foes, and especially if you can get them to pay you off with their good Aces. But don’t get carried away with this, for even if you hit your two-pair, there’s a possibility that you’re already behind in the hand, and even if you’re temporarily ahead, you could easily fall behind on the turn. Say you limp in with A-6, and hit your bingo flop of A-6-2. You’re in great shape, right? So you go ahead and bet. But if you’re called by someone holding a good Ace, you have to fear any King, Queen, Jack, or Ten on the turn. If one of these cards pops up on the turn, it may freeze your action. Worse, it may embolden your foe to bluff. Worse still, it may actually give him a higher two-pair, which would be a disaster for your hand.

While it’s fine, then, to get excited about flopping two-pair, don’t go insane. Bet it very strongly on the flop, to try to win the pot right there, and be wary of high cards on the turn. Just because you were once ahead in the hand doesn’t mean you’ll stay ahead all the way, and if you get married to your bad Ace it’s going to lead you to an unhappy end.

What, exactly, is a bad Ace?

The holdings we’ve considered here are anything from A-9 to A-2, and by my definition they’re all bad Aces. Yes, they can sometimes be played profitably, but they can also be played disastrously wrong. The pots you win will tend to be small (such as when yours will be the only Ace and no one will give you action). The pots you lose will tend to be big (like the times you’re outkickered or outdrawn). With these grim statistics in mind, I default to my core advice: fold bad Aces most of the time. If you do this, you won’t go far wrong.

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