A tough spot

It’s the first hand, everyone has gone all-in and you’re on the big blind with Aces…

Like a lot of my generation the book Big Deal was part of our early addiction to the game. Near the beginning of the book our intrepid outgunned hero Tony Holden sits down in the World Series of Poker.

His nervous, fervent prayer is that he be dealt 7-2 offsuit so he can fold quietly and spend the next few minutes trying to calm down. As it happens he was dealt A-10 suited and decided to play… oh no Tony!

He also managed to call Stu Ungar’s raise and play a decent-sized pot with him on the first hand; so much for calming down.

Nowadays, the huge number of satellites and the deflationary effect on the size of the buy-in has meant that any of us could be sitting in the world’s biggest poker tournament. No matter what their level of play or how many opponents they face, everyone that sits down in the WSOP main event will dream of being the next Chris Moneymaker or Jamie Gold.

But what if this dream were to be put to the test on the very first hand? What if you end up with all your chips at stake only seconds into your planned nine-day adventure? Let’s look at a couple of hypothetical questions that put this question into context and touch on the wider fascinating area of how much weight we should give our ‘tournament life’.


You’re on the big blind and every player in front of you goes all-in. You look down and see A-A. Do you call?

Okay so we’re either looking at the mother of all cold decks, or some kind of mass table hysteria – maybe there’s a free buffet for the first player out? This is an extreme example of a surprisingly common and tricky problem to deal with, because it’s hard to decide how much equity we have in the pot.

Let’s look at some possibilities for this situation. If the other players have acted semi-rationally and have playable hands, it’s likely we will have the best chance to win the pot but obviously be an underdog to do so. For instance let’s say the others hold – 8-8, Q-J, 10-9, 6– 6, A-Q, K-K, A-K, J-J, 6-7. In this scenario we win 18% of the time. So we are a 6/1 shot with 9/1 pot odds – clearly a good deal.

Interestingly one of the key questions is whether one of the other players holds Aces as well. If we take the above holdings and change the A-Q and A-K holdings to Q-Q and A-A our equity diminishes. Now we will win the pot outright just under 2% of the time and split the pot with the other A-A about 10% of the time making it an unprofitable call. Mathematically it’s extremely unlikely that another player has Aces but with this action it’s a decent possibility that needs to be taken into account.

Nonetheless, if you’re the casual player who has qualified through a satellite, this is an almost automatic call. Yes, someone else may have the Aces and yes, you’ll lose the hand most of the time but you have the best hand right now and an opportunity to make 90,000 chips. If you’re an average player in the field, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll get to this chip stack by passing and finding a series of better spots.

The top tournament pro’s decision will likely depend on his view of the value of a big stack early in the tournament. The value of a big stack for a player who is better than the rest of the field early on in a large tournament is often overrated. It doesn’t make a huge difference to your overall expectation plus you can only win what the other players have in front of them. However, it will offer you protection against the unpredictable poor players that make big overbets as you can call without fear of going broke.

But most pros will probably fold this hand. They will figure that one of the players must be at least vaguely sane and have the Aces and that the risk of this coupled with the chances of going broke when they are likely a favourite against the field will make them fold the hand. Whether or not this is the right decision is harder to say.


Your decision to call should be based on your expectation to chip up by other means. If you can outplay the rest of your table then you should pass; otherwise call instantly


Everyone passes to the small blind who moves all-in for 10,000 chips. In doing so he accidentally exposes his cards as Q-J offsuit. You look down to find A-K offsuit. Do you call?

This situation is easier to discuss than the first as we have all the information. Our A-K is a 64/36 shot against the small blind’s Q-J – for discussion purposes we’re a 2/1 favourite to double our stack. This is a great proposition as we know we have the best hand but the kicker is if our opponent sucks out on us – which he’ll do a third of the time. We’re broke and our World Series is over.

This situation throws up a paradox – it’s the casual player that should make this call but he’s less likely to than our pro. It’s unlikely you’ll have a chance to do that again with this level of certainty in the tournament. Only players that take the game very seriously and play every day understand how small the edges are in poker. It’s very rare that you have a 10% edge on your opponents in a game.

In order to have a 2/1 edge you would have to have extreme game conditions, where your opponents would have to be really awful and the blinds would have to remain low. Rising blinds are a great equaliser.

However it’s one thing to know this is a call you should make objectively; it’s quite another for someone to call for all their chips in the first hand of the biggest tournament of their life. As a good casual player you will know you’re in a great spot but you’ll also know you won’t be playing many more tournaments like this in a hurry. You don’t want to face phoning that girl you’re trying to impress and telling her you went out inside three minutes.


Edges are so hard to find in poker that when you’re offered a 2/1 shot on a plate, you should snap it up with both hands. Yes, there’s a possibility that you may go broke but tournament poker is about making the right decisions

If you offer this proposition to a savvy tournament player in a normal $10,000 buy-in event, he will call without thinking. He understands that getting this kind of edge to double your stack is extremely difficult to find. He also knows that going broke is of little consequence in his thinking. In the early stages his existence in the tournament has little value and if he goes broke here he knows he made a good decision and can move on to the next 10k buy-in event looking to make more good decisions.

That judgement alters at huge field tournaments such as the WSOP main event. The top pro knows that there are a huge number of players who, relative to him, are dead money. Often his plan would have been to play these players in a number of small pots where he has an edge over them without the possibility of going broke.

He will also be infl uenced by his table draw. If he’s at a table of amateurs who are making big mistakes he is more likely to pass; whereas if there are two or three fellow pros at the table he may well call. He will also know that doubling his stack will allow him to dodge a number of bullets from inexperienced players and to put psychological pressure on their smaller stacks.

Specifically at the main event many pros will fold as they believe they’ll find better spots for their money where they either have a bigger edge or they have the same edge but don’t risk going broke.


If you play a lot of big tournaments, your chips should go in the middle in a fl ash – your early tournament existence is of little consequence. At a tournament such as the WSOP however, the vast amount of dead money may sway you to try to pick up chips in a safer way


These decisions are extreme examples but they touch on some difficult concepts to balance in tournament decision making; particularly your expectation in that hand versus your expectation in the tournament. You also need to assesss whether your tournament life (going broke) should factor into your decision making at all. These are big areas of discussion that should always be at the front of your mind.

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