There are few moments in poker that are better than looking down at your hold’em hand and seeing a pair of kings or aces staring back at you. These premium hands don’t come often and so when they do it’s hard to resist the urge to get excited and play them fast.
Early in a multi-table tournament, though, you need to be careful to not overplay these big hands. There is a saying about big pairs that suggests you’re likely either to win a small pot with them or lose a big one. Why? Because players often make two mistakes with such hands:
This article is going to look closely at situations involving being dealt aces or kings early in a MTT in order to suggest ways to turn that above saying around — that is, to learn instead how to lose small or win big with them.
As with everything in poker, the way you play premium pairs preflop depends on a number of situational factors including position, image, table make-up, and the action in front of you. Let’s look at some of these factors as they affect different preflop situations.
When you are first to act:
If you are first to open the pot and have or , your reflex will likely be to raise. This is usually the best course of action; however, there will be instances where you will want to mix it up by just calling. Your decision as to when to do this will depend mainly on two factors: (1) whether you’ve been limping a lot previously, and (2) how the table has been reacting to limps.
If you haven’t been limping a lot, then the sudden change will probably give away too much information. If your table has been passive and not raising limps, then limping is also a bad idea as aces and kings play better in heads-up or three-handed situations than in multi-way pots. Your goals when limping should be to get more money in the pot and to minimize the field by hopefully putting in a reraise after someone raises behind. Should no raise come in and you get multiple limpers, you’ll necessarily have to treat your big pair with caution.
When there are limpers in front of you:
If the action gets to you and there have been one or more limpers, you should put in a raise almost 100% of the time. Limping behind limpers with a big hand is too cute and the fact that many assume someone raising limpers is pulling a move means there is a ton of value in raising. How much should you raise, though? Do you want to encourage the limpers to call or do you want to try to win the pot? This decision also depends on how your table has been playing.
If everyone has been calling raises, then you want to make them pay a premium and raise more than you normally would — perhaps up to five or six big blinds. Chances are you’re still going to get a call or two, but this isn’t a terrible thing as you have a great hand. If players are folding to raises, then you might want to invite someone in by making your raise a little smaller — say around three big blinds — as this may induce a reraise from someone who views your play as weak.
When you are facing a raise:
If there has been a raise before it gets to you with your aces or kings, there are in fact more options available to you than just reraising.
The increasing popularity of the squeeze play — reraising when there has already been a raise and a call — means calling a raise here can often be the best way of building and winning a big pot, but such is only worth trying if you think there are players at your table capable of pulling off a squeeze. Calling will certainly disguise the strength of your hand, as most calls of raises are with smaller pairs and big paint cards. The preflop raiser will probably put you on one of these hands and will continue to fire aggressively at the pot postflop, which can evolve into a good situation for you.
This doesn’t mean calling a raise is necessarily recommended with your big pairs. If you’ve been reraising with any frequency at all, reraising here will probably get you more action than calling. Especially if your raising opponent is not the type of player who folds to a reraise, happily get more chips in now.
When it comes to playing your aces or kings after the flop, it’s important to remember one key fact as you move forward in the hand — if a set-making ace or king does not flop, all you have is one pair. Granted, it’s a really good pair, but it is certainly not the nuts and should not be treated as such. Too many players go broke with these hands early in tournaments because they fail to understand that simple premise.
Your decision about whether to tread cautiously or play aggressively should depend primarily on one factor — how many players saw the flop with you. The more who came along, the slower you should play your hand. You’ll still want to fire out a bet or raise a bettor, but if anyone plays back at you, you need either to go into pot control mode or even to fold your hand.
If you saw the flop with only one or two opponents, you should be more willing to go with your hand. At the same time, however, this doesn’t mean you have to shove all your chips into the middle. If your opponent is happy to commit chips against you there is probably a good reason, so think hard about what range of hands you could be up against.
Early in a tournament, it’s always best to err on the side of caution if you are unsure of what your opponent holds and your big pair is vulnerable. As another saying goes, you can’t win a tournament in the first hour, but you can definitely lose it.
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