How to Dodge Bullets in Vegas
“I can dodge bullets baby!” rang out the now infamous catchphrase from the Poker Brat himself, Phil Helmuth. On TV the professionals sometimes make avoiding pocket aces look easy but in reality running into this hand too often will cost you. Aces is such a powerful holding in fact that Las Vegas pros coined the term 'bullets' a long time ago. That's not just because of how they look either: they are also devastatingly dominant against all other starting hands in Texas Hold'em, as profiled in this recent article. Pocket aces is an especially dangerous hand to be up against when you and your opponent are short stacked (e.g. in the middle to late stages of a tournament) and you pick up a big hand yourself. Thankfully, there are some tell tale signs to look out for:
Open Limping With Aces
Many inexperienced and some intermediate players, especially when short-stacked, will open the pot by just calling with pocket aces under the assumption that they will disguise the strength of their hand. This is almost always a mistake. Often players will make this play without ever having done so before at the table. In reality, to any kind of experienced player who is showing even the slightest interest in the table betting patterns, this play will sound alarm bells and essentially announce to the table that a big hand has been dealt. Always look out for unusual limping when a player is first into the pot.
Showing Strength From Early Position
This sounds like an old-fashioned tip but even in today's ever-evolving loose, aggressive game, a player showing immense strength from early position is usually holding a very strong hand like pocket Kings or pocket Aces. If a player raises from under the gun and is 3-bet from any other position, the re-raiser is actually showing a great deal of strength themselves by questioning the original raiser's range. If the original raiser 4-bets therefore (that's re-raising a re-raise!), he will have a super premium holding a very high percentage of the time. You will likely see raising wars on TV and in online tournament replays where top players are levelling one another with sub-premium hands from early position but in reality this doesn't happen very often. There is still a huge amount of credit attached to raising in very early position.
Showing Strength From The Small Blind
This is a slightly less commonly appreciated tell but you actually quite rarely see people getting out of line from the small blind. Players very often defend their big blind with marginal hands, especially versus a late position or button raise but much less frequently will you see this happening from the small blind. It's a tricky one to explain in terms of the exact mentality that causes this behaviour. Likely it comes from the fact that the small blind doesn't have much to play for without a strong starting hand: they only have half the big blind invested and more importantly they are guaranteed to be in the worst position at the table post-flop. Ultimately, you can attach a lot of strength to 3-bets from the small blind, especially when the original raise came from early position.
Of course, the above three scenarios do not always translate to pocket aces but if you are aware of them and exercise caution in response, you will go a long way to dodging bullets! So what can you learn from these observational techniques that we can transfer to optimal behaviour when you are the one lucky enough to be holding the pocket aces?
Don't Be Predictable At The Poker Table
The most important factor when you pick up pocket aces is unpredictability. If you are unpredictable/difficult to read, you will simply make more profit from playing pocket aces because your opponents will make more mistakes when you have them (they're usually making a mistake by playing against your hand in the first place).
The easiest way to achieve unpredictability with any hand is to behave very similarly to how you have been playing other hands preflop. Your betting patterns should not be visibly out of the ordinary – i.e. your raise should not be significantly larger or smaller just because you have a premium hand; as above, neither should you suddenly open-limp into the pot. If you've been raising to 2.2x for the whole tournament and you are suddenly dealt aces, you should still raise to 2.2x when you open the pot. Sometimes you should just call a raise with aces (and sometimes you should 3-bet with more marginal holdings to balance your range).
Know When To Fold Pocket Aces
The second most important factor is attachment. You mustn't be too attached to this hand, especially on later streets when the board texture is concerning and the pot is getting large. There's an old adage that pocket aces are brilliant for winning small pots and even better for losing big ones. The vast majority of the time, you should be looking to get as much of your stack (and our opponent's stack) in the middle pre-flop with AA but often you won't get very far with this tactic and you will just be called and have to face a flop. This is when playing pocket aces gets interesting.
Whilst it's important not to 'play scared' with AA, you must be warier as the streets continue to come. Preflop, you shouldn't really care too much what your opponent has when you have aces (unless you have some specific tell that will allow you to manipulate them) because all you want to do is get the money in the middle! However, as the flop and turn and river arrive, you need to be acutely aware of what your opponent has likely hit or which draws they are likely to be chasing and if your AA is still a winner.
Evaluate Your Opponent's Range
Unless your opponent is running some sort of elaborate bluff against you (not impossible!), they probably have a relatively strong hand if they are sticking around until later streets in the face of your value betting. That will usually be top pair or stronger, especially if you showed strength from early position preflop (most opponents won't chuck money away calling you down with a marginal holding when you've shown strength throughout the hand). Remember, better than top pair usually beats pocket aces. How likely are they to have made such a hand? How did they play preflop and from what position? Which draws on the flop might have convinced unmade hands to continue in the pot and do those hands correlate with the player's preflop range and have those draws materialised? Often, playing the very best preflop hands can be one of the hardest skills to master.