Scott,

Have you got any tips on playing "ace-rag" hands? Seems like when I play them, I get into trouble a lot of the time, but I witness other players winning with them all the time.

--Don, New York

Dear Don,

I try to stay away from those hands -- I'm fairly certain that I fold them more often than anybody I know. My definition of "weak ace" is everything unsuited below A-Q. Not only am I gladly folding A-J and below when facing a raise, but I'm almost never even limping in, regardless of my position.

There are a variety of reasons why I'm on the extremely tight side of the spectrum with regard to this hand range. Some of the most useful poker lessons I've learned stem from simply witnessing a pattern. There are some things you just can't ignore.

Let's try an example. You're playing a no-limit cash game and are dealt A-9 offsuit on the button. The action folds all the way around to you. What's your move? You have to raise, right? You have position against the two players who were forced to post blinds. With such a significant advantage, some would say you should raise no matter what you're holding. Plus, A-9 is much stronger than the average starting hand. (It's been calculated that Q-7 is the midpoint of the full range of starting hands.)

Congratulations: The odds say you're likely to have the best starting hand of the three players remaining. But hold on: You haven't won the pot yet, and now the math begins to fade away. These calculations have nothing to do with what's about to unfold.


Advertisement

If you raise, then to the players in the blinds it will look like you're simply making the automatic raise-from-the-button play. If I'm one of the blinds, I won't be quick to fold my hand against a guy who essentially might be raising in the dark. I'm going to put up a fight and re-raise you.

Now the other blind folds and the action is back to you. Guess what? You're in the unenviable position of facing a raise with ace-rag. But that isn't going to slow you down, because you have position on a guy who could be raising you solely on principle. You have position and an above-average hand, and you realize that I might think you have garbage. You call.

I act first after the flop, and I'm likely to bet as a continuation of my aggressive play. The flop has missed you completely. What's your move? How exciting is your above-average starting hand now?

See where this is headed? It's a game of chicken: I know that you know that I was going to do this, so I'm going to do that. You're caught up in a guessing game now.

This is a common example of the pitfalls you face when playing ace-rag in late position.

How about from early position? Let's say you find the A-9 again and limp in. There's a small raise, and you call. The flop brings an ace -- yay! But when you hit the ace on the flop, you have to proceed with extreme caution, because often your opponent will have an ace and a bigger kicker, putting you in trouble.

If the opponent who raised has a big pair, he'll completely shut it down with the ace on board, which means you can't win a big pot from him.

You can lose big or win small.

Basically, I just get an icky feeling whenever I have ace-rag hands, so I avoid them. It has a lot to do with the fact that I win most of my money when I'm exploiting the weaknesses of the other players instead of letting my cards and math do the talking. There's no rule that you must play above-average hands.

Scott Fischman is a professional poker in the live and online poker worlds. He has won two World Series of Poker bracelets and has accumulated nearly $3 million in career earnings. He is also the author of the poker book "Online Ace." Send your poker questions to him at pokerquestions@gmail.com or on Twitter: @scottfischman88.