The play of KK before the flop:
Has anyone here [a reader] thrown away KK before the flop? Likely many have and some are proud of it. The following question casts some doubt on that decision. Were they correct in doing so? Quite likely it was a mistake and I will explain why in the article below. Many of the players that have told me that they laid it down before the flop were professionals seeking confirmation that they did the right thing. They came to the wrong person to reinforce this decision!
First I will parenthetically mention the number one hand before the flop, AA. One can construct a situation where prior knowledge of the other players and their actions might make it correct to lay down this hand [before seeing a flop] but the truth is it is almost never right, with the one exception of super-satellites. In a super-satellite there are often multiple winners and having some place like 6th pay the same as first can easily skew the play, and skew it radically, to the point where holding the best starting hand means almost nothing. Ignoring that situation means that if you were to lay down AA before the flop it is collusion, or looks exactly like collusion to an outsider. Some mathematicians, however, make the argument that in certain situations it is correct to throw this hand away because the presence of x other players already all-in in a pot makes the AA hand an almost certain underdog [the quickest way to make AdAh an underdog is to put out three unique hands against it such as 10c9c, 8s7s, and 6h5h, plus a fourth hand which is AsAc: using poker probe we get this result AsAc — 20.81, AdAh — 21.87, 10c9c — 20.34, 8s7s — 17.34, 6h5h — 19.66].
Tournament players occasionally have the following situation come up; you have 460,000 in chips and playing 4 handed, player A has 150,000 and is first to act and goes all-in over a big blind of 20,000, he is then called by player B who also has 150,000 in chips, and now player C calls all-in with 140,000 in chips. What does one now do holding AhAs? The answer to this question is clear to me, I would call and have a reasonable expectation to win the tournament on that hand, but many players argue that you should muck your hand and move into the last two paid spots [where most of the money is] in good shape, and without risking your current stack. Certainly this is worthy of debate no matter how much money is at stake, but the talk should begin with KK and be more heated in discussing QQ.
So most of us old school players have the idea that the more money you can put in before the flop with your big hands [especially KK and AA] the better. It is just a matter of techniques used to get that money into the pot. The modern players that I face often do something very different, they flat call bets or raises before the flop with these hands and then, most commonly, are willing to put all their chips in the middle [and at risk] sometime during the ensuing play of the hand. To my way of thinking this is inconsistent and not well thought out. If you are willing to play your two biggest hands passively before the flop you have to be prepared to make a judgement laydown after the flop.
My first point about it usually being wrong to lay down KK before the flop is based on this: in small tournaments you have to get some chips quickly to avoid the pressures of having to win every hand that you do play as a short stack throughout the event. So if you raise 15% of your stack and are re-raised another 40% of your stack it is almost surely right to move all-in. If you are so unfortunate as to run into AA then you are about a 4 to 1 underdog and will often be crippled or knocked out, but living in fear of running into the best possible hand is not the way to victory in live games or tournaments. Much more likely is that, if your opponent chooses to call, you will be up against AK, QQ, JJ, or 10-10 with an excellent chance of doubling up or eliminating your opponent.
Now we take the case of playing KK before the flop in a larger buy-in tournament; what tends to happen is that if there are multiple raises before the flop by the time that we discover that we are likely against AA it is too late! Meaning that the math of the pot dictates that the call of our remaining chips is correct. Let us say that it is early in a ten thousand dollar buy-in tournament where we all started with 10,000 in tournament chips and a big blind of 50, after two hours of play we have 8,000 in chips and player A has 14,000 with a big blind of only 100 dollars. We raise it to 300 with our KK, player A makes it 800, and we re-re-raise to 2500, he now makes it 8,000 to go putting the question to us. This is the last moment that we can think of releasing our hand, there is 5150 in the center of the pot, plus his re-re-re-raise of 5500. Now we are getting less than two to one on our hand and we suspect he may have AA. What to do? Well from practical experience I would have to know the player very well before considering laying the KK down. First of all the second best starting hand in holdem is not that easy to pick up, when you do pick it up you usually want to get to the flop with it. His first re-raise alerted us to one of two things; either he felt we were weak or timid and might muck it, or he liked his holding. But 'liking his holding' is still a big range of hands depending on his player profile and mood. It might mean AK, AQ, AJ suited, or any pair. When he makes his second raise and offers to put us all-in he almost surely likes his hand a great deal, but my experience tells me that we are still likely to see such as 8-8, 9-9, 10-10, J-J, Q-Q, K-K, A-A, AK, or AQ suited, especially since he still has a reasonable stack to play at this level with even if he loses this hand. Of his possible hands how many of them do we fear? Only A-A. Which means that, although we might be a 4 to 1 underdog against A-A, and tied with K-K, there is already over 10,000 in the pot and if he has one of the other hands we are a big favorite. Again it is clearly right to put the rest of your money in the middle and hope for the best.
As Jack (treetop) Strauss used to say, "Better one day as a lion than a thousand days as a sheep!"
Many years ago Phil Hellmuth said to me "The difference between you and me, Dennis, is that when I take a bad beat, I will still be here!" An interesting point which led to some reflection on my part (Phil is not known for keeping his observations to himself!). This led to my playing more aggressively in tournament situations and placing more value on having chips. I have always been a very good player with a short stack and if you think about that you will not only realize that playing a short stack has the handicap of being vulnerable to elimination on any hand he/she plays but is also simpler. It is simpler because as your stack gets shorter and shorter your decisions become more and more black and white. Binary decisions are always easier than ones that you make on a sliding scale.
Okay we are ready for the 2005 edition of the World Series of Poker which begins in Las Vegas, Nevada on June 2nd, which is next Thursday. Usually I spend seven weeks in the desert during this event and never feel properly rested and hydrated. This year it will be hotter than ever as it has been moved back into the June and July timeframe. I am playing in many events, including the first one. Hope to see you there!
Play good and get lucky!
Ed note: If you feel like you can finish in the top four in three consecutive single table tournaments, then you should play the Steps Tournies at Party Poker