Commentary

Muck aces? Here's the proof

Updated: March 24, 2009, 2:48 PM ET
By Bernard Lee | ESPN.com

When I began writing for ESPN.com in the spring of 2006 (I can't believe it has already been three years), I was asked to write about playing in satellites for large buy-in events. I wrote about my experiences qualifying for events such as the Foxwoods Poker Classic and World Series of Poker main event. In June 2006, I wrote a column that received a lot of feedback.

The column was entitled "Muck Aces Preflop?" .

At first glance, this statement seems absurd. After all, pocket aces is absolutely the best starting hand in hold 'em. Since you only get dealt them about 0.45 percent of the time (approximately 1 out of 222 hands), you obviously can't waste the opportunity. However, in the perfect circumstance, they can and should be folded preflop. This specific situation occurs during the bubble of a satellite.

Let me summarize my previous column:

Although it is impractical to lay down aces preflop during regular tournament play, satellite tournaments are slightly different. Remember that in a satellite tournament, all of the winners receive the same exact prize, whether you finish as the chip leader or just barely survive the cut, holding only one single chip. Although aces are a huge favorite preflop (on average, they are an 80 percent favorite), if you have enough chips on or near the bubble to be 100 percent guaranteed a seat, why risk your chips on an 80 percent chance? Thus, you should muck aces in this situation.

When the column appeared in 2006, some people thought the idea was ludicrous, while others embraced the concept. Nevertheless, this notion was all theoretical. Could you really do this during an actual satellite?

Well, recently at the WSOP Circuit event at Caesars in Atlantic City, N.J., theory met reality.

Setting the scene:

During the night before the $5,000 buy-in WSOP Circuit main event, 172 players registered for the final satellite. Seventeen main event seats were up for grabs with the bubble boy (the 18th-place finisher) receiving only $1,030.

After more than seven hours of play, only 18 players remained. With blinds $2,000/$4,000, antes $400, the average stack was just under $29,000 (everyone began with only $3,000). Although our table did not have anyone with less than $15,000, the other table had three players with less than $10,000. These players did not even have enough chips to make it one rotation around the table. It was only a matter of time before the bubble was burst … but before that happened, the following hand occurred.

Playing hand for hand, the player sitting under the gun decided to min-raise to $8,000. Surprisingly, the player two to his left made the call. Although I was in the big blind, I quickly mucked my cards. We were off to a rare bubble flop.

9s-9d-9c.

Although the original caller raised his hand, somewhat suggesting that he was willing to check the hand down, the under-the-gun player bet $12,000. Shrugging his shoulders, his opponent astoundingly made the call. Now, this was getting interesting. As the buzz quickly spread to the other players, the interested participants, especially the short stacks, began to crowd around our table.

When the dealer turned the 4h, the under-the-gun player immediately moved all-in for his remaining chips, approximately $15,000. Immediately, his opponent, who had him covered by about $5,000, called and flipped over Qs-Qh. However, the under-the-gun player revealed As-Ac. He was a 95-to-5 favorite to win this huge pot.

As the dealer prepared to turn over the river card, the opponent shook his head in disgust, realizing he was about to lose the majority of his chips and become one of the short stacks.

However, lightning then struck on the river. Qd! Everyone exploded in utter disbelief. He hit his two-outer, and the under-the-gun player was knocked out on the bubble.

So let's examine the hand:

Obviously, the under-the-gun player should have just folded his aces. He was absolutely 100 percent guaranteed his seat with an above-average stack. (Heck, I had $27,000 and I was fully confident I had gotten my seat.) With most of the players having fewer chips than him, especially the three short stacks, there was no need to risk losing with pocket aces.

Of course, there are situations in which you would call on the satellite bubble. For example, if you had been dealt pocket aces in the big blind and a short stack pushed all-in for only $4,000 more. In this situation, it would make sense to call, trying to eliminate the bubble boy, since you still would have plenty of chips even if you had lost to the short stack. Of course, if you were one of the short stacks, mucking aces would not be the best course of action because your seat is still in doubt. In that case, it probably would be worth the risk to go all-in.

However, in this hand, the player in question opened the betting from under the gun with a few larger chip stacks sitting behind him.

Nevertheless, after he had made the original raise, he should have taken the hint from his opponent to check down the hand. He still would have had about $27,000 left after he lost the hand, which would still have been sufficient to earn his main event seat.

After spending the last few paragraphs criticizing the under-the-gun player, we must also sharply disapprove of the call by his opponent. If this column is recommending folding pocket aces preflop, then folding pocket queens seems truly obvious. With over $40,000, he was also guaranteed his seat and did not need to play another hand. His implication to check down the hand showed that he did not want to risk losing his seat; however, his ambition got the better of him. Overall, he never should have called.

Finally, here is another intriguing suggestion. At any stage of the hand, the under-the-gun player could have flipped over his hand, revealing his pocket aces and made a bet or raise, or pushed all-in. WSOP Rule 50 states, "A player exposing his or her hand with action pending may incur a penalty, but will not have a dead hand." Thus, his opponent would have definitely folded after seeing the pocket aces. The under-the-gun player may have gotten a 10-minute penalty, but who cares? There was no way he would have gotten blinded out during this penalty. And, in all honesty, someone would have probably been eliminated in this time.

So the next time you are playing in a satellite and have enough chips to be guaranteed a seat, remember that there is basically no need to play another hand - even pocket aces!

And after reading this column, you can see that this is not just a theory. It can be a reality!

Bernard Lee is the weekly poker columnist for the Boston Herald and author of "The Final Table, Volume I." He also hosts a weekly poker radio show, "The Bernard Lee Poker Show," on Rounders Radio and in Boston on 1510 AM. The show can be heard at 5-6 p.m. Tuesday and is repeated throughout the week. For questions or comments, e-mail him at BernardLeePoker@hotmail.com.

Bernard Lee is a columnist for ESPN.com and the co-host of ESPN Inside Deal. Since finishing 13th in the 2005 WSOP Main Event, Lee has earned over $2 million in career earnings, including three poker titles. Along with his contributions to ESPN.com, Bernard is the weekly poker columnist for the Boston Herald and also the host of a weekly poker radio show in Boston, "The Bernard Lee Poker Show".

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