Folding Kings

I have a poker buddy—YoYo-Ma—who is a good player, but he has one particular superpower I particularly appreciate. YoYo-Ma can fold kings preflop in no-limit hold’em.

Amazing, I know. But at least twice now, he’s discussed doing it in my hand history review group. I thought this most recent occurrence was worth discussing.

YoYo was playing in a 9-max 1/2 game online and opened to 6 under-the-gun (“UTG”) with pocket kings. He was starting with a stack of exactly 400.

A BRIEF ASIDE

I told him he should open to 8 instead. I know 3x is a “standard” online sizing and that’s fine. However, when you’re 200 big blinds (BBs) deep and in early position, I think you should open to 4x or even 5x, the “standard opening size” be damned. There are three reasons for this:

  • When you’re in early position you have to get through a ton of opponents; in the case of UTG, that’s all of them. Make it more painful. Furthermore, because you have a tight opening range in the earliest positions (you do, don’t you?), you’re putting more money in the pot with stronger hands.
  • When you’re deep (200 BBs is deep) and out-of-position (“OP”), anything you can do to shorten the stacks will help. Starting with a 4x or 5x raise is the first crucial step to building a taller pyramid base from which to inflate the pot size.
  • You have the second-best hand ever created in Texas Hold’em. You’d love to get more money in the pot. “But wait!” you cry, “This is changing your raise size based on your hand strength. You’re not balanced!” True. Do you think anybody will ever notice the difference between a 3x and a 4x open? Especially if you’re opening bigger from up front and/or deep? Do you think they’ll notice at all? No, they won’t. This is just a chance to put more money in the pot with the best hand – the essence of good poker.

Where was I? Oh yes…

YoYo makes it 6, gets a caller halfway around the table, and now an aggressive player makes it 19 from the cutoff. Is it a squeeze? Maybe. But YoYo doesn’t care because he’s got kings and he can’t wait to four-bet it.

Right up until the small blind makes a cold four-bet to 76. And it’s back on YoYo and his kings.

Everybody started with at least 400 (200 BBs), so stack depths really matter here.

YoYo said in his post, and I agree, calling is out of the question. If he calls, there will be 178 in the pot going to the flop; if the cold-caller and three-bettor fold. That means a stack-to-pot ratio (SPR) of less than 2:1 and unless there’s an ace or king on the flop, YoYo has no idea of what to do.

You’re left with jam the remaining stack in, or fold. I think raising any amount less than a shove is the worst of all worlds. With all the dead money in the pot, you’d love to get AK to fold right now, and you don’t want a QQ or JJ hand to see a flop, and either hit a set, or (worse) hit an ace and have the temerity to blow you off your hand. That said, shoving the rest in seems like a perfectly reasonable option. I mean, you’ve got kings, right? But let’s look more closely.

YoYo (who’s obviously not the fish at the table) opened UTG. That’s not nine-eight suited. Now there’s a three-bet. YoYo told us the three-bettor is a bit aggressive, but aggro players get dealt good hands as frequently as the rest of us. Now the small blind looks at all of this, and says, “Ya, let’s play for a lot more.”

Let’s look at a couple of scenarios:

SCENARIO 1

YoYo shoves. If he hasn’t run into aces anywhere, it’s likely everybody will fold. He wins 103—52 BBs—without a flop; an excellent result by any measure. Unfortunately, if he does run into aces, his expected loss is 243. And two of his opponents have uncapped ranges; there is nothing yet to say either the three-bettor or cold four-bettor doesn’t have aces. They probably don’t have kings because, well, YoYo is looking at half the kings in the deck. And are they going to call his shove with queens? That seems to be asking a bit much.

SCENARIO 2

YoYo quietly folds and sips his coffee. He’s out three BB’s.

I’m not saying this is a slam-dunk easy fold. Folding kings is never easy. And if our cello-playing hero had 50 BBs, or even 100 BBs, this decision would be much easier; you just put the chips in. But friends, if 400 BBs goes into the pot between two players preflop, pocket kings are just not in fabulous shape on average.

The point is, like everything in life, context is vital. It is dangerous to say, “Oh, I have pocket kings, I ship my stack and if they have aces, meh, it’s a cooler.” You are allowed, indeed encouraged, to think it through. If you have enough doubt, then fine, jam it in and hope not to get called. But there are many opponent line-ups and circumstances where it’s all but a sure thing the small blind has aces, and putting any more chips in the pot is just donating.

What did YoYo do? He folded. Not surprisingly, everybody else folded behind him and the small blind won a big ol’ pot without seeing a flop. Good for them. Of course, we’ll never know if that was aces or not. But that’s not the point. Let’s say once in a hundred times, it was AK. YoYo still has to fold. That’s how our game works; if you make a fold you’ll never know if it was the right fold. Frustratingly, even if you call you never know if it was the right call. Maybe this time it was aces, but this villain is willing to do that with aces on down to jacks. If YoYo knew that about them, then shoving would be easy (he’s well ahead of the villain’s overall range).

Poker is hard, but when you have the discipline and clarity to make folds like that when the time comes, maybe you can be as successful at the game as my friend YoYo-Ma.


Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.