AngusD switched from pro chess to poker two decades ago and has been professionally involved in the game on numerous levels since the very beginning of online poker, including playing as a poker ambassador both online and at major festivals around the globe. He has written much about the game over the years, and brings to YPD a wealth of experience in all aspects of the poker industry. Meanwhile, his many years on the pro chess circuit (he’s an International Master and prolific author) afford him an interesting perspective on the psychology of poker.

· Published 08.06.2021 · last updated 08.06.2021

Starting hands come in all shapes and sizes. The vast majority are trash hands – such as 72 offsuit – that we should accept as such and (ordinarily) simply fold. Occasionally, we’ll be dealt premium hands like big pairs and AK, while there are also small pairs, suited connectors, picture cards, and so on. At least these are definable holdings that tend to fit into this or that strategy.

Then come the awkward hands that have us – as the seconds tick inexorably by – trying to weigh up the pros and cons, on the one hand tempted by the obvious potential, while on the other well aware of the drawbacks that could lead us into trouble. One such is when our interest is piqued on seeing an Ace, then tempered when it’s accompanied by a poor kicker. These so-called ace-rag hands are indeed one of poker’s conundrums.

As usual, each situation should be judged on specific circumstances, and newer players might do well to avoid playing rag aces until they gain sufficient experience to appreciate the best way to approach this scenario. However, poker rewards those players who successfully seek out potentially profitable spots and engineer from them favorable situations. If we were to automatically fold every Ax that we’re dealt, then this would mean missing out on such opportunities. Given that half of the hand features the game’s highest card, then it stands to reason that it holds some promise, so it’s not something that we should blindly let go without at least looking at our options.

 Ideally, we’d much prefer that the kicker to our Ace was a King, thus guaranteeing that, should our hand connect with the Flop and we pair up, we also have the top kicker to significantly add strength to our pair. The problem with a hand like A4, for example, is that we’ll be dominated by the likes of AK (or AQ, AJ etc.) when the Flop does bring an Ace.

Rag Ace and the Flop

Let’s consider what to expect from the Flop, and how to continue should we connect. First, we’re going to miss the Flop entirely a good two-thirds of the time. It’s also worth remembering that a suited Ace has the advantage of picking up flush draws, while if we add connectors into the mix we have even more draws working for us. A hand like A4 suited, for instance, does indeed hold some potential.

But what about when we hit a pair? This is when we have a made had that we can work with. The question is how does it hold up, and how should we proceed. Clearly, pairing the kicker is a mixed blessing. Using A4 as an example, we’ve hit a pair but this isn’t really anything to get excited about as it’s usually going to be second or even third pair. Furthermore, with the arrival of the Turn and River the lowly pair is often going to find itself drifting down the pecking order as overcards appear. This a perfect example of a trouble hand, although it shouldn’t be too difficult to avoid being too attached to our lowly pair and step away from the action accordingly as soon as someone ups the stakes.

It’s quite different when we hit our Ace, however. Now we have top pair, but it’s imperative we take into the account the weak kicker. Let’s say we have A♠ 4♠ and the Flop comes A♣ J♥ 5♥ – this is a very common scenario and, consequently, well worth thinking about away from the tables. In terms of betting from this point on, it’s reasonable to assume that we don’t want to let the size of the pot snowball here. We could so easily be out-kicked.

Even when we flop a flush draw it’s not automatic that we should be looking to build a big pot. Remember that we’ll fill our flush by the River only about a third of the time. And we’ll have less success with other draws. It’s important to also remember that when the board shows possible flushes can’t expect players to pay us off for big bets, and even if they also hit a flush they’ll be cautious because they don’t have the highest (we do). So, we’re not going to have the desired implied odds to bet big.

But that’s not to say we shouldn’t be aggressive with rag aces! We can argue the case for limping in with Ax suited in late position after a few others have already just called but, generally, if we are going to get involved with Ax it’s best to do so aggressively. Making a play for the initiative pre-flop has the important fundamental advantage of giving us a chance to pick up the pot there and then. And if we are called and do have a fight on our hands post-flop, at least we’re in the driving seat, which we can try to exploit even we miss.

Note that I’m in no way advocating regularly getting involved with weak Aces, rather that we stay alert to the possibilities we’re presented with. Those times when there is an opportunity, it helps to act with suited cards for the additional combinations they bring, and to be aggressive from the very beginning.

Have fun at the tables!

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