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 30.04.2021 · last updated 09.05.2022

It’s one of the ultimate poker conundrums: we’re dealt an attractive-looking hand and immediately find ourselves feeling optimistic – especially after such a long and rather frustrating run of trash hands that we can barely remember the last time we were involved in the fight for a pot. Suddenly we’re presented with the prospect of not only picking up a few chips but maybe even a bigger haul that will more than makeup for the last several uneventful orbits that have seen our stack do nothing but be gradually eroded as the Blinds (and antes!) have been shaved off the top…

Then, before we’ve had the chance to give the coming proceedings much thought, we are awakened from our mini daydream by someone who’s had the audacity to shove all-in. How dare they put us in this awkward position? One minute we were looking forward to finally seeing some welcome chips being added to our stack, and now we’re being asked the ultimate poker question – are we willing to risk everything? It’s true that the potential reward now couldn’t be bigger but, on the other hand, the downside could mean elimination from the tournament. What to do?

Well, not surprisingly, there’s never a universally reassuring answer. Of course with Aces we’re obviously going to be calling under normal circumstances, and most wouldn’t hesitate with Kings. But any other strong hand is going to need some serious consideration.

And by ‘consideration’ I don’t mean going on our gut instinct, letting a hunch determine whether or not we should risk our entire stack. It would be much more helpful if we knew something about the statistical underpinnings of pre-flop ranges, the equity we might need in order to call.

Fortunately, this isn’t as complex a subject as it might first seem. First, we should take note of the size of the pot. Note that we should not be in the habit of considering whatever our contribution was as ours anymore, although if we’re at the stage in a tournament where the Blinds and Antes are so big as to represent a not-insignificant chunk of the total, then it’s understandable to at least keep in mind to what extent we’re pot-committed.

To put it as simplistically as possible, we then weigh up the potential upside of our equity to win the pot as a percentage, noting the size of the pot, compared with the downside, namely our opponent’s equity and what we stand to lose. If we believe the former outweighs the latter we can call, and as long as we have made the necessary preparations in terms of knowing the numbers behind numerous all-in pre-flop match-ups we can be confident about making optimal, plus EV calls when faced with such decisions. Equally important is that we know when not to call.

With this in mind, the whole subject of pre-flop all-in calls is made so much easier once we’re sufficiently well acquainted with how certain holdings perform. For example, while Aces (and to some extent Kings) make the decision an easy one, calling with Queens and AK suited promises to be a profitable play in the long-term as these hands will come out on top against many of those in the opposition’s range. The same can be said about JJ and even TT, but we must take into account, the lower we go down the list of so-called premium hands, that although we ideally want to incorporate exclusively optimal plays into our game, some circumstances might be more important than others, and specific, crucial considerations might have to be taken into accounts, such as weighing up particularly high rewards or losses.

As equity decreases, so does the decision of whether to call a pre-flop all-in become more problematic. Ostensibly strong hands still need to be robust enough to perform well in a match-up against any number of decent hands that fall within the opponent’s likely range. Whether our hand is suited is also not to be ignored, as despite there not being that much of a difference between suited and non-suited holdings, with such small margins it could be decisive. For example, AQ suited already stands in good stead against lesser aces while also being in decent shape against (lower) pocket pairs, but the added bonus of flush potential affords us a bit more equity that could be the deciding factor. And given that our strategy should be based on long-term, optimal play, including suited rather than non-suited as part of our pre-flop all-in calling criteria increases the chance of eking out more of an edge.

While it is true that this is a part of the game that is going to continually present us with awkward, difficult and often critical decisions to make, by preparing ourselves in advance – both in terms of getting to know the probabilities of typical pre-flop match-ups and weighing up equity and hand ranges and so on – we can at least sit down to play armed with the confidence afforded us by our applying optimal strategy.

Good luck at the tables!

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