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Cowboys, Interrupted

by Barbara Connors

We all know the feeling. You’re dealt a pair of pocket kings, and then the flop comes down with the one card in all the world you didn’t want to see — the ace. For this discussion, we’ll assume an uncoordinated flop where the only visible danger is that lone ace staring up at you. So now what? A moment ago, your hand was almost invincible. Then one ace crashes the party and your kings are behind to any moron with a ragged A-X. For the player with kings, that ace on the flop represents a proverbial fork in the road: You can take the safe path of folding to any significant action, or you can venture down the more challenging road of playing the hand to its conclusion-- on the assumption that your adversary doesn’t have the bullet.

 To make this choice, you must answer two questions. The first and most obvious question is, does he have the ace? To determine if your K-K is now second-best, you’ve got to use all the information at your disposal to make your best educated guess as to whether or not your opponent holds the dreaded ace. But an equally important question is, what’s at stake here? How much do you stand to win (or lose) if your educated guess turns out to be wrong?

 Let’s look at the second question first. It’s risk versus reward. On the reward side, you must consider the size of the pot. Presumably you raised preflop with your cowboys, so the pot shouldn’t be too small. But if it’s still on the smallish side, the decision to fold gets easier as the risk probably outweighs the reward. The bigger the pot, the more it becomes worth fighting for and more you’d be giving away by making a bad fold.

 On the risk side, consider the type of game you’re in. Obviously there is a world of difference between seeing the hand through to the river in a limit game where the most you can lose is a few bets, and a no-limit game where one wrong guess against a deep-stacked opponent can bust you down to nothing. The stakes get higher still in a tournament and it’s all situation-dependant. Exhibit A is the mediumstacked player nearing the money bubble. For him, the risk of missing out on the money outweighs the fear of letting some aceless bluffer steal the pot away from him. Exhibit B is playing in an event where the payout structure is very top-heavy. For him, the chance to accumulate chips and win that lucrative top prize can easily outweigh the risk of getting his kings cracked by some random baby ace.

 Which brings us back to our first question — does he have the ace? We’ll assume this opponent is an unknown quantity and you don’t yet have a good read on him, though the type of game can give you an idea (e.g. low-limit players are inclined to see the flop with pretty much any ace). To find out where you stand, there’s always the old bet or raise for information tactic. Since a check is inviting your opponent to bluff, you might as well take the lead by betting from early position, or raising from late. Either way, his response should presumably give you some valuable information, and you’d rather get this information early in the hand. If he shows strength, you can still get away from the hand cheaply.

 Also keep in mind that the number of opponents is always crucial. Aside from the self-evident fact that more opponents equals more chances of an ace being out against you, remember that any player who bets (or raises) into multiple opponents is much less likely to be on a bluff. Just one piece of the complicated puzzle you must attempt to solve when your pocket kings are facing the ultimate scare card.

 Barbara Connors is a sucker for classic old movies, science fiction, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Her life’s ambition is to figure out the unusual behavior patterns of that unique breed of humans who call themselves poker players. Contact her at

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