It seems lately I’ve had many discussion about the wisdom of going all in pre-flop. There are of-course time when it is the right thing to do… and obviously times when it’s absolutely the wrong thing to do. As with all things in poker, there are gray areas where “it depends” on a lot of different factors. My recent discussions center on my take that I think the use of the pre-flop all in is overused, and detrimental to your survival in a tournament.
In general there is a lot of value to having the ability to make a decision after the flop. There’s an equal value in having the ability to put your opponent to a decision. Imagine you make a bet pre-flop, and your opponent just calls. The flop comes and you hit top pair, while he whiffs completely. You make another bet, he folds, and you win a pot. Now imagine you make a huge bet pre-flop (all in, or putting your opponent all-in), and your opponent calls with his AK because “why not, it’s a good hand”. The flop still hits you, and you’re ahead, but now you have no ability to push your opponent to a decision, and you *have* to see two more cards… which of course hit your opponent, and there go all those wonderful chips.
Let’s look at a few situations where some people might decide to go all in pre-flop.
1) Pocket aces/big pocket pairs. I’ve seen a lot of people simply push all in with pocket aces the first chance they get to bet. In my view it’s correct to do so if you are a short stack, or if there already have been raises and re-raises in front of you. In rare cases where you know you’ll get called by someone with a lesser holding simply because you pushed (they view you as on tilt), then go for it. For all other situations, you should read my opinion on playing pocket aces. The short version is that you should bet enough to get everyone but one person to fold. If that happens, you should be no worse than 60% to win, and are mostly like 80% or higher to win.
2) A big Ace (AK, AQ). It should be assumed that pushing with a decent hand holding when you are short stacked is usually the right thing to do. But what if there is a raise, re-raise and an all-in in front of you? How would you feel about those holdings now? I know I’d grumble as I folded, but mathematically speaking, it’s probably the right thing to do. Even if you luck out and hit the flop with top pair, you now have no more chips to use to make someone on a draw to fold. On the flip side, what if you have a big stack. Calling or pushing all in with a big ace is probably a coin-flip. If your opponent has a pair, then they are technically ahead, giving you that classic coin flip. Would you want to wager a large portion of your chips on a coin flip?
3) The flip side of that is having a small/medium pocket pair. You are almost always ahead pre-flop in this situation, but often you are going to get called by someone with two over-cards, and around a 50% chance to win. Whether you bet, or just call in these situations is a discussion for another time (and a decision I probably get wrong far too often), but pushing all in because you are “technically ahead” just invites someone who needs to to take advantage of a coin flip.
4) Other hands. Having a short stack obviously opens up your all-in hand range a lot… but otherwise, there aren’t many reasons to put all your chips in pre-flop without a pocket pair or a big hand. Of course if you know you can get someone to fold, because you’re a mind reader, then do what you gotta do.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pushed all in pre-flop with a big ace or a pocket pair and get called with someone with a hand that is a coin flip. Remember, that coin flip assumes you’ll see all five community cards. If only I had made a bet, got a call and then did a continuation bet (regardless of whether I hit the flop or not)… because if your opponent is not already holding a made hand (pocket pair), they will generally miss the flop completely 66% of the time (which means only 1 out of 3 times will they actually hit one of their cards). After that, your hand may be a lot more than 50% to win with only two more cards to go.
You may lose chips using these methods, but if you feel you can play a good game post flop (which can including proper reads), then you want to keep your options open post-flop. It’s better to lose some chips, than all of your chips.