Playing KK and AA in Tournament Play
KK and AA are the holy grail of poker hands, whether you are in a tournament, sit n go, cash game, or anything else. Usually they are going to play themselves, but this certainly doesn't mean that they are void of actual strategy. Have you ever heard players who complain about how much they always lose with aces and kings? I am sure you have, and I know I definitely have.
It's usually the case that these complainers happen to be the worst players at any table. This is no coincidence, and their losses likely coincide with their sub-par play. Maximizing value with KK and AA is undoubtedly important, but so is knowing when to back down. Even when you have the nuts pre-flop, you could very well be in second place when it comes time to flip your cards face up.
Tournaments are a particular tough environment in which to play aces and kings because of their win big/lose big characteristics. If you get one of these hands early on in a tournament, you aren't very likely to stack one of your opponents unless you are able to cool them. As you progress into the later stages of the event, however, your chances of winning a big pot all in pre-flop are greatly increased. This is the most obviously strong pre-flop shove hand, and also the most agonizing hand in which to fold post-flop. In this article we are going to analyze KK and AA as they transform from one stage of tournaments to the next.
KK and AA in Early Levels
Levels are the easiest metric in which to discuss topical tournament strategy, but they still need to be prefaced with some guidelines. For the sake of this article, assume that the level stage correlates with average stack size. You could easily be short stacked in the early stages and deep stacked in the late stages, but usually it will be the other way around. Every hand is going to be situational so this should only be used as a broad overview of optimal strategy and likely scenarios.
In the early levels of tournaments, you are usually going to have several hundred big blinds in which to work with. Because of this, you are very unlikely to get all of the money in pre-flop. Let's say that the blinds start at 5/10 and you have 5,000 chips, which would equate to 500 big blinds. Now, if you have KK or AA and make an open raise to 30, a re-raise would still compromise around 2% of your chips at most. If you 4-bet, you'll either get a call or a fold, and the pot still won't be massive. The point is that pre-flop play will only matter so much in these levels due to the amount of chips that everyone still has.
Post-flop play is going to call for a fast and aggressive approach. There are very few flops that wouldn't call for a continuation bet with KK or AA. The ongoing problem with playing post-flop is that you are likely to make your hand very obvious. What other hands 4 or 5 bet pre-flop and then fire the flop hard? If you are able to get flat calls from your opponents, you'll be in the most ideal situation. If you are facing re-raises, you better consider shutting down. This early in an event, it would take an awful strong hand for a player to re-raise a flop bet after calling a re-raise pre-flop. KK and AA most definitely have less value early in a tournament than they do later on.
KK and AA in Middle Levels
In the middle levels of tournaments, KK and AA are more apt to be all in pre-flop or to win a big pot post-flop. Stack sizes are condensed in a way that players are going to stack off lighter than they would have before. You should still be playing your hand the same way pre-flop as fancy plays are going to be difficult to capitalize on in the majority of situations. The blinds are going to be more significant to the point where even taking down raised pre-flop pots could mean a solid boost to your overall stack.
Post-flop strategy in the middle levels of tournaments will call for a lot more all in type pots than you would have found earlier. Players are opening up their ranges, and they have less relative chips to work with. Where a pre-flop re-raise and a flop bet that faced resistance would be cause for major concern in the early levels, it's now an open invitation for a shove.
KK and AA in Late Levels
In the late levels there won't be a need for very much strategy at all. Beyond some limp/shoves, you aren't going to need to think very far beyond going all in. As you play into the deeper levels of play once you are already in the money, you may even have the chance to simply go all in pre-flop. And, as an added bonus, you are more likely to get paid off than ever before. If you are unable to come out a winner at this stage in the game with kings or aces, there isn't much you can do about it. Unless you were playing very passively and let your opponent beat you, the cards are usually going to determine your fate much more than you will be able to.
The biggest skill element with KK and AA in late blind levels is found in a player's ability to sucker in their opponents. These skills are put on display when a player makes a small raise to induce a shove, limps to induce a raise, and so on and so forth. These are definitely moves that fall into a category of strategy that would be defined as advanced, however, and they aren't at all a requirement. As you gain more experience with deep runs in tournaments, you are inevitably going to pick up on these subtle nuances that enable you to win big pots that you might have otherwise missed out on.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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