Close your eyes. Imagine you are one of the lucky players remaining on Day 6 of the WSOP Main Event. You're sitting under the hot ESPN lights. Action folds around to you and you look down at your cards to see... ACES! This is a dream come true for most poker players, but that dream can easily become a nightmare if things do not go as you envision. While watching episode 9 of this year's WSOP Main Event, I saw two instances where players Vojtech Ruzicka and Alex Keating went to battle having pocket aces or a straight in each of the confrontations. The decisions made in these hands provide us with teachable moments we can use to improve our own play. Let's see what we can learn from these players' fortune or lack thereof.
Ruzicka's AA vs. Keating's straight
The first hand occurs when Ruzicka opens from early position with AA and is called by Keating in the big blind with 54. The flop comes 978 and Keating decides to lead out for half pot. This is obviously not the flop you want to see when you raise with Aces and facing a donk bet probably doesn't make matters any easier for Ruzicka. Understanding that his hand has gone from the nuts to a marginal bluff catcher, he decides to just call Keating's bet. The turn is the 6 giving Keating a straight. He decides to check the turn and Ruzicka wisely checks back. There aren't a ton of worse hands that he can get value from by betting his Aces and if they are good, he doesn't want to get raised off of them.
The river brings the 4 and Keating now leads out for 1.1M into a pot of 1.6M. Ruzicka takes some time to make a decision with his shriveled up Aces. As he grabs chips, Keating says “good call” prematurely with the intention of confusing Ruzicka who thinks about it for a few seconds longer before making the fold. Keating is known for his table talk and it may seem to some viewers that it backfired on him in this instance, but I believe that Ruzicka was never making this call. There are just way too many hands in Keating's big blind defending range that are ahead of aces at this point. Sure, he could be bluffing with some hands, but there just aren't enough of them to risk such a massive portion of your stack given the size of Keating's bet.
In fact, if he thought there was a chance that Keating could be bluffing here, aces isn't even the best bluff catcher. A better candidate for this would be something like 98. It blocks some of the hands Keating may bet for value like 99 and 88, it doesn't block any of the missed hearts he could be bluffing with, and it is ahead of the other two pair hands. In my opinion, Ruzicka played his hand perfectly.
Keating's AA vs. Ruzicka's straight
Keating and Ruzicka battle again a few hands later. This time Keating is the one with the aces. Action starts with two players limping for 120K each from middle position and Keating raises to 575K on the button with AA. Ruzicka is in the big blind with JJ and makes the call. All the other players fold. The flop comes QT4. Ruzicka checks and Keating decides to check back. I think I understand why he declined to continuation bet this flop.
Ruzicka should have a strong range for calling such a large bet preflop. That range may include hands as strong as QQ and TT which he may not want to three-bet fold preflop. In addition to the pocket pairs, he may some times have offsuit Broadway hands like AK or AQ that contain the A or K as well as good suited connected hands that may have flopped a flush. The biggest concern however, may be that Ruzicka has Keating covered and the pot is already so big that his entire stack may be in play this hand if three bets go in. The flip side to that point is checking back on such a dangerous board may give Ruzicka the green light to put pressure on Keating on later streets. I'm not 100% sure what the best play is here, but I get why Keating chose to check.
The turn is the 8. Ruzicka indeed starts applying the pressure with a bet of 575K into a pot of 1.6M. Keating makes the call creating a pot of 2.8M and leaving himself with 4.1M behind. The river is the 9 giving Ruzicka a straight. He bets 1.1M into the pot putting Keating in a tough spot. On one hand, he is getting a good price to make the call as he only needs to be ahead around 28% of the time. On the other, I seriously doubt if he is good that often. The vast majority of the hands in Ruzicka's range are ahead of Keating's Aces, which as stated in the last hand, make for poor bluff catchers on coordinated boards like these. Keating would be better off calling this river bet with a hand like QT for the same reasons I suggested 98 would be a better bluff catcher in the previous hand. In the end, the small bet proved irresistible and Keating made the call only to be shown the goods.
The big take away that many new players need to understand is that the nuts preflop can quickly become little more than a marginal bluff catcher postflop. At the end of the day, one pair is the second worst hand in poker when you consider the hand rankings chart and aces is just a very pretty one pair hand. For many people, it can be one of the hardest hands to fold, but if you consider blockers you can often find better hands with which to bluff catch. Ruzicka's ability to avoid paying off a river bet with Aces in the first hand and getting one of his own paid off in the second hand is the type of world class play that has earned him a spot at this year's WSOP final table. If we can learn the lessons in his examples, maybe we can follow in his footsteps in the coming years.