03/08/2006 12:00AM

Best hand nets the worst outcome

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NEW YORK - The holy grail of starting hands in Texas hold 'em is a pair of aces. You get them on average only once every 221 hands, but when you do you're automatically the heavy favorite. There are, however, better and worse times to be struck by a "pair of bullets," as they're known. Consider the following hand.

I'm playing online in a $100 buy-in no-limit tournament that attracted 312 entrants for a total pot of $31,200. It's two hours into the tourney and I've run my starting stack of $1,000 in tournament chips up to just over $25,000, good for ninth or 10th place among the 43 surviving players. Finishing 40th puts you in the money, with a $268 payout for running 31st through 40th, but more important, I'm in solid position to contend for the final table and the winner's purse of $7,800. A message comes up on the screen that the next hand will be the last before a five-minute break.

I'm in the big blind, often a good spot, but in this case I'm kind of hoping I pick up a 2-7 and can just fold. It's the last hand before the break and I'm supposed to sit tight and wait for three other players to knock themselves out to guarantee myself a piece of the purse.

Instead, I get aces.

Okay, it's not exactly the end of the world. Maybe a short-stacked player down to his last couple of thousand will go all-in in front of me and I can call him and pick up a few more chips. Even if he outdraws me, what's the big difference between starting with $23,000 or $25,000 chips after the break?

The first player to act is the only one at my table with a comparable stack, just $200 or so shorter than mine. The blinds are up to $200/$400 and he calls the $400 from under the gun. The next eight players fold and it's up to me. I raise $2,000, sending him a message to take his low pair or 10-J suited or whatever he limped into the pot with and go away. Instead he quickly calls the raise.

The flop comes A-J-8 rainbow, making me and my three aces a virtual cinch for the $5,000 pot. First up, I bet another $5,000. He immediately goes all-in for the rest of his $23,000.

What can he possibly have? In a way, the better his hand, the better for me. If he was unlucky enough to have started with a pair of jacks or eights and hit his own lesser set of trips on the flop, his only out is the last jack or eight in the deck to catch me. If he had AJ or A8, he's completely doomed because if he hits his full house, I hit a bigger one. So I call.

He turns over a pair of queens. This was an idiotic all-in raise on his part with an ace on the board, since he's way behind if I have even one ace, much less two. I imagine his well-earned misery as he sees my pair of bullets.

It feels like I'm at least 90 percent to win the hand, and a later analysis shows I was precisely 96.67 percent to prevail. There are 45 unseen cards left, and thus 990 possible combinations for the last two that will be exposed (45x44=1,980, which you divide by two since it doesn't matter which order those two cards come out in.) I will win with 957 of those 990 combinations. He will win with the other 33 - the one where two queens come out, and the 32 permutations where a K-10 or 10-9 will combine with the A-J-8 flop to give him a straight.

Which of course is exactly what happens when a 10 and a 9 roll out, hitting his 29-1 shot and doubling him up to first place and $50,000 while knocking me down to $141. The only good news is that three players at other tables are busted out on this final hand before the break, so I end up finishing exactly 40th and at least getting $268.

What could I have done differently to stay in the tournament? Folded before the flop with aces in the big blind? Folded when he went all-in and I was a 1-30 favorite? Would it have made any difference if I had been the one to go all-in after the flop instead of baiting a trap with a $5,000 bet?

It occurred to me later what I really needed was a way to hedge before those final two cards came up. At the racetrack, if you're alive with seven of the eight horses in the final leg of a pick four or pick six and your only uncovered horse is 29-1, you can go bet him to win and guarantee yourself a profit. In poker, all you can do is sit there, take your beating, and whine about it later. Thanks for listening.