A coin flip at the poker tables is a scenario in which you and another player have a largely equal opportunity to win a hand. The term mostly describes two players going all-in against one another, with both hands having around a 50% chance of winning.
As the statistical probability of a coin landing on heads or tails is 50/50, it makes sense to describe this poker situation as a coin flip.
Coin flips are more common in multi-table tournaments than cash games. That’s because there’s a greater need for players to embrace a coin flip in a tournament. Especially when there’s pressure from ever-increasing blind levels. The last thing any poker player wants is to be blinded out of an event without taking a shot themselves.
In essence, coin flips require players to put their tournament lives on the line – or risk a substantial percentage of their remaining chip stack – with a 50% probability of winning.
Prime examples of a poker coin flip
Let’s take a look at some of the most common examples of coin flip poker hands at the tables:
AK Vs JJ
Ace-king is statistically the best pre-flop hand that’s not paired. Although the probability of a pair of jacks winning against AK is more like 53-54%, it’s still one of the game’s most popular ‘coin flip’ situations.
AQs Vs 99
Things start to get a little bit more even with our next coin flip hand – ace-queen suited against a pair of nines. The prospect of flopping a nut flush with the AQ certainly moves the balance closer in favour of AQs, but the pair of nines is still the 52.49% favourite over the long term.
A10s Vs 33
If you’re wondering which pre-flop hands are the closest you’ll get to a true 50/50 coin flip, it’s ace-10 suited against a pair of threes. A10s is statistically a 49.99% favourite to win heads-up against a pair of threes.
A10s Vs QJs
One scenario offers a true 50/50 coin flip – ace-10 Vs queen-jack (both hands suited diamonds). If the flop comes 10-9-2, this creates a 50/50 situation. A10s has top pair, and QJ has two overcards and an open-ended straight draw.
How to play coin flip situations well in poker tournaments
As coin flips are mostly needed in poker tournaments to reach final tables, we’ve put together a few pointers to help you become a master of the coin flip and embrace those 50/50 encounters when the time is right.
Try to be the first player to go all-in.
It’s best to be the player that moves all-in first rather than the one to call an all-in. This gives you an element of fold equity, as well as the prospect of taking the hand down pre-flop. Fold equity becomes incredibly important when you run deep in a big poker tournament as your chip stack grows in value.
The beauty of being the first to shove all-in is that you’re putting the onus on your opponent. They must evaluate their options and the hand range they think you have. Shoving can also be a positive expected value move depending on your table image if you’re considered a relatively tight and aggressive player.
Don’t take a coin flip if you fear your hand’s already dominated
If you have a feeling of doom that your hand range is dominated by your opponent before moving all in, don’t even consider shoving. A common error rookie tournament players make is playing dominated hands when they are only flipping in the best-case scenario. Most of the time, they’ll be a heavy underdog.
Even if you are the chip leader at the table, you should not risk your small pocket pair and shove against a small stack. Small pairs are only likely to become sets on the flop 12% of the time, and if you miss the flop, those chances reduce further to just 9%. If you’re risking 25% of your stack to try and knock out an opponent in this scenario, it’s simply not worth the coin flip.
Avoid playing coin flips unnecessarily
Although coin flips in poker might sound exciting and adrenaline-fuelled, it’s often a move you don’t need to make. There are many scenarios when steering clear of an all-in coin flip, folding and waiting for a better spot is the safer, more profitable option.
If you find yourself sat at a table which feels especially soft, particularly the players to your right, and the blind levels are 30, 45 or even 60 minutes long, you can justify folding and waiting for a better chance to crush your opponent’s hand. That’s because you should be able to win more hands against softer players without putting your tournament life on the line.
In summary: A coin flip is part luck, part skill
Coin flips are a necessary evil in poker, especially tournament poker. However, there is an element of skill involved in picking your moments. Knowing when the time is right to put your tournament life on the line for a deal of five community cards is key. Those who pick the right moments generally stand a better chance of sticking around and running deep in the biggest events.
Of course, you can play the probabilities and hand ranges all you like, but there’s still a significant luck factor at play. In the short term, it’s very easy to be on the receiving end of bad beats on the turn or river.
All you can do is stick to the plan: continue making the right decisions, be guided by the probabilities and put faith in them coming good over the long term.