Ace-King. One of the most finicky hands in the game. It can make you or break you, and if you don't know how and when to play it properly, you can almost certainly bank on the latter option. Learn how to play these hole cards to your advantage.
The Ace-King is the Taylor Swift of hole cards: you either love it or you hate it. I get a lot of questions about this polarizing and often mystifying hand, so I thought I'd write an article to help bridge the gap between nearly wetting yourself with excitement and crapping yourself in fear.
Enough articles have been written about AK to fill a Norton Anthology, and I understand that sifting through the rubble to find those nuggets of gold can be daunting - especially to new or intermediate players – so I’m going to simplify the process.
AK is known as the Anna Kournikova of poker, since it looks good, but it never wins. Big Slick, Walking Back to Houston - whatever you want to call it, every poker player can remember at least one big pot they've played with AK. In fact, what you probably remember most is that whenever you’ve re-raised with it, the flop never seems to bring a pair, and when it does, the other player somehow manages to land a set.
The truth is, though, AK is actually a really sweet hand. Its problem is that if it's over-valued or played incorrectly, you'll be playing big pots when you're losing, or small pots when you're winning. But it doesn't have to be this way, friends.
The key with AK is not to go crazy when you make a pair. Otherwise, you may actually find yourself walking back to Houston. You have to know how much action to give, and how to play it pre-flop to set yourself up for a comfortable parlay. AK can get you a ton of value if played correctly, and in many games, it should be one of most profitable hands, especially in tournaments.
'Should be' are the operative words here. The existence of this article proves that this is not always (or even mostly) the case, so without further adieu, I'm going to lay out your best AK options.
1. Go All-In Pre-Flop
This is the easy way to play the hand, and in games that aren't super deep-stacked, it is the best way to play the hand. You have to consider a few things though:
- Your opponents matter. A lot. Are they loose players or tight players? What are their criteria for raising, re-raising and re-re-raising pre-flop? This is important because if they're tight, you don't want to go all-in pre-flop - there's no value in that. But if they're loose and willing to call all-in with K7 suited or a 7,5 suited, which in some games you'll see, you want to be ramming and jamming.
- Position matters. Players that are positionally aware are generally going to be opening fewer hands in earlier position than they will in late position. So, if the action is under-the-gun raises, under-the-gun re-raises and under-the-gun re-re-raises, that's probably a spot where AK is going to find its way into the muck. But if the action is button raises and small blind bets and you're in the big blind with AK, that's a whole different situation. In this scenario, AK is likely the best hand.
- Action ahead matters - just not as much as the previous two points concerning opponents and position. This is because the first two points are going to tell you a lot more about what that action means. Just because the action has seen a raise, re-raise and re-re-raise doesn't necessarily mean AK is not the best hand in play. It doesn't matter if there is heavy action pre-flop. What matters is who's dictating the action and where the action is coming from. Some people's requirements for opening or re-raising are much different than others, and you have to pay attention to this.
- Stack depth matters. The fewer blinds you are getting in for an all-in pot, the less significant your mistake is if you run into aces or kings. It's much easier to win back 40BB than it is 500BB, right? And quite frankly, if you have 500BB in front of you, you should almost never be going all-in pre-flop with AK.
In general, however, if you have 40BB or less (and unless there are four or five raises ahead of you or the final raiser of the pot hasn't played a hand in six hours) you're probably going to be fine getting it all-in with AK.
Also, don't forget, even though your opponent has 3-bet or 4-bet or, hell, 5-bet, if the stacks are big enough, there is still a chance they are going to fold their hand to further action. Against these sorts of players, AK is an absolute monster and makes for a dream situation because the fact that you hold an ace and a king reduces the likelihood of them having aces or kings by 50%, and these are the hands we most fear when moving all-in. The very fact that the monster hands you need to avoid are less likely to be in the mix shows why using the blocker value of AK to play aggressively is a great play.
Against an opponent who will 3-bet with JJ or QQ to "find out where he's at" – hands that have over a 55% chance of winning against your AK - but won't call against an all-in shove – well, just think about how powerful this hand can be. Some people will even fold KK to the right action, and they have the 70% edge. By getting them to fold when they have equity in the pot, they are surrendering what belonged to them, to you.
When you play a pot, everyone is expecting to win some share of the pot in the long run, but when you get your opponent to fold and 'surrender their equity share' you get the WHOLE pot. (Learn more about how to use this edge lucratively in the Cash Game Crash Course.)
2. Why AK is a Dynamite All-In in Tournaments
When it comes to tournaments, there isn't much that can get me as stoked as finding an AK in the hole. In tournaments, players’ standards for opening pots are much looser than they are in most cash games due to the antes, and since people know this, their stands for re-raising are also lighter. This leads to a situation where players are unlikely to give anyone credit for having a hand and it's common to find people calling all-in with hands like AJ, AQ, KQ, ATs and pairs. Against this range, I'll take AK all day. I'm 50/50 against the pairs, and 75/25 against the dominating hands.
Even some very aggressive players are happy to get all in with any two face cards in a tournament (you'll especially see this in small stakes tournaments and re-buy events).
If you ever wonder why AQ is the #1 bust-out hand on the World Poker Tour, it has a lot to do with the fact the AK is the #1 slayer in tournament poker. You may think it should be AA, and in the early stages of tournament play, this may be true, but in the late stages of play, people can't afford to wait for those big pairs, and AK comes around twice as often as big pairs.
3. When to Avoid Going All-In Pre-Flop
When you're playing cash-games, especially deep-stacked, going all-in against anyone besides the village drunkard is probably going to land you in trouble. Don't feel like you automatically have to re-raise pots when you have AK. If someone has already brought the pot in for a raise, sometimes flat-calling with AK is the best play. The cool thing about flat-calling with AK is that it prevents you from getting 4-bet off your hand, like if your opponent only 4-bets with strong hands. You avoid a tough situation and can just see a flop.
So, with this in mind, here are some instances where flat-calling is a solid option:
- When you want to disguise your hand. If your opponent is good at reading and has nailed your range, and you know he’ll show your AK aggressive action, flat-calling is great way to slap some wool on that wolf.
- When you are against a tough opponent. Now's the time to strengthen your flat-calling range by letting it contain AK. When you always raise with AK and strong pairs, flat-calling will make your opponent think that you can't possibly be holding one of these powerhouses.
- When you are deep stacked. The deeper the stack, the more dangerous top-pair, top-kicker hands become. You don't want to be playing your whole stack with one pair as you get into the 200-300BB range, at which point flat-calling opens with AK should become more of a consideration.
In fact, the two biggest cash game pots I lost in my poker career came from getting over-committed and investing 500 and 600BB with AK. You can guess what my opponents had, and I'll tell you I didn't have very much equity in those confrontations. Lesson learned: you should be willing to take AK to the post-flop streets and extract value from the hands that would fold to heavy pre-flop action, but you can’t fold to heavy post-flop action after catching a piece of the board.
- When you want to keep your opponents range as is. If you think your opponents are going to fold hands like KJ, KT, QJ, KQ, maybe even K9s to your re-raise, then you're missing out on a lot of value by re-raising with AK.
Whether they start with a wide range of hands or a narrow range doesn't really matter. Think about it: if you like to play against their opening range as it is, just call. If, however, you want to narrow their range to fewer holdings, then re-raise - that way they fold hands they would usually open with, and call with hands they are comfortable playing against a re-raise, so you are narrowing their range to a more specific holding.
If you want to make someone easier to read or if you think someone opens way too loose and you want to pin them, this is a time when re-raising is good.
Ultimately, all these points come down to one fact: IF you think ... THEN just call.
AK is the best high-card hand. Just because you missed the flop doesn't mean you have to fold to a single bet. You'll often be ahead of a lot of the other hands that people c-bet. People love to double-barrel on As and Ks when they come on the turn or river, which makes AK a fantastic hand for floating - quite possibly the best hand of all time for floating.
Finally - and I know I am going to get some heat for this but I don't care 'cause I'm a damn professional and I know this from experience: It's OK to fold AK pre-flop.
It doesn't mean you're being a NIT if the situation dictates it. Just don't get in the habit of doing it every time you get dealt it. It's a hand you should love, not loathe. If you know the range of an opponent is super-strong - like KKs and AAs only - what good can it possibly do to call that re-raise? To maybe flop a pair so you can get yourself stacked? What's the point of that? You may, you may not. Just because you got dealt a nice hand, doesn't mean you have to play it. Just like you don't have to date every decent looking person you come across. It's all about the mitigating factors, friends. Yes, in general AK is a hand you should be playing, especially when suited, but there are times when it should be mucked because you didn't hit the flop.
It’s important to remember there is no single right way to play AK.
You have to be in-tune with your opponents and the action to be able to determine the best recourse. The main thing to take away from this article is that you have options, and depending on the situation, one is always going to be a little better than another.
When people come to me and say that they lose the most money with AK and JJ, the reason is usually because they think being dealt those hands is a license to go all-in. And it's not. But that doesn't mean knowing this is a license to fold it every time either. It's about gauging the situation and acting accordingly.
Have any AK tales of triumph or stories of woe? Share them in the comments!
Photo Credit: Fitzsean | Flickr