Ask anyone who plays poker and they'll tell you ace-king, both suited and unsuited, is a premium Hold'em starting hand.
So how come it gets beginners into so much trouble?
As with all premium poker hands the pots you play with AK will typically be bigger than average. That forces you to make more frequent and more difficult decisions.
Before you can try to formulate a consistent strategy with AK you need a firm grasp on the real strength of AK. The best way to do that is by looking at the true equity of the hand in various scenarios.
How to Play AK in Poker
A-K is a tricky hand in that the range playing back at it is very wide in its statistical strength.
It's much more difficult to know where you stand with A-K than with many other hands. There is no worse spot to be in than not knowing whether hitting the flop will be a good or bad thing.
Because A-K is a drawing hand (meaning it needs to hit the board in some way to be more than just ace-high), many players believe it's best played in pots with multiple players.
Since it has to hit to be good anyway, they feel it's desirable to get as much money in the pot as they can.
The second school of thought is to play A-K like a premium hand, raising heavily to isolate A-K against a single opponent.
Before you go any further with one school or the other let's take a look at the statistics of A-K against both of these options.
How to Play A-K vs. a Single Opponent
The following hands are included in this comparison: AA, KK, QQ, 66, A-Q offsuit, A-Q suited and 7-8 suited.
It makes no sense to run the numbers against every possible hand so these are the majority of possible situations:
- pair under one of your cards
- underpair (dead-end)
- underpair (unhindered)
- dominated ace and
- low suited connector
(All equity calculations courtesy of PokerStove)
|Hand||Hand %||A♠ K♠ %|
The first thing to note is this list only gives you a brief glimpse into A-K's equity in this context. The idea wasn't to make a comprehensive list but to get an idea of where A-K stands pre-flop against one opponent.
Also note that the numbers change by a few percentage points when you change suits around, as shown with the two A-Q examples.
The average equity of A♠ K♠ for all of these examples is 49%. This might be surprising, considering that it's a top 5 starting hand. Although this number is accurate, it's a good example of how statistics - even accurate statistics - rarely tell the full truth.
For example, for every time your A-K runs into AA, you'll have multiple run-ins with hands such as A-Q, A-J, and K-Q. Statistically you're more likely to run into QQ than KK, and there are more non-dominated suited-connector hands than the contents of this list combined.
If you factored in all of the possible hands and the frequency of playing A-K against them, you would see the A-K average win percentage climb to a very profitable level.
How to Play A-K vs. Multiple Opponents
Now to run some equity numbers on how A-K holds up against multiple hands in a single pot. This is the same range as for the single-opponent calculations but with a few extra scenarios.
First, let's start with a direct comparison. We'll assume that your A♠ K♠ got all-in against seven opponents pre-flop, allowing all hands to see a river (unlikely, of course, but this is exclusively for statistical evaluation):
(You might have noticed that the suits of some cards have changed and the second A-Q example was left out. This is to remove all instances of two players holding the same card at once.)
In this unlikely scenario A-K will win the hand 10% of the time (or 1 in 10). Considering you're only getting 7-1 on your money, this is a -EV scenario.
In fact any scenario that has AA in the mix is going to lose you significant money.
(On a separate note, take a look at AA: a 30% win rate while getting 7-1. It's for this reason players such as Mike Caro believe AA is best played multiway to optimize long-term results.)
If we take a more likely scenario the numbers will change dramatically. In this scenario we put A-K into a limped pot against the type of hands you'll commonly see all at once. If no one raises chances are no one is holding AA or KK.
In this more likely scenario our suited A-K is 20% to win the pot. We're going to win 1 in 5 times while getting 7-1 on our money. Now we're back in the black.
What is Your Equity with AK?
Again, this is just to help you understand your equity with A-K. The numbers are the control to start from - ground zero.
These numbers are true equity, which is not to be confused with other forms of odds. These numbers only give you an idea of where to start with a hand like A-K.
Your goal is to manipulate the numbers and your opponents into giving you better odds on the hand than the base equity offers.
In short: Hand equity is not always the same as the odds. The odds in play are false, due to lack of knowledge. You don't know 100% what your opponent has and the same goes for them against you.
This means the odds change based on fold equity (your bluffing latitude) and on the choices you make with the knowledge you have.
You have the ability to choose to play or fold the hand. If you fold every time the A-Q hits the queen, and make the call every time your ace hits against KK, you're going to make far more money than the equity predicts.
Another way to think about it: if every time you play your A-K vs. A-Q, you get it all-in for 1,000BBs, and every time you run your A-K into AA, you lose 10BBs, you've just upset the equity predictions.
Even though the equity prediction is accurate in terms of how often you'll win the hand, if you manipulate the amounts of the wins and losses, you make far more money than the equity would appear to allow. (This example is clearly not possible; it's just meant to make the concept easy to understand.)
Odds & Equity are Negotiable
Knowledge and action change odds. If the best and worst basketball teams in the world face off against each other, with the former knowing that they're ridiculous favorites to win, it may well affect their respective play - to the extent even of the lesser team getting the upper hand.
We've all witnessed surprise upsets and underdog victories as a result of this exact scenario.
If both teams had gone into the game knowing nothing of their own skill in relation to their opponents' - if both teams believed they were the best - the better team's odds of victory would be almost dead-on accurate.
If you want to blow your noodle with this propensity of odds to defy logic, check out the Monty Hall Problem, which in short goes like this: (wording from Wikipedia)
Suppose you're on a game show and you're given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what's behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, "Do you want to pick door No. 2?"
Statistically, what should you do?
Unless you're a very sharp logistician or mathematician (or have heard this problem before), you will assume that it doesn't matter. Two doors, one prize = 50% chance either way.
This is, in fact, incorrect. You should always request he open the "other" door. By doing so, you actually have a 66% chance at winning the car. The best way to see this is through the chart with all the possible options outlined on Wikipedia.
The Small Profit Zone
If you remember the first chart above you'll know that if it's played dark (meaning you are oblivious to the strength or weakness of your opponents and of yourself in the pot), the EV margin of A-K will hover just above even in a small profit zone.
The hand is strong enough to win the majority of pots it plays but the majority of those winning pots will be small. The large ones will be negated from the large losses you take against hands such as AA on a cooler flop.
A-K is strong enough to be marginally profitable on its own but can be much more lucrative with a little help.
The Value of Poker Information
Ironically, poker is a very thoughtful game that is played solely on instinct by the majority of players. Whether you know it or not, you raise for one, two or all three of the following reasons:
- To isolate the hand against one or a few opponent/s.
- To increase pot size while having the most equity.
- To gain information on the other players in the pot.
When raising with A-K, you are primarily doing it for the third reason, whereas when raising with a hand such as AA, you are doing it for the second. A-K is strong enough to stand, in the long run, against a field of multiple players.
Increasing the pot size isn't a bad idea, but A-K is a drawing hand, meaning you still need to connect with the board to hold on to the equity post flop.
You're raising A-K for information. If you understand why you're raising before you do, instead of arbitrarily raising because you feel you should with the hand, you will have the knowledge and the ability to execute a plan.
When you know you're raising primarily for information you can time and size your raise amounts accordingly.
Use Information to Make Correct Play with Ak
If the first step is acquiring the information, the second step will be to use that information to your advantage. This is where you can start to manipulate the long-term odds and increase the net profitability of the hand.
Assuming you now have the information it's now up to you to make the correct play. Reads in poker all come as a range. You put your opponent on a range of hands - the better the read, the smaller the range.
If you've made strong information-extracting plays, and have a solid understanding of reading your opponents, you can get the possible range down to a very few hands - even occasionally putting them on a specific hand.
Once you know what your opponent holds, you can adjust your play accordingly. If you put them on AA or KK, you want to shut down in the hand and conserve. Minimize the losses and maximize the wins.
Put your opponent on a range of A-Q, A-J, K-Q, and you want to pump the pot as you have your opponent dominated no matter which of the hands they hold.
This information is invaluable for making properly sized value bets. If you've put your opponent on the previously stated range and the board comes K♠ 4♥ T♥ 5♠ 9♣, you can take your opponent to value town.
The range is always dynamic; the fact that your opponent is still in the hand (since you're obviously betting on the flop and turn) lets you narrow the range down to the single hand K-Q.
At this point you're able to extract maximum value. If they have you on a range excluding AA and KK, they will not think that the only one hand they lose to is A-K.
Since they only lose to that one hand, they'll commonly convince themselves you have QQ, K-J, JJ or even A-Q. You can make a very decent-sized value bet here with a high expectation of getting paid.
You have to make it your absolute mission to minimize the losses while maximizing the wins with A-K. To do this you have to correctly decide when to bet, raise, call and fold:
- Gain information
- Increase pot size
- Force a weaker hand to fold, or pay without odds to catch up
- Force a small pair to fold the best hand
- Value betting
- Gain information (you typically gain far more information by raising than betting)
- Value raise, if you feel the opponent has enough of a hand to pay you off
- Bluff a weaker hand
- Pot-size control
- Set a trap
- Concede you're beat
As you can see, calling with A-K is rarely the correct idea. It's only ever done in two specific situations: One, you have the absolute nuts and are setting a trap
A great example of this is on the flop T♣ J♥ Q♠. You can now take a huge chunk out of TT, JJ, QQ, KK, AA, A-Q, A-J, 8-9, K-9, K-Q, Q-J, and Q-T. Many players will hang themselves with most of those hands if you let them.
Two, you believe your opponent is bluffing but there is a decent chance you are actually beat. In this scenario, where you truly believe your opponent is bluffing, pot control can be crucial.
You want to keep the pot small to help discourage continued bluffing and to minimize your loss if your read is incorrect.
Always Bet, Raise or Fold AK
Other than in those two scenarios, you should always be betting, raising or folding A-K. If you're beat, dump it as cheaply as possible. If you're ahead, get money into the pot. It seems simple, doesn't it?
It becomes evident that one of the key themes of A-K is that it's a hand most suited to be played post-flop.
There are times where you'll make all of your choices with it pre-flop, but without post-flop choices you're limiting your ability to manipulate the odds of the hand past the original statistics.
In most situations, removing post-flop play from your game will in turn remove the majority of profit you are able to collect with a hand such as A-K.
Pre-Flop with AK: The Three- and Four-Bet
In most situations, removing post-flop play from your game will in turn remove the majority of profit you could otherwise collect with a hand like A-K.
That means that in a deep-stacked full-ring game it's rarely a good idea to three- and four-bet A-K pre-flop.
Unless you're playing with players willing to consistently go three and four bets with less-than-premium hands, it makes little sense to get into a raising war - it will usually result in a pre-flop all-in with A-K.
In ABC poker, a player willing to three- and four-bet has a premium hand, letting you know you're beat. This translates into wanting to conserve the losses and get out cheaply.
Getting it all-in pre-flop in these situations will have you up against premium hands and coin flips most often, a weaker ace or king in occasional situations, and a 60-40 lead against a hand such as T♥ J♥.
In the long run you're going to lose significant money in this scenario. A-K is better suited to be played post-flop.
In the context of an online six-max game, the average aggression level is greatly increased. Once the range widens to where players will be making these moves consistently with hands you are ahead of, three- and four-betting and pre-flop pushing can become profitable.
This idea is taken too far by most players these days. It's true that many online players will three- and four-bet light, meaning your A-K is a monster. But you have to consider this: all but the most aggressive players will still have a fairly narrow range for heavy pre-flop action.
This means you're back to being dominated, or (most often) facing a coin flip, followed by you leading in a 60-40 scenario, and finally, you having a weaker ace or king dominated. These players will make this action every time with the hands that dominate you, and less often with every hand running down from there.
If you take all the coin-flip and 60-40 hands to the flop, you can greatly reduce variance and losses, allowing the situations where you are dominating to help bring your net profit back to where you'd like it to be.
The more aggressive the players are at the table, the more aggressively you can raise and call with A-K. For example, it's rare to see someone play three- or four-bets (or a pre-flop all-in) with a hand like A-Q in a full-ring game (assuming both players have healthy deep stacks).
Once you get into a six-max game the aggression level rises and more importantly the stacks are rarely deep. A-Q can, and will, be played with this high-level aggression. Depending on the player three-betting you it can be more profitable to call to see a flop in even these high-action games than to push over the top pre-flop.
Post-Flop Poker Takes More Skill
Post-flop actions and decisions require far more skill than playing a push-or-fold pre-flop game. This translates into the more skilled players amassing a greater advantage by taking their opponents to the board, rather than battling them pre-flop.
A weaker player will tend to play more aggressively pre-flop, counting on the money earned from opponent folds to help counter the money lost from being outplayed post-flop.
Many stronger players will try to take both angles - pushing hard pre-flop to take the folded TAG money, yet being willing to battle post-flop against the other LAGs.
These players are the ones dominating the online world. TAG players are forced to fold their stacks away or play a game they are not accustomed to or skilled at.
The other LAGs are forced to pit their skill on skill. When they lose to the other LAG, the money lost is "freerolled" from the easy money taken from the TAG players. This is where knowing your opponent makes a very large difference.
If you have a large enough edge, it is in your best interest to play the hand after the flop. This is why Phil Ivey is seen calling, rather than raising, far more often than almost any other top player.
He truly believes (and rightfully so) that he has the skill advantage after the flop. If he allows you to change the game into a push-or-fold match, he loses his edge, falling victim to the cards.
With the majority of players willing to battle heavily pre-flop you get into a game of the best hand winning most often. Moving your play post-flop brings bluffing back into the game, allowing you to win with the lesser hand more often.
When playing A-K you have one of the best hands in poker; this gives you the edge of having the most equity (in most situations). Again, it's in your best interest to use this edge post-flop.
You can win the majority of hands against a small pocket pair by making strong bluffs post-flop, when you would have lost the flip by pushing pre-flop.
In the hands where you happen to run into a monster such as AA or KK, getting it all-in pre-flop is a seriously -EV choice. Playing it on the flop will allow you to get off of the hand cheaply, as long as you don't flop the case ace for a setup cooler.
Tournament Pushing With AK
Pushing or calling pushes pre-flop with A-K can be the right choice more often than not in a tournament. It actually has little to do with you playing a tournament and more to do with you playing with and against short stacks.
At the beginning of a major tournament you would be foolish to get it all-in with A-K pre-flop while sitting 400BB deep. This is where you should maximize wins or conserve losses post-flop. Unfortunately tournaments rarely stay deep-stacked for very long.
In most online poker tournaments, players become short-stacked not long after the start. As soon as players become short-stacked, around 10BB or less, they're forced to ramp up their pre-flop aggression.
They'll be pushing with a fairly wide range, such as any pair, any ace, any two face cards and any higher suited connector.
At this point A-K pre-flop is a very profitable hand. You will run into AA and KK now and again, but the range has opened up to a point where it's profitable to get it all-in pre-flop.
Pre-Flop Concepts: Summary
The more aggressive the players, and/or the shorter the stacks, the more aggressive and loose you can get when playing A-K. Even when playing very aggressive players with deep stacks it can be more profitable to take the play post-flop.
When you can force a weaker player to make decisions post-flop you open the door to allow for greater profit by winning some hands you shouldn't and cutting short the losses on the hands you lose.
Post-Flop Play With AK
Once you're used to the idea of playing A-K post-flop, now you have to make the right moves to actually manipulate the odds in your favor.
You've decided on a range for your opponent's hands pre-flop. Now you have to narrow that range and play against it accordingly. When you're ahead of the range, you want to build pots; when you're behind, you want to get out of the hand.
By using your reads about the range of your opponent you can calculate the outs and odds you have of winning the hand and the odds of successfully bluffing the pot.
A-K is one of the easier hands to play post-flop but don't let its strength allow you to make weak calls or moves. Playing any hand post-flop successfully hinges mostly on experience.
The more you play A-K post-flop, and the better you become at reading your opponents and the betting story, the more successful you'll become with the hand.
Note: None of these guidelines apply to playing AK in free online poker games. All bets are off, strategy-wise, in those!