Ace-King Part 3: Playing the Hand

Ronny Johanson

In the final article in the Ace-King Series, we'll delve into the pre-flop concepts of three- and four-betting and unearth some theory on how to play the hand.

As mentioned in part two, 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 be three- and four-betting 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.

Pre-Flop with AK: The Three- and Four-Bet

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.

I believe that this idea is taken too far by most players these days. It is 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 is 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.

Pre-Flop Concepts: 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.

Pre-Flop Concepts: Tournament Pushing

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.

A hyperaggressive loose player may lay down a hand such as A T to a chunk pre-flop, when letting them hit an ace on a flop against your A-K can be enough for them to hang themselves.

When you have the ability to force a weaker player to make their 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

These articles have been designed entirely around getting you used to the idea of playing A-K post-flop. Now you have to make the correct choices and 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 surmises about the range of your opponent, you can calculate the outs and odds you have of winning the hand, as well as 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.

Having read this article, you should now understand the strengths and weaknesses of A-K, and be able to play it with a plan and with thoughtful consideration rather than by feel. Doing so will grow your ability to play the hand profitably much sooner than if you had stuck to playing it by feel.

When playing ace-king, you want to make sure that you're making every action for a reason. Every action has an intended result: figure out what are you trying to accomplish with the action, choose the appropriate action, then evaluate the results.

If the results are not what you had expected them to be, it means your read on the other player or their hand is incorrect. You now start over with a goal, and use your action to accomplish it.

Note: None of these guidelines apply to playing AK in free online poker games. All bets are off, strategy-wise, in those!

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