A Beginner’s Guide to playing AK in tournaments and cash games
In Anthony Holden’s superb book ‘A Bigger Deal’, the author barely allows a chapter to go by without describing some awful disaster befalling him when trying to make AK work! His Anna Kournikova joke (it looks good but rarely wins) is used to hide his disappointment, embarrassment even, that one of the most difficult hands to play in poker has let him down way more often than ‘the molls’ who pervade the pages of his excellent journey through the poker world. But what exactly is it that makes AK such a tortuous hand? And how can we get on its good side?
With the exception of A’s and K’s, ‘Big Slick’ is the one hand which gets the pre-flop pulse racing. When it’s the suited version, that heart-rate increases; now the thought of a big pot with nut flushes and top pair/top kicker jumps into the equation, and it becomes difficult to focus on what you actually have in front of you – which is, a very good drawing hand and an excellent pre-flop bluffing hand.
If we look at which hands we would like to meet, and which we would like to avoid, we can get a clearer idea of what we need to do to make AK work to our advantage.
Obviously AK hates to meet AA and KK – it’s a huge dog to these hands, about 7% v the pocket rockets and 30% against the kings. Unfortunately, we all know these hands have a habit of cropping up when we least want to see them, so we’ll have to work out when they are most likely to occur.
Against any other pocket pair then it has close to 50% equity, but still needs improving and you need to know that you will improve your AK on the flop about 30% of the time – often enough to be useful, but not often enough to inspire confidence.
What Big Slick loves to see is any other big ace combo: AQ/AJ/A10 or KQ-type hands. Here you are about a 70% favourite, and it’s here you will be making money- again, knowing when you’re most likely to be facing hands which you will dominate is crucial to your win-rate with AK. So….
Tournaments: This is the main arena for making AK profitable, particularly when the tables are either short-handed (6-max or less) or when you are approaching the bubble. In these situations you are
- a) less likely to run into those nasty AA or KK combos and
- b) more likely to find yourself up against the other big A hands, or at worst racing with small to medium pairs. Short-stacks will have to make a move with any reasonable holding – hand ranges open up in short-handed play!
What you want to avoid is pushing your AK too strongly early on in tournaments, or when you are deep-stacked. Anyone willing to risk their stacks early on will more likely be doing so with hands you don’t want to see, and although AK is a strong hand it is not something you want risk your big stack on!
Cash Games: Generally speaking, you have to be more circumspect with your AK in cash games. Pre-flop shoves with AK will often find themselves being called only with the big 2 hands – best case scenario here is that you will be in a race, so it’s definitely not a +EV way to play.
This failure to understand the differences between cash games and tournaments is one of the main ways in which players lose a lot of money. Co-incidentally, Anthony Holden (from the introduction) doesn’t mention any problems playing AK in the cash games he seems to excel in – this transition is a major source of problems even for experienced poker players.
All in pre-flop against seeing the flop?
Many players think, or have been told, that shoving pre-flop with AK is the best way to play- as a strong drawing hand, you want to see all 5 community cards to give yourself the maximum chance to improve your AK. This is true to an extent, but as I’ve explained above, it is also a very risky approach in many games.
Shoving does have fold equity, which helps, but you have to take into account a lot of other factors – tournament position, stack sizes, what you know about your opponents’ styles, etc. One of the main reasons why people shove is that they don’t know how to play AK on the flop. It is a very difficult hand to continue with! An example….
You are dealt A]K}under the gun in a 100NL cash game. You raise to 4BB and get called by both the button and the big blind. The flop comes out A[7}8] The BB checks and action is on you. What do you do here?
You now have top pair, top kicker but have no idea if you are facing trips, another big ace, 2 pair or a straight draw. Position also shows itself to be important here, but this is something you should have in mind all the time anyway. So, you can expect to be ahead here more often than not, but if you bet out and meet any serious resistance you have to accept that you’re done with the hand – and this is where players lose money. AK, even when it hits, is not the 3rd strongest hand in poker pre- or post-flop!
A slightly different scenario occurs with AK suited. This version of ‘Big Slick’ is probably the one which tempts so many players into over-rating the hand, although you are 3 times less likely to actually get the suited version and it only increase the value by about 2.5%. Of course, hitting the nut flush gives us a sweet feeling of joy (right up until one or other of our opponents tables his boat!) but with rainbows accounting for 40% of flops, the maths alone simply don’t back up your nut-flush dreams.
So, how do I play AK and win money?
Let’s break it down clearly….
You should almost always raise or re-raise with it pre-flop. In short-handed or short-stacked play, you can go all the way with it.
Deep-stacked or early on, don’t get over involved either pre- or post-flop – look to keep the pots small rather than large.
When first in, you mix up your play with 80% raises, and 20% limps with a view to re-raising when the table is very active, less so at tight tables.
Limping and re-raising is a common way to mix up your play with AA, so your opponents will often be scared of what you’re actually holding.
Conclusion: AK can be a powerful hand both heads-up and short-handed, but be very wary of playing it in a multi-way pot, and above all – don’t over-value the hand – AA and KK can be hard to let go of, AK shouldn’t be!
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