One of the most difficult hands to play in Texas Hold'Em is AK. While a strong hand, it requires the consideration of many more factors than pocket pairs or other strong hands. How you play AK at a table with five players in strong position is completely different than how you should play the hand from a weak position with ten players. Whether you are at a sit and go tournament or a large scale tournament, all these factors make a huge difference in how you play this hand. Too often players play this hand strong when they shouldn't, or soft when they should be betting and raising. This article will help teach you to know the difference.
The first thing to know about AK is some of the odds with AK heads up. AK against almost any pocket pair is a slight underdog. This means that going all in with AK pre-flop is not a smart move, because slightly half the time you will get beat. And that's assuming only one player is calling you, as opposed to two or three which dramatically increases the chances of a flush, straight, or trips being hit against you even if you do make a high pair.
AK can be a strong hand, but its strength or weakness is heavily dependent on the game you are playing, the players, your position, and your situation. The difference between solid winnings and huge losses is often contained in how the player plays that one hand. First of all, look at these sample odds (all odds are in heads up situations):
AK unsuited vs. TT = 42.7%
AK unsuited vs. 76 suited = 57.7%
AK suited vs. 66 = 47.9%
AK suited vs. QJ suited = 60.0%
Notice how the only hand that is even relatively dominated is QJ suited, and even that is somewhat tenuous. The AK is a dog to even a low pocket pair, and it is barely stronger than two suited middle cards. For many beginner Hold 'Em players this is a huge wake up call. So what is the big deal with AK? Well it does dominate a lot of other strong hands players will bet heavy with, primarily AQ, AJ, AT, KQ, KJ, especially when those hands are unsuited. AK is a 3 to 1 (75%) favorite over AQ before the flop.
What this means is that while AK is a strong starting hand, it is not dominant until something hits on the flop. AK is also a hand that needs to be played with strong thought at every stage of the game. Pre-flop AK is at its best from a strong position, but the strategy should be the same: you want to raise a respectable amount. In no-limit Hold 'Em this would be about three times the big blind, because you want everyone to think you have a strong hand, so weaker middle hands or chasers will be scared off, and if you do hit the best hand, you want more chips in the pot.
If the flop has either an ace or a king, or both, bet and raise. You have hit your hand, and do not want to give odds to draw to any gut shot straight draws or flush draws. How your opponents react may also give you some insight into what they are holding. Maybe someone has a weak ace like A6, in which case they are likely to call, or raise you the exact amount you bet. Someone might have Q-K with the king hitting versus your king, leading the person to think he has the best hand and getting him into serious trouble. If there isn't an obvious straight or flush, keep pushing the pot.
Suppose the flop is scary? What should you do if you hit the ace or king, but all three cards are spades and you don't have any? In this situation make one strong bet, and if everyone calls or if someone raises heavily and others call, just throw it away. You would be surprised how often that early raise will take down the pot, because if no one has the flush or someone else has the high card, but thinks you have the flush, then many times you can take down the pot. If someone comes after you, throw it away and wait for a better day.
Suppose you raise pre-flop and the board is something like 9-7-2 unsuited. In this case if you are in early position, you should make a continuous bet. Why? Because if you raised pre-flop and several people only called, there is a good chance you're facing KQ, AJ or other similar hands that also missed the flop completely. You may be able to take down the hand completely, because now they have to wonder about the nine, and wonder about a strong pocket pair. Most often everyone will fold. If you get a tentative call, bet on the next card as well no matter what it is. If the turn card is scary and the other player raises hard, give it up. Otherwise the pot is yours.
Where many players get into trouble is chasing AK to the river when another person is betting. If you miss the flop completely and other players are betting and calling, don't be an idiot. AK is a great starting hand, but if you miss the flop your odds drop through the floor. Many times when AK misses the flop, that hand actually becomes unwinnable, or needs runner-runner for any hope. If you miss and others are raising, throw it away and wait for a better situation. The strong pre-flop hands aren't strong anymore after a missed flop. The chips you don't lose are just as good as the ones you win.
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