Playing Ace-King Preflop
by Andrew Brokos | Published: Dec 26, 2012
In today’s hyper-aggresive tournament environment, A-K has become a default reraising hand. Many players are, often correctly, willing to four, five, and even six-bet all-in with it. Such play is stereotypically associated with young “Internet players,” but I recently witnessed one such player flat call with A-K in a very good spot and win a large pot as a result. We’ll start by looking at that hand and that zoom out to talk more generally about the factors that should lead you to three-bet or call this and similar hands.
This hand took place during a $1,100 tournament at a relatively new casino. This was the largest buy-in and the first two-day event that the casino had ever hosted, so many of the locals playing in it were quite invested in doing well and overly cautious and risk averse as a result.
Blinds were 1,000-2,000 with a 300 ante. The Young Internet Player (YIP) – he was in his mid-20s and had mentioned that he played on the US-facing internet sites – was on the button. The action folded to a middle-aged woman on his immediate right, who opened with a raise to 5,200.
This woman, who began the hand with about 80,000, was very much an amateur player and had been exceedingly tight and straightforward both preflop and postflop. She seemed to be raising only medium pairs, big aces, and strong broadway hands – she consistently limped with slightly weaker hands and folded everything else – and she didn’t seem to have much positional awareness. In other words, she was raising a fixed set of hands that she considered strong with little regard for the whether she was under the gun or on the button.
Postflop, she checked when she missed or had less than top pair and bet with top pair or better. She rarely checked for pot control, but the size of her bets tended to correlate with how strong she believed her hand to be.
The YIP, who had about 100,000, just called on the button, and the blinds folded. The flop came A-J-4 with a flush draw. His opponent bet, and the YIP called. The turn was an 8, the preflop raiser bet 12,000, and the YIP called again. The river was a deuce, and she bet 12,000 again. The YIP raised to 30,000, showed A-K when his opponent called, and raked a nice pot.
Even though he was on the button with A-K, facing a cutoff raise, I’m convinced that he played the hand perfectly by flat calling and won the most that he possibly could have. Of course there was a lot of luck involved in making top pair with a better kicker than his opponent (presumably – I never saw her hand, but it’s hard to imagine she had anything other than A-Q or A-10), but the point is that he put himself in a position to get lucky.
Arguments For Flat Calling
Instead of thinking of A-K as a hand that you always reraise or always call, it’s best to ask yourself the question, “What will the original raiser do with A-Q, A-J, and K-Q if I reraise?” If you believe your opponent will fold most or all of those hands, then you’re generally better off calling. This is what I mean when I say that the YIP put himself in a position to get lucky: By keeping dominated hands in his opponent’s range, he gave himself the opportunity to flop top pair with a better kicker and win four postflop bets from her.
Had he reraised preflop, she probably would have folded most or all of the hands that he dominated. If she called, she probably would have had a good pocket pair, in which case the best the YIP could have hoped for would be to flop top pair and win the pot but no further bets. If she’d four-bet, I believe it would have been with such a strong range that he would have been correct to fold A-K. Better not to put himself in that spot.
It helped here that the cutoff was such a straightforward player. The YIP didn’t have to be too worried about getting bluffed off of the best hand if they both missed the flop. He was also able to take advantage of her bet-sizing tells to squeeze out a value raise on the river, even though she’d bet three streets and he only had one pair.
Although flat calling A-K against trickier players can make for tougher postflop decisions, it has its advantages too. For one thing, more aggressive players may represent an ace or king when they don’t have one, increasing your implied odds when you flop top pair. On certain board textures, you may be able to call a continuation bet unimproved, confident that your opponent will still have a lot of dominated hands in his range.
Arguments For Reraising
The biggest advantage of reraising is the potential for winning the pot immediately with a hand that will miss the flop more often than not. This can help to avoid tricky situations postflop, but as we’ve seen, there can be big upsides to taking a flop as well. This is something you have to assess situationally and consider whether your implied odds when you make a big hand outweigh the costs you’ll incur by losing some pots you could have won with a reraise.
The other big reason to raise is when you believe your opponent will call or raise again with hands that you dominate. In that case, you’re raising purely for value and the potential benefits of flopping top pair with a better kicker are still there.
More positionally aware tournament players raise so much from the cutoff that they won’t fold hands like A-Q, A-J, and K-Q to button reraises. Against such players, this would be a clear reraise, but it’s to the YIP’s credit that he recognized why that wasn’t the case here.
Finally, even when you can’t expect a raise to be called by dominated hands, A-K is still a tremendously good hand for shoving preflop as a semibluff. Imagine a situation where aces and kings are the only hands in your shoving range. Your opponent now has an easy fold with hands as strong as queens. Inserting A-K into your shoving range more than doubles the equity that lower pocket pairs have against you. In other words, even an opponent who correctly reads your shove as extremely strong will generally not be able to get away from good pocket pairs if he knows you would shove A-K in the same spot. This greatly increases your profit with your big pairs at relatively little cost to you, since your A-K has nearly 50 percent equity against those same hands.
If you can profitably get all-in preflop with A-K, it’s usually correct to put yourself on course to do that even if it means folding out dominated hands. When you aren’t looking to get all-in preflop though, as the player in this hand correctly was not, then you have to think ahead to where your postflop profit will come from and how you can keep dominated hands in your opponent’s range. ♠
Andrew Brokos is a professional poker player, writer and coach. He blogs about poker strategy on ThinkingPoker.net and is co-host of the Thinking Poker Podcast. Andrew is also interested in education reform and founded an after-school debate program for urban youth.
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