Playing AK Out of Position by Jon ‘Pearljammed’ Turner
Ace-King may be one of the strongest starting hands in poker, but you’ve got to play it right in each position to make it pay – especially in the early stages of a tournament. Being in early position adds another challenge to the situation. But if you’re betting consistently and keeping an eye on your opponents, you should be able to take more than a few pots when you’re holding Big Slick.
To start, let’s look at the early stages of tournament play. Suppose I have 3,000 chips, the blinds are 20/40, and I’m under the gun with AK. I’ll raise to 120 and assume that there are a couple of callers. Regardless of my position, this is a good situation. With just two callers, I’ve likely got the best hand.
Let’s say the flop comes A- or K-x-x. I’ve got to be careful not to overplay my hand. If I start out check-raising here it will be obvious that I’ve connected with the flop and I’ll likely drive out some of the weaker hands that I can probably get action from if I just check-call. A better move here, however, is to avoid slow playing this hand at all and to lead out at the pot with a continuation bet like I would at any other time. This not only helps to build the pot, but it also prevents my opponents from catching a free card that could somehow cost me more later on.
If I do get action from an opponent after I lead out, I’ll probably check on the turn. By doing this, I can control the pot size and induce my opponent to bluff into me with a weaker hand. If my opponent checks behind me, I can value bet on the river and try to induce a call if he’s holding a pocket pair like Js or Ts and he thinks his two-pair may be ahead. If my opponent is holding a weaker Ace, checking the turn and value betting the river is also a good way to keep them in the hand and to extract an extra call at the end of the hand.
If my opponent leads out and bets after I check the turn with my AK, I’ll usually just call his bet and head to the river. Again, check-raising here isn’t a good play because it’s likely to drive a weaker hand out of the pot or cost me more chips if I’m facing a stronger hand.
If I lead out after the flop and get raised by my opponent, I’ll usually just flat call and see the turn. I’ll seldom re-raise here because all that will do is drive weaker hands than mine that still might put money in the pot. One situation where I will re-raise, however, is when I’ve got an opponent who’s consistently overplayed his hands – especially when he’s holding an Ace. If I’m facing an opponent like this, I may re-raise all-in to induce a call when he’s way behind.
Assuming I’ve just flat-called a re-raise on the flop, I’ll check the turn just like I did in the earlier example. If my opponent checks behind me, I’ll value bet my AK on the river and hope for a call. If my opponent bets out after I check the turn, then I’ve got a tough decision. If he’s firing a second bet, I can be pretty sure he’s holding a strong hand like a set and that he has a good idea about what I’m holding. This is especially true if I’m up against an experienced opponent. I may lay down my AK here in order to save my chips for a better spot or I may call depending on the size of the bet and any history I have with this opponent. If I call and he bets strong again on the river, I’ll almost always fold as I have to assume that he’d very rarely bet here with a worse kicker or as a third bluff.
One situation where I won’t check the turn is if the flop comes K-x-x with two suited cards on the board. In this spot, I’m going to lead out if the flush card doesn’t hit on the turn in order to protect my hand from the potential flush coming on the river. If my opponent has a set or a hand that already has me beat, he’s probably going to re-raise to protect his hand as well. This complicates things even more, and I’m going to have to rely on my read of him at that point to determine what I should do. If I really think he has a hand or he’s proven to be a solid player, I’ll probably fold and look for a better spot.
AK is a very powerful hand, but it can also be dangerous – especially when you’re playing it from early position. By continuation betting after the flop, you can get a pretty good idea of how strong or weak your opponents may be, and plot your next moves accordingly. Depending on whether your opponent calls or raises, checking the turn can either set you up to pick up some extra chips by value betting the river, or save you some precious chips if you’re forced to lay down to a bigger a hand. Either way, you’re retaining control of the hand and giving yourself the best chance to make it to the money.