Of the thousands of different hands that a Hold ’em player can receive as their hole cards, there are only a few that really get their blood pumping. One of them is Ace-King (AK). AK is a powerful hand no matter how many people are at your table and no matter what table position you’re in, but the one thing you need to keep in mind is that AK is not as powerful as it may seem.
AK is a great hand, no doubt, but there is only so much you can do with it. It is most likely the best hand at the table, but if you don’t hit the flop with it, it’s not really a powerful hand at all. The way to play AK all depends on two things: Your position (near the button, first to act, etc. …) and your chip stack relative to the others at your table.
Let’s talk about your position first. No matter what position you’re in, if you get AK and you’re the first to act, you should raise with it. I usually try to keep all my raises the same amount (about 3 times the big blind) so that when I do raise people don’t know what I have. I could have AA or I could just be trying to steal blinds with a weaker hand.
So, let’s say you’re in early position. You want to raise with AK because if you get callers and you do hit the flop with an A or a K, you want to have as much money in the pot as you can. If you raise and no one calls, then you get the blinds without having to see a flop, and that’s never a bad thing. Remember, AK is not a “made” hand, meaning you don’t really have much of anything, so winning any amount of chips with it is good. Obviously you want to get as much as you can, but there’s only a 33% chance you are going to get an A or a K on the flop and then you may lose the hand and more money if you don’t hit it.
If you raise with AK and get re-raised, I would just call. You have to be scared of a re-raise because they may have AA or KK and then you’re in big trouble. Go ahead and see the flop at that point and then check if you don’t hit it. If you check and they bet, I would go ahead and fold at that point.
If you do get an A or a K on the flop, then you have to feel you have the best hand, so bet it out. If you get an A on the flop, you bet it out and then get re-raised, I would definitely re-raise back because the odds of you having AK and the other guy having AA at that point are not very good at all. You’re hoping the other guy has AQ or AJ there. At worst, you might both have AK. If a K comes on the flop, bet it out and then if you get re-raised you have to be suspicious of an AA, so I’d just call and play it very carefully from there. I would probably check and call, unless he goes all-in, at which point I’d have to consider laying it down. It would just depend on how that player had been played previously, with me being more likely to call if he’s loose.
Now, let’s say you have AK in late position. If there are just callers ahead of you, you want to raise. My rule of thumb when deciding how much to raise is this — if you have one caller ahead of you, raise it 4x the big blind; if you have two callers ahead, then make it 5x the big blind, and so on. You want those guys to either fold or call in a bad spot. Again, just winning those blinds and calls isn’t a bad thing with AK.
If you have a regular raise ahead of you, I would just call it. I don’t want to re-raise with AK because, again, there’s only a 33% chance you’re going to hit the flop. If it’s a short-stack going all-in, then I would definitely call because he could be desperate and is quite likely to have a worse hand than yours. At worst, he might have a JJ or 99 or something and then you have a 50/50 shot. At best he has something like AJ or AQ and you have him dominated.
If you just call a regular raise and are in late position, you need to see what happens on the flop before you make your decision. If the flop comes with something like Q-10-7, and the original raiser bets out, you have to have the discipline to fold there. If you call and let’s say an A comes out on the turn, yes, you have top pair, but he might now have two pair with an AQ or an A-10, or a straight, or anything that could beat you. One key to being a winning player is staying out of situations where you have the second-best hand, because those will kill you.
If you’ve called the raise and an A or a K does come out, you’re going to be either betting if the original raiser checks, or re-raising if he bets. If he re-raises you back, then you need to slow down because he could have an AA or a KK or maybe a lower flopped set.
In a situation where you are a short stack (5x the big blind or less in a tournament), go ahead and go all-in with the AK because, again, you most likely have the best hand and people may smell desperation on you and call with something worse than that. There are only two hands (AA/KK) where AK isn’t at least close to a 50/50 shot, so if you’re a shorty, it’s all-in time for sure.
As I said, AK is a powerful hand, but that’s only before the flop and only if you hit an A or a K on it. If the flop comes and it doesn’t hit, you have to maintain your discipline and realize that it’s OK to fold it. Good luck!