Playing Ace-King after the flop

CardRunners pro Matthew Janda explains how you should play Ace-King postflop, whether you hit or miss!

How to play Ace-King postflop? It doesn’t sound so exciting on the surface but this is a strategy article that most players will really need to read. In fact, it’s the type of thing that really would have helped my game out a few years ago. I’m going to teach you not only why Ace-King is tricky to play postflop, but also help you to understand poker on a deeper level. By learning how to play Ace-King properly postflop you’ll also learn extra concepts in poker that you can apply to other hands as well.

Why is A-K so tricky to play?

A-K is so tricky to play because it more or less can never be classified as a ‘value bet’ or ‘bluff’ when we miss. These concepts are much better understood now than they were several years ago, but they are still very tricky. For example, betting A-K often makes better hands fold, such as 3-3 on a 9-6-4♣ board, and it always has six ‘outs’ to top pair, top kicker (TPTK). Situations like this make A-K feel like a bluff – after all, we made a better hand fold and, if we do get called, we still have outs. That’s usually
what we look for in a good bluffing spot.

However, because A-K is the nut non-pair hand, it’s often the best hand on the flop and will also get called by worse! Confusing, isn’t it? This makes it feel like a value bet. If we stick with that earlier 9-6-4♣ board it’s reasonable to expect that we will sometimes be called by A-Q, A-J and A-T when we bet, all of which are well behind our A-K. More than most other hands A-K is a hand that we will often feel we have to bet, but it’s very hard to articulate why.

Why do we bet?

This is a question I will often ask people. I sometimes hear some complex answers but in actual fact the reasons for betting are remarkably simple.

  1. Betting denies your opponent the ability to realise the equity of some of his hands. If we bet our opponent will fold some hands, and he will not have the ability to outdraw us. That is super-important preflop and still important postflop.
  2. Betting can get value from your opponent when he calls with worse hands.

Even in very complex spots where it’s hard to tell why we should check or bet, the reasons for betting are almost always a combination of these two reasons.

People are usually pretty good at correctly betting hands which clearly satisfy reason #1 or #2, but it’s tricky betting hands which somewhat satisfy both. A clear example of this is Ace-King!

Try to visualise it

There are two main reasons why we bet; the value reason with big hands and the bluffing reason, to deny our opponents equity. A good example of a value bet is betting 6-6 on an 8-6-2 rainbow board. Here, denying the opponent his equity is not a big deal because we will so rarely get outdrawn. We are
purely betting for value.

On the other hand, let’s say we bet 4-3 on an 8-6-2 rainbow board. Here we are mainly just betting to deny an opponent his equity (and to get him to fold). Anytime we bet with four-high and get our opponent to fold we have almost always made him fold better.

The problem is when we have a hand that falls in between the value and bluff categories. A good example is betting A-K on that very same 8-6-2 rainbow board. We are betting both to get value from worse hands (A-Q, etc) and then check it down, and also because A-K is very vulnerable to being outdrawn even when it is ahead. If we bet A-K here and get a hand like J-T to fold then yes, we were ahead when we bet, but there was a decent chance we would have lost the hand at showdown. This makes it incredibly important to bet and take it down right away. If our opponent has six outs or more they will get there a lot. It’s important to deny them their equity.

Got it?

Another example would be three-betting 9-9 in the big blind versus a button open. I used to think this play was bad. And my reason was that it is neither a clear value bet or a clear bluff. Why are we three-betting 9-9? Well, because when we three-bet Nines and our opponent calls we will often have the best hand (making it feel like a value three-bet).

But Nines are also so vulnerable that it is super-important we deny the opponent the ability to realise his equity. Three-betting Nines doesn’t do an awesome job of getting value or an awesome job of denying equity, but it does do a little bit of both. I was thrown because I wanted everything to be simple – I wanted to be able to classify a hand as a value bet or as a bluff. But in reality that’s very hard to do unless we are on the river with no more cards to come.

Other factors that make A-K difficult to play

Here are a few other things to keep in mind when betting A-K on the flop:

  • It may be part of a mixed strategy. Especially in three-bet pots, Ace-King makes up so many hand combinations that you may have to mix it up. In other words, if your opponent always knew how you played Ace-King postflop, could he exploit you? If he knew you always bet it, are you exploitable? If the answer is yes, you must mix it up and sometimes bet and sometimes check.
  • It also depends on all the other usual factors you need to consider when betting, such as each player’s range, equity, stack depth, distribution of equity, etc. If our range is a lot weaker than our opponent’s we will mostly be check-calling A-K, but if our range is stronger we will mostly be betting A-K aggressively.

You have to understand that it’s okay to play A-K on the flop without having a plan for how you will proceed on the turn. Some people disagree with me on this but I feel it’s right. One tricky thing about betting A-K on the flop is that you often won’t know what you are doing on all possible turn cards. For example, I regularly bet A-K on a T♣-6♠-2 rainbow flop without much certainty as to how I’ll play the turn.

The problem with A-K is you’ll often need to do very different things on different turn cards and, personally, I’m not good enough to think of every possible turn card on the flop. For me, it’s good enough to bet A-K to kind of get value and kind of deny equity without being sure what to do next!

Playing A-K on the turn

There are two really important factors to keep in mind when playing A-K on the turn.

  1. If you can’t realistically realise its showdown value after checking A-K on the turn, consider using it as a bluff. Showdown value only matters if you might actually win at showdown! If you plan on check-folding A-K on the turn, and your opponent will bet worse hands, then it makes sense for you to be the one bluffing first!
  2. A-K usually has six ‘outs’ to TPTK. That’s 75% as many outs as an open-ended straight draw. This means that if the opponent is betting the turn with a pretty polarised range, then A-K is often a good ‘bluff catcher’ that also has six outs to improve. I might bet A-K on the flop, and check-call it on the turn even if that wasn’t my plan on the flop. Sometimes we will still lose the hand even if we hit one of our ‘outs’, but that won’t happen enough for us to worry about it too much.

Getting over the mental block

One of the main reasons why A-K is so hard to play is it requires us to go against some very valuable rules we began applying at the micro limits.

  • We like to be able to clearly classify hands as value bets of bluffs. If the bet is not doing one or the other then it will often be a mistake (at the micro limits).
  • We are told to have a clear plan in mind for the hand so that we won’t make a big mistake later. It’s very hard to have a clear plan in mind when playing A-K because there are so many different turn cards and bet sizes our opponent can use.

Wrapping it up

Poker is a very complex game and much harder to analyse the further we are from the river, since hands aren’t clear value bets or bluffs. However, just being okay at getting value and okay at denying equity is often good enough to justify betting.

And, finally, remember that you can get away – sometimes – with playing hands like Ace-King without any real clear idea of what you will do on later streets. It’s sometimes unavoidable, but be warned –it’s not a habit you should regularly get into on the poker tables. If your aim is to win money that is!

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