Tuesday, January 31, 2017

How to Play Ace King From the Blinds - The Complete Guide

How to Play Ace King From the Blinds
How play AK from the blinds is a very common strategy question that people send me and that I see all the time on poker forums as well. I have long promised that I would write a guide for this specific spot one day and so here it finally is.

I want to be clear up front though that the reason why so many people have difficulty with this spot is because it is not easy. There is rarely one right way to play it.

It depends on so many different factors such as where the raise came from, who made it, if there were callers in between, history, stack sizes, game dynamics and so on.

Furthermore, as I will also discuss in this post, you should be mixing up your play not only for balance against the better players, but also against the range of the weaker opponents.

Anyways, there is a lot to discuss so let's just get started!


Ace King From the Blinds in a Limped Pot


Let's start with the easiest of scenarios, AK in a limped pot. This sort of thing will still happen from time to time in loose passive games at the lowest stakes online and certainly in live games sometimes as well.

You should ALWAYS raise in this spot. There are very few "100% plays" in poker but this would be one of them. Always raise even if the entire table has limped already.

Why?

Because AK is an incredibly strong hand and you often have a solid equity edge before the flop. The raise is purely for value.

Also, we win in poker by playing aggressively. Most of the time nobody has anything very good after the flop. The person who was the preflop aggressor often takes down the pot in these situations.


How much should you raise it?

I will typically make my raise 4x the big blind when out of position like this and then add one more big blind for every limper. If the table is extra loose then you should consider making it even more.

Let's take the most extreme example possible (family pot):

6max: Hero has AK in the big blind and the entire table limps.

I would raise it to 9x the big blind here. If the big blind was $1 for instance, then that means that I would make it $9 to go here. 4x standard plus 5x for all the limpers (5 of them).

Once again, if there are some huge fish at the table who will call anything, then you should consider making it even more here. A lot of people make the mistake of making their raise size too small in spots like this and end up getting called by the entire table.

This is a disaster.

The last thing that you want is for one fish to call and then everybody else calls as well because they all think that they have "pot odds."

So you should be paying attention to the table dynamics and the player types at all times whether you are playing online or live. And you should know what amount it is going to take to get most of them to fold. Or even all of them, which is a totally fine result also.


AK From the Blinds Versus a Raise


Ok let's get to a much more common scenario now. You have Ace King in the blinds and there is a raise in front of you.

Well, there are two things that are of prime importance here:
  • Where did the raise come from (what position)
  • Who made the raise (what player type)

The Raise Came from Early Position

If the raise came from early position and from a tight player it is not a crime to just flat call here. Many people think that they have to auto 3Bet AK no matter what.

But if you think about your opponent's range in this spot it might be as narrow as 66+ and AJ+. This is especially true if you are playing full ring.

It is very unlikely that this type of player is going to call your 3Bet with a hand that you crush. He will almost certainly fold AJ and will sometimes fold AQ as well. He will call you with a bunch of pairs that you flip with (88, 99, TT, JJ and QQ) and usually re-raise you with the two hands that crush you (AA and KK).

So in this spot it can certainly make plenty of sense to just flat sometimes even though we are out of position. This is because it keeps some hands in his range that we are way ahead of. This allows us to win a big pot should the Ace come for instance versus his AJ or AQ.

3Betting of course is fine here sometimes as well in order to mix things up and for value. I like it even more when I am squeezing. This means when there is a caller in between.

This player (the caller) usually has a weaker speculative hand that cannot stand a 3Bet (e.g. small pair or suited connector) and is therefore referred to as "dead money."


The Raise Came From Late Position

Now if the raise came from late position things will be quite a bit different. Typically when somebody raises from LP (cutoff or button) they will have a much wider range.

They can be attempting to steal the blinds with as much as 30% or more of the deck in some cases. This means that they are playing nearly every ace, a lot of different kings, all pairs, all broadways etc.

We crush a lot of hands in this range. Also, when we 3Bet in this spot it doesn't look nearly as strong because most players these days expect to get played back light here.

We know that they are raising light from late position so we will mix in more light 3Bets from the blinds. But any good player at the lower stakes knows that we know this and will therefore flat or even 4Bet us lighter than normal.

This means that we will get action more often from a wider range and by several hands that we crush with AK. These would be hands like AT, AJ, AQ and KQ.

It is important to remember that we are at the top of our range here and this is a great spot to be in versus a thinking opponent.

So while you should still flat from the blinds on occasion here versus good players just to stay somewhat balanced, I would lean more towards 3Betting in this spot.

Versus bad regs and recreational players you should play much more exploitatively as I talk about at length in both of my books. This means just 3Betting them heavily here.

Quick Note: I will be referencing "good regs" and "bad regs" a lot in this article. If you don't know the difference go check out this post of mine.


AK From the Blinds Versus a 3Bet or 4Bet


Sometimes the action is going to get heavy preflop and once again there are several different ways to play it depending on the players involved and the ranges in particular.


Versus a 3Bet

If you are in the blinds and there is already a raise and a 3Bet in front of you the right play will be extremely dependent on the player types involved.

I would say that the safe and most common play here is just to flat call. The reason being is that when you cold 4Bet it just looks so ridiculously strong. And so you often get one of those situations again where they fold all hands that you crush and only give you action with hands that flip or crush you.

But if the game is playing particularly wild and loose or if both players are just really loose and aggressive regs, then it can be fine to make the cold 4Bet for value anyways.

This is often a judgement call that only you can know by paying attention to the players at your table or referring to your HUD if playing online.

The action in the hand is also extremely important. As we already discussed above raises in early position and late position often mean much different things.


Versus a 4Bet

Let's discuss the final situation. You 3Bet your Ace King and somebody 4Bets you.

This situation is a lot more simple. Most of the time you should either be shipping the rest of your stack in the middle or folding.

The reason why we don't want to be calling too much here is because we will be out of position after the flop with nearly 1/4 of our stack in the middle (assuming 100bb effective to start the hand).

And what's worse, Ace King is going to miss the flop 2 out of 3 times. It really sucks to put 1/4 of your stack in the middle and be left dealing with ace high out of position so often.

However, for range balancing versus good players you should still have a small calling range here. Once again versus bad regs and recs though I will play it much more exploitatively with almost no calling range (shove or fold).

Against bad regs and recreational players I will fold if they are clearly only 4Betting me with the mortal nuts, 4Bet ratio of 1 or less. See my massive HUD setup article for more on this.

Or if I think they can be 4Betting me relatively wide, then I will often just ship my stack in knowing that even if called I am probably at least a flip most of the time.


How to Play AK on the Flop From the Blinds


Ok, let's get to postflop finally here because it is a lot more interesting. When people write me about playing Ace King from the blinds the scenario is almost always a 3Bet pot where they missed the flop.

So let me just state a simple fact about this situation before I even begin.

It sucks!

There is no strategy on earth that is going to allow you to be highly profitable here. Out of position, 3Bet pot, no pair, it sucks!

When they called our 3Bet preflop they often have some sort of mid to high pair and they probably won't fold to a CBet on the flop all that often. Remember that we block both ace and king hands so it is less likely that they have no pair like us.

So we will have to be prepared to double or triple barrel them with ace high and hope they fold. This is rarely going to be a winning strategy at the lower limits versus bad regs or recreational players.

Why?

Because they will often just call your ass down with their 99/TT/JJ anyways!

So if I am up against a calling station bad reg or recreational player and the flop is all low cards and I have no draws at all, I will usually just give up. By this I mean check/fold.

In a spot like this it is often better to just not even waste a flop CBet on them. You will get called too frequently and only have 6 outs to improve.


Barreling With Equity


Now if I have some kind of equity at all though, the situation can be different.


For Example: 

Hero has: AK


Flop #1: 468

and

Flop #2: QJ3


On the first flop even though it is all low cards there is a diamond which gives us a backdoor flush draw. This will be enough to sometimes make me fire a CBet on the flop.

While we are still a pretty big underdog to a hand like 99, the backdoor flush draw gives us a 5% spike in equity. Also, this means that we can barrel nearly half the deck on the turn. Any diamond, T, J, Q, K or A.

On the second flop I will be even more likely to fire the flop CBet because we actually have some pretty decent equity now with the backdoor flush draw, gutshot straight draw to the nuts and two overs.

It is very important that you learn how to read boards like this in order to determine your real equity. Not all flops that we miss are created equal. Not even close.


Versus Good Players

Now as you have seen throughout this entire article my play definitely changes a bit when I am up against the few good players who you will encounter at these stakes.

You can't play so exploitatively against thinking opponents. You need to mix up your play here on all types of flops and sometimes mix in more creative lines as well such as: check/raise or check/call lead turn.

Versus the bad regs and recreational players (who are the large majority of your opponents at the lower stakes), you should just be playing the value based exploitative style of play described above.


How to Play AK on the Turn and River From the Blinds


Let's assume that you did decide to fire that flop CBet though. How should you play Ace King on the turn and river?

Well once again it totally depends on the players involved in the hand, their likely ranges and of course the turn/river cards as well. Also, it depends on if it is a single raised or a 3Bet pot.

In single raised pots I am going to be more likely to fire the double barrel because it doesn't commit me to the pot quite so much.

However, in a 3Bet pot, a double barrel will often force you to stick as much as half of your stack in the middle.

You don't want to be doing this very often unless you believe there is a good chance of winning the pot. This is why it is crucial that you understand who you are up against and how likely they are to fold.

I would say that in general at the lower stakes (especially NL10 and under or $1/$2 live) you should just be giving up most of the time when you fire on the flop, get called, and still have nothing but two overs on the turn.

This is because the lower stakes (whether online or live) are where you will find the most beginner level players and complete recreational players as well.

As I discuss in Crushing the Microstakes, these types of players are often deeply suspicious of being bluffed. This means that they love to play the sheriff and call you down. So frequently running big bluffs against them is going to be a great way to destroy your win-rate quickly.


Keep it Simple at the Micros = Profit

I often talk about the discipline required to win at the lower stakes and this is a prime example. It is easy to keep barreling with your Ace King high hand, but if your chances of getting them to fold are very low, you are literally just lighting money on fire.

As much as it sucks, a lot of the time in a spot like this you need to simply give up (check/fold) and just lose a smallish pot. This is actually the "most profitable" play.

Winning poker, especially at the micros, is not about trying to win every hand. You simply can't do it when many of your opponents have high went to showdown %'s of 25, 30 or even higher.

There will be some rare cases where you can try to run a big bluff but you have to know the player very well. They should be a weak tight type of opponent who is actively thinking about your range.

The biggest reason why the bad regs and recreationals will not fold to your big bluffs is because they aren't even thinking about what you can have. They are only thinking about their own hand.

A decent to good reg though knows that you are repping a strong overpair here. If your range typically has a lot of strong overpairs in it, then you can get them to fold a hand like 99 a reasonable amount of the time if they play more on the timid side (e.g. are afraid to make the big call).

But hopefully you get the point here. Big bluffs with AK at the micros will usually be a bad idea. Often it is better to lose a small battle in order to win the war.


Final Thoughts


There are no easy answers to playing AK from the blinds. There is a reason why so many people have trouble with it. It is because it is a difficult spot!

There really are no clear answers for how to play it in every scenario because so much of poker is about playing the player and their range. There are tons of other factors as well that I didn't even get to in this article like stack sizes, history and game flow.

But hopefully this article gave you some ideas of how I think about playing AK from the blinds in a variety of different situations and against different player types.

If you want to know the strategies that I use for all hands to create some of the highest winnings ever at the lower stakes online, go grab a copy of my free poker ebook.

How do you play Ace King from the blinds? Let me know in the comments below.

Winning poker strategy with Ace King

14 comments:

  1. Hey Nathan

    AK is such a powerful hand.
    In the blinds in a limped pot I will always raise big because I'm at a positional disadvantage and I'd like to play someone heads up to the flop. I don't mind making it a huge raise because most players at the microstakes are calling stations. If I miss the flop I'll always fire a c-bet if my opponent's Fold v CBet is 70+. Even if it's not 70+ I'll fire a c-bet on a dry board for either 2/3 or 3/4 pot. Anything less than that and I might be giving them the right pot odds to chase a draw. Anything bigger than that and it would be risking more than necessary. If UTG open raises then I will 3 bet them. If MP 3bets then I will flat. If CO and/or BTN 3-bets then I will 4-bet.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts 6MaxGrinder. I think your strategy is pretty solid.

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  2. I do agree, but the real problem, as usual, is variance in the short term. In the last month I didn't count the time I had AK, mixing strategy according to position, raise and opponent, from flatting to shoving, and I never ever hit the board on the flop, but a few times (much less than 1/3 statistically expectable at flop, 1/2 by the river when shoving) and almost all the time I hit I found a better hand (double pair if I only made top pair or set when I made double pair; I think I won just a couple of pot this month with AK). Anyway much better having AK than AJ especially in the BB ;)

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    1. Ya variance is the thing in poker that can make even the best strategy seem hopeless at times. But you just have to keep making what you know is the highest EV play because this is long term winning poker.

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  3. AK is a deceptively weak hand. First, it is only a drawing hand: AA, KK or broadway (a one-way straight draw). Second, you can use it to pound your opponents pre-flop but if you don't flop you can watch a lot of chips go down the drain real fast. And third, it's easy to become predictable with your pre-flop aggression because you probably don't bet that way with hands like AA or KK. So personally, not one of my favorites.

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    1. True but remember, they don't always have anything very good either. And AK is the nut no pair hand. Also, in my opinion you should be playing your AA and KK strongly as well. This allows your bluffs to be much more believable. Very important especially when you start moving up the stakes.

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  4. As usual, a very interesting and thought-provoking article. I don't entirely agree with the conclusions, but an important topic all the same. Personally I don't think AK is particularly strong, especially against weak micro-limit players. When you have no pair and you are going to miss the flop most of the time (two thirds to be precise) you are inevitably going to be relying a lot on bluffs. And bluffs, as we know, don't work against bad players. With AK you are usually going to end up in one of two situations: you make a medium strength hand (one pair) and hope it holds up - or you make nothing, and hope your nothing beats their nothing! Neither scenario seems a good place to invest a lot chips.

    Of course AK has its moments. Late in a tournament and short-stacked you are delighted to see it and ship in your chips in the hope of a flip. But in a cash-game against weak players? Late position in an unraised pot it merits a small raise to see if you can take it down. But if not, it's usually a post-flop chip-burner at NL2.

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    1. Ed, your opponent will also miss the flop 2/3 of the time so your AK will be ahead the majority of the time even when you do miss the flop and by taking the initiative and raising it preflop your opponent will respect your strength.

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    2. Glad you liked the article Ed and thanks for your input!

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  5. AK is the nuts behind AA,KK its ranked more or less above QQ.
    ok so you 3-bet and miss,the majority of the time a c-bet takes it down especially from the blinds because your out of position and a thinking opponent will consider you having a medium/high pair.
    Also remember they will miss the flop a great deal also.
    AK is a quality hand to 3-bet or flat in certain situations.
    Another good article Nathan please keep them coming I'm currently at 25nl/50nl (having a few issues with 50nl though) could you possibly write an article on the most +EV ways to set mine as that seems to be where the bulk of cash comes from at the micros.
    I know how to set mine well I'm just interested in your approach to it.
    Thanks Nathan love to be out in Thailand wiv yaa lol.....make sure your wearing Jonny's hehe

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    1. Thanks Matthew and glad you are doing well! I agree with pretty much all your points by the way about AK. Set mining is something that I could cover more here on the blog. I will note it. Short story, as you know by NL25+ you can't just straight set mine. You have to fight for some pots unimproved as well in order to breakeven or profit. Depends on the opponent, board, ranges as usual.

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    2. Yer I noticed lol I'd love if you could possibly let me know your strategy for mining at 25nl+ my email is floatmydeuce@hotmail.com thanks Nathan I understand your a busy man so if I have to wait for you to possibly write an article on it no probs dude.
      And thanks I wouldn't be where I am now with out your blog and books so big shout out to yaa.
      Take care an gl at tables.
      Matt.

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  6. Really good post man, thank you. Learned a lot. AK is one of the hands I lose the most money with. I just didn't know how to play it. You have a great site with a lot of good info. Thanks again.

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