How to Play Ace-King

Poker chips. Denis Charlet / AFP

No-Limit Texas Hold’em strategy sure has changed over the past 20 years or so. Back in the day, the conventional wisdom with Ace-King was to get all your money in pre-flop and not worry about it. Now, thanks in large part to poker solvers, the best players know you need to be a bit more selective with your approach. 
That’s if you’re one of the best players. The rest of us can still get away with pushing Ace-King hard, but if you really want to improve your win rate, we’ll show you some simple ways to get the most out of one of the best starting hands in Hold’em. 

Call Me Maybe 

Right now as you read this, there’s a poker pro somewhere looking at a chart produced by a program that shows exactly what to do with Ace-King. Well, sort of; these programs deal with simplified heads-up situations during post-flop play, with you (and your opponent) only having a few static options for your bet size. Just like Camelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it’s only a model. 
Unless you’re playing poker at significantly high stakes, you don’t have to use one of these programs to improve your performance – in fact, you have to be very careful not to misuse the lessons they have to teach. But you can nudge your Ace-King strategy a little closer to Game Theory Optimal (GTO) by making some simple adjustments the next time you’re at the table. 
The first and most important is this: Don’t settle for getting all your money in pre-flop with raises and re-raises. Ace-King is indeed one of the strongest starting hands in Hold’em, especially Ace-King suited, which ranks fifth in raw all-in equity behind pocket Aces through Jacks (Ace-King offsuit ranks seventh, behind pocket Tens). But if you open from an early position and get 3-bet from the blinds, that AKo is in serious jeopardy. 
When this happens to you, consider calling with your Ace-King offsuit instead of 4-betting. Pot control is key here; you don’t want to shove your entire stack pre-flop when your opponent either has you crushed with pocket Aces or Kings or is at least slightly ahead with a different pocket pair. They might have Ace-Queen sometimes, in which case you have them dominated, but it’s a lot more likely you’re the one behind. Pump the brakes and see the flop instead – unless you’ve got Ace-King suited, which is still (barely) good enough to 4-bet. 

How Dry I Am 

Once you get post-flop with Ace-King, life is pretty simple when you’re the aggressor: Keep betting on the flop for value when an Ace or a King hits the board. If you’re in a 3-bet pot (or a 4-bet pot), or if you’re playing multiway, consider using a smaller size for your continuation bet, both for your own protection and to make it easier to get the rest of your stack in on the turn or river. 
If the flop misses your Ace-King, this is where some nuanced play will help improve your results. Generally speaking, c-bet when the flop comes “dry” or “static” like Jack-Seven-Deuce rainbow; you’re probably ahead at this point, and you have six outs to Top Pair-Top Kicker if you aren’t. If the flop is more “wet” or “dynamic” like Ten-Nine-Eight with two Hearts, now you’ve got some decisions to make. 
This is where some discretion will come in handy. If you’re a relative beginner, a simplified and cautious approach of checking every time will minimize your mistakes – and if you’re in a position with those two overcards, you’ll get to see the turn for free.

If you check out of position and your opponent bets, just fold. Let it go. Never get married to a hand, especially a “drawing” hand like Ace-King. Save the aggressive check-raises for when you’ve figured the game out more, and try to have some extra equity like a backdoor flush draw when you do decide to mix it up. Every little bit helps.