How To Play Ace King When It Misses?

It’s little wonder that the biggest question players have regarding flop play with AK is “what to do when we miss?” As you already know, AK will have Ace-high a huge 67% of the time after the flop.

Many of the difficulties with AK occur in 3-bet pots for the following 2 simple reasons:

1. AK is often strong enough to 3-bet
2. AK is strong enough to call a 3-bet (assuming it doesn’t 4-bet)

AK Sucks

Let’s get right to the heart of the discussion by looking at a 3-bet pot example where we miss the flop.


BTN ($100) open-raises to $3

SB HERO ($100) 3-bets to $10 with A♣ K♠

BB folds

BTN calls

Flop ($20.50) 8♦ 4♣ 2♥


Should we fire a continuation bet or not? What would you do?

It’s important to be very specific about our question here. We are asking whether we should fire a continuation bet, not whether we can do it profitably. We can almost certainly c-bet here profitably in the majority of games, but that doesn’t guarantee that it is the best play.

Many players would opt to fire a continuation bet here, and since it appears to be making profit for them in the long run, they give little thought to whether the strategy should be adjusted. After all, why fix something that isn’t broken? However, our goal as players is to generate the maximum possible expectation not simply any result which just so happens to be positive. As such, even profitable decisions must be subject to scrutiny.

There is no need for us to explicitly state whether betting or checking is the best play here, it’s far more useful to discuss the relevant principles. Besides, it’s a good idea to avoid being overly dogmatic since there is a very real possibility that the hand ends up as a mixed strategy (both bet and checked with some frequency) – something we will discuss a little later in the book. And like we mentioned at the outset, our goal is to discuss poker strategy, not to provide hard and fast rules on how individual hands must be played. This can lead to confusion rather than enlightenment.


Retention of equity is considered by most to be a somewhat advanced concept, but it’s hard to escape the fact that knowledge of equity retention is a prerequisite for making even some of the most basic decisions at the poker tables.

Think about the following:

In the above example, what is the difference between holding A♣K♠ and A♣K♣?

It’s easily apparent that the A♣K♣ has the backdoor flush-draw while the A♣K♠ does not. Hands with draws or backdoor draws to the nuts can generally be described as holdings with “good equity retention.”

Can you explain in your own words what “equity retention” means before continuing?

Don’t worry if you can’t answer the above, this is why you have this book. Let’s illustrate the concept of equity retention by continuing with our hand.

Flop ($20.50) 8♦ 4♣ 2♥

HERO bets $10

BTN calls $10

Turn ($41) 5♣

If we hold the A♣K♣ we pick up a flush draw on the turn while the AKo does not improve (apart from the gutter). Let’s imagine for illustrative purposes, that our opponent continues with an overly tight defending range, 66-JJ. A tight range of hands is used best to demonstrate the concept of equity retention since in some senses this is the whole point. Hands with good equity retention retain a large amount of their equity even when facing very strong ranges.

Let’s look at the raw equities of both A♣K♣ and A♣K♠ on the turn:

A♣K♣ has 36.98% equity

A♣K♠ has 19.83% equity

Of course, perhaps the example is little unfair since the A♣K♣ just so happened to pick up its draw. Naturally, the equity disparity between the two holdings is therefore huge. Most of the time A♣K♣ won’t pick up the flush draw and will hence be in a rather similar situation to the offsuit AK. Having said that, we should still be able to see how our average turn equity will be higher when we hold the A♣K♣.

The above image show the equity of AK on various turn cards. The possible turn cards are shown along the x-axis at the bottom, and the suits of the cards are represented by the colors of the bars.

The average equity across all possible turns is denoted by the red horizontal line. When you compare the above chart (AKo) vs the chart below (AKs), it’s easy to see that red line is 5% higher on the A♣K♣ chart indicating that we retain an additional 5% equity on the average turn card. Note how the green bars spike on the A♣K♣ driving up our average equity. These represent the turn cards where we pick up a flush draw.

If this is your first time seeing charts like this, it may seem overwhelming. But take a moment and try to answer the following three questions:

Is there an easy objective lesson we can take away from this?

How can we incorporate this general concept into postflop strategy?

How does this information translate to other holdings which are not AK?

The crux of this boils down to this – hands with good equity retention will do better in big pots. Hands with a lot of raw equity but poor equity retention will do better in smaller pots.

We do not want to make our opponent’s range stronger with big bets if our hand doesn’t retain it’s equity well against strong ranges. Far better to keep our opponent’s range wide and play with our increased equity against his entire range.

Returning to our hand example on the flop, we can perhaps see the logic in starting out with a basic strategy where we look to check-call our AKo combos but c-bet our back-door-flush AK combos with the intention to barrel flush-draw turns.

While check-calling flops as the PFR might appear “weak” at first glance, it is an integral part of poker strategy. Many players have a leak where they check/fold far too frequently after not c-betting as the preflop aggressor.  Check/calling some AK combos will help to protect us against overly aggressive stabs from our opponents.

In scenarios where we have the backdoor flush-draw, playing bet/bet/check will often yield the best results (assuming we turn our draw).  More on the river decision a little later in this chapter.

As a final point, we should understand that c-betting all AKo combinations will still frequently be the best play against nit opponents who simply fold far too much. At the other end of the spectrum, it may be correct to check all combinations of AK (even with the backdoors) against calling-station opponents, especially if they are capable of moving us off our hand on a later street when we show weakness. While it’s good to have a solid idea regarding what to do by default, a strong exploitative play still brings the money home in 99.9% of poker games.


(This is a portion of a chapter of the book OPTIMIZING ACE KING co-written with Jones. Like it? Share it with a fellow poker player and help each other answer those 3 questions from above!)

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