Playing AK Against A Strong Range

Two thirds of the time with AK we flop Ace-high and little more, but a fairly common draw with this hand is the broadway gutshot. The following hand was sent in by MiamiConfusion and illustrates some common themes when playing Ace King against a strong range.

MiamiConfusion gives us this information to set up the hand:

It’s early in the morning in NL5 Zoom, your average player is a nit, players don’t like getting to showdown with second best, only some regs bluff often enough for you to call light.

UTG opens to 3x and it’s folded to us in the SB with A♥K♣. Hero chooses to 3-bet. Typically I recommend a lot of aggression preflop, but in this particular case I don’t like the 3-bet. So what is different here?

Would you 3-bet here? What are the pros and cons?

Firstly, we’ve established that the average player in this player pool is nitty. We don’t have any HUD numbers or specific reads for these players, but we can default to the characteristic play of this population. Add to this the fact that Villain is opening from UTG, and we immediately conclude that they should have a strong range.

One consequence of this is that our 3-bet likely has very little fold equity. So either our 3-bet is going to get called and we’re playing the hand out of position, or worse we may face a 4-bet from a player marked with a strong range. Moreover, this is not the sort of spot where we are likely to generate mistakes from our opponent: something we want to do in general to profit.

All of this points to flatting with AK here. In fact I’d likely also flat QQ, KK and AA. The idea is that I’m not going to be 3-betting in this spot very often anyway, so it’s more important to strengthen my flatting range than to construct a balanced 3-betting range.

Note that I’m not suggesting always flatting AK out of the blinds. It’s my preferred play here because of the range we are facing and how the hand is likely to play out postflop.

As played, the big blind folds, UTG calls, and we go heads-up to a J♥T♥9♠ flop. Hero decides to bet out 40% pot.

The first thing to note is that this is a really bad texture. It’s true we have a gutshot, overcards, and the backdoor nut flush draw, but on such a board what does our c-bet really achieve? What hands does Villain fold here? Sure, small pairs go away, but that’s about it. This board connects strongly with all the big card combos in Villain’s range, thus we’re going to get very few folds on this street.

One important way of planning a hand like this is to ask whether your opponent will fold now or later in the hand. This allows us to set up a barreling strategy right now so we know what to do on later streets. The problem with this board texture is that, with the exception of small pairs, even three barrels may not take villain off much of their range.

All these considerations point against firing the flop c-bet. We can’t handle a raise and we’re put in a bad spot against any kind of continuance. Consequently, I would check here, either with the intention of check-calling or possibly check-raising.

You may say “Wait, you’re going to check-call a gutshot?” Yes, it’s reasonable here given that we have a fair chunk of equity, and we don’t like folding equity. But I’m also asking myself if I can check-call with other hands here like AA. We have to look at our action here in the context of our entire range, and a c-bet simply isn’t doing anything positive.

As played our c-bet gets called and the turn comes the 5♦. MiamiConfusion decides to fire a second barrel for a shade over half-pot and asks the following question:

I’m curious as to what turns do I keep firing and what turns do I slow down. It’s a spot where it seems like Villain can have a lot of different hand strengths, from many two pairs to Q-high, meanwhile I have much less I can credibly rep.

There are three important points here. First, it’s true that Hero’s range is pretty much capped at one pair. As to Villain’s hands, I don’t see them having specifically Q-high here since we’ve determined they should have a strong opening range and any reasonable Q-high hand here would have made at least a pair. But Villain can certainly have a slow-played two pair. Finally, MiamiConfusion’s question about which turns should be barrels really highlights the point that we needed a plan on the flop, and that the flop plan was made more difficult by our action preflop.

Sure it is standard to 3-bet AK preflop and sure a default line postflop is to c-bet. But just because a line is a standard default does not make it the best in all situations. Rather than going on auto-pilot, slow down, focus, and make some EV estimations. That will enable you to establish if the default line is best in the specific situation in which you find yourself.

Here I don’t much like barreling on the 5♦ turn. Given that this card is pretty much a brick, the fact I don’t want to barrel here reinforces the point that c-betting the flop was probably a bad idea. If I do get to the turn as played, I’m usually just giving up. There just isn’t going to be much fold equity with this barrel and nothing is suggesting a triple barrel bluff would be successful. There’s just no point continuing to add money to a pot when we have no clear plan for winning it.

Hero’s turn bet does get called and the river brings the A♣. So we improve and decide to check, then face a bet of about half pot.

In spots like this I ask myself three major questions. First and foremost, what pot odds am I getting? Here we’re getting about 3-to-1 and typically when I’m getting decent pot odds I give action.

Second, where is my hand strength within my overall range that gets to this point in the hand? AK is one of the stronger hands we get to the river with this betting action. So this also makes me not want to fold.

Finally, we want to ask what range does Villain bet with in this spot? And this is tricky to answer largely because of the decisions we have taken in this hand. On the flop we had a massive range disadvantage. On the river we hit one of our best imaginable cards, but our range disadvantage throughout the hand is such that we’re still not comfortable that we have the best hand.

Now it would be pretty bad to fold top pair to a random here getting better than 3-to-1, but equally we don’t love the situation. It turns out we run into a surprising hand and win, and immediately take a note that despite our population assumptions, this particular villain has a wide range from UTG. Further they played a strong draw passively postflop. This is information we can use against them later.

Ace King Book

Overall I don’t like the line MiamiConfusion took in this hand. One could certainly argue the line was in some sense standard, but digging deeper we found it didn’t make a lot of sense for this specific situation and board. Note in particular that had Villain decided to apply pressure with their big draw at some point in the hand, we would have never reached showdown and won the pot.

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