November 21, 2005
I often tell people that short-term results are not a reason to change how they play, but I likewise encourage them to use any excuse to study and analyze their game.
Recently, a player on Full Tilt Poker lamented that he'd gone broke with A-K in his last several tourneys, and he suspected that he was doing something wrong. A few questions revealed that he was getting knocked out fairly early in these tournaments when he put his A-K up against pocket pairs for all his chips. It's a familiar lament.
Many people fall in love with A-K pre-flop in No-Limit Hold 'em because they know that they can rarely be much worse than 50-50 to win the hand if they get all of their money in heads up. While this is true, the reverse is also true: Rarely will you be much better than 50-50 to win an all-in showdown.
So why is A-K considered such a great starting hand? Folding equity. Under the right conditions, you can increase your pot equity to well over 50% by getting your opponents to fold in situations where they shouldn't. Here's a scenario: Blinds are $200-$400 and Jen Harman (who has $12,000 in front of her) raises to $1,200 from middle position with pocket tens. You re-raise all-in for $6,000 with A-K from the button. It is difficult for Jen to call here because, even though she suspects you might have A-K, she knows you could also make that play with A-A, K-K, Q-Q or J-J.
Does she want to play for half of her stack on what figures to be, at best, a 57% favorite? You, on the other hand, are confident that unless she has one of two hands (AA or KK), you are no worse than 43% to win, even if she calls. Unless Jen picks up on a tell, she is forced to fold a hand that is actually better than your A-K by a slight margin. Not only that, but you've also made her give up all the extra chips in the pot (mostly hers) that were giving her great odds to make a call. Variants of this scenario come up all the time in No-Limit Hold 'em.
By putting your opponents in a bind where they must first call you and then have to beat you in a race, you can turn a hand that is 50% to win with all the money in pre-flop and turn it into a hand that is a 75% favorite or better.
The mistake many inexperienced players make is not giving their opponents a chance to fold. They look down to find A-K and can't wait to get all their money in the middle and race. But as we can see from the example above, the power of A-K pre-flop really comes from the "folding equity" you gain when you can make your opponent lay down a hand they would not lay down if they could see your hole cards.
Here are three keys to getting the most out of A-K pre-flop:
1) Jam with A-K, but don't call all-in with it.
2) Raise enough when you have A-K to give your opponents a chance to fold.
3) Don't raise so much that the only hands that are willing to call you are the hands that have you dominated (A-A and K-K).
To execute these plays properly, it is important to keep in mind the size of the blinds relative to your opponents' stacks and your own stack. A-K loses much of its value when your opponents are short-stacked or pot committed -- and therefore unlikely to lay down a hand -- or when the blinds are very small relative to everyone's stacks. These principles apply to both ring game and tournament play. Getting back to my friend who kept busting early in tourneys with A-K...
In the early stages of a tournament, the blinds are very small relative to everyone's stack size. This contributed to his breaking of each of the three rules:
(1) He was calling his opponents' all-in raises when they had their expected pocket pairs.
(2) He was jamming only after his opponents were pot-committed.
(3) After getting gun shy from having his A-K cracked a few times, he made his raises way too big to "protect" his hand, but then was only getting called once he was beat.
This is one of those instances where looking at short-term results can lead to long-term improvements.