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In a recent issue of Card Player magazine, there was a column by a highly regarded poker writer that made me pause to think.

He wrote about betting strategies when you start with A-K, the highest premium drawing hand. Raising a limper preflop is a natural inclination; and that is what he suggested.

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But is that the best strategy?

Yes, A-K in the hole, even if it’s unsuited, has great potential. Catch an Ace on the flop — most likely is well in the lead and could keep the lead all the way to the showdown, especially if there are no threats on the board such as three to a straight or a flush. That’s likewise the case if you catch a King on the flop for a pair of Kings with the Ace kicker.

But the odds against flopping either an Ace or a King is about 2-1 against you. Two out of three times, you will not pair up the Ace or the King. A player with lowly pocket deuces is favored over you at that point.

Furthermore, consider your goal, which is to win as many chips as possible when you catch a strong hand. Raising preflop is likely to thin the field, so you have a better chance of winning the pot if you connect on the flop.

But it also cuts down on the potential pot size and gives warning to your opponents — like a tell. Then, on those occasions that the dealer lays another Ace or King on the board, if you bet out, it is likely to chase out the remaining players.

The game texture also can make a difference: If it’s a tight table, you won’t have much opportunity to build the pot. The only opponents staying in the pot at that point would likely be holding a strong hand, maybe a set or two-pair that beats you, or a strong draw such as four to a flush or an open-ended straight draw. Danger!

Considering all these possibilities, since your goal is to win lots of chips when you make the best hand, it makes sense to just limp along with your A-K before the flop. Then, when you do pair up your Ace or King, since you did not bet out or raise preflop, your bet on the flop is less likely to push out all your opponents.

To your benefit, they are more inclined to chase. Bluffing is also a possibility if you fail to connect on the flop.

When the flop doesn’t help your hand, which is twice as likely, you have a smaller investment and would lose less if an opponent catches a better hand. For example, suppose the flop is 8-9-10 offsuit, and a tight player raises the pot; you can be quite certain that the flop has really helped his hand — very likely a straight. Calling his raise would be chasing; we all know that chasers are for losers. 

However, there will be times when the poker gods smile down on you and you do connect on the flop to make a pair of Aces with a King kicker, or a pair of Kings with an Ace kicker. If an opponent has also connected to a pair of Aces, your kicker has him beat — and he’ll call you all the way to the showdown, adding substantially to your chip count.

One note of caution: If he also pairs his kicker, your hand becomes second-best. Checking on the river may be your best decision.

Despite what some experts may say, logic tells us not to raise preflop with A-K in the hole. You are more likely to win a good pot — or lose less — by waiting to see what the flop brings. Then take it from there.

By the way, what we have concluded here can also apply when you are dealt two cards consisting of any combination of A, K, Q, or J — even more so if they are suited. There’s going to be lots of potential there, so give it a chance to develop.

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About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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