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Of the 169 possible starting hands in hold’em, a computer simulation shows that A-K offsuit is the fifth best possible. Only A-A, K-K, Q-Q, and A-K suited are rated higher.

But if it doesn’t improve on the flop, it becomes an underdog against any player holding a pair — even a lowly pair of deuces. And with eight opponents at your table, there is a reasonable chance (about 40%) that one or more of your opponents has a pair after the flop.

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. With the turn and river still to come, it doesn’t look good for your A-K in the hole.

Nevertheless, many hold’em players treat it as if it was a made hand — one that could win at the showdown without further improvement. Raising preflop is a natural inclination. That was how I played it when I first started playing hold’em. But I soon learned from experience.

Sure, A-K in the hole, even unsuited, has great potential. Catch either an Ace or a King on the flop, you probably have top pair on the board with top kicker, putting your hand in the lead and quite likely to keep it all the way to the showdown, especially if there are no threats on the board such as three to a straight or a flush.

What’s Your Goal? It’s to win as many chips as possible when you catch a strong hand. Raising preflop is likely to thin the field, giving you a better chance of winning the pot. 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 puts another Ace or King on the board, if you bet out, it is likely to chase out the remaining players.

Consider the game texture. If it is 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!

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Considering all these possibilities, since your goal is to win lots of chips when you make the best hand, it makes sense to 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.

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 certain that the flop has really helped his hand — very likely a straight.

What happens when you and an opponent both connect? There will be times when 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.

Caution: If you do not pair your kicker but he does, 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.

Life/Poker Quote of the Week

“Don’t depend on good luck” — George “The Engineer” Epstein

You cannot control chance (luck), but you can influence it — both at the poker table and in your life.

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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