How to play AK

Here’s a hand from 100k/200k, villain is a top ~10 ranked player on replay (I’m going write up the hand rather than post it because it may elicit more thought than just watching it). I get dealt AKo from EP in 6-max with 2.5bb dead money. I open to 4.5, which is my standard size. Villain 3-bets the CO to 16 (villain started with the effective stack of 110bbs). Now I’m faced with the inflection point of the hand, and fold/call/raise all seem like viable options.

Folding cuts down on variance, why gamble OOP against a good player? But villain knows even my EP range is wider than most so he could 3bet as a bluff or slightly wider than against some. Folding AK would be exploitable and mean that I would be folding to almost all 3bets (although I might set mine with pocket pairs…). I think folding is too tight considering I block AA/KK.

Then there’s calling. It cuts down on variance, but I’m only going to hit the flop 1/3 of the time, so I’m going to end up check folding a lot. And if I do hit it will be pretty obvious and hands like QQ/JJ might not pay me off. And if I’m dominated by AA/KK i will get stacked anyway if an ace or king flops. I really don’t like calling here OOP with a strong drawing/blocker hand.

So I decided to raise, but this is where I got confused. If villain were 200bbs deep (like me) then it’s standard 4bet to 50bbs and then fold vs the shove (at least from this particular V), but villain now has 95bb behind, so if I raise to 50 i have to call the shove for 45 more. In retrospect maybe the best idea is to 4bet to 40-45 and then fold but that felt kind of exploitable because it seems like I’m reluctant to play for stacks. Maybe a smaller sizing actually would be better (like 35-40) because it would look stronger while being less committing.

As played I shoved the 95 rather than 4bet to 50 and got called by AA.

Was the shove actually bad? I proofed it with equilab and a fold equity calculator and I’m not sure if it was. Even if villain’s 3bet range is as strong as QQ+/AK then I have 38% equity and only need villain to fold less than half the time. Based on combos if villain folds QQ and AK and continues with AA/KK then they’re folding about 2/3 of the time. But maybe they are calling with all of those hands? Maybe they are only 3betting with KK+? It’s also possible that their 3bet range is even wider, making the shove even better. AK is the toughest hand to play IMO.

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At the 100k/200K level, a shove is a pretty standard move, especially according to how you thought through the hand. So your shove was not bad, unless you were certain that your opponent’s 3-bet range is KK+. Of course, you very well may be in a coin flip situation with AK, but against the best competition you will need get into those. But you already know all of this, and I don’t know why you are second-guessing yourself.

One thing I have slowly learned: I need to become more comfortable with losing to be able to win more consistently. I know that some people will think this is an absurd statement to make, but the fact is that it is necessary to take chances to win in many situations, and getting over an aversion to losing is a key part of this. This is the psychological part of poker, and it is this (not playing AK) that is tough to master.

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Thanks for the response and the support of the decision. I think this is an example of the Replay paradox (which is a kind of metagame). Basically, many of the highest ranked players are extremely value oriented, so they have too many value bets and not many bluffs, so the exploit is to overfold against them. But, as you get to the highest stakes they are also familiar with my play and potentially are adjusting, so that makes it tough to overfold because they can be exploiting me in exactly that way. Basically, both players have learned to go for value and overfold against the population, so how does that impact how we play against each other.

To be clear, I would not 4-bet AKo against most players on Replay. If I thought they were a maniac, I might or if they were opening a normal range (like the better players here), but for most players here a 3-bet is almost exactly KK+, so it can be right to fold AKo a lot of the time (being aware of when players might be exploiting you and what their frequencies are).

In this specific case, I am not certain that villain’s 3-bet range might not be exactly KK+, even against a top ranked player because they know they can get value from me and they would take a flop with worse hands and go from there.

Also, I believe my proof before was wrong because the equity I came up with (39%) was against the whole range (QQ+,AK), and it should have been equity when called, which is quite a bit worse if they only continue with KK+. On the other hand, it is definitely exploitable if their 3-bet range is that strong. I can just set-mine or fold.

I dont know what the correct decision is but I’m 99% sure its four bet small or shove. Folding is terrible because that means your range from ep against a 3-bet is only QQ+ which is highly exploitable in elite stakes calling is also terrible because if you dont get an A or K you are check folding the majority of the time which is almost worse than folding. A shove probably only gets called by QQ+ so your roughly break even because of pot odds and equity which isnt great either.

What if you did a four bet small and call a jam? Perhaps if you bet small enough is range would be weaker. If he had a hand like JJ you are putting him in a tough spot because you deny him equity if he folds, if he calls you can c bet and he has to fold the majority of the time if there are overcards and if he shoves you could easily have his JJ crushed when you call.

Writing this out makes me think a four bet small then a call might be better than a flat out shove but maybe I am wrong? I dont play against top 10 players so I dont know how agressive or passive he is with his premium hands. If hes significantly tighter than I am expecting this is probably a mistake. (Ex if hes calling with TT, JJ, and AQ instead of 3-betting which makes his 3-betting range much stronger) I obviously dont have expierience playing 100k/200k but those are just my thoughts on the hand.

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It is exactly correct to fold against a 3-bet in most situations, as these almost always signal a big pocket pair. Maybe not always KK+, but not far off. It amazes me how few times I face 3-bets. Conversely, I rarely 3-bet because I don’t have to (there is an abundance of limping) or because a lead bet by another player tends to signal that they have a premium hand.

That said, I play exclusively at the 20K/40K level, and I am sure that those top-10 players at the elite stakes bring a whole another game to the table. I have seen quite a few players in the top-50, and a 3-bet from them does not always mean that I am dominated. Still, it’s a delicate balance of knowing when to fold and knowing when to get it in there. As WATCHOUT8 discusses (a thoughtful post), overfolding makes you very exploitable against the top players, and this is an aspect of my game that I am trying to improve.

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Myself, I prefer folding or 4! in this spot, depending on what kind of 3! range I think I’m up against. With some players, even with AK as my hole cards, I think a 3! is mostly AA or KK. Against a stronger player, I think flatting becomes more playable, though I prefer 4! most of the time. Here, the combo blockers mean you are a slight dog or a large favorite a pretty large fraction of the time, and so the fold equity from a 4! ends up being enough for the play to show a solid profit. You’ll still be against AA or KK some fraction of the time, of course, and in general post flop play will be tricky OOP.

On the sizing front… OOP, I’ll make it a stiff 4!, slightly over betting the pot, or just go all in if the prior option would get me close anyway. I don’t like the smaller sizing approach, as I think fold equity is an important component of making this play viable, and with a smaller raise I think you have almost no fold equity when the player is competent.

So I like the shove. Yes, it doesn’t look very brilliant when you get called by AA, and so if the 3! range is probably small, you don’t want to make this move. But if this is a top ten player, then I think this was the right play, or at least a fine play.

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Thanks for all three thoughtful responses @WATCHOUT8 @AKFolds. Based on your responses and time thinking about it, I do think 4! is really the way to go, I was thinking that the smaller size might be the way to go but as I am probably cbet jamming most boards anyway it makes sense to just shove. The stack depth throws me, even though 110bbs is pretty common, shoving for 95 more seems pretty big over a 16bb 3bet. If it were 80 more that seems fine and if it were 120 more then I’d make a largish 4bet. Still, I think it was a decent enough play. Even if they are only 3betting QQ+, showing that I’m willing to be aggressive with AK keeps them from widening their 3bet range later on and keeps me from folding an ungodly high percentage versus 3bets.

Edit: also some of you may be overestimating the elite stakes here at replay. I’d say currently there are a handful of players (5-10) in the top 50 who are aggressive and somewhat balanced (the more prominent of them are the most aggressive and bluffy), but most extremely high ranked players are fairly predictable and value based like the rest of the population at 20k/40k and up. The best of them make fewer mistakes and are tougher to win chips against, but you can still overfold most of the time. This particular opponent can do a bit of both. But it’s not like GTO solver level balance is required at any level.

Hi Joe, great question and I’ve enjoyed the discussion.

Using this as a learning opportunity for me, your comment about your “standard” opening size bet is interesting.

I wonder if you can’t have a couple of different opening sizes? Maybe something like opening AKo, QQ, JJ, KQs, QTs to 6BB because you’re happy to see a flop with these hands but it would be nice to steal the pot preflop. This makes folding to most 3-bets an easy decision.

AA and KK fit into your 4.5BB “standard” size along with 99 and 88 and maybe something like JTs or KJs?

There’s stuff like ATs, AQo, AJs that I would think fit nicely into to a 3BB open raise range.

You might be able to move your premium hands (AA, AKs, KK) around a bit in those sizes - start off with 3BB then 4.5BB next time, 6BB after that and back to 3BB … assuming you get these hands often enough!

I know I’m broadening the scope of the discussion here so, specifically, I’d be tempted to raise AKo larger as an open with the belief that, most of the time, villains 3-bet range is going to be AKs and QQ+ making it an easy decision to fold.


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That’s a great point. At higher levels it seems to have become required to have multiple open sizes. But doing it correctly involves balancing out those different ranges to not be easily exploitable (as you also indicated). I don’t currently feel prepared to create those ranges (though I’d love to learn more about how to do that). What resources do you use?

I just always open to 3.5x +1 per limper, moving down to 3x if 3- handed or less. It makes it impossible to get a read and punishes the majority of players who call too wide by using a large size. It’s not optimal against great players (like idiotplayer here or Doug Polk in the real world), but adding the complexity seems unnecessary for the level I’m playing and potentially costly if done incorrectly.

Edit: also on Replay I’ve found that with a size less than 3x you end up going multi way to every flop. So even if you sprinkle KK/AA into the different sizes you will end up in some ugly situations. The larger size is intended to shrink the field and make the game more straightforward. Heck, I will continue from the BB against a 2.25x open with basically any two cards and from IP too. Getting to see lots of cheap multi way flops and just waiting for monsters leads to a lot of the passive play you see here. It’s hard to create a skill edge in those situations and it can boring. I prefer to just punish stations, even if it means some players make more correct folds preflop.

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Thanks for the compliment Joe! From a player of your calibre, that is high praise indeed!

Education and a bit of applied brain muscle are the only tools you need.

I prefer to see my hands on a matrix so I used Equilab - anything with a card matrix will do - and plugged in what I think most of my EP open raise range is. That came to about 12.5% of hands.

I picked the hands that I feel confident all or most players would open in EP and used them for this discussion - I’m not in your league yet but I still don’t want to put everything on display!

The 6BB range was easy: what hands “should” we fold to a 3-bet? Of course, at your level, you are going to get 3-bet by ATs some of the time but, for the most part, something like 15BB - 20BB is the “right” amount for a 3-bet following a 6BB open and most players are not going to do that with anything except premium hands … AA, AKs, KK. Bingo! Dead easy fold!

6BB, at your level, vastly increases your fold equity, so you will pick up one or two pots without a fight and, when you do go to the flop, you dominate most of the villains calling range.

I like a more polarised range to open at 4.5BB and would probably call a lot of 3-bets with those hands. The 3-bet size will probably be 10BB - 12BB and those hands are certainly strong enough to see the flop with heads-up which, in a 3-bet pot at high stakes, you will be most of the time.

ATs, AQo and AJs are hands that, when they hit the flop, hit hard and we don’t mind going multi-way because that increases our pot odds for our next bet.

I expect that your EP range will be wider than just these few hands but that is the way that I was thinking about every hand in my range. It really comes down to 3 things: capping your opponents range, fold equity and playability.

I understand your concerns about playing AA/KK/AKs with only a 3BB open and I totally agree with you. You must have some premium hands and, opening with 3BB, you really want your strongest hands to be in the mix. Played well, as I am sure you will, I expect that you will break even with AA/AKs/KK when you open with 3BB. These hands are played only to keep your range uncapped regardless of how much you open with. Think of them as your “loss-leader”! When the villains know that premium hands can pop up at any time when you’re playing, your bluffs are going to be more successful, more often!

And, yes, bluffing is the final thing to consider. Even the very small range that I suggested hits quite a few flops very well indeed. Flopzilla says that the range will hit in some way 46.4% of the time! More importantly, you will have top pair or better, on the flop, 40.3% of the time. You should be c-betting at least 60% of the time!

With your wider range, you are going to directly hit the flop less frequently, of course, but you will have a lot of “natural” bluffs such as flush and open ended straight draws.

I love discussing and thinking about the technical and mathematical side of poker so please feel free if you want this thread to continue in that vein … we may even get lucky and have someone who knows what they’re talking about join in :grin:

Obviously, I replied to you in the spirit of learning for myself so, if you see flaws in my argument, please tell me!

Hope this helps!


Of course, all of this discussion is in the spirit of learning, and I appreciate that there are several active people on this forum who are thinking about strategy (which is the fun part, not just clicking buttons and waiting for AA).

My reaction is that you are making things a bit more complicated than they need to be. First of all, you are operating under the assumption that your opponents are paying exactly 0 attention to what you are doing and for the most part that is probably a good assumption. But from a learning perspective I try to play in a way that is relatively transferable while still exploiting my specific opponents.

What I mean is that if you open to 6x with hands that can’t continue vs 3bets then your opponents should always 3bet those opens and there are at least a handful of players who will figure that out. So you are putting in a lot of chips that you have to fold versus 4bets and creating big pots when called with the weaker part of your range.

To make varying sizes work you have to balance out the ranges by using different sizes for the same hands at various frequencies because you don’t want it to be obvious that 4.5x means a pocket pair or you only have 1 flush combo at 3x. Granted, almost nobody will be paying attention to your ranges and frequencies.

But more importantly, you just don’t need to make it so complicated for yourself. You want to play the biggest pots with the best hands, so you don’t want to lump the premium hands into your smallest sizes to protect your range. You will end up in gross multi way pots and are not maximizing values from preflop calls.

I assume you didn’t really mean to suggest that you can “break even” with AA/KK/AK because while that is true, you want to do a lot better than breaking even with those hands. Those hands make up a huge percentage of many players’ overall winrate. So don’t get caught up in using them to protect the rest of your range. If anything the rest of your range is there largely to help disguise when you might have AA.

So, I like the thought process, but I think the end product might need refining (although it could work for you). And I could be completely wrong, I’m learning the game, and this has been a helpful thought exercise.

The elite stakes here is not a high level of poker. I’m a winning player in real money 10NL (over 20k hands) and live $1/2 (over 1000 hands?), tiny samples of micro stakes, not playing 200NL HU, so I think it’s important to keep those advanced concepts in mind but apply the maximally exploitative play to the population at hand. I think it would be better to eliminate all marginal hands (suited connectors and offsuit broadways for example) and only play pocket pairs and AQ+ than to try to adjust your sizing and potentially lose value from your best hands to protect those weaker hands. But maybe I’m not fully understanding your approach. Also, I apologize if this seems harsh, it’s just difficult to convey these ideas in limited text. I’m interested in your thoughts and those of others on this topic.

Edit: also those flopzilla percentages are super helpful but they must be taken with a grain of salt. For example, part of the percentage that “hits” a board is a flush draw or open ended straight draw. And I agree that these should count as hits, but a flush draw OOP with 76s against 3 opponents is a lot different than IP in a 3bet pot against one opponent. Or flopping top pair of aces with A4s OOP in the same multi way pot. These are “hits” but very dicey situations. You want to play hands that give you good chances to win big pots and clearer decisions (which usually means fewer multi way pots).

Also, using a smaller sizing would have prevented the dilemma in this thread, it would have made a 4bet and fold possible, but it also would have gotten less value from the weaker range of hands that would flat my open. There are definitely situations (like tables with more 3betting) where smaller sizes might be better.


Hi Joe, you weren’t at all harsh!

I meant that if you open AA/AKs/KK to 3BB you are going to see far more multi-way pots than with a larger raise which, I expect, means those hands are not going to win as often as we’d like.

The Flopzilla percentages were based strictly on the opening hands that I listed in this thread … AA-JJ, 99-88, AKo-AQo, AJs-ATs, KQs-KJs, JTs so I think we can say they were all “good” hits to have.

You made some really good points in your reply, thank you for your time in helping all of us who read the forum!