Ace-king. This ever-enticing Texas hold 'em starting hand has many nicknames, my favorite being "Anna Kournikova." The comparison with the attractive former tennis player seems apt, since it's been said of both the hand and Kournikova, "Looks good, never wins."
The secret to profitably playing this feisty, fickle, ripe-with-potential hand lies in knowing your opponent's hand range and betting patterns.
For example, it's difficult to get paid off with A-K against a tight opponent who folds ace-rag and king-x hands to raises. It's easier to get paid by opponents who play K-9 and up for raises, as there are far more flops that can "hit" us and hit this opponent - particularly if these comparatively loose opponents are aggressive. With such a range in variables, I feel that the less you use broad, sweeping guidelines for playing A-K, the better.
I recently played an interesting A-K hand at the 2013 Los Angeles Poker Classic at the Commerce Casino. With blinds at 200-400, and with $20,000 in my stack, I had As, Ks in the cutoff. I faced a mid-position raise to $1,100 from a player with a wide opening range and about $25,000 in his stack. The player on my left was tilting (being emotional and not thinking clearly) from a recent hand and had about $5,500 left. Their read on me was that I was capable of moves or tricky plays, but that I wasn't stupid.
Many folks in my spot would reraise here. Limit the field, take control of the hand in position, or perhaps win the hand right there, no blood spilled. I opted to take advantage of the scenario.
The tilter was aware of the raiser's wide range. He also was aware that I liked to see flops. My "loose preflop, call in position" range was based on my stack size.
Side note: If the total amount of a preflop raise is less than 5 percent of my stack, I'll often call with any two cards that at least connect - 3-4, 6-7, etc. This will be evident over time in a tournament to any player paying attention. In order to balance my opponents' read on the lower end of my range, it's important to occasionally mix in a flat call with a good hand so that I don't get read accurately for dead money and face consistent reraises.
Back to the hand: I call the $1,100. As hoped - and largely as expected - the tilter shipped his remaining $5,500 to the middle. Action folded to the original raiser, who snap-called.
Time to act. I ship $20,000. All in. My weak initial call helped put an extra $10,000 into the pot, and my opponent with chips would only be able to continue if he had a real hand. If he did, in fact, have a real hand, we'd be destined to get all of our chips in preflop. His four-bet would be read as a play on my three-bet, which was made versus his wide opening range.
My initial call of the $1,100 prompted a sequence of events that ultimately led to the preflop raiser putting $5,500 into the pot and still folding without seeing a flop. He flashed his Q-J suited as he folded. My A-K held up against the tilter's K-10 on a board of 8, 7, 7, Q, 2. Note the queen - he said as he high-fived himself.
Another advantage to this strategy is in how the story told by flat-calling and then shipping is often read as a pair or a bluff. You'll get folds from small pairs and calls from A-Q or A-J - two courses of action you'd gladly welcome in the name of positive expected value.
If you see Anna anywhere, let her know she can still win if she simply plays her cards right.
Alex Outhred has been a professional poker player and coach since 2006. He has made a World Poker Tour final table and cashed in multiple World Series of Poker events. An accomplished instructor, Outhred helped launch WPT Boot Camp, WSOP Academy and DeepStacks University. Follow him on Twitter: @alexpokerguy. Poker Pros runs every week.