By: Jason Lake
When I was just beginning to learn no-limit Hold'em, I was taught that certain starting hands are so good, they belong in the “premium” category. Those hands: Aces, Kings, Queens, and Ace-King. Sometimes Ace-Queen gets put into this category, especially if it's suited, but for the most part, QQ+ and AK are the hands you can confidently bet and raise and get it all-in preflop.
It's not quite that simple, of course. There are times when you should just flat-call with these “premium” hands, or even fold them – yes, folding Aces can make sense, like when you're on the bubble in a satellite tournament and you've already got the chips you need. But for the most part, it's good for newer players to get all the money in preflop if possible.
But what about post-flop? This is where things get really tricky, especially if you're holding AK. With QQ+, you're always going to have at least a pair on the flop. With AK? About two-thirds of the time, you're going to have Ace High. That's still going to be the best hand on the flop more often than not, but what do you do with it?
Like everything else in poker, it's situational. Are you in position? How many other players are in the pot? Which cards came out on the flop? How big is everyone's stack? All these questions and more need to be asked before you can make a sound decision. But if you're relatively new to poker, you need a rule of thumb that you can apply right now at the tables when you've got AK and you've missed the flop.
As painful as it may seem, this is often the right play. Ace High is not a strong hand, but it does have showdown value. If both you and your opponent check down all three streets, chances are you'll win that small pot. However, if you bet the flop instead, you could easily end up losing a bigger pot. Remember this general rule: Small hands, small pots. Big hands, big pots.
When you're out of position in this scenario, you'll be check-folding if your opponent bets – unless you have a draw to a straight or a flush, in which case a call makes sense. If you're in position, you'll be checking back and seeing the turn card for free. That's the power of position. But what if your opponent bets first? Go ahead and call, even if you don't have a draw. They could be bluffing, in which case you can float them by betting the turn when they check.
If they're not bluffing, and you didn't spike an Ace or a King on the turn, you can fold when they raise your float. If they call your float and check the river, just check back. Maybe you'll win, maybe not, but at least by following this plan, you won't lose your stack very often. And as they say in pop psychology, not losing is twice as important as winning.