Recently I was reading the book by T.J Cloutier and Tom McEvoy on no-limit and pot-limit poker. T.J suggests that ace king is the biggest trap hand in pot-limit and no-limit poker. In some respects I agree with him on that point, but don't agree with his overall strategy on how to play the hand.
We both agree that you should raise most of the time with ace king. However, he suggests that if you don't flop your hand that you should shut down completely. In other words you don't fire another bullet after the flop, even if you have raised pre-flop, if an ace or king does not hit on the flop. T.J is of the view that you should try to check to pick up a free card, and to gain more information on your opponent. T.J suggests that aggressive players like Phil Helmuth will nearly always fire another barrel in the hope of picking up the pot then and there, but T.J thinks you will loose more money in the long run by firing away. Also, I am talking about cash games here and not tournament play. I tend to agree with T.J a bit more in tournaments because your odds of winning vs your payoff are not the only consideration. Moreover, survival is a more important factor.
I have to say that I take a different view to T.J on this one. However, I don't think I would be as aggressive as Phil Helmuth either. I think that firing another bullet is a good strategy in some, but not all, circumstances. Specifically, I suggest betting the size of the pot after the flop if:
1)you are not up against 3 or less opponents;
2)The flop is ragged (trash cards);
If you are up against a number of opponents it is likely that someone would have hit their flop and your pot size bet after the flop will attract a call. If you are in last position and it is checked around to you, I would take T.J's advice and check hoping to improve. There is too much chance of a check-raise with multiple opponents. You want to be picking up the pot then and there by betting, but with multiple players, you are really pushing it to win outright.
If the flop is not too scary, and you are up against a small number of opponents, I would pump out a pot size bet more often then not irrespective of my position. I would consider a ragged flop to be one where there are no face cards and no obvious flush or straight draws. In these circumstances your opponents would have to have a pretty good hand to call your bet. I suspect a lot of the time my opponents would be folding hands as good as 8,8. Hands like A,Q and A,J would also find it hard to withstand a pot size bet if the flop comes completely ragged. T.J is of the view that checking will allow you to obtain extra information on your opponent. That might be the case, but by checking aren't you providing information on your hand to your opponent? An aggressive player with 8,8 is justifiably likely to make a move on you if you check. Also, with a ragged flop you are very likely to have the best hand a lot of the time. Lets say the flop comes 3,3,7. I would consider not betting my ace king as a big mistake in this circumstance because you are likely to be in front. Also, with two over cards you are about 13 % to hit one of your cards on the turn. By betting post flop you can often better disguise your hand for when you hit it on the turn (assuming you get callers). With a ragged flop I am convinced you will pick up the pot more than 50 % of the time by betting the size of the pot in a standard game with a small number of opponents. If you win more than 40 % it is a positive expectancy bet and in my view a much better play then giving your hand away all the time.
If the flop comes with a 10, J or Q and two other rag cards then it might be time to shut down. It is likely than one of your opponents would have a piece of that flop. Also, your opponents are likely to be holding face cards a lot of the time, after all they withstood your initial raise. Even if you improve in this circumstance you will often get beaten by players making two pair or a straight. For example, if an ace-queen holder hits their queen of the flop then you only have your king as an out. I would shut down if a picture hits on the flop a lot of the time.
Before discussing what to do if you get callers, I want to quickly discuss one more circumstance. Lets say that the flop comes 10,J blank or Q,J Blank or even Q,10, blank. In all of these circumstances you have two over cards and a gut shot straight. This is significantly better than the previous case where only one picture hit. I would suggest a mandatory bet is in order here if you are up against a small number of opponents. You have potentially 10 cards that will improve your hand (which gives you about 38 % of improving). Sure you might improve but still get beat some of the time but the point is you have a number of outs. Betting here is more of a semi-bluff. You want to win the pot outright, but if you get called you have a good chance to go on to make the best hand. Also, by betting the flop you can better disguise your hand if you do go on to make the nuts. You are likely to get more action. Also, if you are in late position a bet here will likely give you a free card the next round.
If your pot size bet gets called after the flop it is now time to shut down if you don't improve on 4th street. Here is where position comes into it. If you bet the size of the pot from a late position after the flop you are much likely to get a free river card then if you had simply checked the flop. If you checked the flop someone in front is likely to come out betting with any sort of hand if a blank hits on 4th street. By being aggressive early, you will be able to benefit later on. This is something that T.J does not discuss. By betting the flop you often get a free river card which increases your overall chance of improving (taking in 4th and 5th street) to 24-25%. It goes without saying that if someone bets on 4th street it is time to give up and fold.
The final point I want to make about ace-king is in regards to the situation when you hit your hand and someone comes out with an large bet or you get checked raised. Now it is time to make a decision. You must evaluate the board and carefully consider what your opponent is holding. If the flop comes something like K,Q or A,Q then it is likely you are up against two pair. If the flop comes ragged and someone shows aggression, particularly if you are checked raised, then you might be up against trips. There is no rule of thumb to play ace-king here. Knowledge of your opponent is important in these situations. It is very hard to lay down ace-king if you hit your flop, but if you suspect your opponent to have you beat then laying your hand down might be in order, but it is a matter of judgement.