It’s a worn-out poker witticism to refer to ace-king as Anna Kournikova. Aside from sharing initials, both “look good but never win.”
The analogy sells both sides short. When I consulted my online database, I found that I won the hand about 75% of the time when I started with AK. AK suited was the fifth-most profitable hand behind the big pairs (AA, KK, QQ, JJ). That’s about what you’d expect from the best non-paired hand, so why are people so down on AK?
In a recent strategy video, the poker player and teacher Alan Jackson suggested that people dislike AK (and other strong starting hands) because the instances when they lose with it are far more memorable than the instances in which they win. As soon as they see AK, they assume they’re going to win the pot. If they do indeed win, the event hardly registers; but if they lose, they gnash their teeth in frustration. The greater emotional intensity of the times they lose causes them to overestimate the frequency of those instances, while ignoring all the times they won.
It may also be the case that weaker poker players play AK especially badly. More than any other hand, AK demands and rewards aggression; most weak players play too passively. In live poker games it’s common to see players limp in with AK, perhaps because it’s a “drawing hand” (they haven’t yet made a pair). This typically leads to a multi-way, unraised pot — a scenario in which top pair, the type of strong hand you’re most likely to flop with AK, plays rather badly. It plays better to raise with AK pre-flop in almost every situation. Even more disastrously, many players shut their brains off when they get dealt a strong hand, believing themselves entitled to win the pot no matter what. No starting hand is an excuse to stop playing poker.
Anna Kournikova peaked at number 8 in the world in women’s tennis. Equating “not quite the best in the world” with “failure” seems like a harsh metric. But to many, her good looks amounted to an onus to win every tournament. Like ace-king, Kournikova was good, but not invincible.