For those of you who are completely unexposed to the colorful language of poker, "Big Slick" is the popular term for Ace-King hole cards, either suited or unsuited, in Texas hold'em. I have unsuccessfully attempted to ascertain the origin of that term, but perhaps we should think of it as a "big" starting hand that is also very "slick" in the sense of being slippery to manage. It probably means something far less prosaic because there is nothing straightforward about AK. At this year's World Series Of Poker a number of pros began calling AK "Anna Kournikova" instead - it looks fantastic but never wins anything. Inside every jest is a little kernel of hard truth. There are many ways to play Big Slick poorly, and far fewer ways to play it well, so let's take a closer look at some common mistakes and ways to prevent them...
If you hold a pocket pair from 22 all the way up to QQ your chances of beating AK are roughly 50/50, if you get all your money into the middle and the two hands are heads-up. If you're a glass is half-full person you could argue that you're never in terrible shape with AK unless you run into AA or KK. There will also be times when you force a weak opponent to call you with AQ or even AJ, which cancels out those few times when Big Slick is dominated, and in all other instances it's a race. If you're a glass is half-empty player you could argue instead that you are hardly ever a bigger favorite than a random coin-flip to win the pot when you push all-in with Big Slick and get a caller. And, if you regularly risk your entire stack on a coin-flip situation you will rarely win tournaments or leave a no-limit cash game with a profit.
The percentages do not dissuade the majority of poker players from becoming instantly enamored with AK, and if they're suited you would think they'd been dealt the mortal nuts. They have the most powerful of drawing hands, but AK remains a drawing hand - one that requires improvement to win most confrontations. Those measly pocket deuces are in the lead before the flop is dealt, but players don't approach AK that way.
The reason that Ace-King is considered such a strong starting hand, especially in no-limit, is because it allows you to play extremely aggressively pre-flop. If a player takes a stab at the pot you can and should put in a significant raise. If the player has bet out with AJ or AQ or a medium-pair he is put in a very tough spot. He fears that his hand is dominated and is quite likely to toss it away. If he's starting with AA or KK he'll let you know soon enough, so the folding equity that you gain with AK makes it very valuable. But, and this is a big but, it is only valuable if you know what you are doing. Playing AK with position, and raising enough to put pressure on the rest of the table without compromising your entire session are the keys.
Ideally, when you have AK you want to push the initial bettor out of the pot with a substantial raise or re-raise. Your defense, if needed, is that in the event that all the chips go in you are still likely to have an even-money chance of winning. However, a lot of players move all-in immediately, ignoring that crucial first step. You must make sure that the size of your bet gives an opponent the opportunity to lay down his hand, and ideally you'd like to avoid jeopardizing your tournament life in the process. There are few hands where position is as important as it is with Big Slick. If you are out of position and you play the hand the same way you are basically forced to treat it like a big pair. But it isn't a big pair, unfortunately, so when the flop comes rags and you're forced to make a large continuation bet to win the pot you feel a lot worse than you would if you really did have pocket Queens.
In no-limit situations you have to be very aware of the size of your own stack relative to the blinds and antes, if any. But you also need to know your opponent's stack ratio as well. If you push an opponent who already feels that he is up against the wall he has nowhere to go except right back in your direction. Short-stacked opponents who have shown a willingness to get involved in a hand are immune to folding equity, because they feel like they have nothing left to protect. So, these players will gladly race you if you push them with a big bet. That can be a good result if they have a hand like QK or KJ, those poor fools, but what if they have a marginal hand like 88? If you lose back-to-back races against short-stacks in a tournament you will find that you are now where they are, and the chip leaders are off in the distance. So, there are times when AK needs to be played with a degree of caution. If you can manage this you will become a vastly superior tournament player, guaranteed.
The perfect way to play AK in limit hold'em games is even more complicated, and there are many times when there is no perfect or even profitable way to play the hand. The folding equity of Big Slick in a limit game is minimized because there are nearly always players willing to throw in the extra bet pre-flop. If you bet the flop and the turn it will be expected of you because you controlled the betting pre-flop, which means that you might need to improve in order to take down the pot. Limit players love to stay in the action when they catch even the smallest part of the flop, because they often put opponents on AK when they have raised early. So, if the flop doesn't produce an Ace or King they rather infuriatingly, and correctly, guess that their bottom pair is now good.
It is easy to see what is happening here: players are very predictable when they hold Big Slick, in fact they play it as though they held AA. But there is a crucial difference - AA has value by itself. It can win a hand without improving, and often in loose games the correct play is to put your head down and bet throughout, or to go all-in when sure of a caller in no-limit. A lot of poker players seem to believe their own trickery; they're representing Aces but only have the potential to make Aces. If you're very aggressive with AK pre-flop and an Ace comes it is tough to get action from the table, and if you do you need to consider that you're already up against two-pair or a set, because you're betting the hand that everyone now thinks you have anyway.
My solution is as follows: play AK more conservatively in a limit game, so much so that I would alternate raising and calling pre-flop with this hand. It should definitely be slow-played in position at least 50% of the time, unless you are sure you can isolate players who have a propensity to lay down hands as play develops. When you are out of position with AK your options are limited. You should still slow-play at times, maybe 1 out of every 3 instances. When you do raise you have to be aware that many players will have a default response to your raise: he has AA, KK, or AK. This makes it tough to win big pots. But, if you're naturally aggressive and have raised with a wide variety of holdings then this play is far more profitable.
In no-limit games you have to temper your desire to push all-in with AK. The hand works best against weaker opponents, because they will overvalue all the other Ax holdings and are likely to give you action. The dream scenario of going up against AQ or AJ doesn't happen frequently enough to make this a smart move - in my opinion. If two players are already all-in and you hold AK it is almost always correct to fold that hand. The chances are high, at least in online poker, that your hand is counterfeited. Even if you're up against two big pocket pairs you don't want that kind of action. But I know from experience that the majority of online poker players disagree with me, and for that I am immeasurably grateful!
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