By Donovan Doust
I’m going to address one of the most talked about and coveted starting hands in hold’em poker at FullTilt Poker. I’m going to discuss it’s strengths and it’s weaknesses. I’ll also discuss, in some detail, what circumstances determine the relative power of the hand, and why. The hand in question, of is course, AK (Ace King) better known as “Big Slick”. Some players hold this hand in reverence, and even have a difficult time containing their poker faces as their eyes smile wide at the rare and beautiful holding. Other players seem to be in near torment by it’s arrival in their hand, sort of wondering “what trouble is it going to get me into this time?” Is it a made hand? Is it a drawing hand? Is it a tier one hand? How does it rate against QQ? Well the answer to all these questions is, you guessed it….. It depends. But what does it depend on? I’m going to try to dissect this hand bit by bit over the next couple of pages and see if we can’t reach some sort of quantative understanding of one of the most talked about hands in poker, big slick.
It’s been said that in order to win a big no limit hold’em tournament you have to win with big slick when you have it, and beat it when you don’t. What is this saying alluding to? Maybe it refers to the sort of coin flip situations you often find yourself in when playing big slick for all your chips. The most common example is when all the money goes in before the flop and the players turn over AK vs QQ, nearly a fifty/fifty proposition. Maybe the point is that you need to be very lucky and win a lot of coin toss situations to survive in a tournament, maybe. Or maybe the saying means more than that. Maybe to more astute players it refers to being able to properly expose the weaknesses of AK while taking advantage of its strengths. Well, for the purpose of this discussion we’ll suppose the latter. It would be foolish to underestimate the helpfulness of getting really lucky, but let’s just admit we cannot control that and let’s try to move onto the things we can control.
What can you control in no limit hold’em poker? Quite a bit actually, that’s what makes it one of the most skill intensive poker games in existence. You get to make a lot of choices, and your choices actually do matter. The decisions you make at the felt will determine whether you are a profitable player. Before the flop, you can decide whether to raise with your AK, or call. You get to decide how much to bet when you do bet. You get to determine whether you believe your hand is beaten or boss. You decide whether or not the pot odds leave you “stuck” to the hand, and whether or not you should “get away from” the hand. These are all surface concepts, but there are more decisions to be made just under the surface. For instance, do you want to play this hand against a lot of players or a few? Are there specific players you would like to get involved with? Are there some you would prefer not to get involved with? Would you like to play the hand out to the flop and maybe further, or do you want to try to take the pot down now? Do you want to represent strength with your hand or weakness? The list goes on and on and on, and making these decisions effectively is what makes one player a losing player and the other a winner.
No limit hold ‘em is a very situational game, that’s why the answer to many of the questions people ask regarding specific hands is, “well, it depends”. There are a huge number of variables that must be considered before a player can determine the proper course of action in any given hand. Much of the skill in poker comes from being able to effectively weigh the plethora of available information and adjust accordingly. One of the most situation dependant starting hands in no limit hold ‘em poker is, without question, AK. You cannot just play the hand the same way every time you’re dealt it and expect long term success. The hand is so “variable sensitive” that, in my opinion, it rivals JJ as the most difficult hand to play in NLH. But why should this be? Well the main reason that slick is such a difficult hand to play is it’s unwillingness to fall into a hierarchy of hand strengths. It is a huge favorite against a number of good hands, but does not play nearly as well against many hands that are not particularly powerful, or even playable for that matter. Some hands that AK seems so much better than, such as 5-4 off- suit, are close to 40% to win in a showdown. That’s right; five- four off suit will beat AK more than three times in ten if all five community cards are revealed. AK is also a small dog to any pocket pair at all. Even pocket two’s are a favorite to beat AK by the river.
So, why is big slick considered by many to be a powerful starting hand? There are many reasons; we’re going to discuss a few of them. We’ve already stated that many, otherwise unremarkable hands are not that far behind AK. We should also understand that AK is not very far behind any starting hands at all, with only two exceptions; AA and KK. The fact that there are only two hands that consistently beat AK in a showdown gives us allot of pre-flop betting leverage. Let’s consider the “fold equity” we have when we raise a pot. When we make a stiff raise before the flop it makes it hard for someone to call with many of the hands that we really aren’t that favored to beat. It’s interesting to note though, that many of the hands that we have “dominated” and are beating badly such as AQ are more likely to call our raise, that’s one of the hidden strengths of big slick. That’s why it is usually very important to raise before the flop with AK. It’s usually a mistake to not open with big slick from any position, under almost any circumstances. In fact, when we take into account the inherent edge that comes from being the first player to move his chips into the center there aren’t enough hands that will beat AK consistently to make pushing all of your chips in an exceptionally bad play. The second noteworthy strength about AK is the oodles and oodles of “implied value” that the hand often offers us. When playing big slick against hands that may call our raise, we sometimes find pretty good opportunities to “bust” our opponents. The most frequent example is when they are unfortunate enough to find themselves holding the second best hand with an ace and a lower kicker. That’s what I mean by “implied value”. I’ll use the example of AQ again; the reason AK plays so well against AQ is not just that it’s about a 4 to 1 favorite to win in a showdown, the real reason slick runs so well against AQ is that there will be a certain number of times that you will both flop top pair making it difficult for your opponent to think he is beaten. When that situation arises you will usually take a good chunk of his chips, and sometimes all of them.
Big slick also has great “post- flop playability”. Playability refers to how difficult or easy a hand is to play after the flop. Hands like JT and 98s are easier to play than, say, A3. When you flop a pair with a hand like A3, it’s difficult to know for sure whether you’re ahead or behind. That’s why playing hands like ace small is so dangerous. When playing AK, you usually have a pretty good idea where you’re at after the flop assuming you played it correctly before the flop. When you hit the flop with AK by pairing either card, you know you have the highest pair with the highest possible kicker. You won’t have to worry about you and your opponent both catching top pair but being “out kicked”. When you pair either of your cards on the flop there is a high probability that you have the best hand and you can play as though you do until you have strong evidence to the contrary.
Big slick has at least one other “hidden strength”. Players as a whole, especially low stakes players, internet players, and casual “home game players” have a tenancy to over value the presence of an ace in their starting hand. Some of them also over value and over play KQ and KJ. Therefore, you will often have your opponents hands dominated. You will find schools of internet fish and casual “home game players” who will call raises before the flop with KQ, KJ, or any AX combination, often they will also be willing to commit all there chips on the flop when you both hit top pair. Typically, it’s a pretty profitable hand when you can get all the money in after the flop with your opponent drawing at three cards in the deck that can save him.
To put this all simply, big slick does not play impressively well against random two card combinations and pairs, and it does play impressively well against many of the hands most players are willing to call raises with. If that seems almost paradoxical, then you’re starting to understand the point of this article. Now that we’re beginning to look big slick in the eye, and see her for what she really is, we need to learn to utilize this understanding? We need to realize how this hand morphs in its optimal application based on the situation. .
Hopefully I’ve made it clear that it is usually a big mistake to just call with big slick from any position unless you have a very specific reason. There are many other decisions to be made when playing big slick, and several factors that will govern them. Among those factors there are three that are of particular importance 1) the number of players at the table. 2) The blinds relative to the stack sizes in play. 3) The experience level of your opposition.
The first factor, the number of players at the table, is pretty simple to understand. The fewer players at the table the less likely it is that someone has a big pair and the more likely an opponent is to think there Ace high hand might be good. The more players at your table the more likely it is that someone has made one of the big pairs, meaning you may sometimes find yourself in positions where you should fold AK. If there are players calling your big raises at a five handed table it is much more likely they are chasing you with two high cards, they are looking at a flop with a medium or small pair, or they are dominated with a holding such as AJ or KQ. None of these situations are bad for you. Before the flop at a short table it is very likely that AK is the best hand. The high likelihood that AK is the best starting hand before any given flop, combined with the fact that the blinds will come around relatively quickly means that you will have to play big slick very aggressively when short handed. If you’ve been playing a tournament format that started with multiple full tables but are now playing short handed, the blinds have probably escalated to the point that you don’t have time to wait around for AA. At a table of five you will need to take the blinds down and aggressively attack pots just to keep from being “blinded out”. If your table is short handed you should be raising and re-raising fiercely with AK. If you do get called, you should usually bet again after the flop regardless of its texture. If the flop comes out all low cards it is pretty unlikely it helped your opponent (assuming you raised or re-raised pre-flop), so your aggression pre-flop coupled with your aggression on the flop is likely to win you the pot. Even if your opponent held onto a pair of sevens and the flop comes out 2d Js Td, if you bet it will be difficult for your opponent to call while staring at two over cards and the possibility that you have a bigger pair. If there are many players at the table you should still raise pre-flop with AK most of the time but be prepared to muck it following a string of calls and re-raises, at a full table you should play it more like a drawing hand. Remember, you need to see all five cards to give you a coin flip to hit a pair. So, at a full table it is usually correct to see the flop without calling large amounts, or get all the money in before the flop so that you can see all five cards without having to make any tough decisions, leave those to your opponents. Again, you’re about even money to pair you AK by the river. You really want to avoid getting over committed to the hand before the flop, unless all the money goes in. One of the keys to Hold’em is the ability to avoid having to make difficult decisions after the flop. I think at a full table you should raise, from any position, with slick, but try to either see a relatively cheap flop or try to get all the money in before the flop. The in-between ground seems better suited for hands like TT or JJ.
The second factor that determines how you should play AK requires a bit more explanation. The stack sizes relative to the blinds should have a very large influence on the way you play AK. With large stacks and small blinds you should definitely want to raise pre-flop for two main reasons. The first is to limit the field, AK is much easier to play against one or two players than three or more. The other reason you need to raise before the flop with AK is to charge inferior hands to draw against you. Your main objective when the blinds are small is to look for low risk situations that offer you a chance to double up. It is good to look at AK as a drawing hand when the blinds are small. Ideally you want to play your AK against one or two players and you’d like to make bets that will be called by hands such as AQ or KQs and pray for that perfect flop that pairs you and your opponent, and then proceed to bust him. Big slick is a difficult hand to release before the flop but you must learn to do so when necessary. With small blinds and large stacks there is usually no reason to go bust when you have AK and you are facing an open and a significant re-raise that would commit allot of your chips. With large stacks and small blinds you will often need to muck AK before the flop, which can be difficult for beginners, but for veterans it is a common play. For instance, if an early position player puts in a large re-raise and then another player re-raises the rest of his chips. When you look at the types of hands that would move all-in against an EP (early position) open it is very likely you would be in any better than a coin flip or “race” situation if you called all-in with the AK. When the blinds are relatively large you might be more than happy to gamble in a spot like that, but not when you have plenty of time to find better spots to get your money in. Also, when the blinds are relatively small compared to the stack sizes it will be difficult to limit the field substantially without committing a large portion of your chips to the pot. When the blinds are small it is best to play slick hard from late position. Your big cards give you allot of leverage over the medium pairs on the flop, fourth street, and fifth street play. With the blinds small I tend to tread very cautiously with AK from the first few positions. That’s not to say you shouldn’t open from early position with AK, surely you should. You should, however, usually avoid creating extremely large pots to play for from early position; the exceptions to this rule of course are the nut and second nut pre-flop hands, AA and KK. When opening from early position with AK, I think you should only raise to three times the big blind, from middle and late you might use four times the blind as your standard raise. Remember, with small blinds and a lot of players you will usually need to connect on the flop to win with slick. Otherwise you run the risk of being taken out of the pot. With large stacks/small blinds it is rarely correct to raise specifically to get more money in the pot with AK. If your raise cannot limit the field and you do not have position on the other players, it is often correct to wait until after the flop to commit allot of chips. The ability to fold AK before the flop should be considered a milestone in your NLH development. A string of raises and re-raises should be a red flag that your AK is in dire straights. Many raising hands contain an Ace, others contain pairs. When faced with an early position open and a re-raise, especially with other callers, you have to suspect one or more of your aces is out and running into a pair could be disastrous. With small blinds, the need to gamble is just not present, you have time to wait for a better opportunity and capitalize on the mistakes of less experienced players.
The third and final factor we’ll discuss is the experience level of your opponents. This is the one that is least understood by NLH players. AK is such a great hand against a field of helpless fish that it almost deserves a seat next to AA. I can’t stress enough how well this hand plays at small stakes games, especially online. Against very poor players AK is an exceptionally profitable hand. The main reason for this is that poor players will play any hand that contains an ace in it even against an early position raise. If a very bad player holds A7o and you raise with AK in first position he will usually call you and be more than happy to commit all his chips to the pot if an ace flops. Likewise, many poor players will play hands like KJ like the pre-flop nuts. So when you flop the K, look out, someone is getting busted. Most of the time it won’t be you, because you don’t call EP opens with KJ, right? Against more experienced players I feel there is a need to add variation to your play with big slick. You’ll have to mix it up a bit to keep them guessing. In rare instances it may be OK to just call with big slick, but the situation has to be perfect. You will only ever consider that strategy when the table is especially aggressive and reasonably poker savvy. When the situation is exactly right I especially enjoy limping in early with slick and then re-raising against the first opener. Experienced players will often be very suspicious of this move and fold hands like, JJ, and TT that you really didn’t want to race against anyway. I use this play often and never reveal it unless it goes to show down, and I do sometimes show the times I make the play with Kings or Aces. Remember, people remember what they see much more clearly than they remember what they may suspect.
To summarize, big slick is a hand that you cannot really afford to let speculative hands take cheap flops against, and one that actually plays better against the types of hands that are likely to call raises. It is better to raise and re-raise with AK than to call with it. One of AK’s best attributes is that it isn’t a significant dog to any hand other than AA or KK. Remember though, it isn’t as far ahead of many random hands your opponent may be bluff raising with. It just loses some of its power when you call with it instead of raise. Big slick is very situation dependant and you absolutely must learn to adjust to the exact situation based on a wide array of variability. Is big slick a tier one hand, a made hand or a drawing hand, is it better than QQ? Well, I guess at the end of the day; big slick is just big slick. I hope I’ve helped to shed some light on what that means. The short answer again though is, well, it depends. Good luck.