Ace-King aka big slick – one of the top 10 hands in Hold’em by anyone’s start chart. Yet, strong as it is, there’s a cloud hanging over the hand, one that goes all the way back to the Texas origins of no-limit Hold’em, where they’d call the hand ‘Walking back to Houston’, because if you played big slick often enough in Dallas, that’s how you’d be getting home.
These days, the wags tell a different joke, calling A-K Anna Kournikova because ‘it looks great, but never wins’. That’s a pretty harsh indictment of a woman who plays tennis better than you or I ever will, and an equally harsh indictment of a hand that, apart from pocket pairs, you’d be happiest to hold in Hold’em.
So why does big slick get such a bad rap? Because it’s an easy hand to get stuck on and, as such, an easy hand to go broke with. If you play it often enough and push it hard enough, you will get burned – something which rarely happens with obvious junk hands and easy folds. Bad cards, in other words, don’t seduce and abandon. Big slick does that every day.
Despite its complexity, A-K is far too good a hand to just throw away. If you can’t see your way clear to play big slick in most situations, you’re simply too tight and too timid to succeed at nolimit Hold’em. That said, there are a number of basic truths about A-K, truths I’ll discuss in full here. Once you understand what A-K is and is not, you’ll be able to play it effectively, fold it strategically, and not get caught walking back to Houston.
At least not often.
Basic truth #1
BIG SLICK IS A DRAWING HAND
It’s not a big pocket pair. It’s not even a small pocket pair. It’s not a favourite against any pocket pair, not even lowly pocket deuces. This means that a lot of times, especially in multi-way pots, you’re going to have to improve to win. How likely are you to improve? Holding A-K (and assuming that all your cards are live) you’ll make at least a pair about 30% of the time. That’s not so great, but pause to consider that if you do make a pair, it will be either top pair/top kicker or… top pair/top kicker. This means that for the many times you improve and your foe improves, or you don’t improve and your foe doesn’t improve, you will be leading in the hand. But bear in mind that if you don’t improve, it increases the likelihood that your foe (or foes) have improved. From the flop forward, then, big slick is often a fit-or-fold proposition.
Does this mean that you have to hit to win with A-K? Not necessarily. After all, there are many ways to win in Hold’em besides having the best hand. You can also make the best bet, for instance. Which brings us to…
Basic truth #2
BIG SLICK IS A BIG CLUB
And you should swing it as such. Don’t be afraid to make strong raises pre-flop with A-K. If you get called, you’ll probably be either a slight underdog (against a middle pocket pair) or a big favourite (against a worse Ace or something like K-Q suited). The only time you’re in really grim shape is when you run into A-A or K-K. Much of the time you won’t get called at all, and when that happens, you earn something called fold equity; that is, the money you win when everybody mucks their hands.
A-K, then, makes an excellent raising hand because it loves to win without a fight, but goes into most fights with a reasonable, or even a dominant, chance to win. On this business of winning without a fight, consider the words of Annie Duke, ‘The nice thing about moving in with A-K is that very often you’re going to get someone with a hand that you don’t want to play against to fold.’ That’s fold equity in spades! So if you’re up against someone who you think might be pushing a middle pocket pair, push back with big slick. You’ll be a slight underdog if the two of you see the flop – but have nothing but profit if they fold.
If A-K is great for a raise, is it great to call raises with, too? The answer to that is a resounding yes… and no. Let’s see why.
Basic truth #3
BIG SLICK IS GREAT FOR CALLING A RAISER IN POSITION
Since A-K is a drawing hand and not a made hand, you have to be careful about making huge re-raises with it. The sort of hands that can call huge re-raises are hands like A-A and K-K, and naturally your big slick performs rather poorly against those holdings. But hands that can open for a raise, and then continue to bet on the flop when called, include hands like good Aces, big paint, and a whole range of pairs all the way down to the bottom of the deck. If you just call in position with A-K, you’ll be sitting pretty on a variety of flops. Of course you’ll be driving the bus when you flop top/top, but you’re also in position to semi-bluff when the flop comes ragged.
Let’s say you’re looking at a flop like 10-3-2. Unless your foe has a set, he can’t be thrilled with that flop. Even his middle pair doesn’t look so good with that Ten on board. To take him off his hand, just raise when he bets. If he calls, you’re still not totally dead because you have outs to hit your hand on the turn or the river, or guts enough to try to bluff again (not forgetting that you may, in fact, be bluffing with the best hand).
When there’s just one opponent in there against you, then, look to use your A-K as a lever with which to pry him off the hand. Don’t try this trick if there’s a crowd in the pot, and especially if there have been pre-flop raises, re-raises and calls, because…
Basic truth #4
BIG SLICK IS BIG TROUBLE IN A RAISING WAR
Remembering that big slick is not a big pair, think long and hard before spending a ton of chips to call big raises and re-raises. Suppose you open for a raise, someone re-raises behind you and someone re-reraises behind him. What do you think they have? Unless they’re total maniacs, you’re looking at big pocket pairs. And even if you’re not up against the dominating A-A or K-K, you could easily be up against Q-Q and J-J. In that case, you’re about a 2/1 underdog. Now suppose you’re up against, say, A-Q and 10-10. You love being up against A-Q, but not when 10-10 is in there as well, because one of your valuable Aces is spoken for, and your prospects correspondingly dim. This is an often-overlooked consideration of big slick. Yes, it’s a pretty hand, and yes, it’s a powerful draw, but are you drawing completely live?
Raises and re-raises don’t mean nothing (well, in some games they do) so if your A-K is facing a lot of heat, it’s probably already badly dominated or, at best, drawing thinner than usual. It’s a rare player who can actually fold A-K when he has to, but that rare player has a name: Winner.
This is especially true in situations where all the money goes in pre-flop – it’s unlikely that your A-K is going to be a truly dominant hand. For that to be the case, you need to get calls from hands like A-Q or K-J, and you can’t count on your foes being bad enough to make those calls. More often, you’ll be in a coin-flip situation, and such even money gambles should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Which brings us to a few considerations of tournament Texas Hold’em, and the next rule…
Basic truth #5
BIG SLICK IS A GREAT HAND FOR A SMALL STACK
If you’ve reached the point where your tournament life is on the line (and holding anything less than 10 big blinds you are thus imperilled) you’ve got to be happy peering down at big slick, and you should happily push your stack in the middle. Why? Because you get to see all five cards with it, and looking at all five cards you’ll make at least a pair about 60% of the time. Moreover, if you’re that short-stacked in a tournament situation, you’ll likely get calls from much worse hands – maybe even as weak as Q-J or J-10.
And if you don’t get called? No problem. You pick up the antes and blinds, and move on. Which brings us to…
Basic truth #6
BIG SLICK IS A GOOD HAND FOR A BIG STACK
If you’re in a dominant chip position in a tournament, A-K is an excellent hand to go to war with. Why? Because when it gets calls from all-in players, it’s likely either a small underdog or a big favourite.
Say you make a big raise with A-K. An imperilled player calls you with 8-8 (a reasonable call for a short-stacked and desperate player). Yes, he’s a favourite, but only a slim one. If you beat him, you bust him. But if he beats you, he doesn’t hurt you all that much.
Big slick and big stacks, then, go together very well in coin-flip situations. You have a good chance of winning, and a small enough price to pay when you lose. With this in mind, if you find yourself with big slick in a tournament, especially late, when the antes combine with the blinds to make every pot worth winning, do pause to measure your stack size against the stacks likely to call you. Be less inclined to push hard with A-K if there are many big stacks yet to act behind you. If you find yourself up against a big stack and a big hand, your tournament could end in a heartbeat.
Basic truth #7
BIG SLICK IS A BAD HAND FOR A MEDIUM STACK
If you’re in a tournament with a medium-sized stack and you pick up big slick, you may be inclined to push it hard. This is a reasonable inclination, for A-K is a quality hand. But if you get called, especially by an aggressive, tricky player, and then you miss the flop, you’ve played yourself into a certain kind of bind. You’ll either have to make a continuation bet that’s essentially a bluff (since you don’t, at this moment, actually have a hand), or checkcall, hoping the other guy is bluffing, or check-fold, thus surrendering the chips you put in the pot. None of these alternatives is particularly attractive.
The fact is that your medium stack is particularly vulnerable. It’s not big enough to bet others off the pot, nor small enough to push all-in with. So if you’re going to play A-K with a medium stack, do two things: first, try to play small pots pre-flop, so that you can get away from your hand if you miss; second, try to play in position, so that you get the benefit of last action.
This last bit is especially useful with big slick, because if you do hit your hand, you can make some subtle moves like checking the flop, hoping to induce a bluff or a bet from a worse hand on the turn.
Don’t go too far with big slick. It’s not a made hand, and it is, often, a great big tease. Which brings us to the final basic truth of big slick.
Basic truth #8
BIG SLICK IS NOT WORTH GOING BROKE WITH
Ask all the big tournament pros and they’ll tell you the same thing: they’re not going to go broke with A-K. They’re certainly not going to overvalue it in the early stages of a tournament, when the potential gain is small, but the potential risk – of going broke – is large. No, they’re going to save their big moves with big slick for late in the tournament, when the antes and blinds have climbed high enough to force lesser holdings into the pot.
As former world champion Scotty Nguyen says, ‘I get knocked out with Kings or Aces; A-K doesn’t mean anything. I’m not going to let A-K break me.’ And hey, if it’s good enough for Scotty, it’s good enough for us.