The Book of Hands: Big Slick
This is the first of a series of discussions on each of the 169 starting hands of Texas Hold’em. It is aimed primarily for the tournament No-Limit player. We begin with that most played and most misunderstood hand: Ace-King (and Ace-King Suited), commonly referred to as “Big Slick.”
ABOUT ACE-KING SUITED (AKs) AND ACE-KING OFFSUIT (AK OR AKo)
Ace-King has one of the most famous nicknames of all the starting hands: Big Slick. The visage of a big Ace of Spades and King of Spades as your online poker hole cards reminds many of a huge black oil slick. Its other famous name may be more synonymous with the hand’s outcome: “Walkin’ back to Houston.” This name is derived from the folklore of the old days of poker (late 1950s/early 1960s), with the likes of a young Doyle Brunson, Sailor Burke, or Cowboy Wolford in a big (and highly illegal) game of Hold’em in Texas towns like Beaumont, Victoria, or Bryan. Someone would play for a huge pot with Big Slick, losing all their cash, their jewelry and even their car in the process, and make the trip back home to Houston by foot and thumb. So they say.
Big Slick is a very strong poker hand. I rank AKs as the 5th-strongest hand in Hold’em and AK-offsuit sixth best. Only the big pocket pairs AA, KK, QQ, and even JJ rank higher (there may be debate by some about AK being superior to JJ, but that discussion is for another day). Based on my data mining, with AK, a solid player can expect to win approximately 69% of the pots they enter. Being suited adds a little extra juice and raises your win percentage to 70%. But winning pots does not necessarily mean much; winning money (or chips) in big pots is the real acid test. Using a measure called “win-share,” defined as the total portion of all the money you rake in in all the pots you play lifetime with AK, you will have a win-share of 58% (AKs wins 59.5%). A win-share over 50% is very profitable. In fact, throughout my career as an online tournament poker player, you will win more hands with Big Slick, more big pots with Big Slick, and more net profit with Big Slick than any other poker hand – even pocket Aces. There is a reason for this: based on pure probability, you will only receive pocket Aces about one in every 221 hands. But with AK (suited or unsuited), you will see that one in every 82 hands (over 2.7 times more frequently than pocket Aces). Suited AK comes around once per 331 hands. With such frequency and win ability, an Ace and a King as your hole cards is truly a sight for sore eyes.
In its purest state, Big Slick is a drawing hand; but it is the strongest of all drawing hands. In typical pots with three or more players to the flop, you will usually need to improve to win a showdown. When either card pairs, it gives you Top Pair-Top Kicker which beats a lot of hands that might commit all their chips, like AJ or KQ. Suited AK has additional nut-straight and nut-flush drawing power that gives you even more ways to win.
BIG SLICK PRE-FLOP
When you are first to act, or players have limped in front of you, Big Slick should be raised. When chip stacks are deep (50 Big Blinds (BBs) or greater), make an opening raise of between 3 to 4 Big Blinds. Your raise achieves two objectives: 1) It deters speculative drawing hands from entering the pot (or staying in the pot if they limped); 2) It increases the value of the pot. Near the button, your opening raise can be reduced to about 3 BBs if no one has come in yet. If no one has come in yet, you can even limp in late position to mask the strength of Big Slick against the players in the blinds who probably have weak holdings.
If someone has made a raise ahead of you, you can call or make a re-raise. As Big Slick is a drawing hand, calling is fine (especially when suited). However, re-raising is better, particularly with AK-offsuit, as it is more susceptible to getting drawn out. When re-raising, triple the amount of the initial raise. So with blinds at 25/50, if an early player raises to 150, you should re-raise to 450. In general, you want to have no more than three players (counting yourself) going into the flop with AKo, and no more than four or five with AKs.
However, what happens when the initial raiser goes over the top of you or, or even worse – pushes all his chips into the middle of the table. You just can’t impulsively dive all-in into this pre-flop with no forethought. Without considering your stack size and knowledge of a player’s tendencies, you going all-in with AK, or even AKs, can potentially be disastrous. The major thing to consider is that you will almost certainly be up against some kind of pair, so you will most likely be an underdog. But if those pocket pairs are Aces or Kings, then it’s very unfortunate. If up against two Kings, you’ll need a doctor. Against two Aces, you’ll need a priest.
Pre-flop All-in Decisions:
Before I delve into this topic, let me tell you a story. My first-ever tournament win occurred in 2006 at the Viejas Casino in Alpine, California. If I recall, it was like a $75 buy-in with re-buys and a $50 add-on. I remember the key hand and the scenario quite well. I was seated to the right of a 30ish gentleman of obvious Irish descent. He was quite glib and even complimented on my chip protector – an U.S. Navy officer crest pin that was typically affixed to my uniform cap. On the very first hand of the tournament, I received pocket Jacks at the button. There might have been a limper or two, before I raised it to 200 on a 4X raise. My “friend” looked at me, gave me a beaming smile, and forcefully pushed his 5000 chips into the middle and announced with a bit of a brogue, “I’m all-in.” My live tournament experience at the time was less than six months. I really never faced a scenario and decision like this. I knew I had busted out of two previous tournaments with pocket Jacks (albeit, I was ahead at the flop both times). I didn’t like my decision at the time, but I called the remaining 4800 chips. He had Big Slick off. He teasingly added, “You called me with that?!?”
The board went something Q 2 3 Q T and I became chip leader. My Irish friend simply commented, “Good hand,” and re-buyed back into the tournament. He would bust out shortly after the break. I would go on to win $1100. Over time, I looked back on that hand and wonder if my call was correct – even though the outcome was desired. Today, I am still on the border on whether I did make the right call. In that tournament, blinds increased fairly quickly (every 15 minutes) and I had the re-buy option. With more certainty, I think my friend may have made the more questionable decision. It is simply too reckless to go all-in with AK so early in a tournament.
If you are doing your due diligence and evaluating the table images of each player, you can confidently release your AK when you face an All-In from a player who has been so tight, the chip stacks have cobwebs. Likewise, if you have profiled a player who is looser, on tilt, or is a “donk,” calling an all-in is an easier decision. You may just be fortunate enough to go against non-pairs. In that situation, you’ll be dominating AQ, KQ and lesser Ace/King hands. You are a 70% favorite here. Against any other two card non-pair combos, you are about a 60% favorite. In these situations, you may lose these isolated battles (like when AK goes against Acey-Deucy and the Deuce flops). But in the long run, the laws of probability catch up and you will win the war.
For those situations where you have limited information of a player’s hand range, you will want to base your decision to call or fold Big Slick pre-flop when someone goes all-in to the following determinants:
With this known information readily available, you now have the data you need to make the recommended play. This decision is based on the assumption that you have not acted yet, or you have acted with a standard raise, but have not put yourself into a pot-commit situation. The table below gives you some suggested decision points on what to do when faced with an all-in decision:
|Your Stack Size||Do the All-In(s) Have You Covered?||Recommended Decision|
|>75 BBs||No||Call up to 50% of stack with AKs, else FoldFold AK|
|50 to 75 BBs||Yes||Call AKsFold AK|
|50 to 75 BBs||No||Call AKsCall up to 50% of stack, with AK, else Fold|
|30 to 50 BBs||Yes||Call AKsFold AK|
|30 to 50 BBs||No||Call|
|< 30 BBs||Yes||Call (Unless at or near the bubble with two or more players already all-in)|
|< 30 BBs||No||Call|
When playing AK all-in, sensitivity of stack sizes — both yours and your opponent(s) in the hand — are a critical factor. If short stacks are in play, you want to get all-in before the flop with this hand. Isolation of short stacks is critical to AK gaining equity. That’s because short stacks are compelled to make moves with less than optimal holdings. They may have not seen a good hand for several orbits and blinds and antes are eating them alive. It is not uncommon to see desperation shove with hands like A6, K3s, JT, or pocket deuces. If it is folded to you and you are last to act, it’s an easy call. But if you are next to play, you too should go all-in. Don’t mess around with just calling and having other players in the hand – even if someone calls ahead of you. Go all-in and try to get the caller to fold. Get the short-stack isolated pre-flop. With Big Slick, you want to see all five cards on the board.
When you begin to be that very same short stack, you might have to make decisions on making your last stand as well. I propose 20 BBs or less as a critical point for AK. You just want a single caller before the flop. I assure you, you will get a caller. Some big-stack players will play anything (even 7-2) against a short stack simply because the math favors that. Against a pair, you’ll need a little help. But you are just under 50% to win the hand. When it’s your day, that glorious Ace is waiting for you on the flop to obliterate your Villain’s pocket Eights.
Playing the Flop
Flopping a Monster:
A Monster flop is something like a full house (AKK), a made flush or straight, 3-of-a-kind, or two-pair (AK2). You have a lot of options here. You can bet out and hope it hit someone just enough to commit some chips against you. You can also slow play and check it down to see if you can possibly trap someone. With trips and two-pair, be more on the offensive if the board is shaping up to favor a flush draw (i.e., two of the same suit on the board). But in general, it’s hard to screw up here.
Flopping an Ace or a King
This flop gives you top pair top kicker, which is very often the best hand. You should bet strong (two-thirds to pot-sized) to make your opponents fold or pay dearly to chase their draws. If they do call, that means either they are drawing or they also have hit something. You must know who you are up against. If your opponent is a tight player, there is a possibility he has hit a big hand (like a set) and is slow playing you. You may want to check on the turn and see what he does. If your opponent is loose, either he is drawing or he has also hit the top or second pair with a weaker kicker to you. In this case, continue to bet on the turn and river to extract the most money out of him. This is how most of the profit comes from playing AK.
Flopping a Nut Flush Draw
If your Ace-King is suited, you will sometimes flop a nut flush draw, along with your top-pair-top-kicker (you have AhKh and you flop Kd3h9h). This is an exceptional flop. Even without pairing and just the draw, a semi-bluff is probably the best move here. If your opponent(s) fold, you win right there. If not, you still have a chance to beat him with an Ace-high flush. However, if you get re-raised, then you shouldn’t be tempted to gamble on a draw unless you have the correct odds to call. Again, stack sizes and bet sizes will dictate what you should do.
Flopping a Nut Straight Draw
You generally will have the same chance at a nut straight draw whether suited or unsuited. The downside is that unlike JT, you won’t have an open-ended straight draw, but a tough 11-to-1 inside straight “gut-buster” draw. Assuming you raised pre-flop, a semi-bluff bet or raise is probably the best move here. So if QT6 rainbow makes the flop, you not only want to try to take the pot down right there; you also want to go with the premise that you have six additional outs if your King or Ace arrives at the turn. Even if you get re-raised, which is likely as the Queen and the Ten surely hit somebody else, then you still might want to make a stand here with your 10 outs. I would caveat this with one major exception. If the board is three of the same suit (and they are not your suit) and you are not heads-up going into the flop, the hand is over for you should someone bet ahead of you and another player calls or raises. You are beat. Don’t take a pointy stick into a gun fight.
Even if you don’t hit the flop, you still have the power of the pre-flop raise working for you. If first to act, you can make a continuation bet. Your opponents will usually credit you with a big hand and will summarily fold if they didn’t hit the flop strongly. Likewise, if you are close to the button, your opponents may “check to the raiser,” and fold as soon as you bet. If your continuation bet is called, you are probably behind at this point. Be ready to apply the brakes at the later streets.
Playing The Turn and The River
If you did hit the flop, you should continue to bet for value (half the pot) on the turn and the river. If the board looked favorable to a flush or straight draw for someone else, you should bet more aggressively if an obvious rag (e.g., the Flop is AsTs6h and the Turn is 2c), as in a pot-sized bet to dissuade the flush-chaser from staying in the pot. From time to time, the board may suggest that either a straight or a flush has been hit. You did your best to make the draw expensive for the villain, but that third spade landed on the river. If you are re-raised or pushed all-in here, it’s not a bluff. You are beat. This is where a lot of players fail to fold and lose chips unnecessarily. Remember, a pair is just a pair. Cut your losses in these situations.
Big Slick is indeed a powerful hand. That said, it is also overplayed by many and can lead to massive chip losses. Remember, a lot of things can beat a pair – and even more things can beat Ace-high. Play it like a drawing hand early in the tournament when stacks are large; but wield it like a mace when it gets down to crunch time and you desperately need to double up. The general adage is: To win a poker tournament, you must win with Big Slick, and you must also beat Big Slick.