Those two big cards look so nice on your computer screen or as you peel them back from the felt. You don’t have a true monster like pocket Aces or pocket Kings, but you do have a damn fine starting hand. In terms of Expected Value, Ace-King is in 5th place (right behind pocket Jacks) if suited (AKs) and 7th place (behind pocket Tens) if offsuit (AKo) out of the 169 possible holdem starting hands. But that just means that you’re a strong favorite against most random hands assuming that you get to see all the cards dealt out and make it to showdown. And then you think about how many bad beat stories of woe you’ve endured from players who’ve lost with them. He rivered a deuce and scooped the pot!
All possible starting hands in holdem have nicknames, JJ is ‘fish hooks’, 95 is ‘Dolly Parton’, KK is ‘cowboys’, 33 is ‘crabs’ (poker players seem to have a lot of spare time to come up with such things), some hands have more than one nickname. Most poker players call AK ‘Big Slick’ but some wags like to call it ‘Anna Kournikova’ as in looks good, never wins. Back in the days when Doyle Brunson was playing in underground games in Texas, it was called ‘Walking Back to Houston’ as in a nice-looking hand that can get you into so much trouble that you’ll lose your gas money and maybe even your car.
So what’s the best way to play Big Slick? As with so much else in poker, the answer is it depends. Are you playing limit holdem (all but dead in most places, but alive and well in Minnesota) or no-limit? Cash game or tournament? Are you playing 5-handed online or 9-handed in a brick and mortar live game? If you’re in a tournament with AKo, are you on the button in the first round of blinds after a raise, two callers, and a re-raise (fold) or are you under the gun in the 14th round of blinds with an M of 5 (move all-in)?
This post can only give some suggestions, examples, and guidelines. There are very few hard and fast rules. I think that the only rule that I’d suggest adhering to at least 95% of the time is that if you're the first player to voluntarily put money into the pot, raise rather than call. Big Slick is of course a drawing hand. If you don’t pair on the flop, any made hand is way ahead of you.
If you raise and everyone folds, you win the blinds, not a bad thing. Winning a small pot is better than losing a big pot any day of the week. If you’re under the gun (first to act after the big blind), playing no-limit, raise 2, 2.5, or 3 times the blind. If you’re on the button and everyone’s folded to you, raise 3, 4, or 5 times the big blind. The only time I’d consider limping as first in with Big Slick are some special situations, but only with AKs and only in no-limit. I’d always raise with AKo as first in. Yeah, I know, always is not a good idea in poker. 😅
But the situation would have to be nearly perfect to not raise as first in. Being suited might not seem like much of an advantage (non-paired suited hands are only 3% more likely to win at showdown that non-paired offsuit hands), but when you do win, the pots tend to be larger. Other players may have also been drawing to the flush, but you have the Ace. A perfect situation would be if you had A♦️K♦️ under the gun in a very loose and passive no-limit game where you might reasonably expect to see something like 5-7 players call. Such games are rare, but you will run across them in small-stakes live games. Online or in higher stakes games, raising here is probably better than calling. But with an unsuited A♦️K♣️ here, I’d raise to thin the field.
But what happens after you’ve entered pre-flop and there’s the a raise or maybe even a re-raise? Here I think there are no hard and fast rules, but position is important. If the re-raise comes from the blinds and your call would close the action, a flat call might be a reasonable move, then evaluate after the flop and your opponent’s reaction to it. Is the re-raise coming from a young aggressive, player who seems to raise on any day that happens to end in a ‘y’? Go ahead and reraise. Is it coming from some old guy who hasn’t reraised since Jimmy Carter was President? Fold in a heartbeat, he has pocket Aces.
After the flop, everything changes. Your A♠️K♥️ that looked so good preflop now looks almost worthless with a Q♦️J♦️9♦️ board. Sure, maybe nobody flopped a flush and you have four outs to a T to hit Broadway on the turn, but one of those outs is tainted since one of Tens puts four to a flush on the board. If you’re facing multiple opponents, somebody likely has a diamond. And even if you luck out and hit one of the other Tens on the turn when nobody has already flipped a flush (how do you know this?), a fourth diamond is still a threat on the river. With that hand and that flop, you’d have to proceed cautiously and not build a big pot. But if your starting offsuit Big Slick had instead been A♦️K♥️, you’d be able to play with a little more confidence, having the nut flush draw. Sure, maybe somebody flopped a straight flush or has a draw to one. If that’s the case, you’re looking at losing a big pot. Meh, that’s poker.
An in-depth discussion of how to play Big Slick after the flop is well beyond the scope of this post. A whole book could be written about it, yet still only scratch the surface — poker is a very complex game with an infinite number of permutations. A lot depends on the number of opponents you’re facing, your position, and whether or not you’ve hit a pair to yield top pair, top kicker. If you’re heads up against one opponent who checks to you, a continuation bet is all but mandatory. If you’re out of position against several players, check-folding is often your best play.
Shuffle up and deal!