There are many decisions to make at the poker table, none more important than whether or not to play your starting cards. A number of factors have to be considered in deciding what to do with your starting cards before the flop. As much as new players don’t want to hear this, the right answer is usually to throw them into the muck. Most experts agree that the way to play No Limit Holdem is to play tight and aggressive. That is to say, only play the best starting hands, and play them like you mean it.
But what is a good starting hand? That’s what we’re going to look into in this series of articles. We’ll be breaking down some of the starting poker hands that you’ll want to play in NLH and try to see what makes them tick. I think it’s only proper to start our analysis series with the coveted “Big Slick”.
Ace king, better known as “Big Slick”, is considered a tier one starting hand by all of the top poker theorists. In this article we’ll talk about its strengths and its weaknesses. We’ll discuss factors such as its win percentages against other starting hands, we’ll talk about its post-flop playability, and I’ll even give you some tips on how to play it before the flop.
Over the past few years I have attempted to break down the game of no limit hold’em to its mathematical and fundamental roots. Most recently, I’ve turned my attention to uncovering the truth behind tournament poker. In order to be truly successful at any game you have to strip it down to its nuts and bolts. You have to peel the paint away from the kings and queens and understand the cards functionally. In order to be great at any form of poker, you have to develop a complete understanding of the game, so that you can exploit your opponents’ lack of understanding. One of the most fascinating realizations I’ve had about NLH is that there is not an absolute and objective “linear hierarchy” of starting hands. I’m going to use an example to illustrate this point. KQ is a favorite against 98s, and 22 is a favorite against KQ. It would seem from this example that 22 must be the best hand of the three. In truth, however, 98s is a favorite against 22. So, in that illustration we find that hand one is a favorite over hand two which is a favorite over hand three which is a favorite against hand one. For that reason, among many others, it is impossible to list all of the starting hands in terms of absolute value from best to worst.
Another interesting phenomenon that I’d like to share with you deals with tournament play. The value of any given starting hand is altered by the size of the blinds related to the size of the stacks in play. For instance, poker hands such as 98s are playable in the early stages of a tournament or in a cash game due to their potential implied odds and their easy post-flop playability. Some of these “speculative hands” lose their power as the blinds increase. Other starting card combinations like KT do not play particularly well in the early stages of a tournament because of “negative implied odds” but they morph into playable hands in the late stages of tournament play. Perhaps one of the most interesting things about AK is that its value remains strong throughout every stage of a tournament. It’s a hand that can be played from any position at a table with any number of players under any blind structure.
To understand why AK plays so well in the early rounds of a tournament or in a cash game we should look at its post-flop playability. Assuming you’ve raised before the flop and are called by only one or two players, you will usually be able to access where you are at after the flop with reasonable clarity. That is a very important consideration. One of the keys to playing good NLH is to keep yourself from having to make difficult decisions. When the flop comes off with an ace or a king, you have made the best pair with the best possible kicker. It is unlikely that you are behind in the hand, and you will likely proceed as though you have the best hand unless you are given a good reason to believe otherwise. What’s even better is that any player who may have called your raise with an ace or a king in their hand and has also made top pair with a worse kicker is probably going to lose a lot of chips to you. One of the biggest factors in examining the strength of a starting hand under low blind situations is the potential “implied odds” a hand offers. “Implied odds” refers to the money that you will probably make in future betting rounds if you hit your hand just right. Most big pots are won or lost when both players believe they have the best hand. When you play AK you will frequently find yourself on the good side of this situation. When you raise with AK and a player calls with AQ, if the ace flops, you will be in position to potentially bust your opponent. If you miss the flop it’s pretty easy for you to get away from your hand without additional risk.
When the blinds start to increase, post-flop playability and implied odds considerations become much less of a factor in starting hand evaluation. The main factor relevant to starting hand requirements under inflated blind conditions is the hands’ ability to win in a showdown. Most players have a tenancy to play their ace high starting hands, and AK is between a 3 to 1 and a 4 to 1 favorite against any other AX combination. It’s also a clear favorite against a random hand, although maybe not be as clear a favorite as you think. While AK is about 76% to beat most AX or KX combinations it is only roughly a 3 to 2 favorite against two random cards. As a matter of fact any pocket pair, even a small pocket pair, such as 22 is a small favorite against the infamous “Big Slick.” It is also noteworthy that there are only two hands that are actually substantial favorites against AK, and they are of course, AA and KK. The combination of being vulnerable to suck-out by random hands and of being a strong favorite against many hands that would likely call a raise, makes slow playing AK before the flop a very risky proposition.
I believe AK is one of the most misplayed hands in NLH. I think that AK must be played very aggressively under all conditions. If you are the first player to enter a pot with AK you should almost always raise; when someone has opened with a raise in front of you, I think you should re-raise; and after a string of calls and or raises, you should almost never smooth-call. In fact, if the size of the pot is large enough in relation to your stack, just go ahead and put it all in the middle. I generally like to make pot-sized re-raises; if making the standard raise would commit a significant portion of your stack, you might as well just move-in. When you take into consideration the fact that there are only two hands that are strongly favored to beat you, the fact that random hands actually pose a pretty serious threat, and the fold equity that comes from being the first player to move-in, you can start to understand why you’ve seen so many players on T.V. “pull the trigger for all their chips” with what is essentially a drawing hand. The other reason it is often advisable to “risk the all-in” with Big Slick is that you are about a “coin flip” to pair one of your two hole cards by fifth street only when you get to see all five cards. The surest way to see all five board cards is to bet it all. Playing the hand this way gives you the best chance of winning the pot uncontested, and it keeps you from having to make difficult decisions after the flop.
You should be starting to get a feel for the way I think you should play Big Slick. Just raise or re-raise from any position. The only time you might consider limping in with AK is when you are playing at an aggressive table and you are first to act. You might try to limp in early with AK and look for a re- raise. I use this tactic sparingly and only against the right type of players (solid and aggressive). When any experienced player sees you limp in early and then re-raise him, he’s going to be suspicious. It’s actually a pretty standard play with pocket aces. By limp-raising against a savvy player you will very possibly get him to throw away hands like 99 or even JJ – hands that you didn’t want to play against anyway. By throwing in the occasional “limp-raise” you add deception to your game. The reason you want to push so hard with AK is that the hand is actually more of a favorite against medium-strong and strong hands than it is against weak hands. It may seem almost paradoxical, but you really want to play AK against reasonable hands, like AQ and KQs, and you would usually just prefer to chase out speculative hands like 98s and pocket 2’s.
The other insight I would like for you to take away from this analysis is that AK is a tier 1 starting hand under all conceivable blind structures. It has a lot of implied odd potential, it is a solid favorite against most hands, and it has easy post flop- playability. Until next time, Good “luck!”