During this year's World Series of Poker, I talked with a number of pros about the problems that so many online qualifiers had playing Big Slick during the early blind levels. It seemed to us that a huge percentage of the field - we estimated as much as 70 percent - was more than willing to go broke with this hand if they hit a pair on the flop.
But many pros, myself included, feel that Ace-King is a very difficult hand to play in the early levels of big buy-in tournaments, when the stacks are deep compared to the blinds. The fact of the matter is, top-pair/top-kicker is probably no good if another player is willing to risk all of his chips. This isn't always the case - you may find an extremely weak player willing to go broke on K-Q, but that's the rare exception.
The real problem with A-K early on is that it's very difficult to get an idea of where you're at in a hand. Even on an innocuous looking flop of something like K-9-2, you may think your hand is good. But you can't be sure.
Say that you raise pre-flop with A-K and a late-position player calls. The two of you see a K-9-2 flop. You bet strong on the flop and then again on the turn. He calls on both streets. What now? Do you bet the river and pray that you're not raised? Or do you check and hope that your opponent does the same? It's a difficult spot and there are no great options.
Playing the same hand in position is a little easier, but it's still tough.
While the blinds are low in a big buy-in tournament, I'm actually looking to see flops against the players who overplay top-pair/top-kicker. When I'm in position, I'm happy to call a raise with something like a small pocket pair, 5-6 suited, or even 8-T suited. I'm looking to flop a big hand or a big draw.
If I flop a set, I have a good chance of wiping out the guy with top pair. If I flop a draw, I have a chance to see if my opponent will give me a good price to hit my hand. The beauty of a suited hand like 5-6 or 8-T is that there's no way I'm going to get in serious trouble playing them. If I flop anything less than two-pair or a quality draw, I'll fold, having lost very little.
I think there are two major reasons many players over value Ace-King. First is that in online tournaments, where the stacks start relatively low, Ace-King is usually worth playing aggressively. Players who win online satellites do so by playing Ace-King fast, so they come to big tournaments feeling good about this starting hand. The second reason is that many people have seen TV commentators crow about Big Slick, calling it a "huge hand." At a six-handed final table, Ace-King is a very big hand, but as Howard Lederer pointed out in his tip Viewer Beware, you need to realize that short-handed final-table strategy differs greatly from early tournament play.
When you're playing in deep-stack games, learn to play A-K cautiously. The pros don't like to go broke with this hand and you'd do well to follow their example.
For more on playing Ace-King, read Rafe Furst's tip Big Slick: A Slippery Hand.