The Slippery History of “Big Slick”

  • Martin HarrisMartin Harris
The Slippery History of “Big Slick” 0001

Many hold’em hands have nicknames, one of many vestiges of poker’s long, storied history. Of course, very few of these nicknames are actually used at the tables. Sure, aces are called “bullets” and kings “cowboys,” but when’s the last time someone actually referred to {9-}{5-} as the “Dolly Parton” (after her hit song and film, 9 to 5)?

Big Slick,” however, is a hold’em hand nickname that continues to be used frequently to describe {A-}{K-}, a premium starting hand in both fixed-limit and no-limit hold’em. Most who learn the game pick up on this usage quickly, and before long begin to refer to having been dealt “Big Slick” when recounting their own hands.

But from where did the nickname originate? After all, unlike the little-used “Dolly Parton” nickname, there’s nothing especially obvious about calling an ace and a king “Big Slick,” is there?

As usually happens with such investigations into poker terminology, there’s a lot of uncertainty. However, in this case there seems to be a somewhat plausible explanation.

As hold’em players well know, {A-}{K-} can be a tricky, sometimes frustrating hand to play. While it has great potential and matches up well against nearly every other starting hand, it is technically a drawing hand insofar as it usually needs to improve in order to rate best after the flop, especially when played against more than one opponent. Experienced players know how to play {A-}{K-} profitably, although it often requires a lot of trial and error to reach that point.

In his influential no-limit hold’em section in Super/System, Doyle Brunson famously claims "I’d rather have Ace-King than either a Pair of Aces or a Pair of Kings." While noting the obvious fact that {A-}{K-} doesn’t fare well versus either {A-}{A-} or {K-}{K-} head-to-head, his reasoning is that "(1) you’ll win more money when you make a hand with it; and (2) you’ll lose less money when you miss a hand with it."

In other words, because {A-}{K-} generally needs to improve and is not a "made hand" before the flop, it is easier to get away from should postflop action prove unattractive for the hand. Meanwhile it is harder to fold a big pair like aces or kings, and so when an opponent outdraws those hands the likelihood of losing a big pot increases.

As noted, though, playing “Big Slick” skillfully both before and after the flop takes practice, and many players slip up many times over when gaining such experience with {A-}{K-}. And in fact it is acknowledging this “slippery” quality of the hand that gets us closer to an explanation of the origin of that nickname — which appears, by the way, in the list of “Colorful Names of Various Hold’em Hands” included as an appendix in Brunson’s book (first published in 1979).

Brunson’s collaborator on Super/System, Mike Caro, cites Mike Wiesenberg’s 1996 title Poker Talk: The Language of Poker as a definitive resource on the matter, with Wiesenberg’s dictionary including both “Big Slick” and “Santa Barbara” as nicknames for {A-}{K-}.

In early 1969 the largest oil spill in U.S. history occurred in the Santa Barbara Channel. Thus (as Wiesenberg explains) do we find “the name arising from the more well-known name for the hand, big slick.” Similarly did {A-}{K-} briefly earn the nickname the “Exxon Valdez” for a period following the even larger oil spill in the Alaskan gulf two decades later.

Wiesenberg’s chronology has “Big Slick” in use before “Santa Barbara” to describe {A-}{K-}, with the combination of the “big” cards and the “slick” or slippery quality of the hand the most likely explanation for the term.

Some have quibbled over the years regarding whether suitedness matters when using “Big Slick” to refer to {A-}{K-}, or even if the term doesn’t apply unless an ace or king appears among the community cards. But common usage allows any combination of {A-}{K-} to be called “Big Slick,” with the hand connecting with the flop or not of no matter.

Like the hand, though, the history of the term is itself slippery.

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