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Winning With Trouble Hands

Ditch your expectations

by Ed Miller |  Published: Apr 29, 2011


Here’s a question that I’m asked a lot: How should I play A-Q? Or, this: I always seem to lose with pocket jacks; what should I do differently? These second-tier starting hands, frequently dubbed trouble hands, seem to confuse many players. The trick to playing them is to realize that they aren’t fundamentally any different from any other starting hand.

Great Expectations

It’s funny, no one ever asks me how to play pocket fours. Yet, people ask me about pocket jacks, even though jacks are a much stronger hand than fours. Similarly, no one ever asks how to play 9-7 offsuit. Yet, people ask about A-Q offsuit, a much stronger hand. Why are the bad hands somehow easier to play than the good ones?
It’s all about expectations. When you look down at 9-7 offsuit, no fireworks go off in your head. But when you look at A-Q, you get a little buzz. That buzz is expectation — the expectation that this could be a hand with which you’ll make a little money.

In a no-limit hold’em cash game, however, you’re much better off looking at J-J, A-Q, and other trouble hands as if they were just another hand. No expectations. You could win the hand, or not. Your relatively strong starting hand is a ticket to raise preflop if it’s limped to you. But once the flop comes, you have just another hand — no different from 4-4 or 9-7. The flop is good for your hand or it’s not good for your hand. Based on their betting, the other players seem strong or they seem weak. Regardless of what you started with, these things are what matter now.

Here’s an example: Two players limp in a $2-$5 game, and you raise to $25 from the button with the A♠ Q♦. The big blind calls, as do the limpers. There’s $102 in the pot, and everyone has at least $700 left.

The flop comes Q♥ 10♥ 9♠. The big blind bets $80, and the first limper makes it $200 to go. The next player folds.

The trouble hand strikes again, right? You’ve got top pair, but you’re getting way more action than you want with top pair. Let’s say that instead of A-Q in this situation, you held 9-7. No trouble, right? You’d just fold. A-Q is the same; you fold. If you were to keep playing, you likely would have to fade a draw (and you don’t know yet whether it’s a straight draw, a flush draw, or a combo), and you also would have to pray that the other guy holds K-Q instead of Q-10, Q-9, K-J, and so forth.

Compared to the hand ranges that the flop bettor and the flop raiser are representing, A-Q doesn’t have enough equity to continue. In this situation, it’s the same as 9-7 — no trouble at all.

Getting Value

Jacks are better than fours. A-Q is better than 9-7. None of these hands have any value when they are likely way behind. But J-J and A-Q offer more opportunities than their weaker cousins to extract value while ahead.

The best opportunity for A-Q in a small-stakes live game is to flop an ace. Loose players notoriously love their ace-rag hands. When you have A-Q and flop an ace, you get to win back all of the money you lost (and more) the last time you had K-K and lost to A-3.

It’s a $2-$5 game. There are two limpers, and you raise to $25 from the button with the A♠ Q♦. The big blind calls, as do the limpers. It’s a $102 pot with $900 stacks this time.

The flop is A♣ 7♣ 4♦. Everyone checks to you. You bet $100. You bet a lot because you expect all of your opponents to call at least once with any ace. The big blind folds, the first limper calls, and the next player folds. You can expect the caller to have two pair, a set, an ace, a flush draw, or maybe 6-5. You are in a good situation, because you can beat many more hands than beat you.

The turn is the 2♥. Your opponent checks, and you bet $200. If your opponent check-raises all in, your A-Q is not trouble. Assuming that your opponent is a typical $2-$5 player, he can beat A-Q, and you can fold. If the stacks on the turn were just $300, you would get it in, because he could easily donk-shove with a hand like A-9 or A-10. But few live players are check-raising $600 more without being able to beat A-Q.

Let’s say that he calls the $200. Great. He still likely has a weaker ace, or possibly a draw. If he had a set or two pair, more often than not he would have check-raised the turn. The call means that you are still likely ahead.

The river can get ugly. The flush card can come and your opponent can shove — and you can fold. A seemingly innocuous card can come and your opponent can shove — and you can fold. Or, a jack can come, and as he checks, you can have a flash in your head that he has A-J. But most rivers won’t go like that. Most rivers will be a brick, and your opponent will have a little scowl on his face, showing his disappointment that he didn’t draw out in this large pot.

This is the value of A-Q. It’s just like any other hand, but sometimes you flop an ace and win half a buy-in from a schmo who plays any ace. That makes it better than 9-7. As long as you fold it when your opponents show a lot of strength (as you would 9-7), A-Q will be trouble for you no longer.

The Value of Jacks

Pocket jacks are just like any other hand — except they’re better. They can win small pots unimproved when overcards come. They can win medium pots on very low boards like 5-5-2-7 when someone with 9-9 or A-7 overvalues his hand. And they can win monster pots when they flop a set and beat someone with a higher pocket pair, two pair, or a lower set.

When you don’t flop a set with jacks, and you’re getting more action than you wanted, you don’t have a trouble hand. You have a fold, just like you would with pocket fours.

The Trouble is With Your Expectations

In a particularly loose $2-$5 game recently, someone flashed me his hand before he folded to a lot of flop action in a seven-handed pot. He had pocket queens. “Can’t win with it in a game like this,” he confided to me.

It’s true. It’s hard to win a pot against six other players. It’s hard to beat them with pocket queens. It’s even harder to beat them with nearly any other hand. Pocket queens are like any other hand — just better. Ditch your expectations. Get value from your good hands. Fold when things don’t go your way. If you do that, the trouble will mostly disappear. ♠

Ed’s latest book, Small Stakes No-Limit Hold’em, is available for purchase at Find him on Facebook at, and you also can check out his online poker advice column,