Playing JJ, QQ, and AK in Tournament Play

JJ, QQ, and AK are the only hands that players love to be
dealt but absolutely despise playing. This doesn’t pertain to
all players, but it isn’t uncommon to hear others bemoaning
their aptitude for the proper approach to making the most out of
these starting hands. The simple truth is that each of these
hands has a whole lot of value pre-flop, post-flop, and at
showdown. Yes, you are going to get out flopped with JJ and QQ
on frequent occasions, but you can’t discount the times where
you still have an overpair after the river (or any time that
your opponent misses the board). Really, the aim of this intro
is to drive home the fact that these hands are very good and
that it’s up to you to play them correctly.

Every tournament player knows that there are two moves with
these hands, and they are to either shove or raise. You won’t
hear the phrase “shove or raise” very often, but if you consider
it, these are some of the only hands where it will always make
sense. It’s possible that you find yourself in a spot where
folding is actually feasible, but these situations are far and
few between. You are pretty much going to need to be up against
a 4-bet from a tight player to really warrant a fold with any of
these hands.

The need to either raise or shove is both
interesting and scary to players. Shoving is easy, but it’s
nerve racking. Raising is less scary, but it requires more
strategy. So long as you aren’t mucking any of these hands or
limping in on repeated occasions, you shouldn’t be worried about
their value.

Limping vs. Raising

It doesn’t take much more than a novice to tell you that
raising is the go-to move with any of these hands. They are
strong, and they tend to end up winning at showdown. As obvious
as this strategy might be, there are still plenty of players who
feel the need to get fancy and start limping into pots with
jacks, queens, and ace king. It would be unfair to say that
there’s never a time where limping could be a strong move, but
more often than not you’ll only be overcomplicating things.
Think about the reasons why a player might limp with any of
these hands.

  • They want to limp, force a raise, and then re-raise. While
    this approach might seem sound in theory, it leaves a lot of
    questions unanswered. First, you must already have a plan in
    place for what you are going to do if you are raised again.
    Another raise at this point would be indicative of extreme
    strength from your opponent. If you aren’t in position to
    simply re-shove over, limping and facing a 5-bet is going to be
    challenging. An extra note to this play is that your hand is
    going to be all but face up. You should be playing as
    deceptively as possible, but limp re-raising screams strength
    more than just about anything else.
  • They want to limp, force a raise, and then call. The problem
    with this is that you are thinning out the value of the hand
    before the flop is even dealt. There’s a decent shot that your
    opponent has a hand that would pay you off further pre-flop, but
    it will be prone to slowing down post-flop. In these cases, you are
    losing out on a lot of money that you could have otherwise had.
    This move is even worse than the one listed above and is prone
    to some very messy situations.

Hopefully you now see why raising makes more sense than
limping. If you were looking for examples of times where
limping could be strong, it would be when play is short
handed and stacks are small relative to the blinds. In these
times, players will shove against limps. This means that you can
suck your opponents in without doing much work on your own. This
isn’t going to be a very common occurrence, however, and is
indigenous almost exclusively to play in or near the
final table.

Post-Flop Play

When you are post-flop with these hands, the flop is going to
be absolutely critical. As much should have been obvious to you,
though, and you are likely more interested in how you can best
react to any given board. Since looking at hands as a broad
example is impossible, the following is going to outline the
common flop situations and how they can be managed.

  • JJ, QQ on a low flop. Short of flopping a
    set (or better), this is about the best board that you could
    hope for. There’s next to no reason why you shouldn’t be value
    betting and calling shoves in this situation. If you are dealt
    jacks or queens, this is what you hope for.
  • JJ, QQ on board with ace and/or king. Here is where things
    get tricky. Of these four different examples, this is going to
    be the toughest to play. On one hand you could still be way
    ahead. On the other hand, you may be drawing to two outs or
    other backdoor draws. Because it’s impossible to define these
    two elements out of context, you’ll need to use the specific
    information available to you to make the best decision. If there’s one piece of advice that is certain, though, it’s that you
    shouldn’t be afraid to give up your hand. Never become attached
    to big pocket pairs because their value can easily be
  • AK on a low flop. This is the flop where you bricked, and it’s also going to be the most common flop with this hand. Your
    strategy at this point is going to depend largely on the
    pre-flop action. If you made the initial raise, leading out will
    make more sense than if you called a bet. Likewise, calling a
    flop bet from the pre-flop raiser will be easier if you are in
    position, etc. etc. Seeing another card here is seldom terrible
    and you do actually have a fair amount of showdown value left.
    As was the case with QQ on a board with an ace or a king, this
    hand is going to be tricky, but not impossible to play.
  • AK on a flop with an ace or a king. Odds are that you are
    now a pretty heavy favorite to win this hand. Unlike when you
    have queens against a low board, however, value betting each
    street isn’t always best. The ace and king are likely to scare
    off any and all players who missed the flop. A passive flop
    approach followed by a more aggressive turn and river strategy
    will usually end up being the best route to take. There’s no
    need to push players out now when the chances are that you are
    unlikely to stack a player regardless. A methodical approach on
    these flops will be rewarded much more so than one that is