Playing JJ, QQ and AK
JJ, QQ, and AK are three of the strongest starting hands in poker, but they are also three hands that people tend to bemoan being dealt. It's not so much that players don't realize that they are valuable, but instead because they don't know how to play them correctly. As illogical as it is to complain about being dealt a very strong hand, it's nothing more than a cover up for the fact that someone doesn't truly know what they are doing. The strategy for playing these hands is relatively straightforward, and it doesn't require genius knowledge of the game for success.
These hands have very volatile valuations. Where JJ could easily be the best hand before the flop, there's a great chance that it has been busted post-flop. This is mainly because of all of the over cards that have a great chance of falling somewhere throughout the hand. If you continue to play JJ with disregard for the obvious hands that now have you crushed, it's obvious that you are going to wind up in a lot of trouble. The same can be said for QQ, but AK is a different story.
Instead of players continuing on with a made pair that's beat, as is the case with JJ and QQ, AK is a hand where a lot of players just don't want to give it up even if they have not made so much as a pair. AK is even infamous in that opponents often times hope that you have held onto your AK high, with it being the only hand they can actually beat. Being suckered into holding onto AK no matter what is one of the easiest ways to lose big pots where you never had a truly great shot at winning.
The first thing that you need to realize with these three hands is that AK isn't the same as JJ and QQ. Jacks and Queens are made hands. They don't need to make a pair, straight, flush or better in order to have inherent showdown value. When you look at AK, however, the very opposite will hold true. Because of this, the strategy for playing AK will be very different than JJ and QQ.
With all of that said, AK has a similar pre-flop value to QQ, all things being considered equal. The true difference comes in how you play the hands, not in how much they are worth. Some players will ask "Would you rather have QQ or AK?" The obvious and correct answer is QQ, but it's not so much stronger that you should be devaluing AK. People tend to dislike playing AK because they don't know how to, not because it doesn't end up winning a lot of pots.
Playing JJ and QQ
For all intents and purposes, JJ and QQ are almost the same hands. The difference between these two hand's values will most frequently come into play when you are in a cooler type situation. When there's a low board after the river is dealt, you may be forced into deciding whether QQ can win a stack from your opponent's JJ. Likewise, your opponent may attempt to get you all in with QQ when they are hoping that you have JJ. Jacks and Queens will be in a lot of spots where they are either just a notch stronger or a notch weaker than the other hand at showdown.
Pre-flop play is where you'll either set yourself up for long term profits or losses. If you are calling off huge bets pre-flop, you shouldn't be all that surprised when you wind up losing a lot of money with these types of hands. If you are playing super passive and tight pre-flop, you shouldn't be surprised that you don't make very much from JJ and QQ. You need to be able to find the middle ground that both reduces risk and increases your chances of real profitability.
Early position with JJ and QQ calls for a raise, there's no doubt about it. Limp re-raising would be disastrous as would a limp that doesn't get raised. These aren't two hands that you should be looking to get excessively tricky with. Play them as straightforward as you possibly can. While this will be somewhat see-through to your opponents, it will also be in your best interest, and in the end that's all that really matters.
The tricky spots arise with JJ and QQ in early position when you are re-raised. One re-raise is almost always worthy of a call, barring a super big raise that makes it unprofitable to play. Two re-raises will put you on the borderline. If you call a 4-bet with QQ, you need to be prepared to get all in on the flop. If you call a 4-bet with JJ pre-flop, you are lighting money on fire. It's safe to say that JJ is usually not good, or at the very least will play terribly post-flop, if it's 4-bet out of position. There's a time for set mining and there is a time for folding, and calling 4-bets with JJ out of position isn't one of the times to set mine.
Mid and late position pre-flop with JJ and QQ allow for a few different options. When it's limped action to you, the only move is to raise. If there's a raise ahead of you though, you'll have the choice of either calling the raise or 3-betting. This is going to be up to you and is totally dependent on the situation. If the player who raised is loose, 3-betting makes sense. If the player who raised is tight, calling would be better. Flat calling should occur more often with JJ than it does with QQ simply because QQ is marginally stronger. 4-bets should be out of the question almost always, and a 3-bet ahead could even call for a fold. Make sure that you give yourself room to play comfortably post-flop when you are deciding what to do pre-flop.
Post-flop is tricky and simple at the very same time. You shouldn't be getting too deep into hands where you have anything less than an over pair to the board. There will be many spots where an ace or king fall, and this is the point at which you should generally give up. Beyond this, you also need to be able to lay down JJ or QQ even when it does still stand as an over pair to the board. Discipline in these spots is hard to achieve, but it's going to save you a lot of money in the long run. No matter what you do, don't fall into the trap of over valuing JJ and QQ, because it will drain your bankroll one big pot at a time.
AK is the hand that some players limp with, some go all in with, and other players raise with. It's strong and yet an unmade hand all at the same time. You need to be aggressive yet cautious with AK. Its value is only existent at showdown if you can connect with the board, so you should shy away from putting all of your eggs in a basket before anything really happens.
When in early position, AK should virtually always be a raise. There just isn't many spots where it would make sense to limp with AK. You'll be diluting the value of AK if you are limping into pots with it, as you need to be making money even when you are unable to improve. The aggression built into playing AK is largely what allows it to be profitable, not just the times where it hits the board.
In middle and late position you should still be making open raises, but you'll now be in positions where calling raises and/or 3-bets become possible. In the majority of games, AK is worthy of a 3-bet. On that same note, it's seldom going to be profitable to go all in pre-flop with AK. You have to be able to draw a line in the sand between value with AK and overvaluing AK, especially pre-flop.
Post-flop play with AK is easy, with the challenge of being able to extract the most value possible from your opponents. You are looking for one of a few things on the board, with the most common being an ace or a king. The real money hands will be flushes and straights, because these lead to much bigger pots. Plus, they're also more deceptive.
Giving up should be a post-flop play that's built into your strategy with AK. You can't hit a hand every time, and you need to be willing to cut your losses. There are many, many players who just can't let go of AK when it misses. They hope that they will either get there on the flop or the turn or that they might even be good with ace high. As annoying as it can be to 3-bet or call a 3-bet pre-flop only to give up on the flop, sometimes it's your only reasonable play. Try to extract value with deceptive moves when you are holding AK and land a pair, but don't value down yourself when you come up empty.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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