A Good Opening Hand: AQ

Ace Queen off suit (AQ) is, in my opinion, the most overvalued hand in No Limit Hold’em poker.

While AQ is a very powerful starting hand, I believe players typically have a hard time releasing it when they should. Many players simply refuse to fold AQ before the flop; some players will even call bets and raises after the flop with AQ trying to chase down their over cards.

I’d like to mathematically examine the hand and then address some of the situations that occur while playing this poker hand.

AQ is a very strong poker hand. It is a huge favorite against a random hand, and it also has most AX combinations dominated. For those two reasons, it almost always warrants a raise before the flop. The problem, however, is that it does not play well against most hands that will call your raises. That is, of course, assuming that your opponents are reasonable poker players. This is a hand that becomes very profitable against the right field of players, and that loses a lot of its value against seasoned players.

When you pull up a virtual chair at a virtual casino, you will see players playing virtually every ace they are dealt. In a “loose- passive” environment, whether it’s in “cyberspace” or at your neighbor’s house, AQ can earn you a ton of chips. When you play against savvy players, however, it can be pretty tricky to get chips into the center of the table with AQ and keep them. The problem is, of course, that savvy players understand the gap concept (that it takes a better hand to call a raise than to make a raise). They are unlikely to call a raise before the flop with a hand that AQ has dominated. In small stakes, with poor players, you will find players who are willing to call a raise before the flop with any ace, and many of them will commit their entire stacks to the pot if an ace flops. Usually when you get all of the money in with your opponent drawing to three live cards in the deck, it’s a beautiful thing. About 13% of the time, though, they hit their kicker and make you want to swear off poker forever. That’s just the game we love, doing what it does. Let’s look at some numbers…

Chance of AQ Winning vs. Various Hands

AQ vs. a random hand: 65% in favor of AQ (AQ is more than a 3 to 2 favorite)
AQ vs. 87s: 60%, 3 to 2
AQ vs. KTs: 60%, 3 to 2
AQ vs. TT: 45%, just under 1 to 1
AQ vs. 22: 48%, very nearly a coin flip 1 to 1
AQ vs. KK: 28%, worse than 2 to 1 against
AQ vs. AK: 23%, dominated, almost as bad as 4 to 1
AQ vs. AA: 7.3%, almost dead, about 13 to 1

Hopefully, after examining the numbers above, it has become pretty clear that you don’t want to run AQ into a really big hand. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen a player risk all of his chips after a raise and a re-raise on a hand that is so vulnerable. This is usually a mistake.

When the blinds are relatively small compared to the stack sizes, AQ is a great opening hand, but when you compare it to the types of hands that are likely to re-raise before the flop, you can see that it’s usually not profitable to call a raise and a re-raise with AQ. Let me illustrate with some examples.
Ace-Queen Example Hands

Suppose you are playing a $1-$2 No Limit Holdem cash game and you hold AQ in first position. Many players would limp in Under-the-Gun (UTG) with AQ, hoping to take a cheap look at a flop. And some would raise to try to find out where they stand in the hand. Let’s just say you decide to open for 3X the big blind (not an unreasonable play). Now, everyone folds to the player in the cut-off seat, he re-raises, and the dealer button calls. What’s your play?

Well, assuming the players are both fairly sane, I think this is a clear fold. When the player in the cut-off seat sees you open from early position, he has to suspect you have a very strong hand. (Most players only play very good poker hands from up front.) Despite this knowledge, he decided to re-raise you. He’s representing a hand that is stronger than yours when he makes this play, maybe QQ, AA, KK, or AKs. Now the dealer, having seen your early position open and a re-raise, decides to play as well. To me, that smells like a very strong hand. I would be very surprised if a good player on the button would make that sort of move without K’s or A’s. With action like that there is almost no chance your AQ is the best hand. Calling here is the sort of play I see a lot of amateurs make; this call will cost you money in the long run. What if you do call? Even if you do hit your dream flop, say Q 2 6 rainbow, you’ll still have to worry that one of your opponents has an over pair.

Now, let’s suppose you are on the dealer button with AQ. Everyone folds around to the player in the cut-off position, who makes it 4bb’s to go. Now what? Well, I think you should re-raise him. Don’t raise enough of your chips to leave you stuck to the hand. You will want to fold if either of the blinds or the original raiser comes over the top of you.

If you’ve read my article on AK, you may see that I play the hands similarly. The biggest problem with AQ that AK doesn’t have to worry about is, well, AK. When you play AQ, I feel like you should raise and re-raise in most cases, but be sure not to get over invested before the flop. AQ is certainly a good opening hand, but it really just can’t take as much pressure as players seem to think it can. I’ll usually open with it from any position, and I’ll re-raise with it only if two conditions are met. I want to have position on the raiser in case he does call, and the raiser has to be in middle to late position.

I don’t like to re-raise against early position raises with any but the very best hands, QQ or better. That’s for two reasons. Number one, I don’t mind smooth calling when I have position on my opponent, because acting after him after the flop is a huge advantage. The second reason is simply that most reasonable players only open with very strong hands early, and I don’t want to take the chance of letting my opponent put me to the test for all of my chips before the flop when I have AQ.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that AQ is not a strong hand. It is. I just want to engrave in your mind the idea that AQ is at the very bottom of the list of “premium hands”. Therefore if you represent a premium hand by, say, opening in early position, if you get raised there is a very good chance your hand is beat. Players don’t generally have a problem making money with AQ when it is the best hand. Hopefully this article will help you to avoid losing a great deal when it is not the best hand. Until next time, Good “luck!”