Playing Trap Hands: KJ

As a math-minded, logic-based player, I have learned to separate my emotions from the game so effectively that I play in an almost zombie like state. Well, that could be because I am, in fact, a zombie.

Either way, I think that emotional control is a key element of a No Limit Holdem player’s game. You have to move yourself into a zone of complete surrender to the “now”. As poker players, we are not afforded the luxury of attachment. We must hold onto every mistake we make only as long as we are learning from it, and then throw it away and move on.

No matter what sort of fantasies we entertain in our “real lives” about magic crystals, lucky numbers, and favorite hands; we cannot allow such superstitions to sway our judgment at the table. You cannot recall the times you’ve suffered bad beats and allow them to change the way you play pocket queens, for example. You can’t believe that your “favorite poker hand” is 22, because you “always win” when you’re dealt pocket twos.

Trap Hands in Poker

I’d like to start by explaining to you what a “trap hand” is. I’ve never seen a written definition for the term “trap hand”, but I am convinced that, if it were in Webster’s dictionary, it would have a picture of a king next to a picture of a jack. A trap hand is a poker hand that has the potential to lose you a very large pot (usually due to negative implied odds) and has very little chance of winning a large pot. If you are not familiar with the term “trap hand” you should have a pretty good idea of what it means by the time you are done reading my rant on KJ.

Trap hands like KJ and AT have a tendency to win small pots and lose big ones. If you raise before the flop with KJ and are called, it is entirely possible that your hand is dominated. Suppose you raise from middle position with KJ and are called down by one player. When the flop comes out K 2 9 (rainbow), you caught top pair with a jack kicker. Now you have to act first. What are going to do? Well, you’re sort of obligated to make a bet now that you’ve flopped top pair.

So when you bet, there are only a few things that could really happen. Well, your opponent could not have a king and be pretty much forced to fold, or he could have a king and call, or he could re-raise with or without the king. Let’s examine these situations. Let’s start with the re-raise. You just bet right out at a king high flop, and now you are being raised. I would fold against most players. Most players wouldn’t dare to re-raise you in that spot without a king. If your opponent doesn’t have a king, he’ll probably just fold the hand. That being the case, where is the value in your hand? If you raised before the flop with 72o and the same flop appeared, you could bet again with the same result; your opponent will fold if he doesn’t have the king.

So, if your opponent does call the bet, pretty much indicating that he has the king, what chance is there that you are ahead in the hand? I’d say it’s pretty unlikely. Not too many players will call a pre-flop raise with KT or worse. So, when your opponent folds you win the pot, and when he calls you lose the pot. How much difference would it really make to replace the KJ with 72? You see, big pots are usually formed when both players have good poker hands. The problem with KJ is that it is all too often the second best hand.

In the very long run, every poker player will be dealt the same number of good and bad starting hands, hit and miss the same number of flops, river gut shot straights, etc. What separates a winning player from a losing player is the ability to lose less when he loses and win more when he wins. Trap hands like KJ are the bane of that entire process. Winning No Limit Hold’em players derive a lot of their income by starting with better hands than their opponents and charging them an unfair price to try to catch up.

Good poker players raise more than they call and fold more than they raise. When you make a raise before the flop, you are hoping that a player with a worse hand will, erroneously, call the raise and that these combined errors will eventually become your profit. One problem with KJ is that any reasonable player who calls the raise is unlikely to have a worse hand. If you raise before the flop when your opponent has a bigger hand than you, you have made a mistake. You should think of your mistakes as tiny little chip leaking holes in your game.

I have a few good friends with whom I talk poker strategy on a regular basis, and KJ is one of the hands we discuss most frequently. One of my friends has stopped raising with KJ, and started limping in with it whenever possible. Another one of my friends claims to have stopped playing KJ entirely (in normal blind conditions of course). I don’t agree with either answer, personally. The problem with limping in with KJ is that you let speculative hands like 87s get in for a fair price and potentially out flop you. The problem I have with not playing the hand at all is that it truly is (mathematically) a much better than average strength starting hand. That means that it has value, and there must be profit there that can be extracted. If you were to stop playing the hand altogether, you would be cheating yourself out of profit. That is your job as a poker player – to look for value and find ways to extract profit from it. What’s the answer then? Well I’m going to give you my take on playing the hand.
Strategies for Playing King-Jack

I think you should virtually never play KJ from early position assuming normal blind sizes and an average number of people at the table. If you are at a $1-$2 No Limit Holdem ring game (a cash game with 9 or 10 players) and all of you have between $75 and $300, you should just throw away the hand every time you see it in early position.

I might open with the hand in middle position if the circumstances are just right, and I mean perfect. If I were playing against a group of solid players and I had a very tight table image, I might just take a stab at the blinds from middle position. If I had any reason at all to believe the players after me had hands, I wouldn’t even think about it. I think you should generally just not play KJ from early or middle position.

Now, if no one has entered the pot at all, and you are in the cut-off or dealer position, I feel that you should open with KJ. If you have a suited KJ (KJs), you might limp in from middle or late position and try to see a cheap flop. When you take that approach you are looking to make a straight or a flush and, hopefully, bust someone.

So, generally speaking, I think you should throw KJ away in early position. From middle position you can limp in if they are suited and the table is loose and passive, and you can even consider opening with a raise (I suggest about 4XBB) if you are at a tight table and you have a tight table image. From late position you should open with a raise but be ready to proceed with caution if you get played with. From late position you can also just consider calling after a string of limpers, hoping to flop a monster or a draw to a monster. I think that play should usually only be made if your KJ is suited.

The thing I would most like you to take away from this analysis of KJ is a deep-seeded hatred for the hand, or at least the understanding that it can be a very dangerous hand to play. You must exercise caution and discipline whenever you get involved with it. If you are a player who has a very difficult time getting away from top pair, it’s probably best if you just don’t play the hand at all. Until next time, Good “luck!”