Poker Starting Hands: JJ

I think if you took a poll among the best NLH players in the world and asked them what the most difficult starting hand to play was, you would find pocket jacks at the top of the list. The hand is not just difficult to play before the flop; it’s actually very tough to play after the flop as well. There are three hands that have it pretty well crushed before the flop: AA, KK, and QQ. There are three others that essentially have you in a coin flip or race situation: AK, AQ, and KQ. That’s a lot of hands to be afraid of. And if that’s not bad enough, any player with an ace, king, or queen in his starting hand still has a pretty significant chance of drawing out, something like 30% with even an abysmal Q2o.

These considerations all make playing JJ before the flop a bit tricky, but the water gets really murky after the flop. The biggest single problem with JJ is that the flop will produce at least one over card about half of the time. The problem is actually compounded when you take into consideration the sort of action that is likely before the flop. Because you raise before the flop with JJ (and you do, right?) any over card that hits on the flop will be a scare card. To put it in simple terms, jacks are a hand that must be played cautiously before and after the flop.

I think I’ve seen more players eliminated from tournaments and busted at the cash tables holding JJ than any other hand. Beginners and even some, otherwise, strong players have a tendency to over value the hand. Your main concern when holding JJ is the possibility that a player has a bigger pair. When your opponent starts with a pair of aces, kings, or queens, you are about a 4 to 1 dog in the hand. When your opponent has a larger pair than your jacks, you are drawing pretty slim to win the pot. Your biggest fear though, when you run your JJ into a larger pair, is that the flop will come off with all small cards. When you have an over pair to the board and you are up against a larger over pair, it is very difficult to escape “skin intact”. When the flop brings high cards you will have to play even more cautiously. If this is starting to sound like a catch 22, you’re probably starting to understand why pocket jacks are such a difficult hand to play. Making big gains with pocket jacks will require you to have an excellent read on the other player(s) you are up against. Understanding your opponent(s’) style, physical tells, and betting patterns is critical when playing JJ.

Now that I’ve presented the starting hand in such a bleak manner, let’s just remember that when we do “wake up” with a couple of jacks, we surely wouldn’t throw them back. Most experts rate pocket jacks as a tier two (or category B) starting hand. The hand is better than a 3 to 1 favorite against a random hand. Pocket jacks should net you a good profit per hand in the long run, as long as you learn to play them properly. The reason JJ costs so many players so much money is not due to a lack of power in the hand. Statistically it’s a great hand. The problem is that the hand is largely overrated and just misplayed in general.

There is no real reason, mathematically, that pocket jacks should have huge negative implied odds attached to them. The truth is, however, that most players tend to win small pots and lose large pots with JJ. Pocket jacks are not the pre-flop nuts and should not be played as though they are. I think that’s were so many players get themselves into so much trouble playing jacks, they seem to play them like they are aces, and they are not. Players tend to limp when they should open, call when they should re-raise, raise when they should call, and call when they should fold. I’m going to share some pretty simple guidelines for playing pocket jacks in tournaments and in cash games. I think the first concept I want to drive into your mind is this; during a cash game or in the early stages of a tournament try to avoid playing large pots with pocket jacks unless you make a set.

One thing that I’ve noticed, as strange as it may sound, is that I see the same players who play the hand too hard also turning around in the next orbit and play them too soft. Pocket Jacks tend to play best in either multi-player pots, when four or more players see the flop, or heads up against one other player. Pocket pairs always have the potential to flop sets and, generally speaking, if you can flop a set you can bust someone. That “set flopping potential” is what makes them play good in pots with four or more players. The hand also plays well against one opponent because most flops miss most hands. So as long as you only have one player in against you, it’s often possible to win the hand against one player simply by betting on the flop.

I’m going to explain the strategy I generally use when playing JJ before the flop. Keep in mind that there are a number of variables that could change the way I’d play any hand. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that we are playing a cash game, $1-$2 NLH at a table of eight, and every player has $200. This situation would be almost identical to playing the first blind round of a NLH tournament. With regard to my pre-flop strategy with Jacks, we’ll also assume that we have no knowledge of the playing styles of anyone involved – that means we’ll assume they know what they’re doing until we learn otherwise.

Pocket Jacks in Early Position

When you are in early position, first or second to act after the blinds I think you should open the pot for 3 times the big blind. Without any knowledge about the other players, you will have to decide whether to play against a re-raise based on the position the re-raise came from and the amount of the raise. If you raise from first position and the player to act directly after you (still an early position player) puts in a substantial re-raise, I think you should concede the hand. You raised from under the gun, and he re-raised with all those players yet to act. I think the best case scenario is that he has AK and you are flipping a coin. It’s actually just as likely that you’re up against a huge pair of aces, kings, or queens. When being even-money to win a hand is the best case scenario, you can pass. If you encounter this situation and the player who made the re-raise is known to be very aggressive, you can come back over the top of him, but folding should be your default option.

If you raise in early position and are re-raised by a player in late position, you can call him down a long as no other player has called the re-raise. I still favor coming over the top of the re-raise if making a re-raise would not commit too much of your stack to the hand. If you don’t have enough chips to get away from it if you raise and are moved-in on, I think you should just call and see what happens on the flop. I like to play mostly raise or fold poker pre-flop with jacks, especially when playing out of position. Jacks are difficult to play after the flop you need to find out where you are in the hand, and you don’t learn very much by calling.

The key to playing jacks before the flop is to be the one betting and not the one calling. Your raises and re-raises serve to protect your hand against speculative hands like suited aces and KQ. They also help you to gain much need information that will help you to make better decisions after the flop. You want to put enough pressure on to get rid of KQ and AQ, because those hands are only very small dogs to you. Your raises and re-raises will also give you the best chance of uncovering bigger pairs before the flop so you can avoid losing your entire stack.

Pocket Jacks in Middle Position

When you hold JJ in middle position, you should open for 3 times the big blind if no one else has entered the pot. As a pretty general rule of thumb, you should add one big blind to your raise for every player who has tried to limp in before you. If someone has opened the pot in front of you, you should re-raise with JJ. If you get called you’ll have to play a flop, if someone puts in the third raise, you’re done with the hand.

Pocket Jacks in Late Position

In late position I like to play jacks a bit differently. If no one has opened the pot I will still make my standard raise (3 bb’s + 1 per limper). But now, if someone has opened the pot in front of me, I’m more willing to just call it down. That’s because having to act last in all betting rounds is a huge advantage. This is especially true when playing a tricky hand like jacks. If my opponent opened with an inferior hand like 99 I don’t want to blow him out, not when I have position on him, I also don’t mind flopping against AK or AQ when I am in position. The main problem that comes from playing jacks is that it is often hard to know where you are at in the hand. A lot of that problem is compensated for when you have position on the other player or players in the hand.

Pocket Jacks After the Flop

There is no magic formula that I know of that will help you to play jacks after the flop, but I can give you some tips. The strongest thing about pocket jacks is that they rate to be the best hand before the flop, and are still very likely to be the best hand after the flop against one opponent. Hands like AK and KQ are only 50% to beat you if they get to see all five cards. The weakness of JJ is that you are often unclear about where you are in the hand. Both of these are reasons to raise and re-raise on the flop. You should play the hand very aggressively on the flop as long as one or no over cards are produced. Raising and re-raising will help you to establish whether or not you’re beat, and it will charge your opponents for the privilege of drawing against your made hand if they have not yet improved.

Hopefully you can isolate down to one opponent before the flop. As long as that’s true I think you should proceed as though you have the best hand as long as one or no over cards hit the board. For instance, suppose you raised before the flop and were called by only one player. The flop comes A34 rainbow. You have to act first; I think you should lead out. Bet about 1/3 the pot. That’s the bet size I use for probe or informational bets, and it’s also the bet size I use when I have a huge hand and want to extract maximum value. If you are re-raised you can lay it down. If your bet is called I think you can try to check the hand down from that point. If no over cards hit on the turn or river and your opponent checked the turn, go ahead and value bet your hand, again about 1/3.

When you’re playing against a single opponent and you have position on them, the hand is much easier to play. Let’s suppose your opponent raised from early position and you just called from the button. The flop comes A26 rainbow. If your opponent bets at the flop, I think you should go ahead and raise him. If he calls, you will put no more money into the pot unless you happen to improve your hand. If he checks the flop to you, you should bet. If the flop has more than one card higher than your Jacks, you should just generally be ready to check it down or concede the hand. These are just rules of thumb. I would play the hand differently from one opponent to the next based on what I know about that player and any physical tells I may have picked up on. The key to playing JJ after the flop is understanding your opponent(s). Until next time, Good “Luck!”