Playing High Marginal Hands Part 1


No matter what your skill level, high marginal hands like A-J, K-Q, K-J, Q-J and Q-T consistently cost poker players more money than any other grouping of hands.

The question is not whether or not to play these hands; the question is how to play them profitably.

In this two-part series, we'll look at the first part of this equation: knowing the numbers and knowing how much equity these hands really hold.

The premium hands make you the most money; the rags win/lose you the least. Even if you don't have a database full of stats to run reports from, just take a second to think:

  • How much of your profits/losses do you feel come from AA and KK?
  • How much of your profits/losses do you feel come from 2-3 or 8-3?
  • How much of your profits/losses do you feel come from K-Q and A-J?

Unless you have a skewed view of your own game, or you're playing an extreme, radical style, your thoughts will be the same as every serious online grinder's results. Most of your profit in a hand vs. hand comparison is almost always from AA, with KK usually being No. 2.

The smallest part of your losses/wins comes from hands such as 8-3; if you don't play them, you can't have wins or losses attributed to them.

Jason Mercier
The question is not whether or not to play these hands; the question is how to play them profitably.

The hands A-J, K-Q, K-J, Q-J and Q-T are going to be all over the board. Most players will see a split; some will have large losses with one or two of these hands, while the other two are break-even to large winnings.

Marginal hands are called marginal because they typically end at around even. If you're a winning player, your wins and losses with them should be positive, but only by a marginal amount.

The five hands mentioned at the outset of this article are the very high end of the full marginal range. As such, they should be the most profitable.

Unfortunately, they actually carry the most room for error and serious loss.

As I like to do when defining any specific hand, or in this case multiple hands, I'll run the numbers to get a solid understanding of each hand's inherent equity. A hand's true statistical value is always the foundation on which to build any strategy.

Running the Numbers

This first chart puts the specific hands up against a full table of random hands. Each scenario has been run for over 1 million hands. This is theoretical equity, meaning it doesn't take into account any sort of betting, or other "human behaviors." Every hand is a lotto hand run to the river; the result is the percentage of times the specific hand wins that lottery.

Hand 9-Handed Equity 6-Handed Equity
A J 20% 28%
K Q 20% 28%
K J 19% 27%
Q J 19% 26%
Q T 18% 25%

*I chose all suited hands for this chart - if you run the same hands unsuited, you're looking at a 3-4% drop in equity for both table examples.

One of the first things you should notice is how high the numbers are here. For the range of hands, the average equity on a nine-handed table is 19%. We'll say 20% just to make things simple. You're a 4-1 dog losing the pot but you're getting 8-1 on your money. Based on straight pot odds, these should all be profitable hands.

In the real world you don't get to play against random hands on every deal. Here's a chart taking K Q, showing how it's affected when various strong hands are one of the other five hands used to run an evaluation. Every situation has K Q versus four random hands and the one specific hand:

Specific Hand 6-Handed Equity Change from All Random
A Q 19% -9%
K K 12% -16%
Q Q 21% -7%
J T 25% -3%
T T 26% -2%

Bill Gazes
The look of a feel player calculating exact odds.

As you can see, when one stronger hand is put into play with four other random hands, the values go down, but other than up against KK, they don't really go down all that much. This is one of the reasons this range of hands can be deceiving, leading a player to falsely believe they're premium hands.

Barring KK, you have pot odds in all of these scenarios, getting 5-1 on your money with 20%, putting you at break-even money. Anything above 20% is making you money, according to the concept of pot odds.

Now let's be more realistic and say that instead of going six-handed to a flop, you're going to go to the flop heads-up, your K Q against the previous range one at a time:

Versus Hand Heads-Up Equity
A Q 29%
K K 14%
Q Q 35%
J 10 66%
T T 46%

At first glance it seems like the percentage to win goes up, and that would be a good thing.

Unfortunately you're paying 50% of the money, and only getting better than 50% equity against J T. In a real game of poker (opposed to our hypothetical random hand games), you'll be playing the vast majority of the hands you play heads-up, or in three- or four-way pots.

These high-marginal hands don't hold enough equity to stand up in contested pots against other legitimate holdings.

Don't get me wrong; this doesn't translate into these hands being worthless. It just means you have to play them with due diligence. In part two of this series I'll go over some examples of good and bad flops for these hands.

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