Pocket Jacks Part 1: Pre-Flop Play

James Honeybone
A pair of jacks ... get it?

The one hand that gives beginners more trouble than ace-king or even ace-queen has to be pocket jacks.

JJ is such a trouble hand that most beginners actually even hate having it dealt to them.

All of these players get a twinge of excitement when they see the pair of jacks they've been dealt, knowing they're holding a top 5 hand.

The euphoria is typically short-lived though, once they remember their less-than-stellar track record with it.

Faulty Pre-Flop Play

A lot of times beginners will over-raise JJ pre-flop, raising 20BB or more. The idea: win the pot without having to see a flop (no flop = no choices to make and no chance to lose money), or get called and assume the other player has a higher pair.

Occasionally beginners open-push the hand, unwilling to make any decisions. This is obviously a flawed approach - although the logic used to make the move seems solid.

They almost never lose the pot when they make this move, making their win-loss ratio for the hand staggeringly high. And while this logic is absolutely sound, unfortunately it fails to take into account some fundamental poker concepts.

Every time they do win this way, they rarely win more than just the blinds (occasionally they'll pick up some limped money as well). When they lose however, they lose their stack.

If you buy in for 100BB (standard to most cash games), and you win the blinds eight times (8 x 1.5 = 12BB) for every one loss (-100BB), you end up losing 9.8BB ((12 - 100)/9 = -9.8BB) every time you make this move.

Dan Harrington
Dan Harrington talks alot about middle hands in his books.

(Where did the 8-1 ratio come from? You have a 1-220 chance of being dealt any specific pocket pair. Your chances of being dealt aces, queens or kings are three times as great: 3-220. There are nine other players on the table on a full 10-player ring game, giving total odds of 27-220 (1-8) for one player to have one pocket pair higher than JJ.)

The idea here is not to get exact numbers, as there are flaws in this equation. For example, what about all the times JJ sucks out and beats the overpair? This will account for about one win out of every 10 losses, a total BB/hand change of about 1.2BB.

We're also assuming that every time a player has QQ or better, they are making the call.

Rather than nail down the numbers precisely, this example is more to show this play loses money every time it's made. How much money is irrelevant. It's a perfect example of being way ahead or way behind. The only hands that ever call you are the ones that have you beat.

The sole exception to this will be the rare times you get a player making the call with A-K (or even A-Q). In the long run the win-loss ratio of JJ against A-K about evens out, making this scenario moot in this context.

Check out the links at the bottom of this piece for ideas on how to play A-K or A-Q, and for an explanation of why calling with either hand in this situation is a mistake.

Pre-Flop Choices

Now that we've removed the idea of over-raising or open-pushing the hand pre-flop, we can explore some more suitable and profitable solutions to the problem.

Poker is truly a situational game. If you replayed the same hand multiple times, each player receiving the same cards without any memory of what happened the previous deals, you'd play the same hand differently every time depending on a few variables:

  • Your position at the table
  • Your position relative to any "extreme players"
  • The position of the other big hands at the table
  • Chaos theory whims and anomalies

The most obvious of all of these is your position at the table. It's simple to understand that you'll need to play JJ differently if you're under the gun or if you're on the button.

Better position = more knowledge.

Jennifer Harman
Limit players have a better feel for the true strength of JJ than exclusively No-Limit players.

Extreme players will change how you play your hand. If you have a player moving all-in blind almost every hand, how you play your hand will change depending on if that player acts before or after you in that hand - regardless of your true position on the table.

If one of the other hands dealt is AK, how you play your jacks will change dramatically depending on whether AK plays before or after you. If it's before, they'll most likely take the lead; if they play after you, they'll most likely follow you.

Chaos theory is applicable to almost all scenarios, not just in poker. Run the exact same hand twice, without changing a single variable, and chances are the hand will run exactly the same as it did the first time. This is true for almost every time you rerun the hand.

But every so often something will change. A player will suddenly get "creative" and do something out of the ordinary.

It gets the name "chaos" because there is no way to predict how or when the events will happen. There are some amazing mathematical minds doing astounding work in chaos, proving that even some of the most seemingly random events actually belong to a pattern.

The idea with jacks pre-flop is to gain information on the other hands. If no one has a higher pair, you have the most equity; thus if you open-raise, your raise is a value raise. If there are players with a higher pair, your raise serves as an information raise.

If there is a raise ahead of you, you have two choices. Call and make your decisions post-flop without any (or much more) information, or make a three-bet pre-flop. If you get moved in on it's an easy fold, but if you get called you're now playing a very large pot, most likely with a dominated hand.

Moving all-in against a raise pre-flop is similar to the early example of moving all-in with jacks. In this scenario you're more often dominated (since the raise typically means the other player has a good hand), so moving in here is a very -EV play.

More often than not, you want to be raising this hand pre-flop: you want to take control of the pot, but at the same time you want to keep the pot small.

Your goal with jacks, in a full-ring cash game, should never be to get it all-in unimproved. To keep the pots small, you want to check and call at certain points during the hand, rather than betting and raising at every opportunity.

Unfortunately it's not always apparent whether you have the best hand or not going to the flop. Jacks are simply one pair, with three ranks of cards higher than them.

Even as an overpair, jacks are still classified as a "small pot hand." Your best bet with unimproved jacks is to control the pot - keep it small and manageable.

In the next article we'll take a look at the numbers, cementing in your mind the statistical power of jacks. Part three of the series will finish by exploring post-flop play and where jacks stand in a tournament setting.

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