Ladies and gentlemen, it's time we face the music and stop overplaying ace-queen.
Daniel Negreanu used to call A-Q "1.4," named after how many million he has lost with it.
It is single-handedly the biggest trouble hand in poker.
A-Q is a Top 10 hand but it's NOT a premium hand. That distinction must be clear before we go any further.
Here are a couple of Top 10 Hold'em starting-hand lists for full tables:
|Hellmuth's Top 10||Caro's Main Top 10|
4. A-K suited
9. A-Q suited
5. A-K suited
6. A-Q suited
8. A-K offsuit
9. K-Q suited
10. A-J suited
Hellmuth's mix is founded on a combination of probability, poker experience and feel. Mike Caro's list is strictly mathematics.
Caro has three Top 10 starting-hand lists, even: one for full tables, one for heads-up and one main list working as an average for the two.
The difference to notice between the two lists is the placement of A-Q by both players.
Mathematically, A-Q should end up 6th. It's the trouble-hand aspects of A-Q which caused Hellmuth to demote A-Q down his list to No. 9.
A premium hand is one of the top five hands in this list. The order of the Top 5 isn't the same on both lists, but the hands are.
How to play the different hands pre-flop is covered in some other articles on the site, mainly this one: Hold'em Before the Flop: A Beginner's Guide.
If you're a beginner, start there.
From this point we'll assume you're an intermediate to advanced player with the ability to make reads and tricky plays and that you're confident enough to play marginal hands from middle position.
A-Q is NOT a Top 10 Starting Hand
No matter what starting hand charts you use AQ suited is in the top 10. The first thing to accept is that AQ unsuited is not a top 10 hand but does make it into the top 20.
If you play ABC poker by following a chart of hands, AQ suited (AQs) is one you would never play in early position and would only play in an un-raised or unopened pot in middle to late position.
Being in the top 20 hands means that A-Qs and A-Qo are in the best 10% of possible starting hands.
Of all the possible starting hands, only 5.85% of all possible hands are equal in strength to A-Qo, or stronger than it. A-Qs is only beat by 3.77% of all possible starting hands.
The average for A-Q is 4.81%. For this article we're going to use 5% as our number.
One thing to know about poker is that your math and odds only have to be close. If you can get it within a percent or two, that's all you need to know.
As long as your decisions are +EV, the true amount doesn't matter. Being 64% or 65% to hit makes no difference to the hand or how you'll play it; don't sweat the exact math.
Should You Raise with Ace Queen?
Playing ABC poker, you will only ever play the top 20 starting hands. Just under 10% of the possible hands you can be dealt are playable in an ABC game.
On average you should be playing one hand per orbit, three hands per hour in live poker. Online poker play will have up to 3x more hands dealt per hour on a single table.
If only 5% of hands are better than your A-Q, the odds are you have the most hand equity. With the most equity, you should be raising and pumping the pot.
If only 10% of hands are playable, and this is in the middle of those playable ones, it should by all means be played and be played hard. Unfortunately, poker isn't as straightforward as this. Things are never quite as obvious as they seem.
A great example I learned reading Mike Caro's new book Caro's Most Profitable Hold'em Advice. Years ago, before people really began to study poker, there was very little scientific advice and knowledge about the game.
At that point in poker's life, many top players believed that J-T suited was the best starting hand in poker. It was the highest suited connector possible with full straight potential. It doesn't "dead end" on the top end as Q-J would.
The Truth About AQ in Poker
If we look at A-Q only in the context of how it stacks up in the hand charts we'll miss some important aspects to the hand and work from only half-truths. The truth is simple and obvious if we look at results from poker experience:
- A-Q does not win 95% of the time
Running Some A-Q Scenarios
Let's run some scenarios by you here. We're not worried about getting exact with math - these are meant to be generalizations. If you raise A-Q pre-flop you will be up against four different categories of hands:
- Hands that have A-Q dominated
- Hands that A-Q dominates
- Coin flips
1. Hands that have A-Q dominated: AA, KK, QQ, A-K
We can put our A-Q win rate at 0% for AA, KK and QQ. You should be raised out of the pot pre-flop. If you do somehow see a flop, you lose somewhere around 90% the time on average. The big pots you win will be canceled out by the big pots you lose when flopping A-Q against aces or queens.
With A-K it's a little trickier. Let's say you get raised out pre-flop 50% of the time. The other 50% of the time you're seeing variety of flops:
• Ace-high board: you lose significant money
• Queen-high board: you win small money
• A-Q-high board: you win significant money
• A-Q-K high board: you lose significant money
• Flopping straights: you make medium - large money
• Flopping straight draws: you lose medium money
• Flops that miss you: you lose small money
If you just look at the options, you'll see that all the results work to almost cancel each other out. The problem with my little list is that we haven't weighted the options with probability. The odds of you missing everything are by far the highest.
The odds of an ace-high board are more than double those of an A-Q-high board. The odds of flopping a straight are half those of flopping a straight draw.
Once you weight it you'll see that A-Q vs. A-K is a very negative EV proposition. Not only do you lose 50% off the bat, out of the other 50% you lose considerable money. This makes our first group of hands less than a 0% win rate, or -EV.
2. Hands that A-Q dominates: A-J, K-Q, A-T, Q-J
All of these hands are similar to the scenario as the A-Q vs. A-K, but in reverse. You dominate all these hands.
The only difference is that these hands are weaker, making them more likely to fold to you pre-flop and less likely to play heavy after the flop. You make less money against any one of these than you lose against A-K.
Collectively they become more profitable than your losses against A-K. This makes the second group of hands a +EV scenario with a positive win rate.
3. Coin Flips: 22-JJ
Even though 22-77 are not in the top 20 hands, in a cash game it still can make sense to see lots of flops with them. People will be calling your single raise with these hands. These are the possible scenarios on the flop (excluding random flushes and straights winning/losing to boats):
- You both flop nothing
- You flop top pair
- Your opponent hits a set, you hit nothing
- You hit top pair or better, your opponent hits a set
When you both flop nothing we'll put it at a 50% win rate. Half the time the player has a low enough pair they will fold; the other half they don't, and won't.
Where you flop the top pair and they miss, they fold. The times they do call and hit a set vs. the times they do call and miss will even out in the long run.
They hit a set, you hit nothing. You fold. You hit top pair, they hit a set. You lose significant money.
For the third series of hands you lose significant money on the whole. There are no scenarios where you will win big pots consistently but there is a scenario where you will lose them.
If you hit a straight vs. a set, you will win a big pot but the amount of times you win vs. the times you lose when the board pairs cancel each other out.
These hands all fold to you pre-flop to give you a 100% win rate, but yielding almost no money.
- Hands that have A-Q dominated: -EV (medium loss)
- Hands that A-Q dominates: +EV (medium win)
- Coin flips: -EV (large loss)
- Rags: +EV (very small win)
In all of the scenarios listed the calculations reveal A-Q's potential for losing significant money in the long run. You have no ability to control what type of hands the other players will be playing against you, forcing you into many -EV situations with A-Q.
The final aspect to discuss is flushes. A-Q suited hitting a flush will have the nuts. The small pots you win will cancel out with the small losses you take chasing and missing (with acceptable odds). When you do hit the flush, you win small to very big pots.
I feel that this aspect of A-Q suited is enough to push the win rate out of the red and into the black. If you only ever played A-Qs in ABC poker against solid ABC players, it would be +EV and A-Qo would be -EV. A combination of both of them should come out somewhere around even.
If you are able to avoid running into sour situations, and only play the pots that are good for you with A-Q, being the top 5% hand it is, it has the potential to make some serious coin.
AQ is Still a Middle Hand
After all the talk of where A-Q stacks up according to the numbers, we can now make decisions on how to play it.
As explained in other articles it never makes sense to bet the middle hand. This is an example of that sort of scenario. A-Q is a high-middle in the world of playable hands, but it's still in the middle nonetheless.
Players new to poker are quick to pick up that A-Q is a top 5% hand and feel that that number alone should make it a profitable play.
But without the necessary skill, experience and ability to read other players, playing A-Q in early position - or for very new beginners, even playing A-Qo at all - can be a losing play.
Players such as Daniel Negreanu have openly talked about A-Q losing them money long-term and being a trouble hand. But that doesn't mean they won't play it.
Being a top 5% hand it is statistically profitable, but only if you can dump it when you run into the lose-money scenarios.
How to Play A-Q Profitably
A-Q is a purely situational hand. You have to play it differently, or not at all, depending on the table you're on and the players you're with.
If you're up against nine players who will only play top-five hands, A-Q is a losing hand. If you're up against players who will play any two cards, the numbers will back up A-Q to make you money.
But no matter how you play it, you need to make information plays. You need some way to get a solid read on what you're up against.
It's better to lose two bets pre-flop or on the flop than to lose eight bets across five streets.
How to Play AQ in Early Position
One experiment you can try is to limp-reraise A-Q from early position.
If your No. 1 goal is to gain information about the other hands, this can be a great way to do it at a low-medium limit No-Limit table.
With the amount of strength shown by a limp reraise you can be sure the other player has a hand that dominates you if they call or come back over the top. In these scenarios you lose three bets, compared to losing one where you miss or a stack when you hit a setup flop.
Something to remember with this play, and any information play, are the motives you had for making the play in the first place. If the person does call you after making the limp reraise, you have to be willing to dump the hand no matter what the flop (other than flopping broadway).
Even flopping top two in this scenario will put you at risk of losing your stack against two of the top-five hands, winning nearly nothing against KK and winning small to a stack against A-K.
Remember, with the strength you showed pre-flop, A-K will be less likely to pay you out on an A-Q-2 board. Chances of you having AA or QQ are very real, making it a hard call for them to make.
Making this move is only a good idea against ABC players. ABC players will react to this move exactly in line with the strength of the hand they're holding. If you attempt this move against tricky players, you can put yourself into poor spots.
For example, if you make this move against a player known to raise, bet, call and three-bet light, you will gain no information going to the flop. You have now built a statistically very large pre-flop heads up pot with no information in the hand.
This makes post-flop decisions very difficult. Against such a player if you think hitting your ace or queen is good, the size of the pot will dictate how much it will sting if you're wrong.
How to Play AQ in Late Position
As in all other aspects of poker, the single most important factor next to the strength of your hand is playing your position.
In late position, I would advocate raising an unopened pot with A-Q almost every time. It is a top 5% hand and if no one is showing strength, it is most likely best.
If you're behind a raiser it has to be a read-based play. Against anyone resembling a tight player it wouldn't be a mistake to muck the hand.
Even if the raiser is a nutbar you have to remember that even nutbars get dealt monster hands and they'll be raising those just like all the rest.
Playing A-Q in a raised pot is a purely read-based scenario. If you're at a table where you are outmatched, A-Q is better left in the muck.
Even though I would advocate limp-reraising with A-Q in certain situations I would rarely, if ever, encourage reraising from late position with it. Your reraise will force everyone else in the hand to fold to the original raiser, isolating them and you.
Good players here can smooth-call virtually any hand to either set a trap, set up a bluff, or try to crack you. You won't gain enough information from a good player in this scenario to make it a valuable play.
I don't like to have to count on luck to make my hand profitable. Smooth-calling a raise is obviously a poor option. You have no information on the hand by making this move, and are putting yourself into the exact scenarios I listed earlier. Those ended as -EV.
I feel that A-Q is better mucked behind a raise without having a serious read on the other players at the table. If you're able to read them blind, then having A-Q is irrelevant as your cards no longer matter.
What Can you Beat with A-Q?
A-Q is by far the biggest trouble hand in poker. For this reason alone, unless you have a good reason and a good spot to play it, it's best left mucked. Here are a couple of A-Q hand scenarios that help illustrate why:
AQ Hand #1
You're playing an online, six-max $2/$4 No-Limit Hold'em game. The player in middle position is a solid, tight-aggressive player. When he makes it to showdown, he always seems to have a strong hand.
(In case you don't know, the Hero is always you).
Hero (BTN): $400.00
Pre Flop: (Pot: $6) Hero is BTN with
1 fold, MP raises to $12, CO folds, Hero re-raises to $30, 2 folds, MP calls $18
MP checks, Hero bets $45, MP calls $45
MP bets $135, Hero ???
Before you continue reading, think for a minute about what you think is the best option here and why it's the best option. If you don't understand why you're making the play, you're really just guessing.
My answer: This hand scenario is actually rather straight forward: you have to fold. There's not a single legitimate hand this player can have that you can beat. The only way you can win is if he's bluffing.
Since we've never seen this player get out of line or bluff (that doesn't mean he isn't bluffing, just that we've never seen proof of it), we have to give far more weight to the possibility he's actually betting for value here.
He raised preflop from mid-position and flat-called our 3-bet. This narrows his range to being a legitimate hand of strength, without being strong enough to warrant a 4-bet (barring a slow-play).
There's not a single hand here you can beat that can make that call preflop and then call the flop. A-J has two pair, and A-K has you out kicked. The only hope you have of winning this pot is him holding Q-10 and making a semi-bluff at the open-ender.
In short, you're almost certainly beat and drawing very slim. This is a very bad spot to put any more money in. If he's bluffing you, it's a great bluff; let him take it down.
Hero (UTG): $300
Pre Flop: (Pot: $6) Hero is UTG with
Hero raises to $12, MPfolds, CO calls $12, BTN calls $12, 2 folds
Hero bets $42, CO calls $42, BTN raises to $142, Hero ???
This situation is actually a simple decision but it's one that gives many amateurs a difficult time.
Your hand looks strong. You have two overcards and an open-ended straight draw. On top of that, if you hit the king, you have the stone cold nuts.
With the action it's almost certain this is going to end up being a large pot. Many amateurs will count their straight outs and maybe even the overcards, then convince themselves they should call for the pot odds.
Unfortunately for these (soon to be broke) players, they failed to go a step further in dissecting this situation. What hand can possibly raise in this spot?
Chances are you're up against a player with K-Q and you're drawing at three outs. The best-case scenario here is that you're up against a set or two pair.
Even with those hand, you need to draw out and dodge the full house re-draw to win the pot. This hand is bad for you. Throw it away.
More Tips for Playing A-Q
Sticking with a $2/$4 No-Limit six-max game your opponent in this hand is aggressive and loose but without a history of getting out of line. His hands always have some sort of value.
He's not making bad bluffs or donk bets, but he has showed down some unlikely hands. In short: a very tricky but strong player. You've been playing a very strong, tight-aggressive game. You've only showed down legitimate hands and have never been caught getting out of line.
You've also been on a slight cold run of cards and have been folding for a while now, further enforcing your tight image.
$2/$4 No-Limit Hold'em - six players
Hero (SB): $320.00
Pre Flop: (Pot: $6) Hero is SB with
2 folds, CO calls $4, BTN folds, Hero calls $2, BB calls $2
Hero checks, BB checks, CO bets $10, Hero Calls $10, BB Folds
Hero checks, CO bets $25, Hero raises to $60, CO calls $35
What do you do? Bet? If so, how much? Check? What are you hoping he does? If you check and he bets, do you call, raise or fold?
Again, you have to use the information you have to figure out what you think is best. You also need to understand the reasoning behind why you think that.
My answer: After getting a general feel for your opponent, the most important information to look at is the betting pattern.
Pre-flop: The CO didn't raise. We can't be certain but we can reasonably assume he doesn't have KK or AA. He can hold almost anything else in his range.
The Flop: The CO has position in this hand and the flop came very wet. This is commonly thought of as a "hit or miss" flop. Unless someone has a Q (hit), they pretty much have to fold a miss to any bet made into the pot.
For this reason, the $10 bet doesn't really give us any information. He might have a legitimate hand, or it could simply be a steal attempt.
The Turn: Now that the big blind has folded, we're heads up. We check again, and the CO bets again.
For this player, this bet still doesn't mean all that much; we've shown no real strength and he could be putting us on a weak king - a hand he can make us fold.
When we check-raise, we've basically just turned our hand face up. He can now be almost certain that we have a Q.
We didn't raise in the small blind, so he can't be completely sure we have an ace as a kicker. But he can make a pretty strong guess.
His call after being check-raised is a very interesting action. He didn't three-bet us, but he also didn't fold. If we believe that he knows we have a queen, what can he possibly call with?
He's either setting up a massive river bluff, thinks we're bluffing, has a full house, or has a queen and thinks his kicker might be good.
So now what do we do? The only hand we're really worried about is K-Q. There are other hands that have a full house to beat us but they are unlikely.
It's not impossible that he hit a house with pocket sevens on the turn, but if that's the case, good for him.
- If he thinks we're bluffing and we check, he'll check behind us, or just call any bet we make.
- If he has a full house, he'll bet or raise any bet we make.
- If he has a queen, he checks behind or just calls us to see if his kicker is good.
- If he thinks we have a queen with a weak kicker, he might try to bluff. This is unlikely, simply because many players are unable to fold a hand like this.
Because we're only worried about K-Q and we can put JJ, TT, Q-J, Q-10, Q-9, A-K and K-J into his range here (some more likely than others), we have to assume we currently have the best hand.
We should be making a value bet here and one large enough it discourages a raise from anything but a full house.
I'd bet $100-$150. If he does push, chances are you should fold. If you bet $130 on the river, you've committed $204, leaving you with $116.
You'll be getting just under 5-1 on your money to make the call. There is almost no chance a player as good as him would ever make a bluff with such a low chance of success.
Unless he believes you to be a weak-tight player willing to fold just about anything, the 5-1 odds plus knowing you have a Q makes this a very bad spot for a bluff.
Only a boat can push on you here. Value bet and take the pot, or value bet and fold to a shove.