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 group of hands.
The question is not whether or not to play these hands; the question is how to play them profitably.
So how much equity do 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 come from AA and KK?
- How much of your profits/losses come from 2-3 or 8-3?
- How much of your profits/losses 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.
Marginal Hands Make Marginal Profit
Most of your profit in a hand vs. hand comparison is almost always from AA. KK is usually 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.
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.
Running the Marginal Numbers
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.
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|
*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 KQ, showing how it's affected when various strong hands are one of the other five hands used to run an evaluation.
Every situation has KQ versus four random hands and the one specific hand:
|Specific Hand||6-Handed Equity||Change from All Random|
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 and lead 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%. That puts you at break-even money. Anything above 20% makes you mone, 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 go to the flop heads-up with your K♠ Q♠ against the previous range one at a time:
|Versus Hand||Heads-Up Equity|
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 J10.
In a real game of poker (opposed to our hypothetical random hand games), you'll play the vast majority of hands 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.
What Do You Hope to Hit on the Flop?
Every time you play a hand pre-flop you're hoping to flop something huge. Ideally you want to flop a flush, straight, two pair, trips or even top pair.
A full house is nice but can be hard to make any money off of. Even so, these are what you're hoping to hit on the flop.
When you're playing these high marginal hands what you're hoping for can be a disaster. Some of these hopeful flops will cost you a significant amount of money.
You don't want to hit the flop you were hoping for only to lose your entire stack.
The problem with these high marginal hands is that the top pair, two-pair trips and straight options may be disastrous. Flopping top two versus a set or middle two versus top two will lose you a hefty pot. Flopping two pair against a straight will do the same.
All of these high marginal hands share the same cards as the premium hands. This makes your opponents' "hitting range" the same if they're holding premium hands.
When you hit your hand, they will hit their hands. Because their hands started out much stronger, they have a much better chance at hitting a larger piece of the flop than you.
How to Play High Marginal Hands
Using K♠ Q♠ again as our example let's lay out a few flops and decide whether they're good or bad for our hand.
Flop 1: 10 10 J J Q Q
You've flopped an open-ended straight draw along with top pair, second nut kicker. On paper this looks like a great flop for you.
If you don't spend any time thinking about it it would seem this hand is worth getting into a very large pot with.
Unfortunately this is a very connected board. Connected boards mean two things:
- Players will have hit big hands.
- Players will assume others have hit big hands.
Out of all the hands that will call a bet on this flop you can only beat K-J and A-Q. Every other possible hand that can call a bet has you beaten or outright crushed.
If the pot was raised pre-flop you have to worry about a player holding A-K and flopping the nuts. This flop is bad for you.
Flop 2: Q Q K K A A
You've just entered a world of pain. Every beginner gets themselves in a twist over flopping two pair. Unfortunately, you've just flopped bottom two.
Again, there are simply no hands that can make or call a bet on this flop that you can beat. The only way you can win this pot is by sucking out, or making someone fold to you by convincing them you have the straight.
Hopefully they don't actually have the hand you're trying to represent. This would be a classic dark-tunnel bluff, as it is guaranteed to lose you money over the long term. Make a bet, and almost every pocket pair below queens will fold, but if you get a call, you're beat.
Flop 3: K K 2 2 3 3
On this flop, you realistically only lose to AA, KK, A-K, 22 or 33. The odds of being up against those hands are slim, especially since two of the kings are out of the deck.
This means you do have a strong hand here, but it's not strong enough to play a large pot with. There are simply no hands that can call your bets here that you will beat, unless you're playing against very weak players who can't fold something like K-J.
Make your flop bet; more often than not you will take down the pot. When someone shows any sign of interest in the pot, or strength, you have to abandon ship.
Flop 4: Q Q Q Q K K
In this scenario you're going to win a very small pot most of the time, win a very large pot occasionally and lose a very large pot infrequently.
At this moment, the only hand you have to worry about is KK. Both A-Q and AA have a small chance of out drawing you, but other than that you're good.
You will take A-Q's stack here often enough to make this a profitable pot to play very large. This is one of the few flops you truly want to see, K-K-Q being another.
Flop 5: 10 10 J J A A
Aside from the full-house flops, flopping a straight is really the only flop you can call "good."
T-J-A is a better flop for you than 9-T-J, since you can only lose on a T-J-A board if someone hits a house, or a flush. 9-T-J has A-K drawing for a higher straight.
The chances are low but it's good to remember they're out there.
More importantly though, A-J-T is a less coordinated board with an ace, meaning there are multiple possible hands who've hit enough on the flop to invest some money against you.
You stand to make some good money on the flop if you're up against AA, JJ, TT or even A-J, A-T and A-K.
High Marginal Hands Play the Same
Although all these examples used K♠ Q♠ for the sample hand the rest of these high marginal hands are exactly the same.
Out of all possible flops that hit your hand very few will actually be good for you. A-J is dominated by higher aces when an ace flops but can make some money off K-J when a jack flops.
With all of these hands you need to play for small pots or get lucky to hit the nut straight, flush or house and play for a large pot. If you don't have the nuts, and another player is willing to play a large pot, chances are you're beat.
Get into the custom of folding these hands in the face of serious aggression. When it comes to marginal hands, it's always better to get bluffed off a small pot for a few bets than to make an erroneous hero call and lose your whole stack.