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. Still, most players get a twinge of excitement when they see a pair of pocket jacks 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.
How to Play Jacks Pre-Flop
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-shove 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. That makes their win-loss ratio for the hand staggeringly high.
But 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.
Some JJ Numbers
If you buy in for 100BB (standard for 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.
(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 (there are flaws in this equation, like 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 in a hand. 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.
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How to Play JJ: 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
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.
Pocket Jacks and Chaos Theory
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.
Jacks are Still a Small-Pot Hand
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 bet and raise at every opportunity. Unfortunately it's not always apparent whether you have the best hand or not going to the flop. Remember:
- 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.
Running the Numbers on Pocket Jacks
Hands on either end of the equity scale are, for the most part, easy to play. If you have aces you know you're ahead; if you have deuce-seven you know you're behind. Even the hands inside of the extremes but still to either end of the chart offer little difficulty. If you have kings you're probably ahead; if you have T-5 you're probably behind. There's little to know, no problems that need solving with these hands.
JJ is Strongest Middle Hand
It's the middle hands that get you into situations worthy of thought. JJ is arguably the strongest hand in this category. Just under a quarter of the remaining cards in the deck have a rank higher than your pair. If a player is dealt one overcard to your jacks, the odds of him pairing that card is around 16%.
If he has two overcards to your hand the odds of him pairing one of them on the flop double to around 32%. As we learned above the chances of another player having been dealt a pocket pair higher than yours are almost exactly 1-8, or 12%. So there's a 12% chance you're beat pre-flop, and if all players dealt a card higher than a jack see the flop you're beat 32% of the time on top.
So right now these numbers are not so hot with you losing 44% of the pots right off the bat. Before you start wondering how it's possible for JJ to be a top 5 hand with numbers such as this, remember that statistics of this sort don't take into account playing styles and human mentalities. Every player dealt a card higher than a jack is not going to see every flop. These numbers serve as a guideline to give you an idea of where jacks stand before the human element comes into play.
Running Some JJ Numbers
This first chart pits JJ against a set number of random hands. In each scenario the result has been calculated by a computer running the set number of random hands versus JJ to the river. No betting is taken into account here. Each scenario has been run over one million times.
|Number of Random Hands||Equity of Pocket Jacks*|
*Equity is inherent value of the hand, meaning how often it will statistically win.
JJ vs. Specific Hands
More often than not, raising with your jacks will put you heads-up to the flop. The following chart details the most common types of hands to see a flop with you, and the equity of jacks being ahead by the river.
|Versus Hands||Equity of Pocket Jacks|
|AA, KK or QQ||18%|
|TT or Lower Pair||83%|
In a heads-up situation JJ is ahead to all but three hands. This is the reason JJ is viewed as a premium top 10 hand. Unfortunately, in the real world, you will always get calls from AA, KK and QQ and infrequently get called by almost any of the other hands. Even when you do get called by the other hands, you will win small pots when they miss or lose large ones when they hit.
When your raise doesn't get you heads-up or you choose not to raise pre-flop with JJ, you'll need a solid understanding of where the hand stands up against a variety of fields. The following three charts are examples of playing the hand five-handed against a field "good" for your hand, "bad" for your hand or a "mixed" field.
JJ vs. "Good" Field
|Hand||Equity to Win|
JJ vs. "Bad" Field
|Hand||Equity to Win|
JJ vs. "Mixed" Field
|Hand||Equity to Win|
Although you'll find yourself in both good and bad fields most often you'll be up against a mixed field. As you can see throughout the charts, your equity will change dramatically depending on how many players are in the pot and the types of hands you're up against.
In a field like the one in the chart above you have 37% equity (a 2-1 dog) while getting 4-1 on your money. Although jacks are a top 5 hand, and do hold a very large amount of equity, the mistake many beginners make is to view all big pairs as "one type of hand."
They will play JJ or QQ the same as KK or AA when the numbers make it clear that JJ is simply not as strong a hand as any of the other larger pairs.
How to Play JJ Post-Flop
Now that you've read up on the odds and know some of pocket jacks' strengths and weaknesses, you're poised to make informed decisions on how to play the hand post-flop. One of the fundamental concepts in poker is to never bet the middle hand. In short, if you bet a middle hand you will never get called by a worse hand and you'll always get called by a better hand. Therefore - don't do it. This is a concept - a poker theory. Its purpose is to allow you to grasp the "far ahead/far behind" philosophy of poker.
JJ is a perfect example of a middle hand pre-flop. Unless it improves on the flop it will remain a middle hand. If your opponents hit the flop, your middle hand will become a bottom hand, turning JJ into nothing more than a bluff.
At that point it doesn't matter what you hold; JJ has no more value than 2-3. Luckily for you, JJ is on the higher end of the middle category - it ranks ahead of all other middle hands and bottom hands.
If no one has a top hand, you're in the best shape. This is why poker is so situational. JJ is only as good as the hands it's up against; past that, it can only be as good as the texture of the board will allow. Because it's such a speculative middle hand, unless it hits the board hard you want to make sure you're playing it into small pots.
Small Hands, Small Pots
With small hands you want to play small pots. Most beginners might be surprised as to what qualifies as a small hand. Even on a flop of 249, your JJ is still a small hand. With a small hand you want to keep the pots smaller by checking, calling and betting less than full-pot amounts.
Every time you make a large bet and get a call the size of the pot grows exponentially. Each subsequent bet must be larger, forcing players into pot-committed situations. By betting pot on all streets, you're forcing yourself to play a very large pot with a small hand. It's better to win small pots and fold to players giving signs of holding a big hand rather than win and lose big pots all the time.
Of course, as with anything in poker, this is situational. If you're up against a player willing to put his stack on the line with top pair or less, your JJ overpair becomes a big hand. In a standard scenario, though, JJ is a small hand and should be played as such.
How to Play Jacks on the Flop
Obviously the flop can fall in any combination and texture but there are only three main flop scenarios that make up the vast majority of flops you'll see with JJ. On the flop you'll either improve to a top hand (also known as a monster), you'll have an overpair, or you'll be behind an overpair. Here's a chart of odds for the flop J72.
|Hand||% to win|
As you can see, even though another player has aces and a third player holds a gutshot straight draw, you're still 73% to win this pot. At this point you now have a top hand. This is where you want to change your strategy to play a large pot. You want to get as much money into this pot as you can. If you only flop an overpair against other small hands that hit, your odds will change greatly.
Here's a chart for the flop 826.
|Hand||% to win|
If you look at this flop, even though you're an overpair, you're only 44% to win. You do have the best hand, and are tied for equity, but your lack of dominating odds puts you into the small-hand category. You don't want to fold this hand just yet, but you don't want to commit your whole stack. You want to keep the pot small by checking and calling, and see what develops on later streets.
Finally, the third option is you see a flop where an opponent hits an overpair. Take a look at this chart for the flop A76.
|Hand||% to win|
On this flop you're now sitting with only 7% equity. You're a serious dog in the hand and want to fold. Even a small pot is too large for you to play in, unless you have serious implied odds. If you're both 500BB deep or more, and can truly say that your opponent would put it all-in with only a pair of aces if you hit your jack, you can call. Anything short of that and you're throwing money away.
How to Play Jacks in Tournaments
JJ is a very different hand in poker tournaments than cash games. In a tournament, other than in the first few stages, you're typically very short-stacked.
In short-stack poker pre-flop equity is the only thing you really care about. JJ is a huge hand for a 20BB stack, and you should be willing to get it all-in pre-flop, or on a flop without overs. Short-stack poker strategy is fundamentally different from deep-stacked strategy. The plays you make with under 100BB must be very different than the plays you make with over 100BB.
If you're in a pot without another player showing signs of significant strength, you have to assume JJ is a monster, and play it as such. Tournament poker typically doesn't allow players to make any mistake. Even a small mistake in a tournament can cost you your tournament life. For this reason, tournament poker is highly situational, and highly read-based.
You need to have almost a sixth sense to lay down JJ when up against an overpair. Pocket jacks are one of the hardest hands to play well. As a beginner your best bet is to play them carefully, as a small hand into small pots. If you have an overpair with jacks, play it as if it's nothing more than a top pair. As the age-old saying goes, "Never go broke with just one pair."