Playing JJ, QQ, and AK in Tournament Play
JJ, QQ, and AK are the only hands that players love to be dealt but absolutely despise playing. This doesn't pertain to all players, but it isn't uncommon to hear others bemoaning their aptitude for the proper approach to making the most out of these starting hands. The simple truth is that each of these hands has a whole lot of value pre-flop, post-flop, and at showdown. Yes, you are going to get out flopped with JJ and QQ on frequent occasions, but you can't discount the times where you still have an overpair after the river (or any time that your opponent misses the board). Really, the aim of this intro is to drive home the fact that these hands are very good and that it's up to you to play them correctly.
Every tournament player knows that there are two moves with these hands, and they are to either shove or raise. You won't hear the phrase "shove or raise" very often, but if you consider it, these are some of the only hands where it will always make sense. It's possible that you find yourself in a spot where folding is actually feasible, but these situations are far and few between. You are pretty much going to need to be up against a 4-bet from a tight player to really warrant a fold with any of these hands.
The need to either raise or shove is both interesting and scary to players. Shoving is easy, but it's nerve racking. Raising is less scary, but it requires more strategy. So long as you aren't mucking any of these hands or limping in on repeated occasions, you shouldn't be worried about their value.
Limping vs. Raising
It doesn't take much more than a novice to tell you that raising is the go-to move with any of these hands. They are strong, and they tend to end up winning at showdown. As obvious as this strategy might be, there are still plenty of players who feel the need to get fancy and start limping into pots with jacks, queens, and ace king. It would be unfair to say that there's never a time where limping could be a strong move, but more often than not you'll only be overcomplicating things. Think about the reasons why a player might limp with any of these hands.
-They want to limp, force a raise, and then re-raise. While this approach might seem sound in theory, it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. First, you must already have a plan in place for what you are going to do if you are raised again. Another raise at this point would be indicative of extreme strength from your opponent. If you aren't in position to simply re-shove over, limping and facing a 5-bet is going to be challenging. An extra note to this play is that your hand is going to be all but face up. You should be playing as deceptively as possible, but limp re-raising screams strength more than just about anything else.
-They want to limp, force a raise, and then call. The problem with this is that you are thinning out the value of the hand before the flop is even dealt. There's a decent shot that your opponent has a hand that would pay you off further pre-flop, but it will be prone to slowing down post-flop. In these cases, you are losing out on a lot of money that you could have otherwise had. This move is even worse than the one listed above and is prone to some very messy situations.
Hopefully you now see why raising makes more sense than limping. If you were looking for examples of times where limping could be strong, it would be when play is short handed and stacks are small relative to the blinds. In these times, players will shove against limps. This means that you can suck your opponents in without doing much work on your own. This isn't going to be a very common occurrence, however, and is indigenous almost exclusively to play in or near the final table.
When you are post-flop with these hands, the flop is going to be absolutely critical. As much should have been obvious to you, though, and you are likely more interested in how you can best react to any given board. Since looking at hands as a broad example is impossible, the following is going to outline the common flop situations and how they can be managed.
-JJ, QQ on a low flop. Short of flopping a set (or better), this is about the best board that you could hope for. There's next to no reason why you shouldn't be value betting and calling shoves in this situation. If you are dealt jacks or queens, this is what you hope for.
-JJ, QQ on board with ace and/or king. Here is where things get tricky. Of these four different examples, this is going to be the toughest to play. On one hand you could still be way ahead. On the other hand, you may be drawing to two outs or other backdoor draws. Because it's impossible to define these two elements out of context, you'll need to use the specific information available to you to make the best decision. If there's one piece of advice that is certain, though, it's that you shouldn't be afraid to give up your hand. Never become attached to big pocket pairs because their value can easily be diminished.
-AK on a low flop. This is the flop where you bricked, and it's also going to be the most common flop with this hand. Your strategy at this point is going to depend largely on the pre-flop action. If you made the initial raise, leading out will make more sense than if you called a bet. Likewise, calling a flop bet from the pre-flop raiser will be easier if you are in position, etc. etc. Seeing another card here is seldom terrible and you do actually have a fair amount of showdown value left. As was the case with QQ on a board with an ace or a king, this hand is going to be tricky, but not impossible to play.
-AK on a flop with an ace or a king. Odds are that you are now a pretty heavy favorite to win this hand. Unlike when you have queens against a low board, however, value betting each street isn't always best. The ace and king are likely to scare off any and all players who missed the flop. A passive flop approach followed by a more aggressive turn and river strategy will usually end up being the best route to take. There's no need to push players out now when the chances are that you are unlikely to stack a player regardless. A methodical approach on these flops will be rewarded much more so than one that is rushed.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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