Ellie Biessek: Trouble hands, part 1 – A-J

Watch out for tricky hands, says Grosvenor Poker pro Ellie Biessek, and find the spots to play them well

In David Sklansky’s book, Hold’em Poker for Advanced Players, he includes a hand-ranking chart. I would not recommend learning the table off by heart because, like any strategy, you should avoid using strict rules as much as possible during play and instead look to adapt to the situation you face.

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see how specific starting hands compare to one another based on their preflop value. In this article I am going to talk about ‘trouble hands’ and specifically A-J. According to Sklansky, A-Js is in the second-best group of hands together with T-T, A-Qs, K-Qs and A-Ko. At the same time A-Jo is in the fourth group of hands with T-9s, K-Qo, 8-8, Q-Ts, 9-8s, J-9s and K-Ts.

Whether suited or unsuited, however, the hand has rightly received the reputation of being a troublemaker. Why? Simply because you can never be that comfortable playing a big pot with A-J. If you flop an Ace and face heavy action, you’re more likely to be dominated than ahead, and it’s possible that by the time you realise this there will be too much in the pot to fold. If you flop an Ace and face heavy action, you’re more likely to be dominated than ahead, and it’s possible that by the time you realise this there will be too much in the pot to fold. If you flop an Ace and face

There is a lot of truth in saying ‘if you folded A-J every time you were dealt it, you would probably show a greater expectation than if you chose to play it.’ However, in a tournament like the Grosvenor 25/25 Series many players play far too many hands and A-J seems ‘ahead of their range’, so you will be very tempted to play it. Is this profitable? Let’s see some examples.

Example 1 • Blinds are 100/200

The Hero is a rather tight but inexperienced player with a nearly 20k stack, who has A-Jo on the button. SB has about 7.5k and BB has about 25k, the table is generally loose.

UTG+1, a decent player with a 19k stack, limps and everybody folds to the Hero. The Hero now decides to isolate and makes it 1,200 to go. Personally, I would make a standard raise here. I can see how this would make sense if the Hero assumes that he can profitably isolate having positional advantage in the hand, but what would he do if SB shoved?

As it turns out, both a ahead everybody checks to the button. Personally, I would not c-bet here. First of all, I’ve blinds and the limper seem very reluctant to fold their hands and they all call so we see multiway pot. The flop comes 8♠-4-9 and  everybody checks to the button. Personally, I would not c-bet here. First of all, I’ve missed the board and I’m facing three opponents. Secondly, the board is wet, so anybody with either a straight or flush draw is likely to stay in. Thirdly, both blinds are in the hand with a wide range and they’re more likely to hit that board than us.

Nonetheless, the Hero decides to bet roughly half the pot and so makes it 2,500 to go. SB who now has a little over 6k left shoves. Everyone folds and the Hero reluctantly folds his A-Jo, while the SB proudly shows J-9o. Result: Hero has lost nearly 20% of his stack. However, the hand could have played differently.

Example 2 • Blinds are 100/200

Let’s assume that it’s the same scenario preflop but the flop now comes A♠-4-9♠. SB and BB check but UTG+1 leads out for 2,500. Now the Hero is ahead of all hands like A-T, A-8 and flush draws, but would UTG+1 really bet those hands? He is rather crushed by A-Q, A-9, 9-9, 4-4 (Aces are very unlikely here and A-K rather unlikely too). So the Hero has a hand which looks good – it’s top pair, good kicker after all – but he is rather in the dark as to whether he’s ahead. He decides to call which is good approach and the turn is another Ace.

Now, if his opponent bets again, I can see how it could be difficult for the Hero to fold his hand here. Surprisingly, UTG+1 checks and, despite the flush draw lurking out there, I would cautiously check back. The Hero decides to bet 5k into nearly 10k pot, however, and UTG+1 just calls.

Now the size of the pot has escalated to nearly 20k and both players have only a little over 10k behind. The river is the 2 and UTG+1 thinks for a while before shoving. The Hero has found himself in a nasty situation. He would really need to put his opponent specifically on a worse Ace, missed flush draw or a bluff to make this call and would need to be very confident of his read to put pretty much the rest of his stack in. If he did, however, I think most of the time he would find that he has the second best hand.

The reason A-J rates worse than A-Q or A-K is that when you flop top pair with your Jack there are obviously more overpairs to the board that have you crushed. As such, what appears to be a strong hand – top-top – is in fact a lot weaker. Likewise, when you flop an Ace, your kicker is not all that strong.

Often then, when you do flop top pair while relatively deep-stacked in the early stages of a tournament A-Js and A-Jo are hands that should generally be played passively. You can control the pot when in position and mostly check-call when out of position (A-J should almost always be folded out of position to three-bets when you’re deep).

However, there are some times when it can be profitable to go to war with A-J, even if it’s rare that you’ll be a big favourite. The most common time when you’re just going to have to call off with A-J is when effective stacks are between 12 and 20 big blinds, you open for a raise in late position and a player three bets all-in. Against most conceivable ranges you’re going to have enough equity to make a call profitable.

Example 3 • Blinds are 500/1,000/a100

Let’s say you’re at a nine-handed table with blinds at 500/1,000/a100 and a 40k stack. You open to 3k from the cutoff with A-Js, the small blind moves in for 14k total, the big blind folds and the decision is back on you. 

There is now 18.9k in the pot and it is 11k for you to call – giving you odds of 1.718-to- 1. How much equity do you need to break even here? The simple way to work this out is by adding both parts of your pot odds together (1.72+1) and dividing 100 by that number: 100/2.72 = 36.79%. Let’s see how A-J (both suited and offsuit) plays against some potential shoving ranges for tight, average and loose players.

Tight player: 6-6+, A-Ts+, K-Qs, A-Jo+

  • Here A-Js has 40.65% equity and A-Jo has 37.39% equity

Average player: 5-5+, A-Ts+, K-Js+, Q-Js, A-To+, K-Qo

  • Here A-Js has 47.1% equity while A-Jo has 44.27% equity

Loose player: 2-2+, A-8s+, K-Ts+, Q-Ts+, J-Ts, A-To+, K-To+, Q-To+, J-To

  • Against this range A-Js has 53.5% equity and A-Jo has 51.06% equity

As you can see, A-Js is only ahead against one of the three ranges overall. However, the odds that you are getting to make the call against these ranges indicate that you should. In fact, although considered by Sklansky to be a tier four hand, pot odds dictate that you should also be making the call with A-Jo.

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