How to play trouble hands profitably

In the final part of this series looking at how to play starting hands, cash game pro Simon Hemsworth reveals how to play difficult hands like A-K and J-J profitably

In poker not all decisions are simple and straightforward. We are often put in difficult situations with troublesome hands that leave us flummoxed at how best to proceed. It could be argued that playing the difficult spots well is what separates the good players from the bad. Because of this it is invaluable to know the best way to play the most common trouble hands in poker.

When we consider trouble hands it will frequently be a case of picking the best of a bad bunch of options. Each option may seem very undesirable but we have to pick one, and choosing the best option on a regular basis will massively improve your long-term results. In this article we will consider how to play some of the widely known €˜trouble hands €™, such as A-K and J-J, and some of the difficult situations you can find yourself in when you play them.


Playing Ace-King

The hands that can be difficult to play in both cash games and tournaments are those that are very strong, but not necessarily in the realm of €˜monsters €™. These include hands like A-K and J-J. A-K is obviously a great hand because every time you flop a pair it is top pair top kicker €“ and you can extract value from top pairs with worse kickers. Crucially, when you have A-K you also have two blockers to both A-A and K-K, which makes it less likely your opponents hold them. A-A and K-K are the two specific hands you are afraid of when you hold A-K as against everything else you are either dominating or at worst flipping, whereas you are in very poor shape against those big pairs.

As a result, with a hand like A-K you want to be fast playing preflop as much as possible where your equity is very good and trying not to put yourself in difficult postflop situations where you don €™t flop a pair and are playing a guessing game as to whether your hand is best or not. The key is not to slow play A-K or play it cautiously without logical reason. An example might be slow playing preflop by just calling a three-bet because you are trapping against a very aggressive player, or there can also be occasions where a very tight player three-bets and you decide to take a cautious approach with A-K, realising that much of the villain €™s range is made up of A-A and K-K.

Playing pocket Jacks  

A similar strategy can be adopted when playing a hand like J-J. You want to maximise the equity such a strong hand has preflop, but only play the hand as fast as is warranted. If a weak player opens before you then you should be three-betting, knowing they will likely call with much worse holdings and you can potentially win a big pot postflop. But if that weak player then four-bets you will need to re-evaluate the situation depending on how strong you view his range and the stack sizes in play.

The key to playing typical €˜trouble €™ hands preflop is to find the right balance between under-playing and over-playing. Obviously this is easier said than done, but something that will be best executed by analysing all the information you have at your disposal such as the different villains €™ hand ranges and stack sizes. You should not be playing A-K cautiously simply because you are afraid your opponent might have A-A or K-K or
want to fold in a small pot when you don €™t hit a pair. Equally you should not always get all-in preflop with A-K purely because you don €™t want to play a difficult postflop situation.

On the flop

When your high cards miss €¦

When it comes to trouble hands in poker, much of the trouble we think of seems to start on the flop. A classic troublesome situation is holding A-K and missing the flop. A-K is a hand you will see a lot of flops with and will only hit a pair about one in three times. Because of this, most of the flops you see with A-K will cause some sort of trouble. When you do not flop a pair there are a number of board textures that can make you want to play your Ace-high in different ways. Sometimes you will flop good equity with overcards, straight draws, flush draws or some combination of all three and sometimes you will miss the flop completely. Let €™s consider the latter situation:

  • You three-bet A-K from the big blind after the cutoff raises with 100BB. The flop comes T-9-7 with a flush draw €¦

This is about as bad a flop as you can get with A-K. The board hits the villain €™s range hard and your hand has very little equity. The best thing to do here would be to check with the intention of giving up. It €™s possible the villain could check back and there could be some favourable turn cards for you, but in general you should be done with the hand. Although it can be frustrating knowing your opponent can see your check as weak and bluff you with a hand like K-Q, check-folding will be a more profitable play in the long-term.

Sometimes you will miss the flop but the board can be favourable to you in other ways. For example:

  • You three-bet A-Q from the SB after the BTN raises with 100B stacks. The flop comes J-7-4 rainbow €¦

The flop isn €™t great but is far from a disaster. It is dry and does not hit the types of hands the villain calls three-bets with particularly often. C-betting here is by far the best play as the villain will fold a lot of the time. Also you can apply further pressure on future streets to get folds from hands like 9-9 and 8-8, as well as there being great turn cards to give you extra equity, such as a King or a Ten. Kings and Tens also happen to be great bluff cards as the villain €™s underpairs will look much less strong.  

When there are overcard(s) to your pocket Jacks €¦

The hand frequently named as the most difficult to play is J-J. Some people even claim to fold it more often than they should because it €˜always loses’. But J-J is a very strong hand in no-limit hold €™em, especially if you were playing a shallow stage of a tournament where it would usually be a standard hand to get all-in preflop. In deeper stacked cash games it should be played with more caution, but is still a hand that can extract a lot of value.

The most common problem with J-J is when one or more overcards falls on the flop. This happens about two thirds of the time so is a situation you will encounter frequently. If two overcards hit the flop, then it is going to be difficult to win the hand, such as in this example:

  • You three-bet J-J from the BTN after the hijack opens with 100BB stacks. The flop is A-K-7 with a flush draw. The villain checks €¦

Your only real advantage here is that you are in position. This allows you to check back and see what develops. The difficulty arises because your check back will indicate that you probably have a weak holding. The villain could decide to bluff with a worse hand than J-J. Unfortunately you have to accept that you will get bluffed off J-J a certain amount of the time. Against opponents you play on a regular basis you might want to balance your play on flops like this, by occasionally betting a hand like J-J and also sometimes checking back A-Q which will make you more difficult to play in the long-term.

One overcard to your J-J could hit the flop such as in this example:

  • You three-bet J-J from the SB after the HJ opens with 100BB stacks. The flop comes Q-9-4 rainbow €¦

How to proceed here would be mostly based on how you view you the villain in the hijack. If they are a player that always barrels when checked to in such spots then checking and looking to call before re-evaluating the situation on the turn would be best. If the villain is a good player who is capable of both value betting thin, and making big multi-street bluffs, then betting seems like the better option. This way you can potentially avoid difficult turn and river decisions as well as get some value from worse hands and floats (it should be noted that with J-J you have two blockers to many of the hands the villain will float with, thus making them a bit less likely).

Many players find this situation difficult as with J-J your hand can get some value from worse hands but not much, and is also a bit better than a bluff catcher. This lack of €˜knowing where you are €™ leads to frequent mistakes. In this situation you should have a rough plan on how the hand might play out. For example, if you check the turn, are you going to call down a lot of turns and rivers? If you bet the flop and the villain calls, do you think you will be able to get to showdown very often? Your ability to make rough plans will come with experience, as well as utilising all the reads and history of the villain you have at your disposal.

The turn and river

Following on from the J-J hand with one flopped overcard we can now look at a possible turn and river situation and what sort of factors you should be thinking about. In the earlier example the flop came Q-9-4 and you decided to bet knowing that the villain will sometimes call with worse hands and sometimes float (but you will be happy to get a fold). The villain calls and the turn is a Four. You decide to check and then call a half-pot bet by the villain. The river is a Five and it goes check/check and you win the pot as the villain mucks A-9.  

The board ran out very kindly in this situation. The turn paired the bottom card which does not change much because there are not many Fours in the villain €™s range. When you check and the villain bets half-pot, it represents a range that includes a Queen, Nine, or a straight draw with a hand like J-T or K-T. You do well versus this range so calling is best. The river is a great blank card so when you check, it €™s unlikely the villain will bluff because he would be representing a very narrow value range and will be happy to take a hand like 9-x to showdown.

With trouble hands it’s important to not become too disillusioned when things go wrong. The nature of difficult situations in poker is that very often the result will be undesirable. You should be aware that a bad result does not necessarily mean you played the hand poorly, and should not directly affect how you play the same situation in the future.

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