Jacks in the box
Last time we examined the inherent strengths and weaknesses of a pair of Jacks by taking a detailed look at the maths. What we discovered was just how flopdependent this hand really is. Now it’s time to put what we learnt into practice and explore the best way to play those fishhooks in tournaments and cash games.
In a tournament, you always have to consider how many chips you have compared to your opponent. You also need to work out if you can afford to call a re-raise, and how many of your chips you want to put at risk on a hand that’s as potentially vulnerable as it is strong. Playing pocket Jacks is easy if you’re short-stacked and looking to make a stand. If that’s the case, just push all your chips into the pot and sweat it out from there.
If you’ve got an overwhelming chip advantage it’s not all that tough a decision either. Just force any short-stacked player already in the pot to commit all his chips or fold to your raise. After all, you can afford the loss. Even if your Jacks aren’t the best hand right now, they can always improve on the flop, turn and river and it won’t cost you any more of your chips to play it out.
Extreme situations often result in easy decisions. With plenty of chips or only a precious few, you’re always going to play the hand. It’s all those other situations that make for tough decisions. If you’re re-raised, you’ll have to make a decision about your hand. If you and your opponent are close in chips – and you are not shortstacked – you can call if the cost does not force you to commit too many chips. By doing this, you’ve essentially decided to play your Jacks like a drawing hand.
Now it’s time to say your prayers and hope to flop a set. If you don’t flop a set, and the odds are 7.5/1 against that happening, the flop will help you decide which course of action to take. With one or two overcards and a bet from an opponent, I’d fold unless I was short-stacked and had to make a stand against an opponent who might be bluffing in this situation.
With no overcards, you can lead out and try to take the pot away from a player who re-raised you before the flop with A-K. But if he raises – or if he is first to act and makes a big bet – I’d be prone to let my hand go. I just don’t like to play for all my chips with only one pair and no draw to support it, unless I’m terribly short-stacked. If you’re going to risk all of your chips and entire tournament equity on one hand, look for a better situation than one where you’re confronting an aggressive player with a rather vulnerable pair.
If I’m first to act with pocket Jacks, I’ll bring it in for a standard raise of three to four times the big blind, unless I am short-stacked, in which case I’m going all-in. At this point I’d be equally happy winning the blinds or having just one player call me. If there are a couple of callers – or even a couple of callers and a raise from a player who has shown a propensity for stealing some pots with welltimed raises – I would be tempted to steal it back from him by making a big bet from late position that he cannot call without having a huge hand.
While this play is high-risk, it is also highly rewarding, especially if I can take the money contributed by the blinds, the two or three callers, and the money contributed by the player who raised. Even if I’m called by the original raiser, I may be a slight favourite over his A-K, a prohibitive underdog to Aces, Kings, or Queens, but a huge favourite over any smaller pair he might have raised with.
Jacks are vulnerable in a tournament – particularly when you can ill-afford to squander chips on a hand that’s a pre-flop coin flip at best. The good news is that you’ll attract fewer callers in a no-limit tournament than you might in a cash game, so Jacks have a better chance of surviving. But, even when you are called by a hand like A-K or A-Q, you are still a small favourite. Most of the time you won’t be at that point where risking all of your chips is really the only course of action, so you’ll probably make a ‘standard’ sized raise with Jacks the majority of the time. Before you raise, you should be fully cognisant of the fact that you might have to abandon ship if the flop is unfavourable and there’s significant action in front of you.
Most players will raise with a pair of Jacks, regardless of their position in the betting order. It’s one of the best hands you can be dealt before the flop and if an opponent re-raises with a better hand you’ll probably lose a few chips, though it won’t be enough to cripple you. Jacks will survive the flop about half the time. The other fifty percent, you are looking at one or more overcards.
Raising is the tactic of choice before the flop to minimise the chance of an overcard helping an opponent. Raising is also the best option because when you’re first in, you probably have the best hand and are favoured to have the best hand if no overcards flop. If you raise with a pair of Jacks and are re-raised, you can call, take the flop and if no overcard falls, you can continue to play against an opponent who is statistically more likely to have A-K or A-Q than a pocket pair of Queens, Kings, or Aces.
In a fixed-limit game, I’m more wary of an Ace falling than a King or a Queen, simply because so many players are fond of playing any Ace they are dealt. If the flop brings a big card or two, you’ll have to decide based on how well you know your opponent and make a decision about whether you want to continue on with your Jacks.
There are a number of similarities between playing Jacks in a no-limit cash game and a tournament. You’ll still bring in pocket Jacks for a raise or even a re-raise in most cases. The difference is you might have to make a larger raise from late position to eliminate all the callers. One of the differences between no-limit cash games and tournaments – especially deep-stack no-limit cash games – is that cash games can have more callers, and the kinds of hands they’re playing differ as well.
In a cash game players don’t have to worry about depleting their chip stacks and being short-stacked; they can always buy more chips between hands. As a result, you’ll find more players in deep-stack cash games taking the flop with many hands they’d release in a tournament. You won’t find many tournament players calling with pocket 3s or 4s – or a 9-8 suited – because the vast majority of the time these hands have to be folded on the flop. Too much play with risky hands depletes a tournament player’s ammunition or puts him out of the event entirely. But players in a cash game can and do see the flop with these kinds of hands.
The reason behind this is simple: implied odds. In a deep-stack cash game you’re hoping to flop a set and take most or all of an opponent’s chips whenever he flops a playable – but weaker – hand than yours. Although most good hold’em players are not willing to lose a large stack with a single pair – even a pair of Aces – you have to remember that some will be.
In a no-limit game with a restricted buy-in, more players are willing to put all their chips at risk with top pair, and certainly with top two pair. With a capped buyin, the implied odds are reduced because players typically have far fewer chips relative to the size of the blinds than they do in deep-stack games. Pocket 3s, for example, are not nearly as valuable because there is less money to be won. With fewer ‘flop-a-set-or-get-out’ hands in play, Jacks are less likely to run into a small set than in a deepstack game, where players are willing to see the flop inexpensively with small pocket pairs.
When push comes to shove, the question really isn’t about the intrinsic strength or weakness of Jacks, it’s more an issue of how the texture of the flop and betting action of your opponents impacts the quality of your hand and affects your decision about whether to keep playing. It’s also about a willingness to fold what is the fourth strongest hand before the flop to an overcard or two and any appreciable action on the part of your opponents once the flop is exposed. So set your antenna to full power whenever you’re dealt Jacks; there’s going to be a lot of information available. Your job is to separate the signal from the noise and act accordingly.