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Five Trouble Poker Hands and How to Play Them

Last updated on March 4, 2018

Some players call them “trouble hands.”  Others call them “dangerous,” but regardless of name, these hands can be costly when misplayed.

 Let’s look at five troublesome hands and see how each can lead you down a primrose path if you’re not careful.

Pocket Jacks: Not many starting hands are better than a pocket pair of jacks.  Only pocket aces, kings, or queens are ahead of you from the get-go.  So why the worry?

Jacks are both a blessing and a curse, and playing them correctly is not easy.  While jacks are tough enough to play in a limit cash game, where all a loss can cost is a few more chips, they’re even tougher in a tournament, particularly when it’s no-limit.  If you act rashly, you can easily lose all your chips with this hand.


In a tournament, sometimes pocket jacks are a no-brainer to play, particularly if you’re short stacked and looking to make a stand.  Then you just push all your chips into the pot and hope.  If you’ve got most of the chips at the table it’s not all that tough a decision either. Just force any short stack that already entered the pot to commit all his chips or fold to your raise.  After all, you can afford the loss and even if your jacks aren’t the best hand right now, they can always improve and it won’t cost you any more chips to play out the hand. But most of the time jacks will force you to an uneasy decision that will be predicated on how deep your stacks are, whether you can afford to call a reraise, and how many chips you’re willing to risk on a hand that’s as vulnerable as it is strong.

 But it’s all those other situations that make for tough sledding. The following table contains the results from a series of simulations I ran to test the strength of a pair of jacks.  In these simulations, each scenario was played out 500,000 times.

-Pocket Jacks, when no overcards flop: Wins 20.8 percent of the time; each of the eight other hands wins 9.9 percent of the time.

-Pocket Jacks, when one overcard flops: Wins 14 percent of the time; each of the eight other hands wins 10.75 percent of the time.

-Pocket Jacks, when two overcards flop: Wins 10 percent of the time; each of the eight other hands wins 11.25 percent of the time.

-Pocket Jacks, when three overcards flop: Wins 12.9 percent of the time; each of the eight other hands wins nearly 11 percent of the time.

Jacks are very dependent on the flop, and a pair of jacks is lucky to see a flop without an overcard.  In these simulations all overcards were equally dangerous to the jacks, but real poker is quite different because many hold’em players favor ace hands but play fewer combinations of other big cards.  You see players call all the time with A-7 and Ac-5c, but you’ll seldom see your opponents turning up hands like Q-7 and Qc-5c.

The implications are clear.  If you hold a pocket pair of jacks in a real poker game, be a lot more wary of a flop containing an ace than one that contains a king or a queen as its lone overcard.  Better yet, if you can thin out the field with a raise before the flop, facing a one-overcard board isn’t nearly as daunting.  When you’re heads-up, chances that the lone overcard helped your opponent are less than they would be if you were involved in a family pot, where you can safely assume that the flop will help someone.

Eight-seven suited: You can throw a lot of other suited connectors into this hopper too, and 8-7 suited is emblematic of similar hands such as T-9, 9-8, 7-6, and lower connectors.  With this hand you figure to catch a pair on the flop about one-third of the time. That’s far more often than you’ll flop a flush draw or open-ended straight draw with this hand, which is really what you’re hoping for. This holds true for A-K too, or any other combination of two unpaired cards.  But with Big Slick one pair figures to be the lead hand most of the time, and that’s seldom the case with 8-7.  Even when you flop something like 8-4-2, you are still behind to a bigger pocket pair or a hand like A-8s.  Another worry is that someone has a straight draw.

Unless the flop hits you twice, or three times, you’ll seldom be sure of how your hand stacks up to those hands held by your opponents.  To be profitable in the long run, hands like 8-7 suited really need a lot of players in the pot, along with the chance to catch a flush or straight draw, all for the cost of one bet.

If the flop doesn’t generate trips, two-pair, or a draw to a straight or a flush, your hand is an uninspiring eight-high, and that won’t win many hold’em pots.  That’s why they’re dangerous.  So many players can’t part with them because suited connectors are just so many pretty faces.  They look good, and players persist in sticking around with them whenever they flop one pair, even when they really know better.

The simple truth about suited connectors is this: If you don’t flop a good draw, or the flop doesn’t otherwise hit you twice, ditch ‘em; they’re dogs.

Presto: That’s the nickname the internet poker newsgroup has given to a pair of fives, and as was the case with 8-7, a pocket pair of fives is emblematic of other small pairs too.  If you are dealt a small pocket pair, you really need to know two things: How many opponents will you have in order to determine whether to call or raise with your hand, and whether anyone else has a really good hand and plans to raise too.Since you have to guess at the answers to these questions from early position, you should only play them in conservative games where raises are infrequent and many players call. Then you can treat your pair of fives as a drawing hand.  If you flop a set — and the odds are long at 7.5-to-1 that you won’t — you figure to win a big pot. If you miss, you can check and fold at the first sound of rustling chips.   If you are in last or next-to-last position and no one has called the blinds, you should raise with hands like these because any pair probably has it all over the blinds, which are random hands that don’t figure to rise to the level of a pair.

If you’re in a tournament, playing a smallish pair from early position depends on how many chips you have, and where you are in the tournament’s standings.  Most of the time you should toss your small pair away. The only time you shouldn’t is when you are very short stacked. Then the best course of action is to move all-in and hope that your opponent will fold his hand or call with a hand like A-K but miss the flop, turn, and river.

Smallish pairs are usually weak hands. If you win a hand with them, you frequently bag a small pot unless you were fortunate enough to flop a set and trap someone with a big pair or two. But if you lose, it can be expensive simply because it’s difficult to tell whether you are ahead or behind with this kind of hand.

King-Jack early: In early position K-J looks good: two big cards and unless an ace flops pairing either one of them makes it seem as though you have the best hand.  But if you call with K-J and someone raises behind you, or you raise and someone three-bets, you probably don’t have the best hand, even if a king or a jack flops.  You could easily be dominated by a hand like A-K, A-J, or K-Q. When you’re dominated, you have three outs, and three outs only and your opponent has his foot squarely on your throat.

Of course the same thing is true if you began with a hand like 8-8 and saw a flop of A-Q-9.  You started with a hand that looked pretty good, but if there is any action at all, someone figures to have made a better hand and you are relegated to drawing very thin; you’re trying to catch one of the two remaining eights on either the turn or river to make your hand.  But that flop is a very visual clue to you. Three overcards coupled with action from your opponents spells trouble and anyone can see it.  In a situation like this, a pocket pair of eights is easily released with no further damage inflicted.

But folding K-J isn’t that easy. Suppose the flop is J-9-3, or K-7-2.  In each case no one figures to have two pair or a set because few players are going to cold-call a raise with cards that would support that kind of hand. So your opponent figures to have top pair too, and your kicker looks good. As least it looks good to you. But if your opponent was the raiser, or worse yet, he three bet the pot after your raised, don’t you think there’s a good chance that he’s holding A-A, K-K, A-J or A-K and is now far ahead of you?

While there’s always a chance that you might be in the lead, all too often you’ll find yourself with your foot on the brakes, winning the minimum when you do win but losing a lot of chips when your opponent has you dominated to three outs and you never catch that miracle-card on the turn or river.

Big Slick: Ace-king shouldn’t be a troublesome hand, but it can be for some players. And that’s because they treat A-K as though it were a made hand, as good as a pair of aces or a pair of kings or close to it, when in reality it is a drawing hand with no immediate value except in it’s potential to render top pair with the very best kicker whenever an ace or a king flops.

There is one exception.  If you’re up against only one opponent, A-K stands a good chance to win without improvement. But in a family pot — even if it’s a small family — A-K needs to improve to win, and regardless of how hard you push A-K into a large field of players, if the flop fails to fit your hand, it probably fit someone else’s just fine.

These are just some of the troublesome hands you run into in hold’em games, whether they are cash games in your neighboring casino or big-money tournaments like the World Series of Poker.    Lot’s of judgment is required to play them correctly, because these hands carry the potential of winning a big pot or sending you to the tournament’s rail.  There are other troublesome hands in addition to these five, but if you’ve never stopped to think about the kinds of hands that most often lead to disaster, this group will do for a star

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