Tom Green, author of the remarkable new book on the math of poker, Texas Hold’em Poker Textbook, challenged me: “Write a column on playing pocket Jacks.” So here is how I believe J-J should best be played.
J-J in the hole – beautiful to behold, but it can be very costly, especially in low/medium-limit games where you don’t have the “weapon” of a huge preflop raise to force out most of your opponents.
If you are up against three or more players, you are probably an underdog. You will lose most of the time.
If it’s a tight game, your raise – especially while using the Esther Bluff tactic – could force out opponents holding A-, K-, or Q-rag, or small pairs, while reducing the number of opponents in the pot, so your J-J has a better chance of not being outdrawn.
At a loose table, consider the Hold’em Caveat strategy: Since the probability of improving on the flop is 7.5-to-1 against when starting with J-J, you want to invest as little $$$ as possible (i.e., no raises); and you want a multi-way pot (three or more opponents staying to see the flop) to yield a decent-size pot on those occasions when you do connect. And hope no A, K, or Q falls on the flop, or to connect to a set of Jacks.
Opponents like to see the flop with big cards. At a full table of nine players, according to Green, at least one opponent will hold an Ace about 80% of the time.
Be cautious; consider folding to a raised bet. Low/medium-limit players often play A-anything, and, sometimes, K-anything to see the flop even if you raise preflop. Any time an Ace or King flops, your J-J is almost certain to be behind if an opponent comes out betting, especially if he is not a “tricky” player.
Lean toward folding and save yourself a bunch of chips – unless you get a free card to see the turn. It would help if you had carefully studied your opponents. If you get raised, be cautious – especially if the raiser is a tight player; his hand likely beats your J-J. With just two outs (to make a set of Jacks), the card odds are much higher than the pot odds – a Negative Expectation.
What if an opponent has a higher pair in the hole? If that were the case, you would be a huge underdog; you could expect to lose about 80% of the time. But, according to Green’s book, at a table with nine players, the probability that an opponent holds A-A, K-K, or Q-Q is about 11%.
So, if only cards lower than Jack fall on the flop, you’re in good shape. Bet or raise in that case; you are betting for value to build the pot when you’re ahead. It also serves to protect your hand if an opponent folds while holding an A, K, or Q.
What if you catch a third Jack?
Of course, it’s great if you catch a set of Jacks on the flop (or on any street). But that won’t happen very often; the odds are 7.5-to-1 against flopping a third Jack. When that happens, consider slow-playing or sandbagging to try to build “your” pot. Check-raising can build a monster pot if there are several opponents staying to the river.
Yes, playing pocket Jacks is a big challenge.