Statistically pocket jacks are one of the strongest starting hands in poker so why is it that poker players seem to despise the hand? The problem is that being second or third best in poker will often mean the end of your tournament or cash game session. Pocket jacks are an exceptionally powerful hand but the have a bad habit of running into aces and kings. In addition it's very difficult to tell where you're at with pocket jacks as the board will usually have an overcard. That doesn't mean you have to be scared of jacks, however. We’re going to take a look at the odds behind pocket jacks and provide some basic tips on playing them.
Pocket Jacks Basics
Here’s the thing about pocket jacks: Versus any two random cards they are very, very strong. In fact jacks are a 77% favorite to win against any two randomly selected cards.
Even when you pit jacks against normal hands they are still the fourth best pair in poker (behind only aces, kings and queens) and they are generally always regarded as one of the top five best hands in Hold’em.
What makes jacks a difficult hand to play is that they get crushed by most of the other top hands. Aces, kings and queens have you absolutely dominated while ace-king is basically a coin flip situation.
That’s not even including multi-way situations where lesser hands will have the opportunity of hitting two-pair, trips, straights or flushes or worse to crack your jacks.
Perhaps the most striking stat when it comes to pocket jacks is the 57% chance that an overcard to your jacks will hit the flop. In fact jacks will only hold as an overcard to the board a scant 24% of the time by the river.
Here are some other interesting percentages when it comes to pocket jacks:
As you can see jacks are way ahead of the middle pairs but absolutely crushed by aces (as well as kings and queens).
The only premium hand that pocket jacks plays decently against is ace-king and even that hand is pretty close to a coin flip at 54% in favor of the jacks.
Tips for Playing Pocket Jacks
More than any other hand you’ve got to be cautious with pocket jacks.
That doesn’t mean you have to fold them the minute you get some action but you’ve got to at least try and avoid situations where you’ll be forced all-in.
Pocket jacks are a very strong hand against random trash but the hands that people want to play (aces, kings and queens) have you dominated.
Even worse, hands like ace-king, ace-queen or ace-ten will have you crushed if an ace hits the flop. Regardless of whether your opponent has an ace you’ve got to play cautiously when an overcard hits the board. It’s that fact that makes pocket jacks problematic.
Players with jacks get frustrated because they feel like their opponent always as an ace. The reality is that people play aces. That’s why you run into them frequently.
There is actually one situation where pocket jacks become a much stronger hand. If you’re heads-up than pocket jacks are much stronger because you don’t have to worry about multiple players flopping two-pair or trips. Pocket jacks are a monster when you’re heads-up pre-flop.
For beginner poker players it’s actually pretty easy to break things down when you have pocket jacks. You’ll miss out on some value long-term but here are four steps to avoid huge losses with pocket jacks when you are starting out:
1. Bet to protect you hand
Jacks get weaker when there are more players in a hand and when overcards hit the board. You can avoid this by potentially getting players out of the pot early. If you manage to get to a flop with no overcards you can fire again.
2. Sometimes Just Calling is Enough
You’ve got to be careful when you open a pot but then the players in front of you raise or re-raise. You don’t want to be committing a huge 100 big blind stack when you have jacks as there’s a decent chance your opponent could have aces, kings or queens.
3. Beware the overcard
If an ace, king or queen hit the board you’ve got to slow your roll. In doesn’t necessarily mean you have to outright fold but a lot of players employ a “one bet and fold” strategy, meaning they’ll put in one bet on the flop but if their opponent raises (or check-raises for that matter) than it’s time to get out of the way.
4. Don’t be afraid of folding
It almost goes without saying but don’t be afraid of folding your pocket jacks. There’s a reason some players lose huge pots with this hand. It can be especially hard laying jacks down when you have gone through a real glut of bad cards but it’s an important part of being a disciplined player.
One Secret Trick for Playing Pocket Jacks
Pretend you have pocket nines.
It might sound a little silly but it gives players a much better idea of their relative hand strength.
Pocket jacks are a strong hand that actually crushes a lot of smaller pairs but they also have a propensity for running into bigger hands.
If you can mentally discount the strength of jacks down to around pocket nines level then you’ll likely be able to avoid some tough decisions.
For instance you don’t want to be getting 100 big blinds in the middle with pocket nines. You ALSO don’t want to be doing it with pocket jacks in most situations. Act accordingly.
Of course that’s not to say that you shouldn’t be betting when you flop a set or hold top-pair but you’ve got to be cautious.
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