Pocket Jacks

PokerTalkGraphicLast weekend I was playing in a $2 – $5 / $100 Hold em poker game in the Ameristar poker room in Black Hawk when the following hand came up. I was in the big blind with $5 in the pot, there were two callers, and a player near the button raised to $40. As I thumbed up my cards I saw I had pocket Jacks and the action was to me.

The question is – should I play pocket Jacks in this spot?

Author Neil Gibson wrote an article in which he pointed out “The two matching paint cards are hard for some to resist overplaying especially for new players — with the Hooks nickname for the hand indicative of the way fish or novice players tend to get themselves caught in unfortunate situations with the hand.”

Before the flop, a pair of Jacks rates as the fourth-best starting hand in NLHE in terms of its likelihood to prove the best hand by the river and wins 54% of the time. Only Aces, Kings, and Queens are better preflop – although some sources also say A-K suited are more likely to win.

So, the question is – does a player want to risk a large portion of their chips on a hand that will only win 54% of the time?

According to a quote attributed to famous poker pro Doyle Brunson “There are only two ways to play pocket jacks and they are both wrong.”

I take this to mean a player either raises with them, takes the lead in the betting, and plays them aggressively; or simply lay them down and waits for a better opportunity.

Thus, in this hand, within the few seconds between the raise being made and my turn, I considered many factors including:

Does the player who raised play tight or aggressive? Does he bluff or does he play his hand? (Answer – I had played with him before, he was a very tight player and the larger bet showed he had a good hand.)

What is his chip stack and is he committed to the hand? (Answer – he had just over $150 in front of him so with $40 in the pot already was more than likely committed and would play the hand out.)

Was I in a good position to control the betting or one that will get me into trouble? (Answer – I was in first position so would have to either bet immediately or have to be a call station – and either one could cost me lots of chips unless I flopped a big hand.)

What do I have committed and what will the hand cost me? (Answer – at this point I have $5 committed due to being the blind so it would cost another $35 – and the bets on the flop, turn, and river.)

What are the odds of me being ahead? (Answer – with the player, the size of the bet, and his demeanor – I believe he had pocket A’s, K’s, or Q’s so the odds were slight I was ahead.)

Thus, taking all the above into consideration and thinking about my move for maybe five seconds, I held up my pocket Jacks a bit so the player next to me could see the lay down and tossed them into the muck. While I do not show cards often I wanted to see his reaction, get credit for a good laydown, and maybe take advantage of it in a hand later on.

To his credit, he waited until after the Qh – 5s – 4h – Qc – 10c hit the board and the hand was over to exclaim “Did I see what I thought I did?” I shook my head yes and he went into a couple minute long diatribe on how he would never lay down pocket Jacks and it was a big mistake.

When I replied, “Maybe so – but I thought I was behind” he quickly came back with, “It wouldn’t have mattered to me, I would have rode those all the way” with a player on the other side of him agreeing.

This then led to a few players at the other end of the table tossing in their thoughts on what a good play it was with a player stepping over from the $30 – $60 ½ kill limit hold em game and adding his two cents worth saying, “the hooks will win more then they will lose.”

This discussion went on for a good five minutes with no final consensus and players all over the board on how they would play the hand from raising a little bit; to raising all in; to just calling; to folding.

Professional poker player Daniel Nagreanu once said of pocket Jacks, “Most of the time I treat pocket Jacks like pocket 6’s, 7’s or even 10’s” and added playing them for value or in position is good but it’s ok to let them go.

I tend to agree with this strategy when it comes to playing pocket Jacks – be careful, play them like a middle pair, and bet big once you make the hand because you probably have some big cards out there willing to pay off.

By the way, in the above hand the raiser turned over pocket Kings to win the pot with the caller having pocket 10’s. I would have lost at least the $35 but possibly more as I may have called a bet or two. So, in this situation, I believe laying down the pocket Jacks was the right play.

And you know – it’s this kind of hand and discussions that makes the game of poker so fun and continually challenging because while the book says one thing, almost every player will play this hand differently.

Remember – have some fun; win some money; and play your game!

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