Trouble Hands - A-Q
by Jason Kirk  

While playing at the Tropicana in Atlantic City earlier this year, one of the older players at my 1-2 no-limit hold’em table lamented how much times have changed. He noted that fixed-limit poker used to be the first stop for new players because at beginners’ limits it’s very difficult to go broke right away, even with very little knowledge of the game. The thought of beginning with no-limit poker was considered frivolous at best, and downright foolish at worst, because a bad no-limit player would lose his bankroll as quickly as the cards can be dealt to him. There are just too many trouble hands in no-limit that get a player in deep trouble of the sort he wouldn’t experience if he were in a fixed-limit game.

This older gentleman was troubled by the fact that new poker players today skip straight to no-limit hold’em because that’s what they’ve seen on television. Unless he was some sort of altruistic soul looking to help the young newcomers play better poker - a possibility I don’t discount completely, but one which I find highly unlikely - he should have been happy about this trend. With so many bad no-limit players around, it’s a sure bet that some of them will actually end up winning money from the other bad players and eventually be seated at your table. These players are poker’s equivalent of a vein of gold waiting for a miner. The most important thing you can do to make sure you get in on this gold rush is to stay patient and be aware of situations where you can get yourself (and your bankroll) into deep trouble by overplaying your hands.

One of the most notable trouble hands around is A-Q. No less an authority than Doyle Brunson, perhaps the greatest living no-limit hold’em player, famously declared in Super System that he simply wouldn’t play the hand. Doyle is a poker player, so that statement has to be taken with a grain of salt, but there is good reason why he would say such a thing. Much like A-J, A-Q simply looks far prettier than it is. Taking a look at the percentages exposes A-Q for the trouble hand it really is. To be fair to A-Q, the first situation to examine is the best-case scenario: when it has the opposing hand dominated. The hands that find themselves in a dominated position - A-J and below, K-Q, and Q-J and below - are a combined 73.5-26.5 underdog against A-Q. That’s roughly 2.77:1 - pretty good odds. When A-Q is up against a random hand, the odds change a bit. It now finds itself only a 64.9-35.1 favorite, roughly 1.85:1. Those are still decent odds, but it’s a big drop from the odds A-Q enjoys against dominated hands.

While it’s good to know the favorable situations A-Q can end up in, the worst-case scenarios with A-Q are what should really concern us. Beginning players tend to play A-Q very strongly, raising with it from almost any position because it looks so good. While they’ll get lucky now and then and find someone who will play back at them with random or dominated hands, the majority of their wins will be small pots. Their losses, however, will frequently be of the entire-stack variety due to the fact that the only hands strong enough to play back at A-Q are heavy favorites. A-A, Q-Q, and A-K are a combined 75.8-24.2 favorite against A-Q - that’s 3.12:1. K-K, the other monster hand that A-Q will frequently find challenging it, is a 70.9-29.1 favorite. At 2:44:1, that’s weaker than the hands that dominate A-Q, but still almost as favorable as A-Q against hands it dominates. Even against smaller pairs that some might play aggressively, A-Q still finds itself a 54-46 underdog. 1.17:1 isn’t a horrible situation to find yourself in, especially if you are desperate, but the fact is that you still lose more than you win.

Because of its weaknesses, the most important thing to keep in mind with A-Q is position. Position can eliminate many of the holes in a starting hand. When you play A-Q aggressively in early position, you’re begging for one of the seven to ten players left to act behind you to wake up with one of the hands that crushes A-Q and move you all-in. Middle and late position make A-Q slightly stronger, as fewer players can potentially wake up with big hands. Even in these most favorable situations, though, the pots you take will be small because the chances of someone playing back at you for their entire stack with a dominated hand are very small. The best advice is not to play A-Q aggressively at all, but if you have to do so late position is where you want to attack.

At the same Tropicana table where the older gentleman wished younger players would start off with fixed-limit poker, I found myself seated to the left of a highly aggressive younger player. He picked up lots of small pots with aggressive betting after the flop, but he never did win a big pot. When he finally played a hand heads-up with me, it ended up being for all of his money on a queen-high flop. He held top pair, top kicker with A-Q under the gun - and I held Q-Q on his immediate left. He played a lot of hands at that table and had nothing to show for them when he walked away. I played a relatively small number of hands in that short session and walked away with double my starting stack. If he’d known his trouble hands better, he might have gotten away from the hand. But when the turn brought an ace and gave him two pair, he was going broke with A-Q.

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