When to Play Q

I’ve been talking a lot of trash about doing an analysis of a specific hold’em hand, and it’s time for me to put up or shut up. A few columns ago, I asked for suggestions on hands to analyze, and mentioned that Q-J (offsuit) might be a good starting point. Not surprisingly, Q-J turned out to be the leading vote getter. So, my short career as an objective pollster didn’t last long, but I do have a few observations to make about Q-J.

I’ve done two things with Q-J that I hope will be helpful. First, I’ve consulted the hold’em strategy books on my bookshelf, to find areas where there is a consensus about how the hand should be played preflop in limit games. Second, I’ve run some simulations to learn a little more about Q-J’s fate on the flop and beyond. There are other things we could do to learn more about when and how to play Q-J. These are just the two that fit in my column this month.

One of the reasons I picked Q-J is because it’s so tricky to play well. Every hand must pay its share of blinds, and even the worst hands will occasionally stumble into a pot via the big blind, or via a late-position play (for example, a blinds steal). Beyond that, hands differ in how likely they are to present opportunities for profitable or unprofitable play. Some hands (for example, 7-2 offsuit, the classic underdog) will give you little else, and are generally played pkv games to roughly zero profit or loss beyond the blinds. Others (for example, A-A) can be played profitably at almost any time (outside of some unusual tournament situations). Q-J is somewhere in the middle. If you play it as often as you play A-A, you’ll lose with it. If you fold it as often as you do 7-2, you’re missing some opportunities for profit. Because Q-J comes with two facecards, it can be very attractive when you’ve hit a dry run, and at least among inexperienced players, it’s certainly one of the more overplayed hands. So, more players overplay than underplay it. At the same time, while it would be no great loss to omit it entirely from your “play” list, it’s at least worth considering when it can be played for profit.

General Considerations — What’s Interesting About Q-J?

Q-J is a hand that waits for opportunities rather than one that forces the issue. Against weak opponents who will call from middle position with any kind of garbage, it can be worth a raise, especially if your chances of getting the pot heads up are good. But generally speaking, it’s not a favorite against a single opponent. Of the non-pair hands Sklansky and Malmuth list in their hand groupings, Q-J is a dog against slightly more than half of them. It’s of course also a dog against all the pocket pairs, although it gives only a little away against 10-10 and lower (it’s virtually a tossup against sevens or lower). However, since most opponents are more likely to play the better hands on that list than the hands toward the bottom, Q-J is somewhat worse than a tossup against opponents who have legitimate playable hands. Even worse, it fares poorly against bad aces and bad suited kings, two of the hands you’d normally like your opponents to overplay.

Q-J has some obvious properties that make it clear why the hand isn’t often playable. As a high-card hand (the kind that pairs and wins), it’s too weak to do well against large fields, and is easily dominated against small fields. It tends to pay off dominating hands much more often than it gets paid off. As a drawing hand (the kind that has to make at least two pair to win), it’s too unlikely to hit to play against any but the largest fields. So, it can generally be played only with the best of odds, which means against many opponents in an unraised pot.

Using Lou Krieger’s starting tables (from Hold’em Excellence), I simulated winning rates against various types of opponents. Against two players who have entered the pot voluntarily with Krieger’s early-position hands, Q-J is only 21 percent likely to be the best hand by showdown. Against middle-position hands, the rate is 26 percent, and it improves to 32 percent against late-position hands. Throw in a few random hands, and it does make up some ground. With two middles and two randoms, Q-J wins about 18 percent, close to its 20 percent fair share. Still, you’d like to get substantially more than your fair share, not less. I’ll have more to say about these simulations below, but the first point is obvious: Q-J doesn’t do well in showdown poker against players who have chosen their hands carefully. Given that Q-J is no more (perhaps less) likely than other hands to have hit the flop, it’s unlikely to be profitable against tight opponents, unless you think you can outplay them substantially after the flop.

Q-J Before the Flop

Since Q-J is rarely a heads-up favorite, it stands to reason that it’s best played against larger fields. Since it’s a drawing hand, it stands to reason that it’s best played for a single bet. Correspondingly, most authors recommend playing it routinely only from late position, and then only in an unraised pot. Although several authors note that it can be playable from middle position with enough callers in a relatively passive game, none whom I surveyed suggested that it should be played routinely from early position. While there may be times that this can be violated (for example, at tables where most hands send eight players to the flop with no raise), at best there’s no compelling reason to find extra spots for Q-J.

Several authors also noted that it can sometimes be worth a raise when you’re the first to enter the pot from late position, and the blinds are relatively unlikely to defend. Of course, the same could be said for many hands. The added value of Q-J in this case is that it’s better than average when your opponents defend with random hands. And of course it’s worth picking up the blinds against opponents who either hold garbage or will dump stronger hands than Q-J (for example, K-X). However, bear in mind that when you steal-raise, you’re risking two bets to win 1.5 (or 1.33). So, if you pick up the blinds 57 percent (or 60 percent) of the time, you’ve broken even without even having to play the hands when you’re called or reraised. However, these rates may be hard to achieve in many of today’s loose games, or against opponents who have a sense of how often they should defend their blinds. And it’s not always clear when Q-J can be played profitably from the flop onward after your raise is called.

Q-J After the Flop

This is really still about when to play Q-J, but from a perspective of how it fares after the flop. The simulations below are just a small subset of the potentially informative analyses, but they’re still informative. They break down the fate of Q-J as a function of how it hits the flop. I’ve adopted seven categories for how your hand hits the flop: premium (two pair using both cards or better), top pair with an open-end straight draw, non-top pair with an open-ender, other top pair, other non-top pair, other open-enders, and others. I tried other categories, as well, but these are the ones that seemed the most informative (two-suited flops were surprisingly not that different from three-suited). The win rates are approximate, so it’s more important to understand the overall patterns than the exact numbers.

Depending slightly on the makeup of your opponents, Q-J tends to hit the flop in some way about 46 percent to 50 percent of the time. About 4 percent of the time, it will make a premium hand, but the most likely non-miss outcome by far is top pair (about 30 percent). Below are the results from three of the simulations I ran. I’ve kept it to three for space considerations, and the ones I’ve selected are reasonably illustrative. I’ll put more up on my web site, and feel free to e-mail me with suggestions.

First, against two tight players (playing Krieger’s early-position hands), Q-J wins at showdown 21 percent of the time (chance is 33 percent). Here’s a breakdown:

What’s most striking against two tight opponents is that even fairly attractive flops win less than their fair share of showdowns. Only the premium flops are clear winners. While there are playing considerations that make some of the flop types easier to play profitably (for example, the straight draws you can pursue selectively), it clearly will be hard to find profitable opportunities outside of the times you flop a premium hand. Of course, oftentimes when your opponents have legitimate early-position hands, they’ll let you know with a raise. But it’s important to keep in mind that Q-J is an especially poor performer against small numbers of tight opponents.

Against two late-position players, Q-J wins at showdown just short of 33 percent. Here’s the breakdown:

This situation is clearly much more optimistic. Although you’ll miss the flop a bit more than half the time, your non-misses should overall be profitable. Even open-end straight draws end up best somewhat more often than they hit their straights. Showdown percentages aren’t the same thing as profitability, but it seems clear that with two loose (but still selective) opponents, you can make a profit with Q-J.

Against two middle-position players and two random players, Q-J wins 18 percent (chance is 20 percent).

Retreating to middle-position callers, and throwing in the blinds as random hands, Q-J doesn’t fare quite as well. Its overall win percentage is below its fair share, and even when it hits the flop, it’s often only marginally more likely than 20 percent to end up best. Having two random players in the pot is more favorable than even two late-position players. But Q-J is so easily dominated that the presence of two middle-position players saps a good deal of its value.

These simulations are of course only part of the story. Showdown rates aren’t true win rates, they’re just one index of your hand’s strength. For example, the 28 percent win rate when flopping top pair against tight players probably overstates the hand’s value, since tight opponents are unlikely to pay off Q-J with a weaker top pair, but are quite likely to extract a price for the weak kicker. Against weaker opponents, this can reverse itself. But in general, we can see that Q-J is extremely sensitive to the presence of dominating hands. When even moderately tight players have entered the pot, it loses a great deal of value. This seems to hold true even when weaker players have entered, as well.

I’ve run out of space, and there’s plenty more to know about Q-J. For one thing, none of the above simulations address truly loose tables, where you expect to see more than four opponents and where Q-J is liable to be most profitable. Perhaps additional loose players would overcome some of the disadvantage of having a few tighter players at the table. I hope this brief survey and these simulation results can be a useful starting point for thinking about when you play the hand. If you’d like more details on the simulations, visit my web site at www.seriouspoker.com/simulations.