1. A-K

Main Danger

Under-playing preflop and over-playing postflop.


It’s usually correct to be very aggressive when holding A-K before the flop. After all, it’s a favourite over everything bar pocket pairs, and even then it’s usually just a coin-flip. The hand is only ever in really bad trouble against K-K (approx 30% to win) and A-A (8-11% to win). In most tournament situations you’re rarely doing much wrong if you get all your chips in pre-flop.

A common mistake players often make is calling a large re-raise with A-K for a decent portion of their stack – say 30% – and then folding when they miss. Remember that you’re only going to make a pair on the flop around a third of the time, so if you’re going to play a big pot with A-K, you’re probably best re-shoving all-in pre-flop. This could force your opponent(s) to fold and, if not, at least you get to see all five cards to improve.


If your A-K doesn’t improve on the flop you should usually fold in the face
of strength, unless, of course, you have the nut flush draw. The harder decisions come when you make top pair, top kicker. The problem is that a good player is unlikely to play a big pot against you with anything less. Imagine you hold A-K on a K-6-5 rainbow flop. Your opponent bets, you raise and he re-raises! Often that will mean you’re beaten and you should fold. Against aggressive, tricky players then, you might want to slow the action down with measured check-calling.

This doesn’t mean you should be petrified every time you hit with big slick. When you make top pair on an A-9-2 rainbow flop, and the turn and river bring safe cards, you should bet all three streets in case your opponent is passively calling along with a weaker Ace.


A-K is a very strong hand, so play to its strengths preflop and postflop if you hit.

2. K-Q

These court cards look pretty but can soon turn poisonous on a sour flop…

Main Danger

Making top pair and playing a big pot when your hand can’t be good.


While K-Q is a strong holding, you can often find yourself in trouble against dominating hands. For that reason you need to minimise potential problems by making sure you come in raising, especially if you’re the first to enter the pot. You might even consider re-raising with it in a short-handed game or against an aggressive player who has been opening with a lot of hands, especially if you have position on them.

If your raise is attacked by a non-tricky player you should probably fold because their ABC raise usually means they either have you dominated (with a hand like Q-Q or A-K) or they’re slightly ahead with a pocket pair. Finally, never limp into a multi-way pot with K-Q. You’re giving the advantage to hands that play well mob-handed like suited connectors and low pocket pairs. Raise or play in a heads-up pot only.


The real danger point for K-Q is on the flop. You can get away from your hand if you don’t hit, but if you make top pair and get a lot of action it’s hard to know where you stand. Let’s say you hold K-Q and the flop is Qs-10c-8c. You’ve made top pair and you’ll often have the best hand. So you bet and get one caller. Then, on a blank turn, suddenly he raises. Are you ahead? Unlikely. A tricky opponent might be playing a draw fast, but in most situations you will have to fold to a raise, especially if the turn completes a draw that you can’t improve upon.


K-Q is a strong hand that can win at showdown, but keep pots small with just top pair.

3. Ace- rag

Playing an ace with a weak kicker will often leave you praying for a chopped pot.

Main Danger Playing the hand because it’s an Ace.


Ace-rag really means A-9 and below unsuited (or suited when the flop brings no flush potential). Adjectives have not been invented for how poisonous playing these hands can be to your long-term profit in hold’em. The only time they have real value is when you’re shoving all-in during a tournament with a short-stack, or in a short-handed or heads-up situation.


Ace-rag is tough to play. When you flop an Ace and get action you just won’t know if you’re ahead or behind, let alone if you flop your kicker (e.g. you have A-8 and the flop is Q-8-2). Most of the time you will have no hand at all, and when you do you won’t be able to stand any major action or you’ll end up being slowly milked by someone with a bigger Ace than yourself. That, by the way, is not a good situation to be in.


Muck the bad Ace.

4. Suited connectors

Tricky hands demand solid post-flop play – don’t hang yourself out to dry.

Main Danger Paying too much preflop and getting lost postflop.


Suited connectors are seductive little tykes – so pretty with their connectedness and matching colours and all. Of course, they can be a huge weapon in hold’em – with the right flop you can stack that previously cocksure big pair. The problem is that this doesn’t happen often enough to make them profitable on a regular basis.

The preflop dangers involve investing too much money or chips and playing them out of position. You must recognise that these poker hands are drawing hands and have almost no value preflop. You’re not investing money in Eight-high, but in the implied odds of getting paid off when you make flushes and straights. For that reason you’re only looking to see a flop when you and your opponent(s) are deep-stacked. As such, don’t get into the habit of routinely playing them in raised pots. If you’re the raiser it’s a different matter entirely, because your unorthodox play is disguising your hand. So if you get involved with suited connectors make sure that you’re either the aggressor, that it’s in a limped pot, or you’re making a specific play against a specific player.

As most of your play with them will be postflop, make sure you’re in position when you enter the pot as they are exceptionally difficult to play out of position after the flop.


There are two big problems with suited connectors after the flop. The first is where you catch part of the flop and may or may not have the best hand. So, for example, you’re playing 8c-7c and the flop is Jh-8d-5s. Against one opponent you may have the best hand or you may be crushed. In reality your hand is not strong and you should remember that you played the suited connectors to make a really big hand. Do not get seduced into putting too many chips in the middle in this kind of marginal spot.

The second big danger is that you get lost in the hand – this is especially true if you’re out of position. Let’s say you play 7d-6d and the flop comes 10d-9s-2d and you’re first to act. The flush draw and gutshot make it a good flop for you but it’s hard to play from here. If you lead out, what do you do if you’re raised? If you check-raise and are called what do you do on the turn if a blank comes?

And finally there’s the danger that if you hit your straight or flush you get beaten by a bigger one. If you hit that diamond flush who’s to say that the bettor isn’t pumping it in with a nut flush draw?

Counteract these dangers by playing suited connectors in position so you can control the action, but make sure that you extract maximum value when you make a big hand. You’re playing these speculative hands and taking the worst of it pre-flop so you can get paid out when you hit. Get those bets in!


Has the potential to cause mayhem but don’t overplay.

5. J-J

Wired jacks are a solid pair but can be strung out by all manner of flops.

Main Danger

Playing a big pot when dominated.


When you have two Jacks in the hole you’re very often ahead of your enemy preflop – it is the fourth best hand in hold’em after all! So play it aggressively by betting and raising heavily.

This is great advice, of course, until the time it’s not. The problem with Jacks is that when the other guy wants to get all his chips in too, it’s often because he has a dreaded overpair. It’s an especially tricky decision when an aggressive move-making player is prepared to play a huge pot preflop. That’s when you must assess the game situation.

If you have a shortish stack, in a Sit & go or MTT, you’re hardly ever going to lay it down. But if both you and your foe are deep-stacked in a cash game or MTT it might be wiser to muck ’em.

You need to be wary of calling re-raises pre-flop with J-J as there are only a few flops that will help your hand. Unless you’re getting the odds to hit a set it’s often better to make a decision with them preflop.


The reality is that there are very few flops that will help your hand. More than half the time you’ll see at least one overcard, and if you were beaten by a bigger pair preflop you’re still stuffed. Also, if there’s strong action on the flop you could be up against two-pair, a set, or overcards with a huge draw. Use your hand-reading skills and knowledge of your opponent to decide whether your Jacks are still good. If your Jacks are an overpair to the board you should apply pressure if a pre-flop raiser makes a continuation bet.

It’s possible your opponents have a smaller overpair to the board, a draw or Ace-high. These are the dangerous situations which separate the men from the boys – focus on improving your decision-making with Jacks.

Summary J-J is a strong hand but you need to trust your instincts as to when your pair is crushed.

6. A-A

Pocket rockets can cause shock and awe, but don’t let them blow up in your face.

Main danger

Not being able to give them up when you’re beaten.


You’ve got the best hand in the game so this is a good time to invest chips – a lot of chips! Raise, re-raise, do whatever you can to get money in while you’re ahead. Feel free to (occasionally) mix things up by playing your bullets deceptively too, usually by flat-calling a pre-flop re-raise and then attacking the flop. However, playing A-A strong and fast is usually the best policy.


Playing Aces postflop, however, can be difficult and you can get into horrible spots with them. The main danger is that an opponent has played a hand like a small pair or suited connectors knowing you have a big hand. If he hits that flop full in the face you’re in trouble. For instance, you raise four times the big blind and a tricky player calls. The flop comes 5s-6d-7s and he check-raises you. This is a very dangerous spot – you could be crushed by a set or two-pair. But maybe he’s drawing or just got an overpair. Against tight opponents you may need to muck your bullets here, but if your opponent is lively it may be time to put the pressure back on him.

Things are a lot easier when there’s been a lot of preflop action. If an opponent has called a chunky re-raise you’re often up against a smaller pair like J-J or 10-10 and a low flop can help you felt him. If you do play them tricksy and find yourself in a multi-way pot, be prepared to give them up if the action gets too hot. After all, A-A is just a pair – don’t be the donkey who can’t put a hand down.


The best hand in hold’em demands to be played fast, but be prepared to lay it down if beaten.

Chad Holloway is a 2013 WSOP Bracelet winner who has previously worked for PokerNews as a managing editor and live reporter