How to play pocket Jacks

Want to improve your poker strategy? Paul Phua gives his insights into how to profit from this tricky hand

Pocket Jacks can be a tricky hand to play, especially for amateurs.
As for me, I’m always happy to see a pair of Jacks. It’s true, however, that there is no simple formula for how to play this hand. It depends very much on your position, your opponent’s position, your stack sizes, and whether they are loose or tight.
The problem with Jacks is that this hand is unlikely to improve: as with any pocket pair, there is only a 1 in 8 chance of making a set on the flop. And if an overcard comes, as it will often, there is a good chance you will be beaten. In this case hopefully you can have some reads on your opponent. If you don’t know them very well you can face some quite tough decisions – and there’s no easy guide for how to make them.

Pre-flop strategy with pocket Jacks

If I get pocket Jacks vs. an UTG (under the gun – meaning first to act) raise, I would usually just call. It can depend on his stack size and who my opponent is, but often I would end up just calling, especially if deeper than 50BB. If shorter than 50BB I would usually raise and gamble with him if he goes all-in, since then he may have AQ, or pocket 10s even, unless he is a very tight player. I would usually re-raise vs. a later position raise.
And in a tournament, if I myself am short-stacked with say 25BB or less and I get pocket Jacks, it’s usually a good hand to go all-in with. And if I have 15BB or less I would almost always be happy to go all-in.

Post-flop strategy with pocket Jacks

An overcard to your Jacks will arrive often, and if several players are in the hand, you are likely to be beaten at this point, and you should be prepared to fold. But if only one other player is in the hand, or sometimes even two, don’t necessarily give up straight away.
Let’s say the overcard is an Ace, and someone bets out. Then yes, I would often fold. But what if it’s a Queen? Or a King? Then you have to analyze deeper.
For instance, if a Queen comes, ask yourself: are they the type of player who raises pre-flop with AQ, or are they more likely to have AK? Are they a solid, straight-shooting player who only bets when they hit, or a more creative player who will semi-bluff with a draw? I have made a lot of money with Jacks against pro players by simply calling on three streets. They might for instance bet with a gutshot draw on the turn, then bomb the river when they don’t hit.
You might ask: why do I just call in this situation, and not raise if I think I’m ahead? It’s because if they have a weaker hand, they will fold to my raise, and I lose out on winning more money.
Even when my Jacks are an overpair I often will just call. If your opponent is representing something stronger than you, why would you raise him? If he has it, your money is gone. If he doesn’t have it, he’s bluffing. So this is one of the many mistakes amateurs make.

Common errors with pocket Jacks

Some less experienced players get so worried by pocket Jacks that they have developed an inflexible strategy: there is a group of players who will usually flat-call from any position, and fold to any overcard on the flop; and another group who usually raise extra-big pre-flop in the hope of taking it down straight away, without having to worry about post-flop strategy.
The first group will lose out on a lot of value that Jacks can bring, but at least they won’t get in too much trouble. The second group is in worse shape. Yes, everyone is likely to fold if you shove all-in or make a massive overbet pre-flop. But you won’t make much money from that. And if you do get called, it’s almost always by a better hand. AK will often call here, and you’ll be the slight favourite; but so will QQ, KK and AA, and then you’ll be in big trouble.
The same is true post-flop: some players with Jacks will raise big, even go all-in, if the flop is all low cards. They see it as protecting their hand. But again, they miss out on value when everyone with a worse hand folds; and they lose everything if someone calls with a lucky two pair or a set – or bigger overpair.
So you can see, there is no one easy way to play Jacks, and you must take many factors into consideration. But don’t give up. They are one of the best starting hands, so just try to play them well.

A quick guide to playing pocket Jacks

  • With pocket Jacks, you should usually call an UTG (under the gun) raise
  • You might re-raise vs. a later position raise
  • Only go all-in pre-flop if short-stacked
  • Don’t overplay your pocket Jacks post-flop: often you should call, not raise