Playing the Percentages: Ladies and Knaves in the small blind

I was hesitant to post this article, since it violates my guiding principle of publishing poker theory, which is that the content should be, “easy to apprehend, tough to implement.” However, having discovered that this leak is prevalent at MSPLO on my way up from SSPLO, I am confident that it won’t disappear any time soon. So, for those of you with good self-discipline, I present some low-hanging fruit, ‘factors affecting the decision of whether or not to play JJ/QQ in the small blind.’

Why am I playing this hand?

My guiding principle when entering any pot where I am likely to be OOP is that I must have a specific reason for contributing chips in the first place. If the hand is strong enough, then equity/playability on flops may be sufficient. For most hands outside of the top 12% of playable hands, I require a known opponent leak that entering the pot with the hand allows me to exploit. Since in the small blind we are guaranteed to be OOP for the duration of the hand, I always want a clear idea of why I am entering the pot before I start clicking buttons.

The most common excuse for calling these hands out of the small blind is that, ‘they flop top set, and top set is the nuts, and I can stack that fish…’ (simplistic thought process illustrative only). To put their set-mining potential in perspective, take into account that whilst you will flop a set 12% of the time, 70% of the time with QQ and only 57% of the time with JJ will that set be top set. This statistic goes some way to explaining why playing these hands for bare set value against tight ranges is a bad idea: your tight opponent doesn’t have that many lower sets in his range to stack off against you anyway, and the higher set always comprises as much as 6% of his range (contrasted with 1% with a wide range). Even when you flop a set, being OOP for the whole hand reduces the frequency with which you will be able to force a lot of money in the pot. If you are going to set-mine, it is essential that at least one of the PFR or the BB is willing to stack off light and preferably both.

When you are playing in games where your opponents won’t willingly hand you their stacks every time you make a strong hand, your choice of whether to play JJ/QQ will be dictated by how frequently you can win small-medium pots post-flop. This will depend on both the play of your opponent and on your sidecards.

Evaluating sidecards

1) Double-suited

Being double-suited is an excuse many mediocre players use for getting involved in hands OOP which they have no business playing. In position we can often control the size of the pot when we make a weak flush. Out of position we are at the mercy of our opponent, all too often giving free cards when we would prefer not to, or facing large river bets with a bluff-catcher when we would appreciate a cheap showdown. It should be of no surprise to the reader that the playability of double-suited JJ/QQ depends heavily on our opponent’s range. Against a tight range, JJ32ds will be on the wrong end of flush-over-flush 15% of the time on a monotone flop. On a two-tone flop, those Jacks will be drawing to flush-under-flush against almost 20% of the opponent’s hands. The numbers against a wide range fall to 9% and 11% respectively. QQ32ds fares little better against the tight range: under-flush 13%, under-flush draw 16%, and has the lower flush/flush draw against the loose range 7% and 9% respectively. In today’s games, the combination of the solid-but-vulnerable overpair and mediocre flush draw that QQds often flops makes it a strong candidate for 3betting against loose opponents. Double-suited hands are strongest when suited to a King or an Ace, the K high flush draw is only drawing badly 11% of the time against a tight range, and an inconsequential 5% of the time against a loose range.

2) A single connected side-card (9-A)

The Ace and King are particularly valuable when they are suited (see discussion above), yet they also serve a useful blocking value which helps when bluff-catching. Consider a river call/fold decision on a run out of J♣7♣2♠6♦2♥ . A side A/K reduces our opponent’s {AA,KK} combinations by 20%. If we change the river to a K♥, our opponents {AA,KK} combinations are reduced by around 25% when we hold an A/K ourselves


A side {J-9} improves the playability of medium pairs considerably against opponents who rarely fire two or three barrels. QQ73 flops a gutter 11% of the time, an OESD never and a straight 2% of the time. In contrast QQJ2 flops a gutter 16% of the time, an OESD 7% of the time and a straight 4.5% of the time. If our opponent is in the habit of betting the flop and then checking back the turn with unimproved KK/AA then we will be getting the correct price to call with our naked gutter/set draw. Consider that we will also be able to lead some cards as a bluff on the river, and a single side {J-9} can be sufficient to justify a pre-flop call against passive opponents.

3) Two connected side-cards {65+, QQ[J-8][J-8], JJ[Q-7][Q-7]}

QQJ8 is a huge improvement on QQJ2; it flops a gutter 24% of the time, an OESD 4%, a wrap 2.5% and a straight 5% of the time. Medium pairs that fall into the category of {QQ[J-8][J-8], JJ[Q-7][Q-7]} can be played from the SB against most CO/BT opens HU and even against tight players multi-way.

Those medium pairs which resemble two hold’em hands are best suited for play against passive players with wide pre-flop ranges. JJ65 flops a gutter 18% of the time, an OESD 10% and a straight 3% of the time. If you wouldn’t continue with JJQ3 you should probably fold this hand in the SB also.

A few numbers to take away

Those of you with a hold’em hangover would do well to remember that JJ flops an overpair only 36% of the time and QQ manages the same on half of all flops. Worse still, this overpair is only a 62-37 favourite against 4 cards with an intersecting pair, and a coinflip against 4 cards with a pair+gutter. Contrast this with hold’em where an overpair is an 80% favourite against a lower intersecting pair and a 90% favourite against a lower pocket pair and it is easy to see where your ‘intuition’ can get you into trouble2.

If you follow my suggestions and only continue with {QQ[J-8][J-8], JJ[Q-7][Q-7], AQQ, AJJ, KQQ, KJJ, double-suited} hands against a loose regular who is competent post-flop you will find yourself playing roughly half of your medium pairs. Extending to the weaker hands discussed above will move you closer to 80% and should only be done against players with an extreme tendency: either of felting very light or surrendering easily.

Against early position TAG opens I believe almost all {JJ,QQ} should be folded in the SB. I would strongly recommend checking your database to see how well you are doing presently with these hands.

Enjoy your week, I hope we share a milestone hand or two!


Show 2 footnotes

  1. Note that it is the blocker value that matters here, since it is rare to find an opponent who bets a weaker King for value on the river.
  2. lol ‘feel players’ for PLO
By |2017-04-10T13:23:20+00:00August 13th, 2012|


  1. Alistair September 22, 2013 at 9:37 am - Reply

    Enjoying your blog immensely. When you say almost all QQ/JJ hands should be folded vs EP TAG opens I assume the double suited variety with an A are playable such as AQQXds?

    • Phil Rocquemore September 22, 2013 at 1:36 pm - Reply

      Hi Alistair,

      Thank for your comment. You are correct in your assumption that AQQds is sufficiently strong to continue with from the SB. The real leaks tend to arise from hands which are deceptively weak: {KQQ8,QQ84ds}. The value of the Ace as a blocker to a part of your opponent’s range which dominates yours and protection against Axxx hands is very high.

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