Poker: Big Cards and How to Play Them

If you’ve ever looked in the poker section of your local bookstore, you’ve seen chart after chart telling you which hands should be played from which position, and the expected value of playing them. The problem with these charts is that they use strict math and ignore factors beyond showdown potential and seat position. They also tend to be based on a limit betting structure, instead of the potentially huge pots that come out of No Limit Hold ‘Em play. In other words: they’re frequently very wrong.

If you stick strictly to a mechanical approach like the one outlined in those texts, you’re going to be very easy to read and take down, particularly with the “big cards” that aren’t paired up: AK, AQ, AJ, KQ, etc. These cards have big showdown equity if they are taken straight to the final, but they have little relative potential to profit from the flop. In fact, a lot of players go broke playing AK and AQ because they are so very treacherous. Those hands generally win under limited circumstances: you’ve made a small raise on the pot, gotten a pair with your Ace, King or Queen and been rewarded for the hand you represented with some fast folds on the part of your opponents.

When your big cards lose, though, you’ll probably get raised off a continuation bluff bet, which is going to cost you both a pre-flop raise and post-flop bet, and you can lose a big chunk of your chip stack if the flop hits big for you but makes your opponents hand even better. When these hands win, they win small, but when they lose, they tend to lose big.

Unless your AK, AQ or what have you is suited, they lack a certain amount of the straight or flush draw potential. After all, with QJ or JT, for example, you’re looking at being able to build in two directions to make 89TJQ or TJQKA on either side of the core hands. The real strength with “big cards” lies in their showdown equity, as mentioned above, and that’s why the math charts you see in poker books give them such high marks.

So, how should you play these hands? Aggressively and cautiously. Although this is quite contradictory advice,the way you should play is completely conditional based on the situation that you’re going into. If you’re in a low-stakes ring game, there’s no reason to be married to a big hand like AJ unless you’ve got position and the betting has been fairly flaccid. That also applies in the early stages of a tournament, when you need to be a bit more conservative with your chips.

However, there are times when you should stuff the pot pre-flop with these hands to force out players that are likely to have a shot at building a better hand. Eliminating the extra opponents that can cause you trouble before the showdown (where you stand a better chance) can be as simple as making a bet twice as large as the current pot to flush out those players who might be running with a flush potential.