How to Play Big Pairs (JJs+) Preflop in SNGs

Considering that holding pocket JJs or better would mean that you have one of the 4 best starting hands in poker, you’d think that they’d be easy to play. Totally straightforward in a Sng, right? Just raise and re-raise and try to get all of your chips in the middle. Simple.

Wrong. It’s not that simple, especially when you move up in stakes. Since there will be more regular players (regs) as you move up, you’ll have to be creative in the lines you choose to take, assuming you choose to play your big pair(s) at all.

Playing the Big Pairs Vs. Unknowns

Versus unknowns or fish, I think your bigger pairs will play themselves. Unknowns are going to stack off lighter, with hands like Kq, Aj+ and JJs+, sometimes even a bit wider than that.

So my default strategy is to raise or re-raise with QQs or better to try to get stacks in. JJs are situational. Against a tighter player I’ll flat, while against a looser / aggressive opponent I may opt to get it in. My standard raise is 2-3x the big blind and +1 for every limper.

If I’m in a situation where there are multiple unknown limpers ahead of me, depending on the pot to stack ratio I might just shove all in over them. Even with JJs. The reasoning behind that is I expect them to think I’m doing this light because of all the dead money (which is very possible) and that’ll induce a lighter call — Ax hands, maybe Kx. Hands that JJs (sometimes even 99s or TTs) crush in a race.

That’s about it versus unknowns. I might change the strategy if an unknown seems to be competent, but for the most part I’ll stick to playing ABC. Build a pot and/or try to get stacks in with my monster pairs.

Playing the Big Pairs Vs. Regulars

Playing versus regs is where it gets interesting in a Sng. Since you start with limited stack sizes and the fact that once you bust you’re done like a regular MTT, most regs ranges are going to be very narrow. Almost transparent. You’d think this would make playing your big pairs easy, but it doesn’t.

For example, say that a reg opens from under the gun. One option is to 3-bet. However, depending on your perceived image and range, a 3-bet is going to fold out the hands you beat, and only keep in hands that you’ll cooler or that will crush you. What’s a regs’ range from under the gun (other than it depends)? Aq and 88s or better. You’ll fold out everything but AAs, KKs and maybe QQs — maybe. So 3-betting JJs is obviously a dumb idea, and QQs isn’t much better. That narrows your range to two hands. Meh.

Another option, and my preferred play of choice, is to flat call. I like this tactic better because a flat call will keep the pot manageable. It also blends your range a little, as you can be flatting with all of your pairs and Ak, sometimes Aq depending on the regular. You can then re-evaluate your situation on the flop. I should point out too, to clarify, that I may turn JJs and QQs into set-mining/bluff catching hands.

Your last option, obviously, is to fold. You won’t (or shouldn’t) fold AAs or KKs, but I don’t think it’s horrible by any means to fold QQs or JJs. Versus a regular you’re just not gaining much by getting involved versus most ranges, unless you’re up against a bad reg or someone who lacks post flop skills.

No matter how you choose to play your big pairs versus regulars, the one thing I want to stress is creativity. It’s going to be hard enough to get value for your good hands, while reducing your losses with a worse hand, without adding the difficulty of playing your hand transparently.

Special Situations: Short Stacks and Bubbles with a Big Pair

As a short stack you wouldn’t think that you’d have a lot of options with a premium pair. You’d be right, too, if you were uncreative and playing straightforward poker. If you did nothing but shove when you had 10 big blinds or less, it makes sense to shove with your premium pairs. Anything else would scream, “I want action.”

However, say you’ve developed an image of someone who is capable of being creative, like being able to min-raise or limp / fold as a short stack. This then gives you the creative freedom to maybe limp/call or min-raise/call, inducing a mistake while maximizing the value you’re getting for your big pair. Try this a few times and you’ll see guys show up with Ax, Kx and even Qx hands, simply because they thought they had fold equity.

Of course you can (and should) mix it up. Maybe shove under the gun because it looks like you’re trying to maximize your fold equity so that you make it all around the table. It looks desperate too, since the blinds are about to hit you. This is what an opponent will think, and will entice him to call you a little bit lighter.

The bottom line is though, that as long as you don’t fold preflop, you can’t play your big pair(s) wrong as a short stack. It’s merely a matter of what’s going to make you the most chips.

I play the bubble the same way. While guys are trying to be risk averse, as they don’t want to bubble by being outdrawn, I go ahead and take a few risks to maximize the value I get for my pairs, while at the same time securing a cash, if not a top 3 finish.

For example, a common tactic on the bubble (especially reg vs. reg) is to exploit the fact that an average sized stack cannot call light if there are short(er) stacks at the table. A lot of players, me included, can show up with any two cards — 85o, 72s, it doesn’t matter. Knowing this, a great way to get a lot of value for your big pairs is to simply raise into the big stack. He’ll reshove over you, thinking he’s got fold equity (and most times he’s right) and you’ll snap call, getting your money in as a massive favorite. You’ll obviously want to pay attention to these players adjusting their reshove ranges the more you use this play, as the tighter they get, the fewer hands you can profitably (ICM wise) trap them with. All in all though, it’s a great way to get a ton of value for your premium hands on the bubble.