How do you play AJ and AQ?
I love this question, particularly because it is a chance for me to share a recent hand… but also because these are really important and potentially tricky hands to play.
First off, postflop decisions are range-based, so it is important to consider what range of hands you are playing. For some, AQ/AJ are tricky because it is near the bottom of their range (if you only raise QQ+/AJ+), meaning that top pair of Jacks will be one of your weakest hands and top pair of Aces will have your weakest kicker. Other players, like me for example, will raise any suited Ax and many unsuited Ax, so AQ/AJ will actually be near the top of our range on many boards.
AQ/AJ are very strong hands that should be played/raised by almost all players in almost all situations. If you are facing a raise from a player who would NEVER raise with anything except AA then you could definitely consider folding. Or, if you are not comfortable with postflop play, you might not want to raise AJo from under the gun against 8 opponents (but you really need to learn to do it…).
How do I play them? I raise them, always, over any number of limpers. This includes cash games, where I would make my standard open of 3.5bbs +1 for every limper, unless the table has <4 players, where I bet smaller. In tournaments, I would play them the same way most of the time, but shove them with <20 bbs. On Replay you will often get called by dominated Ax or even Kx/Qx or at least be flipping with smaller pocket pairs.
When facing a raise preflop, I would consider 3-betting them. A key element of AQ/AJ, just like AK or AT is that you are going to miss the flop most of the time. So, if you are considering calling a raise (or worse, limping behind) with these hands, then you are likely to face some really difficult postflop spots where you often just have to fold. By 3-betting, you take the initiative and put the pressure back on your opponent. The Ace in your hand blocks many combos of AA/AK and your second card blocks QQ or JJ, so it is less likely that your opponent has a premium hand. However, if your opponent is the type who never raises, you could potentially give them credit for AA/KK and consider folding, but this often gives players too much credit.
If you 3-bet and get 4-bet, you should probably just fold on Replay. Against good tricky players you might consider calling or even 5-betting (turning your hand into a bluff) if you think they might 4-bet light, but even at the nosebleeds on Replay (500k/1m) you do not need to make plays like that to succeed. Against a range of exclusively AA/KK, your AQs/AJs only has ~25.5% equity, 28% if you include AK in their range. AQo/AJo is even worse, and against exclusively AA you are in huge trouble, so if your opponent is telling that story, you should believe them most of the time.
Moving to postflop play, let’s assume you raise and get called. I like to c-bet a lot on Replay because players often just fold if they don’t hit something. But AQ/AJ are some of the best hands to check because they have decent showdown value even unpaired and they can easily improve to top pair later. So if you miss you could check and call one bet if you think your opponent might bluff.
If you hit top pair you should bet, not slow-play or trap. Maybe it will be obvious if an Ace flops and your opponent folds, but that is ok! Players too often try to get trappy with vulnerable hands and complain here on the forum that they lose on the river. If you flop a draw like the nut flush draw or a broadway draw or overcards plus a gutshot it can be good spot to bluff. However, broadway draws and gutshots are risky to bluff with because the cards on board will typically have hit your opponent’s range. For example, if you have AJ and the board comes KT4, there are many Kx or Tx hands in your opponent’s range that they may not fold.
If you do end up calling an opponent’s bet and going to the flop, I would play missed flops the same way as if I had raised. I will check and potentially call a bet. When flopping a pair, I would play conservatively because my opponent can have AA/KK/QQ/AK. But that includes betting a decent size for value if they check, not just looking to get to showdown. Another caveat of AQ/AJ is that if you flop something like trips or two-pair, you usually dominate the board and won’t get paid. But you should still play these cards pretty fast because your opponent can easily have hands like AT/T9/QT that can improve to straights if you let them see free/cheap cards.
Well, these are some of my thoughts. Here is a recent hand, which isn’t actually that interesting, except that it was my 3rd largest pot won. https://www.replaypoker.com/hand/replay/664067099
My opponent was kind of tilted from having recently lost another all-in pot, so that may have contributed to the hand. They raise, and I 3-bet with AQo. With 3 players, AQ is an extremely strong hand, so I am 3-betting for value and because it does not flop well out of position. They call and the flop is Ace high rainbow giving me top pair. The pot is already quite big for the 3-bet and not particularly draw-heavy, so I bet half pot for value, and they call. The turn is essentially a brick, and I bet half-pot again for value and they call. I am betting both of these streets to get value from weaker Ax hands they might call with, plus they could get sticky with Jx/KQ/KT or pocket pairs.
After the two calls, the river is also essentially a brick unless they have T9/88. I am concerned that they might be slow-playing something like AJ/JJ/77/A7, though I mostly expect that they would have raised those hands on the turn or the flop to get value from my Ax. I believe that they would fold to another bet with weak Ax or Jx hands, so there really is not a lot of value to betting again, so I check to either induce a bluff or get to showdown. I plan to call if they bet.
They decide to go all-in with an overbet bluff with what turns out to Q9s. Having a 9 in their hand is a good bluff card because it blocks the nuts (T9), but given that it was a 3-bet pot that isn’t too relevant. There are no flushes and only 1 potential straight on board, so it is not a good spot to bluff considering that my range is uncapped and is favored by the board.
Faced with this decision, I am pretty much always going to call with AQ. I might check this river to induce a bluff with AA/AJ/JJ, but most likely I would bet, especially since it isn’t a great board to bluff. So, my opponent is correctly reading my hand as medium-strength and trying to get me to fold. However, because of the 3-bet I believe AQ is the second strongest hand in my range that takes this line (next to AK). I might bet two streets and then check this way with AK/AQ/AT/A9, but I would not be value betting twice OOP with weaker Ax that can be outkicked or even KK/QQ. I can easily fold my bluffs or weaker Ax. Showing vulnerability by checking means my opponent could be betting some value hands that I beat (like AT) or can bluff. While my hand will be beat a good percentage of the time, they are only credibly repping a slow-played monster, and I believe I will be ahead often enough for this call to be +EV in the long-run.
I like to raise AQ to 6BB out of position, miss the flop, check, and fold when my opponent puts in a pot size bet.