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The Worst Starting Hand In Poker

By Gary Steele

Stats junkies will tell you that the worst starting hand in poker is 27 off-suit, and they have the computer models to prove it. Glib realists will counter that the worst starting hand in poker is any hand that finishes second, and they have the busted bankrolls to prove that. I would like to throw my hat in the ring and argue that AQ is the worst starting hand in online poker, because it is the single most overvalued hand, and consequently the easiest hand to play incorrectly in poker. If you consistently play a starting hand incorrectly it will end up costing you a lot more money than 27, which you hopefully fold every time as it is.

Let me clarify by saying that this argument holds more power in limit poker (ring games) and that there is a difference in quality between AQ suited and AQ off-suit. Anyone with a modicum of skill can play AQ suited when the flop gives flush outs, or on those wonderful rare instances when you flop the nut flush. But by the same token anyone can play Ax suited under the same circumstances. The key difference between Ax and AQ is that there are a lot of players who recognize when to give up on the former but will hold on to AQ until the cows come home, which is also just enough time to cripple one's stack. There are also a lot of players who bet and raise with careless joy when they hold AQ, and are then stunned to find a confident re-raise staring right back at them. With Ax suited you know where you stand – you are on a draw looking for the nut flush. AQ confuses you into thinking that you have many ways to win the hand, and that is far more dangerous.

In low-limit games or games where few players have experience AQ can start to look good because players stay with Ace-anything. So, when you hit an Ace on the flop your kicker can snatch a certain amount of pots. This is a major difficulty with AQ: it works a lot better against very weak players than it does against good players or very aggressive players. Online poker tends to feature a lot of very aggressive limit players, especially in short-handed games. AQ will cost you money in these games just as surely as KQ and QJ will. As you make your way up the limits in ring games you find that players generally stay with AK through AT, unless they're playing Ax suited for relatively few bets, and when an A flops on the board you get very little action from those weak aces. When you do get a lot of action you should know that AQ is in a world of trouble. Not only will you face AK more times than you care to count, but you're only going to be raised and re-raised by hands that can beat top pair.

AQ is a drawing hand that needs to improve substantially on the flop in order to be profitable. The best flop in that case is a straight, which is not going to happen frequently enough to pay the bills. In fact this is the only flop where AQ becomes a genuine volume hand, and by “volume hand” I mean a hand that has the capability of winning a monster pot. In nearly every other respect AQ becomes the anti-volume hand, capable only of winning small pots and losing huge ones. That is the biggest problem with AQ. It deceives you into believing that you hold more than you do, and the bigger the limits the trickier it becomes to play.

Very few hands are as position sensitive as AQ. If you raise with it in early position and face a substantial re-raise that isolates you this hand is almost certainly a huge underdog, unless your opponent is a complete buffoon. You will be dominated by AK and behind every pair, including 22, because you're ultimately on a draw. It is only in the training phase of $2/$4 games behind the local bowling alley where you can pick on the suckers who think that A8 has plenty of legs. There are several pros that have a known aversion to AQ. In fact, the hand is known as "Doyle Brunson" (long before 10-2 also became known as "Doyle Brunson") because Brunson never plays it, and would rather discard it pre-flop instead of dealing with the problems it is likely to cause down the line.

My own advice is to treat it exactly the same as A9 or AT. If you can see a flop cheaply or steal some blinds with a semi-bluff raise you should do so, but don’t group this hand anywhere near AK. If the flop helps you with an Ace or a Queen you should proceed with a conservative outlook, especially if you’re in a tough game. But by slow-playing this hand initially (unless you have good position near or on the button, in which case feel free to bet it up) you give yourself the only real opportunity to accumulate a good-sized pot if you do make your hand. And please remember that with AQ you almost always still need a lot of improvement from those community cards to make your hand.

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