Playing Marginal Poker Hands

Marginal hands come in all sizes and shapes but are mostly good drawing hands such as connectors, suited cards, smaller pairs, and even two gapped cards like J9, T8, 53, etc. These are the hands that don’t figure to win without improvement but with that improvement have the potential to become monsters or at least winners. Gus Hanson is one of several well known top professional poker players who likes to play marginal hands. His success and notoriety have produced a whole legion of wannabe amateurs that attempt to emulate this apparent clever play only to decimate their bankrolls. There is no question that televised poker has really helped fuel the mystique of playing marginal hands. So should one play marginal hands? Is it a necessary part of a good poker player’s arsenal or is it ill advised? Let’s start at the beginning and look back to how it used to be “back in the day”.

Back in the Day

Most players that cut their teeth before the wild explosion of poker popularity several years ago did not have televised poker to help, or for that matter, hinder, their learning curve. The televised coverage of the World Series of Poker, The World Poker Tour and regular series such as Late Night Poker have all played a part in moulding the thinking of today’s poker players. Back in the day when new players were trying to grasp the intricacies of the game, ‘Marginal Hands’ was a bad phrase. They were to be avoided at all costs. The very first rule players learned about poker was to not play too many hands (as stated in our “Typical Beginner Mistakes” lesson). The number two critical rule was to study hand value charts to gain an understanding of how hand values worked based upon position. Coupling these two rules produced the mantra of the day – Play only quality holdings and play them aggressively. While rather simplistic, it was good advice to keep newcomers out of trouble.

While the cornerstone of good poker was to be very selective in starting hand selection, it was much too limiting for some. Some players played like rocks and adhered to it with fervour but others started opening their games up and started a whole new trend. The winning players, with more experience, realized that they could stray from that mantra and add another group of holdings – marginal hands. Playing poker outside the conventional wisdom was exciting and sexy while proving to be profitable. The most savvy poker players realized that no-limit hold’em was a game of implied odds and that a marginal hand could become a monster – and could take all of an opponent’s chips in one fell swoop, if played correctly.

Keep Them Guessing

Playing solid hand values from appropriate position is still the cornerstone of winning hold’em play. The key part of that dictum is appropriate position. In order for you to maximize your winnings on good holdings you need to give the table the illusion of action. As the old western sage said, “Ya gotta give action to get action”. Playing marginal hands from late position and when appropriate from earlier position, gives you the illusion you desire while hopefully connecting to a big hand. Much of poker is the management of deception. If you show down a marginal starting hand once in a while, it will do wonders for your ability to gain action on your top quality hands. Notice I said “once in a while”, because if you do it too often it will become your image to your more observant opponents which won’t serve you well. If you do start playing too many marginal hands it will become a detriment to your bankroll instead of enhancing it.

Do You Need Cards?

Of course you do but I mean do you really need good cards to play the player when a situation arises on which aggressive play could capitalize? I’m not really referring to bluffing as I believe bluffs need to be planned if executed well. I’m referring to situations which arise on a regular basis to play marginal hands. If all you play are good cards then you’re really playing ABC poker and hoping you’ll get more good hands than your opponents. You know that isn’t going to happen in the long run so at best, unless you resign yourself to playing break even poker, you need to be thinking about how to outplay your opponents so you can win pots without (good) cards. How would one do that? One way would be to seek out profitable situations to play marginal holdings. The two critical elements to consider are your opponents’ playing styles and your position. There is another element that I believe deserves a note of caution. Winning pots by your wiles alone can become quite intoxicating – so much so that many on that slippery slope succumb to the urge of overusing this tactic of playing poker without solid card values. I don’t need to tell you what happens when everyone around the table realizes how you have been winning so many pots. Pick your spots combining adversary knowledge and position and you’ll do just fine.

Marginal or Junk

Generally speaking, marginal hands have the potential to become strong hands while with junk hands you need your opponent to abandon their holding to take down the pot uncontested. If you’ve started to play junk then you are well down the slippery slope mentioned above. There is a big difference between playing marginal hands and playing junk hands. We started off our poker journey playing only top quality hands, moved forward to include marginal hands in position and if we find ourselves now playing junk we have wandered too far. Or have we? Who draws the line between marginal and junk? One man’s junk is another man’s treasure! Most “junk” is normally played out of the big blind for free. When you’re fortunate enough for a custom designed flop to make that 72 off suit junk into a full house, it is a joy to show it down to the inevitable chorus of “Oh, my Gods” from around the table. Even though you played it from the big blind without a raise it still makes some players tilty, and tilty is something you like to see in opponents.

Don’t Be a Sucker

Let’s examine a poker hand that would qualify as marginal and worth playing but may lose some of its luster as the hand progresses. Imagine holding 8h9h in middle position. Two players limp and the next player min raises. Since it was only a min raise and you’re feeling frisky, you call as do the first two limpers. Now the flop nails your holding making you a straight with 10cJdQs. Your flush draw just became history but a made straight on the flop is nothing at which to sneeze. Now the first limper bets out half the pot, the second limper calls and the original raiser re-raises. Wow – what just happened and what should you do now? This is the moment that you come to grips with the fact that you’re holding the proverbial idiot end of a straight, also known as the sucker straight, and could be in real trouble. Your suited connectors were a good, marginal hand that just turned junkable. Try not to go to war with the bottom end of a straight. Many a stack has been sacrificed in that manner.


The evolution of how to play no-limit hold’em, fuelled by the expanded literature and televised poker venues, now includes the value of playing marginal hands. With the changing poker landscape, the play of marginal hands evolved from perceived weak, undisciplined play to a brilliant, profitable strategy. Playing marginal hands is a critical part of playing poker well. If you aren’t playing any marginal hands then you are playing too tight and that is not the most profitable way to play.

The main keys to successfully playing marginal hands are pretty much the same keys for all elements of winning poker play. They include knowledge of your opponents’ tendencies, position, an awareness of the image you have been projecting, and the possession of a certain degree of discipline. Possessing discipline is critical to bankroll preservation so when you just catch a little piece of the flop you don’t wind up married to the hand which many times will lead to getting divorced from your chips. There are no prenuptial agreements in poker.