Out of the Kitchen and Into the Spotlight: Badugi

This is the second in a series of articles dedicated to games of the inaugural Dealer’s Choice event at the 2014 World Series of Poker (WSOP).

Every time I walk into the Amazon Room of the Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino, I get butterflies. It’s a bit silly, I know. It’s just a conference space, after all.

But come WSOP time, when it transforms, I expect most poker players who enter – whether seasoned pros or amateurs attending for the very first time – can’t help but feel they’ve been transported some place ... magical.

The room is airy and cool with lofty ceilings and expansive walls covered in velvety cloth and larger-than-life portraits of winners past. As I enter, I see players and spectators are milling about like bees in a nest ... and poker tables in every direction. The air is abuzz with sounds that might seem foreign to some, but which poker players will surely recognize with comforting familiarity: poker chips being shuffled, announcements from the floor, and intermittent shouts of joy and cries of agonizing defeat.

An eerie bluish-purple glow beckons from the centre of the room, where seated spectators surround a stage on which sits a table under the watchful eyes of spotlights and TV cameras. It’s the very heart of the room – the “spaceship,” as some call it – and home to the featured final table. This is the ultimate destination, where everyone wants to be.

Wandering over to a table just a few steps away, I see some familiar faces just beyond the rail: poker celebrities I’ve admired from afar, now playing but a few feet away. It’s selfie-distance, for sure. What a treat!

“Hey, what’s up?!”

It’s one of my poker buddies from back home. Looks like he’s on a break.

“Not much. Just watching these guys play in the event I busted from yesterday,” I answer, with only a slight tinge of regret.

“Cool. What are they playing?”

Thanks for the sympathy. “It’s the 10-Game Mix. They’re playing Badugi now.”

“Ba… what?”

Sigh. I get that a lot. “BAA-DOO-GEE. It’s a draw game.”

We follow the action on the table where things are heating up quickly. The under-the-gun (UTG) player has raised, and two players in middle position have called. The button reraises. We watch as the blinds fold, and the UTG player raises again! A number of calls and raises later, it looks like a capped, four-way pot.

“Wow, lots of action,” says my friend, his curiosity clearly piqued. “Although you’d think someone would’ve shoved by now.”

“Well,” I point out, “Badugi is fixed limit; you can only bet or raise a certain amount when it’s your turn to act. You can’t just go all-in. There’s also a cap on the number of raises allowed on each betting round.”

“I see,” says my friend, as he curiously surveys the table.

At this point, the players enter the first draw: UTG draws one card, Seat 5 also draws one, Seat 6 draws two, and the button draws one.

“No flop, eh? Hmm ... I guess all players get their own cards then, and can exchange any ones they don’t want?”

I nod in agreement. “That’s right. Each player is dealt four cards, and after the initial round of betting, there will be three draws, with a betting round after each ...”

“Oh! I think I’ve played this before, online ... by mistake,” my friend says with a laugh. “I had no idea what I was doing; with four cards, I thought I was playing Pot Limit Omaha! That didn’t turn out well.”

“Ha!” I chuckle. “No, it’s not Omaha. While you do also start with four cards, here you’re simply trying to make the lowest hand with four different cards of different suits. Ace is low, so the best hand is 4-3-2-A, with one card in each suit.”

“Hmmm ... seems simple enough,” says my friend thoughtfully. I can hear the gears turning.

Back at the table, betting after the first draw continues to be intense, with the two aggressive players betting and raising, and the two callers seemingly trapped in the middle. This action is followed by a second draw; this time, everybody draws one card. The pot is now pretty sizeable, with a fat mound of chips resting in the middle of the table.

“Big pot,” observes my friend. Again, I nod in agreement.

UTG bets out and all three opponents call. On the final draw, UTG chooses not to draw any cards, while everyone else draws one.

They’re on to the final betting round; the UTG player leads out with a bet, and Seat 5, who has been very silent in the hand so far, suddenly raises. This is followed by two very reluctant folds. Action returns to the UTG player who tanks ... then also folds!

My friend’s jaw drops. “Wow, that is so sick,” he says in shock. Meanwhile, Seat 5 is stacking his chips – a huge pot, no showdown. “How can anyone not call there?” he asks, incredulously. “The pot is huge!”

“Well, I certainly would be calling if there were any chance I had the winning hand, but I suppose he just knew he was beat. Perhaps he was bluffing.”

The truth of the matter is, Badugi is notorious for being (perhaps the only) one of the few poker games where players are willing to build a sizeable pot early in the hand, only to have everyone fold on the final betting round to a single bet, allowing one player to walk away with the pot without a showdown. Understandably, this outcome might seem completely foreign to a non-Badugi player, but it really isn’t all that surprising.

“That’s crazy,” grumbles my friend, as he begins to walk away. “I really don’t understand this game at all.”

Well, dear friend, you wouldn’t be the first.

Badugi

Despite the fact Badugi is relatively new to the live-action and tournament scene at large, it continues to grow in popularity. Not only is it played on its own in many contemporary mixed game rotations, it is also a critical part of several other popular modern mixed game variants, including Badeucy, Badacey, and Razzdugi. As noted in last week’s article, Badugi, Badeucy, and Badacey all feature in the Dealer’s Choice event at this year's WSOP.

Many No-limit Hold’em players are reluctant to learn Badugi. Perhaps they fear it. Maybe because the name itself is so different – exotic even – and it can be hard to know whether you’re even pronouncing it correctly. Granted, Badugi does differ from No-limit Hold’em in several key aspects:

• Each player is dealt four cards instead of two.
• The betting is typically fixed limit (when played in a mix), so for any given wager, the amount you can bet or raise is restricted.
• It’s a draw game, not a flop game; there is no board, and therefore, no shared cards. You can’t see any of your opponents’ cards, and your opponents can’t see yours.
• It’s a lowball game, meaning you are trying for the lowest possible hand.
• It utilizes its own, unique hand ranking system, bearing little resemblance to standard poker rankings.

Don’t let your fear of all these differences hold you back from learning this great game; once you familiarize yourself with its nuances, and with additional study and practice, I’m certain you’ll confidently add Badugi to your mixed games repertoire.

Object of the Game

The object of Badugi is deceptively simple: you want to make the lowest four-card hand possible without any cards being duplicated in either suit or rank. The Ace always plays as a low, desirable card. Therefore, the best hand in Badugi is 4-3-2-A rainbow (all cards being of different suits).

Any four-card rainbow hand is known as a badugi, named after the game itself.

Example:

{4-Spades}{3-Hearts}{2-Clubs}{A-Diamonds}: 4-high, four-card rainbow hand = 4-high badugi

Hand Rankings

a) badugis

Badugi is a lowball game, which means that you want to make the lowest-ranking hand possible. If both you and your opponents hold badugis, the player with the lowest-ranked badugi wins.

Consider the following:

{4-Spades}{3-Hearts}{2-Clubs}{A-Diamonds}: 4-high, four-card rainbow hand = 4-high badugi
{6-Hearts}{5-Clubs}{4-Diamonds}{3-Spades}: 6-high, four-card rainbow hand = 6-high badugi
{9-Clubs}{7-Diamonds}{6-Spades}{2-Hearts}: 9-high, four-card rainbow hand = 9-high badugi
{K-Diamonds}{Q-Spades}{J-Hearts}{10-Clubs}: K-high, four-card rainbow hand = K-high badugi

In lowball games, the highest-ranked cards of a hand determine the hand’s rank. Therefore, when determining the rank of a badugi, the cards are ordered from highest to lowest. For example, with the cards of {9-Clubs}{7-Diamonds}{6-Spades}{2-Hearts} ordered from high to low, it is clear this is a 9-high badugi (and not, for example, a deuce-high badugi).

Furthermore, this 9-high badugi will beat any higher-ranked one, including any ten-high, J-high, Q-high, or K-high badugi, but will lose to any lower-ranked one, including any 8-high or better (i.e. lower-ranked) badugi.

When comparing two or more badugis where their highest cards are of the same rank, the ranks of the next highest card(s) are used to break the tie, where possible. Suits, however, are never used to break ties. For example:

{9-Clubs}{7-Diamonds}{6-Spades}{2-Hearts} will beat {9-Spades}{8-Hearts}{5-Clubs}{A-Diamonds}
{9-Clubs}{7-Diamonds}{6-Spades}{2-Hearts} will lose to {9-Spades}{7-Hearts}{5-Clubs}{4-Diamonds}
{9-Clubs}{7-Diamonds}{6-Spades}{2-Hearts} will beat {9-Spades}{7-Hearts}{6-Clubs}{3-Diamonds}
{9-Clubs}{7-Diamonds}{6-Spades}{2-Hearts} will tie {9-Diamonds}{7-Clubs}{6-Hearts}{2-Spades}

b) incomplete hands

So, what happens if you hold four cards that do not make a badugi?

If your hand includes any cards of the same rank or suit, you will not have a badugi, and can only form an incomplete hand. An incomplete hand might consist of one, two, or three cards of different ranks and suits. For example:

{9-Clubs}{7-Diamonds}{6-Spades}{2-Clubs} is not a badugi even though all the cards are of different rank; there are two clubs. The best hand that can be made without a duplicate suit is the 7-high, three-card, incomplete hand of {7-Diamonds}{6-Spades}{2-Clubs}. The duplicate club {9-Clubs} is ignored when ranking the hand.

{9-Clubs}{7-Diamonds}{7-Spades}{2-Hearts} is not a badugi; even though four different suits are represented in the hand, there are two sevens. The best hand that can be made without cards of duplicate rank is {9-Clubs}{7-Diamonds}{2-Hearts} or {9-Clubs}{7-Spades}{2-Hearts}; these 9-high, three-card, incomplete hands are equivalent in Badugi.

{9-Clubs}{7-Diamonds}{7-Spades}{2-Clubs} is not a badugi; there are two clubs and two sevens. The best hand that can be made without any cards of duplicate rank or suit requires removing both the nine and a seven, leaving {7-Diamonds}{2-Clubs} or {7-Spades}{2-Clubs}; these are both two-card, incomplete hands.

It is critical to note that all incomplete hands are inferior to badugis: any badugi – even the worst badugi (K-Q-J-T rainbow) – will beat an incomplete hand.

When comparing hands at showdown, however, it is important to note: if no player holds a badugi, then the best three-card, incomplete hand will win. In fact, just as any badugi will beat a three-card incomplete hand, any three-card incomplete hand will beat a two-card incomplete hand, and so on.

Three-card incomplete hands are so common, they are given a special name: tris. Tris are ranked in the same way as badugis, in that the highest-ranked cards determine the final rank of a tri. For example, a 3-high tri such as {3-Clubs}{2-Hearts}{A-Spades} will beat a 4-high or worse tri; a 4-high tri such as {4-Diamonds}{3-Clubs}{A-Hearts} will beat a 5-high or worse tri and so on; and, if two tris are headed by the same-ranked card, the next highest card(s) are used to break the tie, if possible.

Play of the Hand

In Badugi, there are four betting rounds and three opportunities to draw. There is a low limit bet associated with the first two betting rounds, and a high limit bet associated with the last two. For example, in a game with limits identified as “50/100”, the low limit bet is 50 and the high limit bet is 100.

Here is an example of a Badugi deal:

  1. Blinds are posted: In a game with limits of “50/100,” a big blind of 50 and a small blind of 25 will typically be posted.
  2. Deal: Each player is dealt four cards.
    In this example, you are dealt {7-Clubs}{7-Diamonds}{5-Spades}{A-Hearts} in middle position.
  3. First Betting Round: It is 50 to call. If you choose to play, you can call 50, or raise to 100, assuming no one else has raised. Any subsequent raises must be in increments of 50 – the low limit bet.
  4. First Draw: You can choose to discard any number of cards, or “stand pat” (i.e. draw none).
    In this example, you will discard one of the sevens, since you are trying to make a badugi, and cannot have cards of duplicate rank in your hand. You proceed to discard the {7-Diamonds} on the first draw, and pick up the {2-Spades}, for a new holding of {7-Clubs}{5-Spades}{2-Spades}{A-Hearts} (still a 7-high tri).
  5. Second Betting Round: Bets and raises are again at the low limit bet – 50 – on this round.
  6. Second Draw: You can choose to discard any number of cards, or stand pat.
    In this example, your hand now has four cards of different rank, but two spades. You will discard one of the spades, since you are trying to make a badugi, and cannot hold cards of the same suit in your hand. You proceed to discard the higher-ranking {5-Spades} on the second draw, keeping the lower-ranking {2-Spades}. You pick up a {10-Diamonds}, improving to {10-Diamonds}{7-Clubs}{2-Spades}{A-Hearts} (a badugi).
  7. Third Betting Round: Bets and raises are now at the high limit bet – 100 – on this round.
  8. Third Draw: You can choose to discard any number of cards, or stand pat. In this example, with a ten-high badugi, it will usually be correct to stand pat.
  9. Final Betting Round: Bets and raises remain at the high limit bet – 100 – on this round.
  10. Showdown: Once betting on the final round is complete, the hands of the remaining players are compared to determine a winner.
    In this example, your ten-high badugi will beat the hand of any opponent who has not made a badugi. For example, if an opponent holds {9-Diamonds}{4-Clubs}{3-Spades}{2-Diamonds}, this opponent would only have a tri (because of the two diamonds), which will be beaten by any badugi, including yours. However, if an opponent has also made a badugi, the player with the lower-ranking badugi will win.

Basic Strategy Tips

Here is a list of recommended starting hands:

  1. Strong badugis (4-high to 8-high)
    Being dealt one of these hands is extremely rare. Bet and raise to make your opponents pay to draw and stay pat until you get to showdown. Expect to win with these hands often.
  2. Medium badugis (9-high to J-high)
    Being dealt one of these hands from the start is also extremely rare. These hands will win a fair share of pots, but are vulnerable to being overtaken when facing multiple drawing opponents. Bet and raise to narrow the field until you encounter resistance. You may need to fold these hands against tight, predictable players who appear to have made stronger badugis; but in general, expect these hands to win their fair share of pots at showdown.
  3. Strong tris (3-high to 5-high)
    These hands are also very strong starting hands, particularly because if no one makes a badugi by showdown, the lowest-ranked tri will win. Therefore, if you start with a strong tri, you may win at showdown even when you fail to improve over the three draws. Advantageously, these hands are also capable of improving to very strong badugis.
  4. Medium-strength tris (6-high to 7-high)
    These hands are considerably weaker than the lower-ranked tris, primarily because they will not win at showdown as often when unimproved, assuming everyone fails to make a badugi. When playing these hands, look to improve quickly either to a strong tri or, better yet, a strong badugi.
  5. Hands that can improve to strong tris (e.g. 2 offsuit cards, A-5)
    Two-card hands are highly speculative in nature; it is difficult to improve to a badugi quickly when forced to draw two different-ranked, low cards in the perfect suits. If you can get to the first draw cheaply though, you can play these hands with two low offsuit cards with the hope of improving to a strong tri quickly, and eventually, to a strong badugi.

In order to succeed at Badugi, you must appreciate one fundamental truth: it is difficult to make strong badugis, due to the game’s unique suit restrictions.

First, it is difficult to be dealt a strong badugi from the outset: only about 6% of all dealt hands are badugis; half of these are weak badugis (Q-high or K-high), which are vulnerable to being overtaken when facing multiple drawing opponents.

Second, when you start with a tri, it is difficult to make a badugi, especially a strong one. Suppose you hold {3-Spades}{2-Hearts}{A-Clubs}. To make an 8-high or better badugi, it is insufficient to draw just any card from four to eight – you must draw a diamond. Thus there are only five cards in the entire deck you can potentially draw to make a strong badugi; even with three draws, this is difficult to do.

This means strong tris are very valuable hands. You want to be holding one from the outset as often as possible, trying to draw to a strong badugi; at the very least, you want to start with a hand that will improve to a strong tri quickly. Remember, if no one makes a badugi, the best tri will win. You want to be the player holding the best tri when everyone fails to make a badugi.

It follows that a tri such as {8-Hearts}{7-Diamonds}{6-Clubs} is significantly inferior to {8-Clubs}{3-Hearts}{A-Diamonds} as a starting hand. Although both hands are only one card away from a badugi and one card away from an 8-high badugi at that, the second hand can improve to a much stronger three-card hand on any given draw, and that improved tri may be sufficient to win the pot if everyone fails to make a badugi.

In fact, as more draws are exhausted, the best tri becomes a greater favourite to win when no one else has made a badugi. If you expect to hold the best tri and no one appears to hold a badugi, you should bet to make your opponents pay to draw.

Conversely, however, if it appears an opponent has already made a badugi (the player stood pat on the previous draw), and you hold an incomplete hand with only one draw remaining, it is usually mathematically incorrect to call to try to make a badugi. Simply put, it is very difficult to draw a needed low card in the perfect suit.

Finally, here’s a slightly advanced play: you will occasionally find yourself still needing to draw on a later round, facing one or two opponents who are also drawing but who tend to fold on the final betting round whenever they have failed to draw a badugi themselves. In these scenarios, you might consider the possibility of snowing as an alternative to drawing: stand pat on the second or the final draw, and bet to represent having made a badugi, even though you don’t actually hold one. This is a type of bluff that, when used judiciously, can be effective at taking down pots in situations where drawing would seem to be a hopeless exercise.

Next week: Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw

Ken Lo is the author of A Poker Player’s Guide to Mixed Games: Core Strategies for HORSE, Eight-Game, Ten-Game, and Twelve-Game Mixes, which is scheduled for public release in late Spring 2014. He currently resides in Toronto, Canada.

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