Out of the Kitchen and Into the Spotlight: Five-Card Draw

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

Spring has officially sprung and, with the upcoming long weekend, it’s the perfect time to start up on the seasonal cleaning you’ve been putting off, binge on your favourite chocolates, and ... to relax and catch up on any missed articles in my series!

This article marks the halfway point in this Dealer’s Choice series. The start of the WSOP is less than six weeks away!

We have covered the following games thus far, all of which are draw games:

Triple Draw (2-7 Triple Draw, A-5 Triple Draw)
Badeucy & Badacey
No-limit 2-7 Single Draw

If you plan on playing Dealer’s Choice, whether at a home game or in a more serious setting, a solid grounding in at least the basics of draw games can go a long way. Be aware, after excluding the more popular games of No-limit Hold’em and Pot-limit Omaha, exactly half of all remaining variants in the WSOP Dealer’s Choice mix are directed to draw games. That’s a significant number!

The final draw game covered in this series is Five-Card Draw. Widely believed to be among the first poker variant to have ever been played, it is the product of a lengthy history thought to date at least as far back as the gold rushes of the early 1800’s. In fact, “Wild Bill” Hickok of American Old West folklore is said to have been shot in the back of the head playing Five-Card Draw while holding two pair ({a-Spades}{a-Clubs}{8-Spades}{8-Clubs}{x-}) – a hand now well-known as the “dead man’s hand.”

Indeed, Five-Card Draw may hold more connections to notions of cowboys, saloons, and gunfights than does Texas Hold’em, despite what the names of these games might themselves suggest.

Despite becoming relatively obsolete on the tournament scene in the face of Hold’em’s surging popularity (the last WSOP bracelet for Five-Card Draw was awarded in 1982), the simplicity of Five-Card Draw lends itself well to the home game arena: standard poker hand rankings are used and there is but one draw.

Since Five-Card Draw is a draw variant, there are no cards shown, and thus no way of knowing exactly what cards your opponents are holding at any given time. In Hold’em, only two cards toward a five-card hand for each player are hidden; in Five-Card Draw, all five cards held by each player are unknown. The only concrete information providing a hint of what cards an opponent might hold is the number of cards drawn on a single draw. This makes the game highly conducive to bluffing.

Many classic Five-Card Draw games have been played with a fixed-limit betting structure. However, pot-limit and no-limit variations of this game are now also common, particularly online. Recently, Jack Effel, Tournament Director for the WSOP, clarified the variation of Five-Card Draw to be played at the Dealer’s Choice event will follow a pot-limit betting structure.

Pot-limit Five-Card Draw

Pot-limit Five-Card Draw is a draw game sharing a number of similarities with No-limit 2-7 Single Draw (click here to read the previous article on 2-7 Single Draw). Each player is dealt five cards and there is only one available draw. However, there are two key differences:

• Pot-limit Five-Card Draw uses standard poker hand rankings, as in Hold’em.
• The betting is pot-limit, so for any given wager, the maximum amount you can bet or raise will depend on the size of the pot when the wager is made.

Object of the Game

The object of Five-Card Draw is to make the strongest possible five-card hand.

Five-Card Draw is the only draw game in the Dealer’s Choice mix that utilizes standard hand rankings. A Royal Flush is the highest-ranked hand, followed by a straight flush, four of a kind, full house, three of a kind, two pair, one pair, and high card.

Pot-limit Betting

In games with a pot-limit betting structure, the maximum amount of any wager is neither fixed (as in limit games) nor unrestricted (as in no-limit games); the maximum amount a player can wager at any point in the hand is dynamic and depends on the size of the pot at the time the wager is made. This tends to prevent the pot from growing too quickly pre-draw; however, it can certainly grow at an exponential rate whenever betting becomes heavy, particularly on the final betting round.

To illustrate how maximum bets are calculated in games with a pot-limit structure, consider a hand in which the blinds are 50/100 with no antes (which is rare for Five-Card Draw, but simplifies the example). It is 100 for you to call and no one else has entered the pot.

Should you decide to play the hand, you can call for 100 or raise. The raise must be to a total of at least 200 (a “min-raise”) but no more than 350 (a pot-sized raise). The maximum total wager of 350 is the sum of the amount needed to call (100) plus the total amount of chips in the pot including the call amount (i.e. 150 from the blinds + 100 needed for you to call).

As a further example, suppose it is the start of the final betting round and there are already 300 chips in the pot. You are the first player to act on the final betting round. Should you bet, the maximum amount you can wager is bound by the amount of chips in the pot (300).

If you were to bet 300 and an opponent subsequently wishes to raise, their raise must be at least to a total of 600 (a “min-raise”) but no more than a total of 1,200 (a pot-sized raise). Your opponent’s maximum total wager of 1,200 is the sum of the amount needed to call (300) plus the total amount of chips in the pot including the call amount (i.e. 300 in the pot before the final betting round + your initial bet on this round of 300 + 300 needed for your opponent to call).

Confused? It’s understandable. The key to appreciating how pot-limit betting structures work is recognizing that the maximum raise increment (i.e. the amount over and above that which is needed to call) must also include the number of chips needed to make the call in the first place. The call amount would appear to be double-counted when calculating the total of a pot-sized raise – which it is.

Still confused? Don’t fret. Luckily, if you play online, the calculations will be done for you automatically; in live games, if you are fortunate to have a dedicated dealer at your table, simply announcing “pot” will bind you to a maximum (i.e. pot-sized) raise, the total of which your dealer will calculate for you.

Play of the Hand

In Five-Card Draw, there are two betting rounds and one opportunity to draw. Here is an example of a Five-Card Draw deal:

  1. Antes and blinds are posted: In this example, each player posts an ante of 25; a big blind of 100 and a small blind of 50 are posted. If the table is six-handed, this means the pot will contain a total of 300 before action begins on the first betting round.
  2. Deal: Each player is dealt five cards.
    In this example, you are dealt {a-Clubs}{a-Diamonds}{5-Spades}{3-Clubs}{2-Clubs} in early position at a table of six players.
  3. First Betting Round: It is 100 to call. If you choose to play, you may call 100, or raise to a total of at least 200 and at most, 500, assuming no one else has called or raised.
  4. Draw: You can choose to discard any number of cards or “stand pat” (i.e. draw none).
    In this example, you will typically be drawing three cards, retaining your Aces. You proceed to discard the {5-Spades}{3-Clubs}{2-Clubs} and draw {7-Spades}{9-Hearts}{7-Clubs} for a new holding of {a-Clubs}{a-Diamonds}{9-Hearts}{7-Spades}{7-Clubs} (for two pair, Aces and sevens).
  5. Final Betting Round: Bets and raises may be made. The minimum opening bet is 100 (the big blind amount); the maximum opening bet will depend on the size of the pot.
  6. 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 two pair will beat the hand of any opponent with a lower-ranked two pair, and any hands containing merely a pair or no pairs (assuming no straight or flush). However, your two pair will lose to stronger two pair hands, and any higher-ranked hand such as a three of a kind, straight, flush, or full house, as examples.

Basic Strategy Tips

Here is a list of recommended starting hands:

  1. Three of a kind (“trips”) or better hands
    When dealt these hands, expect to win often. It is rare to be dealt any of these from the start, and particularly difficult for players who are drawing to successfully overtake them with the benefit of only a single draw. With trips, lean toward drawing one card as a default, and expect your bets on the final betting round to be called by players with strong, two-pair hands that you beat.
  2. Two pair hands
    Being dealt one of these hands from the outset is also rare, their inherent strength varying widely. Certainly, the higher ranked the two pair the better, as a big two pair (Jacks-up or better) will win a significant number of pots even unimproved. Hands with a small two pair (e.g. eights-up or worse) can generally still be raised before the draw when no one has entered the pot, or whenever opponents are expected to hold a single pair at best; however, be aware these hands are vulnerable to being outdrawn, particularly in multi-way pots. Accordingly, caution should be exercised when holding unimproved, small, two-pair hands post-draw. In fact, mid- to low-ranked two-pair hands are among the trickiest Five-Card Draw hands to play.
  3. Hands with a big pair (Aces, Kings)
    In Five-Card Draw, big two-pair hands will win a fair share of pots, and many players will be enticed into calling on the final betting round with dominated two pair hands. Therefore, aiming to make a big two pair hand is a reasonable goal – a hand consisting of a premium pair such as Aces or Kings will provide an excellent headstart. Be more cautious when holding a pair of Kings without an accompanying Ace in your own hand; the lack of an Ace makes it more likely opponents will hold or be drawing to a pair of Aces, on their way to potentially making a dominating two pair hand.
  4. Hands with a medium pair (Queens, Jacks, Tens, Nines)
    These hands are trickier to play as they often evolve into dominated two-pair hands. Be more inclined to fold these from early position. However, when everyone has folded to you in late position, these hands increase in playability as the likelihood of a remaining player holding a stronger hand or draw decreases. Note these pairs can be elevated to premium status when accompanied by higher-ranked cards (e.g. {q-Hearts}{q-Spades}{a-Hearts}{x-}{x-}, {j-Diamonds}{j-Clubs}{a-Hearts}{k-Spades}{x-}, {10-Diamonds}{10-Clubs}{a-Diamonds}{k-Diamonds}{q-Clubs}, etc.); although you typically will still be discarding the high-ranked supporting cards, it is highly advantageous when you are dealt them since they are no longer available to be drawn and your opponents are thus less likely to make dominating pairs or trips on the draw. That said, tend to fold the weakest of hands consisting only of a medium pair, unless you are on the button, and especially in the face of a raise.
  5. Straight-flush draws
    A draw as strong as an open-ended draw to a straight flush is still considered speculative; it is difficult to complete a straight or a flush with the benefit of only a single draw of one card. Even a draw offering as many as 15 outs will succeed less than one third of the time. That said, the pot-limit betting structure potentially increases the playability of these hands since an untrusting opponent may be tempted to pay you off after you make your draw. Indeed, the possibility of winning a big pot on the final betting round can make playing these hands more worthwhile against the right opponents; however, when the betting becomes heavy and all of the chips end up in the middle, do not be surprised to see hands at least as strong as full houses being tabled, particularly by players who were drawing with two pair or trips. Therefore, you could make your draw and still lose your entire stack.

One of the principal differences between Five-Card Draw and 2-7 Single Draw (also a game that allows for only one draw) is the match-up between two drawing hands is much likely to be closer in 2-7 Single Draw than in Five-Card Draw.

For example, in 2-7 Single Draw, a premium one-card draw such as {7-Spades}{4-Diamonds}{3-Clubs}{2-Hearts}{x-} would be considered stronger than a marginal one-card draw such as {9-Hearts}{7-Diamonds}{6-Clubs}{4-Spades}{x-}, and the former would be about a 3:2 favourite to win the hand.

However, a given starting hand in Five-Card Draw will often be a much bigger equity favourite over another. If you hold a pair of Aces against an opponent holding a pair of 10s, for example, your opponent must improve on the draw to at least two pair – while you fail to improve – to win the pot. This is a difficult task.

Put another way, if the situation is heads-up and you are leading going into the draw, you are likely to emerge as the winner much more often than not. Therefore, it is generally important to avoid calling raises with dominated hands where possible; this, in turn, requires you to closely observe your opponents to accurately assess the range of hands they are likely to play in various situations.

It should be no surprise that playing weak, one-pair starting hands when out of position (these hands are most likely to be dominated) is a very common leak among novice Five-Card Draw players. In fact, you should generally be wary of playing any hand that is unlikely to evolve into a big two pair hand, especially when facing a raise.

Moreover, given there is only one draw available, it is rarely profitable to pursue lone one-card (or worse) flush draws or straight draws, particularly from any position other than late position. These draws are very difficult to make with the benefit of only one draw and, for novice players, it would not be a huge mistake to simply fold these hands. As you gain more experience you could consider occasionally opening with a raise with these one-card draws (particularly strong ones such as Ace-high flush draws and, to a lesser extent, open-ended straight draws) primarily for the purpose of deception (e.g. representing two pair or trips); however, this is a more advanced play that can easily be overdone.

Like many draw games, position is of critical importance in Five-Card Draw. Being in position allows you to see how many cards your opponents are drawing before making your own drawing decision, and to see whether your opponents have checked or bet (and how much) before it is your turn to act on the final betting round. This may allow you to take advantage of the natural tendency of many players to check whenever they have failed to significantly improve after the draw.

With respect to the drawing decision, in general, you want to give any pair you play the best chance to improve to three of a kind. As a default strategy, consider the following:

• With one pair, draw three cards, especially when out of position.
• With two pair or trips, draw one card.

It can be tempting to keep a high-ranked “kicker” (a third card) with a pair, and draw only two cards. Indeed, you may occasionally be justified in keeping an Ace kicker (lower-ranked kickers should be routinely discarded) when defending against an opponent you strongly believe is already holding two pair. However, note that by keeping a kicker you decrease your chances of making a much stronger hand (trips) by one third (which is significant); meanwhile, drawing a card that would pair your kicker is far from guaranteed. Furthermore, against multiple opponents who are all drawing aggressively to make trips while holding at least a pair, improving to two pair may ultimately be insufficient to win the pot.

Also, some players will rationalize a decision to draw two cards while holding a pair, by arguing that doing so allows them to represent holding trips. This “strategy” is highly overrated. Practically speaking, it is difficult to justify playing aggressively pre-draw and risking a substantial number of chips when holding a mere pair; however, if you were to simply call with a pair and then draw only two cards, astute opponents will often correctly put you on a pair rather than trips anyway.

With respect to hands made after the draw, big two pair (note: of all two-pair hands, half are ranked Jack-high or better) and especially three of a kind are excellent holdings; straights, flushes, and full houses (or stronger holdings) are certainly rarer and extremely strong. A bet for value on the final betting round, particularly when none of your opponents have shown any signs of strength, will typically be warranted with any of these hands (although you should tend to proceed more cautiously with the weakest of the big two pair hands in multi-way situations).

Weaker two-pair hands will win a decent share of pots when the action pre-draw has been very light; you can bet these hands more freely on the final betting round in such situations, particularly when all opponents have checked to you. Otherwise, you will usually be trying to get to showdown cheaply with these more marginal holdings and may need to fold them when facing aggression from one or more opponents, depending on your actual hand and the hands you expect your opponents to hold. Weak two pair hands will hold up better in heads-up situations, and even hands consisting of only one big pair may emerge as winners in blind-versus-blind situations where both players are unlikely to have been dealt strong starting hands; however, these hands are much less likely to be good when facing a bet from a tight player or when facing a bet and a subsequent call or raise.

Indeed, overplaying two pair hands – whether strong or weak – is but another common leak among Five-Card Draw players. You should be especially wary when holding two pair (or even trips) facing an opponent who is very likely to have been on a flush or straight draw and who suddenly emerges betting and raising on the final betting round. You may be able to easily spot lesser-experienced players who are pursuing this type of draw from their tendency to simply call pre-draw in situations where they typically raise holding two pair, for example, before drawing one card.

Since it would normally be a mistake for your opponents to chase flushes or straights in Five-Card Draw (given how infrequently a flush or straight will make), you do not want to inadvertently turn their plays into profitable ones by routinely paying them off whenever their low-percentage draws happen to succeed and they are unlikely to be bluffing.

On the other hand, if your opponent is apt to play such draws and frequently bluff when they miss, then you would need to consider adjusting by showing down two pair hands (and possibly even unimproved one pair hands) to catch the anticipated bluff.

Accordingly, determining whether it is most appropriate to bet, raise, or fold on the final betting round requires you to develop excellent judgment; in each situation, you must figure out the range of hands your opponents are likely to hold from their previous betting and drawing actions and assess how well your particular hand fares against that range. Getting good reads on your opponents is critical to realizing full value when holding the best hand, while escaping situations where you hold a strong but second-best hand.

Finally, as mentioned in my previous article, choosing the proper size for bets is largely an art and optimal bet-sizing considerations are beyond the scope of this series. For simplicity’s sake, you can consider betting one-half the pot as a default whenever you decide to open with a bet on the final betting round. This will tend to camouflage the strength of your hand. As previously mentioned, what you want to avoid is playing in a manner that allows opponents to guess the strength of your hands from the size of your bets: if you consistently make bigger bets when bluffing and smaller bets when holding strong hands, or vice versa, astute opponents will recognize this pattern and respond accordingly, either by re-bluffing you when they know you don’t hold a strong hand or by folding hands that you beat when they might have otherwise called.

Next week: Razz

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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