Out of the Kitchen and Into the Spotlight: Omaha Hi-Lo Split

  • Ken  LoKen Lo

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

Sorry I missed you last week. As mentioned in my previous articles, I’ve been on vacation. But I’m finally back to my home-sweet-home and catching up on things. There’s really no time to rest: this is the second-to-last article in our Dealer’s Choice series, which means ... it’s less than one week before the start of the WSOP!

My social media feeds are already buzzing in anticipation. I think 2013 WSOP bracelet winner Matthew Waxman summed things up nicely on Twitter:

Matthew WaxmanThere are two times of the year for a poker player. #WSOP and the other 10 months waiting for it!

Speaking of social media, the past long weekend was the perfect occasion to get up to speed on what’s been happening in the poker world. Browsing through Facebook and Twitter feeds, forum posts, and missed PokerNews articles, there were a few things that caught my attention. They made me think of the state of our favourite game and the poker industry as a whole. Allow me to share them with you.

The good: Should poker be a “team” sport?

I follow the Facebook feed of 2011 WSOP bracelet winner Jason Somerville (also on Twitter as @JasonSomerville), who is one of my favourite players. Not only is he a genuinely nice guy, he’s one of a few high profile players who sacrifices both time and effort (that might otherwise be spent playing and developing his own game) to give back to the poker community by teaching amateur players. I am a strong believer that educational initiatives at the grassroots level are very important to the growth of this game, and it’s great to see someone actively contributing to the cause with such dedication and enthusiasm.

Jason is the host of the popular “Run It Up” web video series, in which he tracks his journey in a bankroll building challenge. In this series, he coaches and interacts with viewers, and hosts the occasional guest.

This past weekend, he shared updates and results from a tournament being played at Peppermill Poker Room in Reno, Nevada. Normally, local tournament results would not be of particular interest to me, but I could see from his messages and pictures how super proud he was of the many people from his “Run It Up” community who came out to play, and to see one of his students ultimately win the Main Event.

The point here is if you can make the trek to a poker tournament as part of a group (e.g. a study group, friends from your bar league or home game, etc.), it can be an immensely fun and rewarding experience! You might even find one (or more) of you will make it deep into the tournament, making it that much more memorable. If you are doing well, or on the verge of doing so, the moral support can certainly make the difference between tilting and going home empty-handed, or keeping your cool and hoisting the trophy.

Of course, you aren’t actually playing as a team at the table, but being part of a supportive group can be very helpful, especially if you need someone to bounce ideas off or, or if you simply need to vent.

That said, a few tournaments have begun to experiment with pairs or team formats, which seems really interesting. I expect the dynamic of these games to be somewhat different than regular tournaments (your decisions will affect your teammates now), and I’m guessing they are probably more social. Poker seems to attract “loner” types, so it’s nice to see events like these urging people out of their shells. Whether these team events will become more popular in the future is yet to be seen.

The bad: Should we feel obliged to help out the clueless player?

I recently stumbled upon this thread on a poker forum which relates to a somewhat philosophical question: should you tell a player who’s giving his money away that it’s because he misunderstands the rules to the game?

The example given is where someone sits down at a lowball game, say Razz, and starts playing the game as if trying to make high hands were the objective. Would you correct this person when it’s obvious he does not realize he is supposed to be trying to make low hands? As the original poster pointed out, by correcting the player, you would be ultimately taking a “free money” spot away from everyone at the table, not just yourself.

Some said they wouldn’t speak up, that it is every player’s responsibility to know the rules. They rationalize that, in time, the clueless player will eventually learn from the mistake and adapt, and those who do know the rules should be allowed to profit until then.

Others were more sympathetic. They argued it is critical to keep as many players in the player pool as possible, particularly when it comes to live mixed games given the relatively small field sizes. They suggest voluntarily offering a little information about the rules (not strategy) won’t necessarily make a player much better, but the gesture itself may be appreciated and he might feel welcome enough to return. Accordingly, it was suggested there were long-term benefits to be had, even if it meant possibly giving up on a potentially profitable situation in the short term.

Frankly, I’m a bit torn. As an educator, I do feel an obligation to help people who are learning the game; on the other hand, not everyone is welcoming of advice, and I’m somewhat loathe to help people who have no desire to help themselves. To be honest, the defining factor for me is whether the person appears to be nice. If the clueless player is a jerk, the last thing I’d want to do is help him, and I’d more likely be willing to extract every penny I could get. While it may be short-sighted, I think it’s a natural response. If the player is obnoxious, loses all their money in a huff, and leaves the table, I see it as a win-win. On the flipside, if I’m asked a question politely by someone who seems respectful, I am usually happy to volunteer an answer.

A related, though more difficult situation in my view, arises when it’s not just a rule someone has messed up, but when you see basic strategic mistakes being made. Certainly, I would agree it’s not my place to volunteer strategic advice at the table (I find people who do this often end up looking obnoxious themselves), but when you see “the train wreck just waiting to happen,” so to speak, it can be really difficult to watch.

I remember playing in an Omaha Hi/Lo cash game at the Bicycle Casino several years ago (during my visit to poker destination #8 as mentioned in the intro of my Stud article). Omaha Hi/Lo, which happens to be the game I’m covering in today’s article, is a game where generally “tight is right” when it comes to an optimal strategic approach, particularly when numerous players are contesting the pot. In this game, each player receives double the number of hole cards as compared to Hold’em. This typically means much stronger hands tend to be flopped and tabled at showdown. In games where pots are usually multi-way, it is imperative you start with hands that can make very strong “nut” hands: whenever a strong hand is possible on a particular board, and the betting is heavy, there’s a very good chance the nuts are out there. You want to be the person holding that hand; it is extremely easy to get stuck with a second-best, or worse, hand in Omaha Hi/Lo.

In any event, in this game, I sat three spots away from a middle-aged woman who I observed was playing almost every hand ... and losing practically every one of them. She was gambling in the truest sense, calling multiple bets pre-flop with garbage hands (e.g. {J-Spades}{J-Diamonds}{7-Clubs}{3-Hearts}), calling bets and raises all the way down to the river, often after having only barely connected with the board (e.g. on a flop of {K-Diamonds}{6-Spades}{4-Spades}), and, probably unbeknownst to her, hoping for a miracle to happen.

The fact that pots are split in Omaha Hi/Lo – with one portion going to the player with the best high hand and the other going to the player with the best qualifying low hand – means there will often be not just one, but two winners. This fact often tempts those holding mediocre hands and draws to continue even in highly unfavourable situations. They cling to the faint hope of walking away with at least one half of the pot, especially when they see pots growing large. Occasionally they will luck out, but mostly they walk away empty-handed.

I was watching this woman, every two or three hands, dig into her purse and curse at her bad luck over and over again. Although I’m sure this would be a dream scenario for a live cash game grinder, I really felt bad for her. Sure, people should be free to do what they want with their own money, but I wanted to at least tell her to read a book or something.

The ugly – Whose fault is it anyway?

Many excellent poker players are super smart. They pride themselves on exercising impeccable judgment at the table: bluffing at opportune times, making the “hero” call or fold, inducing shoves from overaggressive opponents, proudly milking their foes for that extra value bet, etc. But it truly amazes me how some will have such outstanding judgment when it comes to the game itself, but such poor judgment when it comes to poker etiquette.

The Twittersphere was recently abuzz about a situation in which a player at a tournament held at Parx Casino in Pennsylvania was disqualified for what appears to be unsportsmanlike behaviour. If the rumours are true, then this characterization is probably putting it mildly.

First, the player, after losing a hand, apparently crumpled his playing cards in disgust. Allegedly, the dealer and floor people were then insulted, cards were thrown across the table, stacks of chips were violently shoved. It was reported the player then proceeded to threaten to “torch the place,” although the player explained in defense that he actually said he was going to do that only verbally, “on Twitter.”

Well-respected poker pro and ambassador for the casino, Matt Glantz (@MattGlantz), fielded both tweets of support and criticism for the ruling, which saw the player disqualified. Matt responded, quite aptly in my view:

Matt GlantzIt's real simple guys. Respect the room. Respect the players. Respect the staff. You will never have any issues.

Some followers critiqued the ruling as being too harsh. They pointed to instances where floor people have been seen assessing inconsistent penalties for other violations of etiquette, and that the real issue should be about standardizing the penalty system to address claims of discrimination and favouritism.

In my opinion, this is convenient deflecting – a red herring. If stricter standards are needed when it comes to penalties, then let’s fight for that. However, there must be a better way of drawing attention to the issue than being part of the problem, by acting in an inexcusable and ridiculous manner. Remember, if there were no etiquette infractions to rule on in the first place, then no penalties would even need to be assessed at all.

If someone breaks a rule – and we’re not talking about a mild transgression here – that person is at the mercy of the decision-maker called upon to make the ruling at the time. This is not unlike many other sports where officiating is required. But realize once you’re in the zone where you’ve forced someone to decide between a three, four, or five-round penalty, or disqualification, triggered solely by some flagrant violation you’ve committed at your end, you should be prepared for the worst; if you end up receiving a punishment you think to be disproportionate or unjust, I say you’ve brought it upon yourself. Stop blaming the victims.

I think people routinely forget when they play outside their home and in a public setting, you are the guest of the host, and no one has any obligation to put up with abuse, whether it be to person or property. If certain actions were truly unintentional due to a highly emotional response made in the heat of the moment, that’s understandable; but it is much more respectable to sincerely apologize for these mistakes, accept the consequences, and move on. Work toward being a true professional and take responsibility for your own actions and decisions – as you do (or should) when it comes to playing the game itself.

In recent times, I’ve felt there needs to be a bit more maturity and respect exhibited among the poker playing populace. In particular, it really bothers me when I see dealers and staff being abused; they may be convenient and easy targets, but no one deserves such treatment, whether you’re paying to play, or not.

And I’m not singling out younger players when I use the words “maturity” and “respect.” In fact, I was truly shocked at how many older “gentlemen” I saw at the European Poker Tour event I recently attended, slamming and throwing cards across the table, and swearing at the dealer after losing a hand or busting out. This is really sad and completely uncalled for. People who honestly believe dealers are purposely trying to “get them” by dealing them crappy cards are quite simply delusional.

Is it wrong to ask poker players to treat others the way you would want to be treated, and how you would want your loved ones to be treated? I don’t think so. And yes, it really is that simple.

Limit Omaha Hi/Lo

Omaha Hi/Lo is likely the third most popular variant in live play at the moment, behind No-limit Hold’em and Pot-limit Omaha. One of the attractive features about the game is it is generally quite easy to do well with disciplined starting hand selection, and it’s not that difficult to recognize when you have flopped a hand that’s highly favoured to win.

Yet, many players play the game poorly, routinely pursuing and paying off with second-best hands. Although adjustments are certainly necessary in short-handed play, in situations involving a full table of players with pots routinely being contested multi-way, tight play is generally rewarded, and often a highly effective defense against overaggressive opponents.

Omaha Hi/Lo bears some resemblance to No-limit Hold’em and Pot-limit Omaha in that it is also a community card game where players are dealt a number of hole cards, and a flop, turn, and river are dealt. However, there are some unique features:

• Like Pot-limit Omaha, each player is dealt four hole cards instead of two, and you must use exactly two hole cards when constructing a five-card hand.
• The betting is typically fixed-limit (in most mixes), so for any given wager, the amount you can bet or raise is restricted.
• Pots are capable of being split, with half the pot at showdown going to the best high hand (using standard hand rankings), and the other half going to the best qualifying low hand. A qualifying low hand is one consisting of five different cards ranked eight or lower. If no player can table a qualifying low hand, however, the best high hand will win the entire pot (this is called a “scoop”).

Object of the Game

The object of Omaha Hi/Lo is to make the highest five-card high hand, the lowest qualifying five-card low hand, or both. The ace can play as a high card or as a low card (e.g. as “1”).

One key feature of Omaha variants is that, although you are dealt four cards in your hand, you cannot use them freely when constructing a high hand or a low hand, by using three or four of them, for example. You also cannot play a single hole card, and you cannot play the board. You MUST use two cards in your hand and three cards from the board to make each of the high and low hands.

For example, if the board is {K-Spades}{3-Clubs}{5-Diamonds}{K-Diamonds}{6-Clubs}, and you hold {A-Clubs}{4-Hearts}{7-Clubs}{K-Clubs}, you will have made the following hands:

• For the high hand: the {4-Hearts}{7-Clubs} in your hand play, with the {3-Clubs}{5-Diamonds}{6-Clubs} from the board, to form a straight. Note you do not have a club flush even though there are five clubs between the cards on the board and those in your hand; you cannot form a flush using EXACTLY two cards from your hand and EXACTLY three cards from the board.

• For the low hand: the {A-Clubs}{4-Hearts} in your hand play, with the {3-Clubs}{5-Diamonds}{6-Clubs} from the board, to make a 6-high hand. Since you are trying to make the lowest possible hand, you would not play {A-Clubs}{7-Clubs} or {4-Hearts}{7-Clubs} from your hand, as they would both result in a 7-high hand, which is inferior to the lower-ranking 6-high hand when it comes to constructing the low hand.

Hand Rankings

With respect to the hand-ranking system used in Omaha Hi/Lo, it is instructive to consider the hand rankings used in Stud Hi/Lo, as they are the same. That is, standard hand rankings are used for the high hand and low hand rankings are similar to those described in Razz. You may recall from the Razz rankings the ace plays as low for the low hand; also, straights and flushes are ignored and do not count against the hand.

However, with respect to low hands, Omaha Hi/Lo employs a qualifier, unlike Razz. In Omaha Hi/Lo, only 8-high or lower-ranked hands constitute qualifying low hands – hence the game’s highly descriptive modifier of “Eight-or-Better.”

With respect to the low hand, recall that you are trying to make the lowest-ranked low hand; therefore, a five-card 8-high hand will be beaten by any 7-high (or lower-ranked) hand, a 7-high hand will be beaten by any 6-high (or lower-ranked) hand, and any 6-high hand will be beaten by a 5-high hand. A 5-high hand is the best low hand, and is commonly known as a wheel.

{5-Diamonds}{4-Diamonds}{3-Spades}{2-Hearts}{A-Clubs}: 5-high = the “nut” low hand

To facilitate the reading of low hands, consider ordering the five cards from highest rank to lowest. The sequence of ranks will then form a number: the lower the number, the better the low hand.

Example:

{8-Spades}{6-Clubs}{4-Diamonds}{3-Hearts}{2-Hearts} = 86,432
{7-Diamonds}{5-Diamonds}{3-Clubs}{2-Clubs}{A-Spades} = 75,321

Since 75,321 is the lower number, the corresponding hand will be the better low hand.

Example:

{7-Spades}{5-Clubs}{4-Diamonds}{3-Hearts}{2-Hearts} = 75,432
{7-Diamonds}{6-Diamonds}{3-Clubs}{2-Clubs}{A-Spades} = 76,321

Since 75,432 is the lower number, the corresponding hand will be the better low hand, despite the fact the other hand contains the lowest-ranked individual card ({A-Spades}). This is why the cards should be ordered from highest to lowest, to ensure the hand is read correctly; in this case, it is the second-highest card that breaks the tie, and since the five is lower than a six, the hand headed by 7-5 will beat the hand headed by 7-6 for the low hand portion of the pot.

Play of the Hand

In Omaha Hi/Lo, there are four betting rounds, similar to No-limit Hold’em. Where Omaha Hi/Lo is played with a fixed-limit betting structure, there is a low-limit bet associated with the first two betting rounds (i.e. preflop, flop), and a high-limit bet associated with the last two (i.e. turn, river). 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 an Omaha Hi/Lo 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 hole cards.
    In this example, you are dealt {A-Clubs}{4-Hearts}{7-Clubs}{K-Clubs}.
  3. First Betting Round (preflop): 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. Flop: Three community cards are dealt face up, which are shared by all players.
    In this example, the flop is {K-Spades}{3-Clubs}{5-Diamonds}, making you a pair of kings with a gutshot straight draw, and a draw to a qualifying low hand.
  5. Second Betting Round: Bets and raises are again at the low-limit bet – 50 – on this round.
  6. Turn: A fourth community card is dealt face up.
    In this example, the turn is a {K-Diamonds}, for a board of {K-Spades}{3-Clubs}{5-Diamonds}{K-Diamonds}, improving your hand to three of a kind kings for the high hand. You still have a draw to a qualifying low hand.
  7. Third Betting Round: Bets and raises are now at the high-limit bet – 100 – on this round.
  8. River: A fifth community card is dealt face up.
    In this example, the river is a {6-Clubs}, for a board of {K-Spades}{3-Clubs}{5-Diamonds}{K-Diamonds}{6-Clubs}, improving your hand to a 7-high straight for the high hand, and a 6-high hand for the low. Note you have made the second-best possible low hand with 6-5-4-3-A, since a player holding A-2 can make a superior 6-5-4-3-A low hand, which would be the best possible low hand on this particular board.
  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 best five-card high hands of each remaining player are compared to determine a winner of the high hand portion of the pot, and the best five-card low hands (ranked eight or lower to qualify) of each remaining player are compared to determine a winner of the low hand portion of the pot. If no qualifying low hands can be made, the best high hand will win the entire pot.
    In this example, your 7-high straight will beat the hand of any opponent holding a lower-ranked straight, set, two pair, one pair, or high-card hand, for the high hand portion of the pot. However, your 7-high straight will lose to a higher-ranked straight and any higher-ranked hand such as a flush or full house, as examples. Also, your hand of 6-5-4-3-A for the low hand will beat a higher-ranked 6-high hand (i.e. 6-5-4-3-2), and any 7-high or 8-high hands for the low hand portion of the pot, but will lose to a lower-ranked 6-high hand (i.e. 6-5-3-2-A). Note that although a 6-high hand would generally beat a 5-high hand, no 5-high hand is possible on this particular board since the board does not contain three cards ranked five or lower, and it is necessary to play exactly three board cards when constructing any five-card hand in an Omaha variant.

Basic Strategy Tips

Here is a list of recommended starting hands:

  1. Pocket aces with a wheel card and a fourth coordinated card
    Aces are extremely important cards in Omaha Hi/Lo as they can contribute to both the high and low hands. In fact, all good hands in Omaha Hi/Lo contain at least one ace. With a pair of aces, you have an excellent shot at winning the high hand portion of the pot when play is short-handed. If at least one ace is suited with one of the other cards, the value of the hand goes up considerably given the nut flush potential for the high hand.

    However, since Omaha Hi/Lo is a split-pot game, hands that provide not only excellent high hand potential but also excellent low hand potential are premium hands. Since the A-2 holding will help make many nut low hands when one is possible given the board, the most valuable hands in the group will contain a deuce and preferably another low card as a backup that would still allow a strong low hand to be made when the board happens to contain an ace or a deuce.

    Therefore, hands such as {A-Spades}{A-Hearts}{2-Spades}{3-Hearts} or {A-Diamonds}{A-Clubs}{2-Diamonds}{4-Clubs} are monster starting hands in Omaha Hi/Lo. Hands such as {A-Spades}{A-Hearts}{3-Spades}{X-Hearts} and {A-Spades}{A-Hearts}{4-Spades}{X-Hearts} are slightly weaker given it is more difficult to make nut low hands, but are still strong, especially in short-handed situations. If the fourth card is not a low card, it should still, preferably, be coordinated with the hand in some way (e.g. suited to the ace, or a face card that opens up nut straight possibilities).

  2. A-2 with a wheel card and a fourth coordinated card
    If at least one ace is suited with one of the other cards, the value of the hand goes up considerably given the nut flush potential for the high hand. The A-2 holding will help to make many nut low hands when one is possible given the board, but preferably the hand contains at least one other low card that can serve as a backup that would still allow a strong low hand to be made when the board happens to contain an ace or a deuce. Having three different low cards to accompany the ace may provide for small straight opportunities: making a straight along with the nut low hand is another very common way to scoop pots. If the fourth card is not a low card, it should still, preferably, be coordinated with the hand in some way (e.g. suited to the ace, or a face card to open up nut straight possibilities, etc.).

    Therefore, hands such as {A-Spades}{2-Spades}{3-Hearts}{5-Clubs} or {A-Diamonds}{2-Hearts}{4-Diamonds}{K-Hearts} are excellent hands in Omaha Hi/Lo given their versatility.

  3. Other A-2 holdings
    While the A-2 holding will help to make many nut low hands when one is possible given the board, without the help of at least one coordinated card, and preferably two, the hand becomes quite marginal. In fact, the strength of hands in this group can vary widely depending on the how well the supporting cards coordinate with the ace and each other. For example, having the ace suited will increase the value of the hand, as will having two broadway cards or a high-ranked pair (e.g. {A-Spades}{2-Hearts}{K-Diamonds}{J-Spades} and {A-Diamonds}{2-Diamonds}{Q-Hearts}{Q-Clubs} are excellent hands). On the other hand, when the ace is not suited and the supporting cards do not coordinate well with A-2, particularly if they will not assist in making a strong high hand, the holding will be much less valuable (e.g. {A-Spades}{2-Diamonds}{7-Clubs}{9-Hearts} is very marginal). Having a wheel card with the holding, even if the fourth card is relatively uncoordinated, will add some value.
  4. Primarily low-oriented or high-only oriented hands
    There are a wide variety of hands that potentially fall into this category. With respect to the high hand portion of the pot, some hands capable of making very strong high hands can be playable despite not having any chance at winning the low hand portion of the pot. For example, hands such as {K-Diamonds}{K-Hearts}{Q-Diamonds}{Q-Hearts} or {K-Spades}{K-Clubs}{Q-Clubs}{J-Spades} have the potential of making big sets, big straights, and big flushes. Indeed, if there is no qualifying low hand at showdown, the best high hand will win the whole pot. With respect to the low hand portion of the pot, hands containing A-3, A-4, and 2-3, preferably along with two other coordinated cards, can be playable, although the danger of making second-best low hands increases with more players contesting the pot. Though still largely speculative, the hands containing an ace increase (e.g. {A-Spades}{3-Spades}{5-Clubs}{Q-Clubs}) in value significantly in short-handed situations, and having the ace suited is a huge plus.

Suppose you are playing No-limit Hold’em and are first to act. You look down to see you’ve been dealt pocket aces {A-Spades}{A-Clubs}. You raise, and you get ... six callers! The seven of you proceed to the flop: {5-Diamonds}{5-Hearts}{K-Clubs}. Suppose also you are one of those players who would venture a bet here (some wouldn’t) and you ultimately find yourself facing a raise and two reraises before the action returns to you. What would you do?

Most competent players will probably recognize their pocket aces are most likely beaten in this situation and would consider folding their hand, albeit reluctantly. With six other opponents contesting the pot, the chances at least one opponent will hold a five for trips are extremely high, which would leave a mere two outs for the aces to improve – a highly unfavourable situation. It is also possible someone already holds pocket kings for a flopped full house.

Now let’s assume instead that we are playing an Omaha variant and you are the first to act again, having been dealt {A-Spades}{A-Clubs}{X-}{X-}. You raise and you get three callers. The four of you proceed to the flop: {5-Diamonds}{5-Hearts}{K-Clubs}. You venture a bet, but ultimately find yourself facing a raise and a reraise before the action returns to you.

Many novice players tend to be less convinced their aces might already be beat in this particular situation: they reason that it is less likely they are up against a player holding a five or pocket kings since there are only three opponents and only two showing strength. The odd thing in both examples is that the same number of cards (12) are out among the hands of the opponents, since players start with double the number of hole cards in Omaha variants. This should at least suggest the chances of a five being out in the hands of an opponent would be comparable between the two situations; however, this fact is often ignored by novice players.

In fact, in Omaha variants, given each player starts with four hole cards, SIX different two-card combinations can be formed from each hand. This means when there are multiple players contesting the pot, the chances a player will hold some combination of cards that will connect strongly with any given board is very high. For example, on a coordinated board of {3-Hearts}{4-Hearts}{5-Spades} an overpair is much less likely to be good facing two or three opponents in Omaha than it would be in Hold’em.

Moreover, if the game is specifically Omaha Hi/Lo, a flop of {3-Hearts}{4-Hearts}{5-Spades} is especially dangerous for an overpair since many players will be playing starting hands concentrated in low cards. In particular, you should fully expect at least one opponent in a multi-way pot will hold the highly coveted A-2 for a flopped straight along with the nut low hand, and possibly even the nut flush draw.

One of the key aspects of a high/low split-pot game, such as Omaha Hi/Lo, is holdings that can make nut low hands on a wide variety of boards increase substantially in value and are generally much more desirable than all but the strongest of high hand holdings. This is because the best qualifying low hand will always be eligible for a portion of the pot, regardless of the strength of any high hand that might ultimately be made. Although it is true the best high hand will scoop if no qualifying low hand can be made, given about three-fifths of the deck is comprised of “low” cards ranked eight or lower, a majority of boards will provide for a potential qualifying low hand by the time showdown is reached.

It is also notable while low cards can also be used to make decent high hands (typically by making small flushes and straights), high-ranked cards can never be used to make a qualifying low hand. Players who are aware of this property of split-pot games will recognize aces as being especially valuable since they may be played for both the low and high hand. In contrast, mid-ranked cards are much less playable.

In fact, many of the strongest Omaha Hi/Lo starting hands will be comprised of very low cards, very high-ranked cards, or some combination; it would not typically be a huge mistake to fold any hand containing one or more mid-ranked cards (say e.g., six to jack) unless you have an excellent reason to keep it (e.g. you have a very strong, underlying three-card holding, or the mid-ranked card is suited to an ace).

Accordingly, a common approach to Omaha Hi/Lo is to aim to play hands that can make the best low hand possible early in the hand, which may then potentially evolve into a sufficiently strong high hand for the scoop. This typically involves playing hands that (1) include at least an ace and a deuce, and (2) where all four cards work together to make multiple strong two-card combinations. If you’re going to be dealt four cards, why settle for hands with only two or three playable ones?

First, let’s explore the importance of the A-2 holding. We must use two cards from our hand. Since three cards must be played from the board, in many cases these same three cards will be played by all players. So, if you hold the two lowest hole cards among your opponents, you will be more likely to end up with the best low hand.

In particular, note if a flop contains two or three qualifying low cards other than an ace or a deuce, the A-2 holding will always provide the best low hand or draw. For example, on a board of {4-Clubs}{7-Hearts}{8-Diamonds}, any player holding an A-2 will have the best low hand: 8-7-4-2-A. Note that 8-7-4-2-A is better than 8-7-4-3-A (made with A-3), 8-7-4-3-2 (made with 2-3), and 8-7-5-4-A (made with A-4), as examples.

Whenever you hold two low cards other than A-2, if a low hand or draw is possible on a board that does not contain an ace or a deuce (and many boards will not), it is possible to be dominated by a better low hand. This is a dangerous situation to be in, and more likely to occur in multi-way pots. Hold’em players typically know enough to fear situations in which they may be dominated for high hands (e.g. making top pair with a worse kicker or holding a small overpair to an opponent’s potentially higher-ranked overpair, etc.), but many struggle with the concept that one low hand, in games where low hands are eligible to win, can be dominated by another for the low hand portion of the pot.

Therefore, while low holdings such as 2-3, 2-4, 3-5, etc. may look decent, they will rarely be good enough to play for the low hand in multi-way pots. Even hands with A-3 and A-4 can be troublesome since they are dominated by the A-2 holding, but these may have greater playability if the hand also provides for some flexibility with respect to the high hand (e.g. because the ace is paired or suited).

Despite the star power of the A-2 holding, when the board does happen to contain an ace or deuce and a low hand or draw is possible, the value of the A-2 decreases significantly. Hands that would otherwise have been mediocre for the low hand portion of the pot may be elevated in status. For example, if the flop happens to contain an ace such as {A-Spades}{5-Clubs}{7-Spades}, the best low hand will now go to the player holding 2-3 (to make a low hand of 7-5-3-2-A), and not A-2. Accordingly, hands such A-3 or 2-3 can be playable in certain situations for its speculative value, hoping to flop the missing deuce or ace and at least one other low card to provide a nut low hand or draw.

Since an ace or a deuce can adversely affect the A-2 holding in the making of low hands, a backup low card such as a trey or a four to go along with an A-2 holding is extremely valuable. This will provide some insurance against the possibility an ace or a deuce appearing on the board to nullify your low hand, which can be especially painful if it happens later in the hand after you thought you had the low hand portion of the pot already locked up (when that happens, your low hand is said to be “counterfeited.”)

There are certainly situations where varying from the general approach (i.e. aiming to make strong low hands from the outset, usually by playing hands with A-2) can be justified. For example, in short-handed matches, (e.g. heads-up or when playing three-handed), it is less likely players would be dealt strong hands, and therefore, second-to-nut and third-to-nut hands – whether for the low or high hand – will more likely be enough to win at showdown. Therefore, A-3, A-4, and even A-5 holdings as contributions toward the low hand may be more likely to be sufficient to win that corresponding portion of the pot.

Also, if there are many callers, it may be justifiable to play hands that can make very strong high hands, despite having few low hand prospects. If you flop a big set or a big flush, you will win a decent-sized half-pot, and occasionally, you may even scoop when no low hand is possible. In fact, if many players see the flop, they may all hold hands concentrated in low cards, potentially making it more likely the flop will contain mainly high cards, and that the best high hand will ultimately scoop.

However, in general, consider if you are at a full table and get involved in a hand with five callers, nearly half of the cards in the deck will be accounted for. If the flop does not provide you with a very strong hand or draw toward one portion of the pot in these multi-way scenarios, your chances of ultimately winning that portion of the pot will be extremely limited.

In this regard, let’s now talk about the importance of selecting starting hands where all four cards work together to make multiple, strong two-card combinations. The strongest of starting hands in Omaha Hi/Lo will not only contain A-2, but will also comprise cards that provide for the possibility of making strong hands for BOTH portions of the pot. In split-pot games, winning both portions of the pot (i.e. a scoop) is a huge win.

Consider, for example, a situation where you face a single opponent who clearly holds a hand that will win one-half of the pot; if you hold a hand that at best will win the other half, you are simply investing chips in situations where you most likely will just be getting them back.

Even worse, whenever you hold a hand that is only competitive for the high hand portion of the pot and your opponent already holds a made qualifying low hand, you could potentially lose the entire pot if your opponent manages to outdraw you by making a better high hand by the river.

Moreover, if you are merely pursuing the low hand with no thought toward making a strong high hand (e.g. you start with a lone, unsuited A-2 with two uncoordinated cards), you may find yourself in situations where you hold cards that can be used to form the nut low hand, but someone else also holds the same hand. In that case, you may be entitled to only one-quarter or less of the pot, rather than the full half-pot you were otherwise expecting to win. Unless there are numerous players involved in the pot, you will likely suffer a net loss in chips when this happens.

Accordingly, you should lean toward playing starting hands that can make strong hands for both the high hand and the low hand portions of the pot. For example, a starting hand such as {A-Spades}{2-Spades}{K-Diamonds}{K-Clubs} is a decent starting hand, as you have the potential to make a strong low hand, as well as a prospective strong high hand if the board contains a king or spades. As a further example, a hand such as {A-Hearts}{2-Spades}{3-Diamonds}{5-Hearts} provides significant counterfeiting protection, and on a flop such as {4-Diamonds}{6-Hearts}{K-Hearts}, you can be expected to end up with a strong hand for at least one portion of the pot, despite still not yet having a made hand for either portion of the pot. You would generally be able to play this hand aggressively on this type of flop. Of course, starting hands with pocket aces along with a strong low draw such as {A-Spades}{A-Diamonds}{2-Diamonds}{4-Clubs} have excellent scoop potential and are premium hands in Omaha Hi/Lo.

Being disciplined in your starting hand selection and playing tightly postflop in multi-way situations are important components to a sound Omaha Hi/Lo strategy. With four cards being dealt in your hand, your hand will, deceptively, appear to connect with many flops. However, as previously noted, the board is likely to connect with the hands of your opponents as well, and the more players there are in a hand, the stronger the hands that can be made. Do not be afraid to fold on the flop if multiple players are contesting the pot and you have what appears to be only a mediocre hand, particularly if you have no reasonable chance of improving to scoop.

For example, while often a favourable result in Hold’em, in multi-way Omaha Hi/Lo pots, simply making top pair/top kicker, two small pair, or even a small set is unlikely to be good for the high hand (and even if it happens to be the best hand at the flop, it is highly probable it will be overtaken by the river). When the board contains a pair, expect that trips or a full house will be made often; when the board appears to make a straight or flush possible, expect an opponent to frequently show up with one of those made hands. If numerous players see a flop that puts out a qualifying low hand, it is safe to assume that second-best and third-best possible low hands are unlikely to be in the lead.

Much of the battle in Omaha Hi/Lo is fought at the stage where you are selecting starting hands and determining whether to proceed past the flop. On the turn, you generally want to proceed in cases where you likely have the best hand for at least one portion of the pot. Certain draws can also be played beyond the turn if your hand has scoop potential; in contrast, if you are still drawing to a hand that can only win one half of the pot at best, it is generally correct to fold unless the pot is very large. Note it is easy to underestimate the odds needed to call whenever your potential return is only one half of a pot, and you certainly do not want to proceed in those situations where you could make your draw and still end up with a second-best hand. You may already be drawing dead.

Pot-limit Omaha Hi/Lo

The main difference between Pot-limit Omaha Hi/Lo and Limit Omaha Hi/Lo is obvious: in Pot-limit Omaha Hi/Lo the amounts of the bets or raises are not fixed. 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 preflop; however, it can certainly grow at an exponential rate whenever betting becomes heavy, particularly in later betting rounds. For an explanation of pot-limit betting, refer to the previous article on Pot-limit Five-Card Draw.

Certain strategic adjustments are necessary when playing this variant. The threat of big bets tends to narrow playing fields, with heavily contested pots being more likely to result in heads-up or three-way battles. As previously suggested, in heads-up situations, it is not as critical to hold A-2 for the best low hand draw, and it can be especially dangerous to rely on only a low draw holding A-2 as the pots escalate – it can be very easy to draw towards a low hand, only to miss it and lose your entire stack.

In the pot-limit variation, it becomes even more important to choose starting hands that have the potential to make strong hands for both portions of the pot. When you find yourself putting in bets against one opponent (or perhaps two), you do not want to be playing to simply get your money back – you want the chance to scoop the pot. Flexible multi-way hands such as {A-Spades}{2-Clubs}{K-Spades}{Q-Clubs}, {A-Diamonds}{2-Diamonds}{3-Clubs}{K-Clubs}, {A-Clubs}{3-Spades}{4-Clubs}{Q-Spades}, {A-Diamonds}{2-Clubs}{4-Diamonds}{6-Spades}, and so on, are extremely valuable, particularly since you may be able to flop strong hands for one portion of the pot while leaving open the possibility of making a playable hand for the other. If all the chips end up in the middle, your opponent is likely to have a strong hand for at least one portion of the pot; having a good hand or draw for the other portion of the pot may mean the difference between scooping or salvaging a portion of the pot when you are the one who could be scooped.

Position is also much more important in the pot-limit version of this game, perhaps even more so than in standard Pot-limit Omaha. A vulnerable made high hand will often need to be protected (usually with a pot-sized bet) more urgently, since the possibility of making it cheap for a player drawing to a low hand is especially dangerous. If the player makes a strong low hand, not only is the high hand then limited to winning only one half of the pot, but the low hand may also have free chances to then overtake the high hand for a scoop, which could potentially be at the expense of a player’s entire stack. If you are in position and players check to you, it will be more difficult for them to remain in the hand with marginal holdings given the threat of further betting and the fact you may actually have a strong made hand. This opens up potential bluffing opportunities (where you may be able to steal the pot even after having failed to connect well with the board), as well as semi-bluffing possibilities (betting with a draw, particularly a lone A-2 low draw), which would be much riskier to attempt from early position. Also, having the positional advantage can occasionally make up for certain deficiencies in the quality of a given starting hand.

Next week: Limit and Pot-limit Hold’em & Series Recap

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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