Monday, October 26, 2009

Key Concepts for High-Low Poker, Part I

If you have only played high-only variants of poker, and are trying to learn some of high-low games, here are some key concepts you need to know. These concepts apply to both Omaha High-Low and Seven-Card Stud High-Low Eight-or-Better (referred to as "Stud-Eight" in the post).

Scooping: Routinely playing for high-hand only, or low-hand only, leads to trouble. Splitting the pot should be a saving out, not the reason for playing the hand. As a general rule, you do not want to be on a draw for half the pot. The goal should be to have a hand that is on track to win the entire pot. Ideally, opponents drawing against your hand should only win half the pot when their hands hit.

For example in Stud-Eight, many players routinely play uncoordinated low cards with the intention of winning low-only. But consider going the river with A, A, 5, 5, K against an opponent with 2, 3, 5, 7, J. The King on Sixth Street caused you to miss a chance at low, but you have a lock on high. Your opponent is hoping to pick up either an A, 4, 6, or 8 to hit low. Depending on the number cards exposed, that could be as many as 14 outs. But your opponent will only get half the pot if he or she hits, you get the entire pot if he or she misses. Repeat this scenario enough times and you will accrue much more money.

The value of Aces: Compared to high-only poker, Aces have even greater value in high-low games, although not for the usual reasons. Understanding the role of Aces is critical to success. In Hold'em a pair of "bare" Aces is a powerhouse, because it can often win on its own without improvement. In high-low games, bare Aces rarely win without improvement. Many players transitioning from high-only games over value pairs of Aces, and loose money by overplaying them. But Aces are the most important cards in high-low games because they are simultaneously the lowest and highest card in your hand. Having an Ace is the equivalent of having an extra card.

In Omaha High-Low, a starting hand such as A, 2, 3, J, can be part of a nut-low such as A, 2, 3, 4, 5 or a nut-straight A, K, Q, J, 10, depending on the board. In Stud-Eight, an Ace can be part of an Ace-high flush such as A, 3, 4, 5, 6 all in Spades, and these same cards also qualify for a 6-high low. Correct strategy that emphasizes playing coordinated cards that can scoop, relies on the dual capabilities of Aces.

Qualifying for Low: Most high-low forms of poker require that the low hand "qualify." In Stud-Eight and Omaha High-Low, the qualification is that a low-hand must contain five cards with none higher than an eight. If no hand qualifies for low, the high-hand takes the entire pot. It is sometimes possible to know that no hand qualifies for low. In Omaha High-Low, players must use two of their cards to form hands. Low hands are impossible if three cards appear on the board higher than an 8, and in that case, competition is only for the high hand. In Stud-Eight, any player with three exposed cards higher than an 8, cannot have a qualifying low. If all players have three exposed cards higher than an 8, the game reverts to ordinary Seven-Card Stud. But even if a low is possible, that does not guarantee that someone has a qualifying low. Judging when an opponent has a low is an important skill to develop.

Driving players out is not always correct: In high-only poker when you have the best hand, you want to make it expensive for the others to stay and draw out on you. Betting and raising are the usual actions. That is usually the case in high-low games, but not always. If you have a nut-low and are up against a high-hand that you cannot beat or move off the pot, the only way to profit is to keep others in the game. If the other players will cold-call raises, then by all means raise. But, if raising will drive them away, calling is the best play.

Freerolling: This term refers to situations where you can make risk-free bets that will payoff if your hand improves. Freerolls occur in all variants of poker, but the number of freeroll opportunities is much greater in Stud-Eight.

Consider the following situation in Pot-Limit Omaha. You hold A-Spades, Q-Hearts, J-Diamonds, 10-Spades. Your opponent holds A-Diamonds, 3- Diamonds, J-Hearts, 10-Spades. The flop is 9-Spades, 8-Spades, 7-Hearts. Both of you flopped the nuts. But your opponent's hand cannot improve. Yours can improve to the nut-flush, if any Spade hits later on, or a Queen-high straight, if a 10 hits. If a Queen hits you both have Queen-high straights but if it's the Queen of Spades you have made the nut-flush. Your opponent's nut-flush possibility in Diamonds is dead. That means if you raise all-in against each other, the worse that can happen to you is a split-pot where you recover your investment. But, you get two additional cards that might improve your hand so that you can take the entire pot. Your opponent risks his entire stack for half the pot. You risk nothing for a significant chance of taking the entire pot.

Freerolls occur more frequently in Stud-Eight. In high-only Seven-Card Stud, it is difficult to know if you have the nuts. After all, in Seven-Card Stud it is possible for an opponent to have a full house or quads without showing an open pair on the board. But in Stud-Eight it is possible to know if you have the nut-low. That often puts the player with a made nut-low in the drivers seat, with a re-draw to a possible high. Consider having A, 4, 5, 6, 7 against K, 4, 10, 10, K. If this were high-only Seven-Card Stud the player with the open-ended straight would have to call bets from the player with the two-pair in hopes of improving. But, in Stud-Eight the situation is reversed. The player with the two-pair can never make a low-hand and the player with the made low-hand knows that. With the low already made, that player can bet and raise with no risk, because half the pot is assured. If the straight hits and the two-pair do not improve, the entire pot goes to the straight.

The situation in Stud-Eight can get more interesting with multi-way pots. Consider having A, 2, 5, 6, 8 against two opponents with, A, A, J, 10, 10 and Q, 9, 9, Q, 9. Your opponents with well-hidden high hands, might start a raising war that you can encourage with additional re-raises, at no risk to yourself. You know that you get half the pot no matter which high-hand holds up. Put in all the raises you can, because the hand is guaranteed to make you money.

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