Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Key Concepts in High-Low Poker: Part II

This is a continuation of a post in October on concepts for high-low poker. If you have only played variants of poker in which the high-hand wins the entire pot, and are trying to learn some of the split-pot games, here are some key concepts for high-low play that apply to Seven-Card Stud High-Low Eight-or Better Poker (Stud-Eight), as well as Omaha High-Low Eight-or-Better.

Split-pots generate action:
Many players complain about split-pot games, because it is possible for a powerful (monster) hand, such as quads, to split a heads-up pot resulting in a slight loss after the rake is subtracted. It seems unfair that you can hit a hand as rare as quads, and have to share the winnings. But, while winning the hand isn't a problem when you hit a monster, getting action on that hand often is a problem.

Consider holding pocket Aces in Hold'em or Omaha and flopping quads. Pairs on the board are scary enough, and since no one else has Aces you are unlikely to generate much action. Even someone with a full boat might be cautious. The same problem exists in Seven-Card Stud. It is possible to hold quads, or a boat, without showing a pair, but unlikely. If you have an exposed pair of Aces your action will dry up.

But, in split-pot games, action is possible in these circumstances because potential lows might try to draw. Sometimes they will hit the low, and you will have to share. But a certain fraction of the time, the low will not qualify, and you keep it all. Just remember, in each case you are receiving action that might not have occurred in a high-only game. If more than one low-draw joins the fray, you are assured of winning money, and can raise without risk of losing or driving out paying customers.

It might be frustrating to share large pots with a nut-high, but remember the pot might not have had any value had competition for a low-pot not been possible.

Starting card requirements should be tighter:
Split-pot games have different starting card requirements than high-only games, because the goal is to scoop. Starting hands must have the potential to win the high-pot or low-pot, and ideally both. Because high-low games offer so many different kinds of drawing opportunities, many players think that starting hand requirements can be looser than for high-only games, such as Seven-Card Stud or Hold'em. Actually, the reverse is true. Starting hand requirements need to be much tighter, because coordinated starting cards that have the potential to attack both sides of the pot are rare holdings. In Hold'em, each player receives just two cards, and that makes just about any pair, or any two high-cards a potential winner. But, in Stud-Eight, three starting cards are less likely to coordinate than two. Starting hand requirements are discussed at great length at StudHighLow.com. However, there are some general principles.

-- Aces, either singly or paired, are the most valuable starting cards because of their potential to complete both a high-hand, and a low-hand.

-- Connected low-cards, suited low-cards, and connected-suited low-cards have the greatest potential to scoop large multi-way pots.

-- Mid-range cards, especially 9s, 10s, Js, play poorly, and should be avoided. However, even 8s, Qs, and Ks can lead to problems.

Strong starting hands in Stud-Eight also need to be "live," meaning that the cards needed to improve must not exposed in other hands. An A, 2, 3, all in Clubs is a great looking starting hand in Stud-Eight, unless you are looking out at a board with the 5, 6, 9 in Clubs, and two of the remaining Aces. It is frequent to receive starting cards that look great, but need to be mucked, because too many of the cards needed to improve are exposed in other hands.

Fold equity is reduced:
There are two ways to win a pot in poker-have the best cards at showdown, or induce the other players to fold before a showdown happens. The act of betting is intended to put more money in the pot to win when you have the best cards. But, betting also forces opponents to make decisions, and folding is one alternative when confronted with a bet. The chance that a bet will win the pot uncontested is known as "fold equity." Bets in high-low games have much less fold equity than bets in high-only games, especially late in the hand if the pot is large. Players that failed to improve for the high-pot, might still have many outs available for the low-pot, so it is not in their long-term interests to fold to hands that will clearly win the high-pot. The reduced fold equity means that aggression, and bluffing, must be combined with cards that work together to attack both sides of the pot. Aggression will not win by itself, because players call much more frequently in high-low games.

Most fold equity in Stud-Eight is available early in the hand, when players with marginal cards will fold to bets and raises, because they do not want to be sucked too deeply into a hand with limited opportunities. However, players, who stay until Sixth Street, are usually in it until the end. Part of the problem, is that by Sixth Street, many pots become so large, that drawing to half the pot becomes mathematically correct. This is especially true for players who missed their high chances, but still have ten or more outs for a low-hand. Contesting a small pot on Third Street, with a hand that can only compete for the low-pot makes no sense mathematically. But, a large multi-way pot on Sixth Street is a different case, particularly if a draw to a low-hand is still live. My own experience, playing Stud-Eight, is that fold equity on Sixth Street is close to zero. Opponents willing to call a large bet on Fifth Street, almost never fold to a Sixth Street bet. An opponent willing to fold on Seventh Street is slightly more common, because of missed low-draws, but it is still an uncommon event. The fact is that you will show down more hands in Stud-Eight compared to most other variations of poker.

For big money invest in low-straights and low-flushes: In high-only games, when you think of monster hands, what come to mind are full houses and quads. Ironically, in high-low games filling up can often be detrimental to your financial outcome. For example, in Stud-Eight, if you hold A, A, 3, 3, 4, 6 going to the river, a final card of 2 might scoop the pot with Aces-up for a high-hand, and a 6-high for a low-hand. But, if an A, or 3, hits the full house disqualifies your hand from competing for the low-pot. Because two-pair, and trips are vulnerable hands in games with many competitors going to the river, the hands that have the best change of holding up for the high-pot, and winning the low-pot are the small straights, and Ace-high flushes with a complement of small cards. A hand such as 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, is simultaneously a 6-high low-hand, and a 6-high straight. The hand A, 2, 4, 5, 7, all is Spades is simultaneously a 7-high low-hand, and an Ace-high flush. In both of these examples, the hand is simultaneously a powerful low-hand and a powerful high-hand. In the case of the straight, it beats anyone holding two pair or trips, and in the case of the flush it beats anyone holding a straight.

Low-straights and low-flushes are also rare hands that can never be completely exposed, because five cards are required. That means if the pot is large, any player with two pair, or trips, will have to call you down at the end to make sure that your hand is not just a low-hand. Draws to these hands also offer excellent freeroll opportunities. Suppose after Fifth Street, you have A-Hearts, 2-Hearts, 4-Hearts, 5-Hearts, 6-clubs. Your hand is a 6-high low-hand, that might have a lock on the low-pot. At the same time you have two cards to come, and any Heart gives you an Ace-high flush, a 3-Diamonds, 3-Spades, or 3-Clubs, gives you a 5-high straight, and a 3-Hearts gives you a 5-high straight flush. The draws to all of these possibilities are risk-free.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Catching Bad versus Catching Good on Fourth Street

Fourth Street is a point in the hand when it is easy to get out before becoming too committed to the pot. Many players who catch a bad card on Fourth Street will make quick exits, and many times, a raise will hasten the exit of marginal hands. Before betting or raising into multi-way pots, it is important to think ahead about how potential raises will effect the action.

Consider these scenarios:

High-pair with no low:

You (J, K) K, 10
Alice (X, X) 2, 3
Bob (X, X) 4, 8

You have a big pair with no hope of a low-hand, against two players who have each caught low cards. However, neither Alice nor Bob has a low-hand yet, and your pair would stand a better chance of scooping in heads-up play. You should lead with a bet. If Alice has four little cards, she will raise to force Bob, her other low-hand competitor, off the hand. Then you can re-raise Alice, to make her pay to draw out on you for the low-pot. If you instead check to the lows in this hand, Alice will bet, Bob will call, and you won’t have much better to do but call and hope for the best. A check-raise after Alice bets and Bob calls, will probably not force anyone off the hand. Bob will stay at that point, even if Alice raises, because he is into the hand too deep.

A low-draw:

You (4, 5) 6, A
Alice (X, X) K, 9
Bob (X, X) Q, 10

You have caught a decent card, although, it does not connect with your initial three and that lessens the chance of scooping with a low straight. The Ace does act first on this board. It would be tempting to bet, but then Alice might raise Bob off the hand. If that happened, you would be drawing for just one-half the pot, heads-up against Alice. It would be better to check to Alice, let her bet and Bob call. Then you could call and keep both players in. Most likely, Alice and Bob each have a big pair and no chance for a low-hand. If you pickup a low hand later on, then you can drive the action make it difficult for both Bob and Alice.

Small pair:

You (4, 5) 4, J
Alice (X, X) K, Q
Bob (X, X) 6, 5

In this situation, you should check-fold your hand no matter how Alice or Bob play. Your hand is unlikely to make low, which means that all you really have is a pair of 4s for high against a probable pair of Kings. You will be playing catch up for one-half the pot, a terrible situation to be in. But, I’ve seen many players continue in the hand until the end with any kind of pair, a pattern that is sure to lose money over the long-run.

Second-best low:

Alice (X, X) K, Q
You (A, 3) 4, 8
Bob (X, X) 6, 5

If Alice leads with a bet in this situation, you should fold because of your position. You never want to be in the middle between the best high-hand and best low-hand because it will cost you four bets to see every card. If you call Alice, Bob will raise and Alice will re-raise. If you cold-call that two-bet raise, Bob will cap it. Your best hope after that is that Bob catches bad on 5th street and does not complete the low-hand, but you catch good and do. But, even if that happens—for example Bob gets a Jack while you get a 7—you are still in a tough spot because you have the worse possible low-hand—an 8-7—while Bob has a draw to a better low. If you both catch good cards—for example both you and Bob get 7s—you are in a terrible position on Fifth Street because you are not sure where your low-hand ranks and you have almost no chance of scooping. It is best to get out cheaply on Fourth Street before being faced with all these difficult and expensive decisions.

Potential monster with a brick:

Alice (X, X) Q, 7
You (3d, 4d) 5d, Ks
Bob (X, X) 6, 5

Alice leads with a bet and you are faced with a situation similar to the previous one, in which a call could lead to capped action. The difference is that you’ve caught a bad card for one of the best three-card starting hands. Your hand could develop into a monster, which means that you do not want to be raised out of it. At the same time, the bad card means that you do not want to put a lot of money in the pot. One possible solution is for you to make the raise. That might cause both Alice and Bob to pause. They would have to consider the possibility that you have wired Kings and just completed trips. If Bob raised, Alice might leave the hand and you might even have the highest hand at that point. If Bob called and Alice called, you would make it to Fifth Street for the cost of two small bets, instead of four, and could decide what to do from there. You might even get free cards on Fifth Street if Alice and Bob don’t improve.