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.

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