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H.O.R.S.E. Bucks the Trend with Omaha

Omaha might be a big city in Nebraska and situated right on the banks of the Missouri River, but as Lee Munzer details in the latest installment of his H.O.R.S.E. strategy campaign, it’s also a highly complex poker game that, among many things, is adverse to water.

When playing limit Omaha high-low eight-or-better (O/8), you receive four cards. Five board cards are dealt (three on the flop, one on the turn and one on the river). You combine two cards from your hand with three of the community cards to make the best high hand, the best low hand or both. For example, if the board shows Ah-8h-5c-4d-Qc and you hold 7s-6d-3h-2c you would use the 7-6 for high (making a nut straight) and the 3-2 for low (making the best low possible). To be eligible to win the low portion of the pot, a hand must be comprised of five uniquely ranked cards between eight and ace (eight-or-better), for example 8-7-6-5-4 is the worst hand that would qualify for low. Aces can be used as the highest- and lowest-ranked cards in this game. If there is no qualifying low hand, the best high hand wins the entire pot.

I attended a seminar several years ago where Mark Tenner, co-author (with Lou Krieger) of Winning Omaha/8 Poker, told the audience, “Omaha high-low is a game of scoops and flushes.” While a tad succinct, keeping Mark’s premise in mind is a good thing. You can survive by skillfully playing shared pots, but you will thrive when you cleverly build pots that you scoop.

Fortunately, low-limit players make more mistakes when playing O/8 than they do when competing at Texas hold ‘em, thus the game is beatable. Your O/8 returns will be positive if you recognise the major misconception that O/8 is a river game. Because trailing hands often emerge victorious on the river and low draws either consummate or vanish on the last card, players mistakenly believe luck rules O/8. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As Omaha world champ Steve Badger states on, “Another thing to consider is that only a tiny percentage of money action is on the river in Omaha. Poker is about money. Omaha is not about the river. [It’s] about getting money in the pot in a mathematically advantageous way before the river. Limit Omaha high-low is an anti-river game!”

Common O/8 Errors to Avoid

1) Playing Too Many Hands
Because players receive the equivalent of six hold ‘em hands, they generally find something they like. For example, if they pick up K-9-3-2 they think, “Well, an ace may flop and that might lead to a low hand or draw.” Or, they’ll look down, find 9-8-7-6 and hope to make a straight. I fold both hands from early or middle position.

Starting-hand selectivity begins with choosing coordinated holdings that have good two-way potential, or are very strong in one direction. Examples are As-Ad-2s-3d (this double-suited holding is considered the number-one starting hand in O/8) and Kh-Kc-Qh-Jc (a good high hand). Note, Kh-Kc-Qh-Jc may scoop since there will be no low possible approximately 40 percent of the time.

Losing players jump in with holdings that contain a ‘dangler’ (a card that fits poorly with the other three). For instance, Kc-Kd-Qh-10c is much stronger than Kc-Kd-6h-10c. Be especially wary of the nine-spotted card; it’s the most useless ticket in the game.

2) Drawing from Deep Water

Straights are iffy in O/8 as they often go down to flushes, and even when a straight prevails, the holder must share the pot when a low appears. I almost never pay to draw to a non-nut straight.

While a second or third nut flush may prevail, especially if the flush backdoors (materialises when the turn and river are of the same suit as one of the flopped cards), keep this O/8 rule of thumb in mind: “What is possible is highly probable.” That’s because each five-card board contains 10 unique three-card pairings. Combined with each player’s six separate two-card hands, nut hands are the norm. Struggling O/8 players show down second-best hands with alarming frequency. Save chips by dumping non-nut draws.

3) Bluffing Too Much
Many who transition from the more popular hold ‘em game fail to realise the mathematical ramifications of receiving four cards. When five players take the flop, it’s almost impossible for everyone to completely fan. Thus, bluffing against several players who have either made hands or strong draws is not recommended in O/8. Occasionally, you will be able to determine (through the betting pattern) that a lone high opponent has turned a straight or flush. When the river card pairs the board, you may be able to bluff successfully (representing a full house).

4) Getting Married to Aces
Players overvalue A-A hands such as Ac-Ad-10h-9c. A-A can dominate hands in hold ‘em. For example, if I have Ac-Ad and you have As-9c, I am a 94-to-6 favourite. You will almost never take a flop from that far behind when playing O/8. Therefore, be ready to release your rockets when the flop comes something like 10-10-9 and players seem enthused.

5) Failing to generate strategic bets
O/8 competitors chase both properly and imprudently. Losing players check with the intention of raising. You should push hard with made hands (to make draws expensive). Plus, it’s often correct to raise with a nut draw hand if the result will effectuate beneficial pot odds and drive dead money into the pot. Let’s say you hold Ks-4s-3d-2h in the small blind against six fairly loose opponents. The board is As-6s-9d-Kh. You flopped a great two-way draw. A middle position player raises your turn bet. He also raised your flop bet. No one folds and the action is back to you. Although you must hit a good card, you should reraise. Of the 44 unknown cards, 25 are favorable, and five of them (the available low spades) give you at least three-quarters of the pot. It looks like several of your loose gambling rivals hold either 3-2, straight draws or non-nut-flush draws. Simply calling would reduce your expected return.

Comparing O/8 to a horse, the above would constitute the tail. While enough to swish away flies (your loose, inexperienced foes), there’s much more to this numbers game. So onto my ‘to do’ list: ‘prepare a comprehensive Omaha high-low series’. Next month we’ll roll with Razz as we hit the far turn seeking greater H.O.R.S.E. profits.
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