Mistaken Omaha High Low Beliefs
This companion to the Introduction to Omaha Poker Strategy is needed because something about Omaha HiLo seems to lead to the true nature of the game being concealed beneath a shroud of fantasies. New myths pop up every day. This is surprising since Omaha is mostly a straightforward game. In fact, this is first Omaha myth to expose:
Myth: “Omaha is a complicated game.”
Obviously all poker games have levels of complexity, but the contrasts between Omaha and its closest cousin, Texas Hold’em, reveal Omaha to be much simpler. Texas Hold’em decisions are full of uncertainty, randomness, and the complexity born of one simple fact – in many hands, all players involved have basically nothing. Suppose AcTs raises before the flop from one in front of the button, QhJh calls on the button, and 7d6d calls in the big blind. Suppose a flop comes down of 9d8h8c. The winner of this pot will often be determined by who plays the craftiest from the flop on. Situations like this occur all the time in Hold’em.
In contrast, in most Omaha games you seldom play hands head-up on the flop, and anytime there are three or more players in a pot either: one player will have a clearly better hand than the others, or more than one player will have a solid hand, or any bet from any player will be able to win the pot on a bluff (because no one has anything at all). Each Omaha hand has many more ways to connect with a flop. Twelve cards in three hands don’t just have double the ways to hit a three card flop, if only because Omaha8 offers players the chance to “win” by either making a high hand or low hand.
Very often Omaha hands come down to simply calculating your chances of winning all or part of a pot. The principle variable becomes how you manipulate the size of the pot via the betting. True, situations do occur that are similar to the one facing the QJ in the Hold’em example above, where getting the AT to fold greatly increases the value of the hand (even if the player doesn’t know it). Correctly playing in these situations does separate great players from average ones, and a significant chunk of Omaha profit comes here, but these situations are rare. They don’t occur every hand, or maybe even every nine hands. Most Omaha situations come down to calculating your “outs” – counting the number of cards that make your hand and translating that into a percentage. The rare, complicated situations are very important, but the common situations are quite uncomplicated. Omaha is usually a simple game: play hands before the flop that can easily make a straightforward nut hand, and play hands after the flop where you are getting correct odds on making the nut hand. (And again, manipulate the betting as favorably as you can.)
Handling the complex aspects of the game can only come after understanding the basic simplicity of most of the game. The problem that most Omaha players run into is screwing up (and unnecessarily complicating) the simple aspects of the game. If you play QJT4, and get a flop of KJ4, you’ll likely spend a lot of time thinking about how “complicated” Omaha is. You throw that garbage in the muck before the flop, and the game is much simpler.
Again, there are complicated aspects to the game, but most players don’t ever even get to the point of seeing the real complexities because they get themselves involved in situations that are only complicated in the same way as: “if I throw my car keys into the ocean, how will I ever find them?” Or, “if I throw a handful of quarters out the front door, how will I ever find them all?” Both of those are incredibly difficult problems to solve – except the solution is to simply never throw your car keys in the ocean or your quarters out the front door.
Myth: “Omaha Starting Hands Run Close Together in Value”
This is the silliest myth of all, especially when it comes to real game conditions. The root of this myth comes from the fact that head-up Omaha hands seldom have a dominating relationship in the same way that AA dominates A7 in Holdem. The head-up phenomenon means that you should liberally defend your big blind against a single raiser when you have any sort of reasonable hand. You will be getting correct pot equity to do so.
This head-up concept though has transmuted into the bizarre myth that Omaha starting hands run close together in value. It’s complete nonsense. Readers can run simulations, observe games or do whatever other study they want to “prove” this, but A23K is just a helluva lot better than J965. It will scoop more often, get a share of the pot much more often, it will be more “bettable” and win bigger pots because it makes the nuts more often and easier, etc.
The mass of Omaha hands are like J965 – random crap. The good and great Omaha hands stand head-and-shoulders above the random crap. They scoop more, split more, are more bettable, and make less “second best” losers. In Holdem, AA stands way above the other hands. KK, QQ and AK are not in AA’s league, but they also aren’t in the league of the rest of the hands either. Omaha has no equivalent of AA but there is a larger group of hands similar to KK-QQ-AK. And then there are also more hands in the same league with AQ-JJ-TT-AJ. Then there is a big drop off, because Omaha does not have the equivalent of 99 or KJ. There are excellent Omaha hands, good ones, a few speculative ones, and then there is garbage that is greatly inferior to the good hands.
This myth is silly enough on its own, but it begets another myth that leads to (thankfully) disastrous play on the part of lots and lots of mediocre players – they don’t raise before the flop.
Myth: “Don’t raise before the flop”
In most Omaha games a critical and basic concept is to get more money in before the flop when you have way the best of it. The most obvious profit in Omaha comes from opponents calling on the turn when drawing dead. This happens reasonably often but the profit that occurs every single hand, the most common way to create a profitable edge is to exploit the dramatically different pre-flop value of Omaha starting hands. Most Omaha games feature players who play too many garbage hands 789T, 23QJ and even J965. In many games, these mistakes occur before the flop all the time. This is where the money is to be made. Since the opportunities arise almost every hand, this is where you increase your profits hugely in Omaha.
Interestingly, many mediocre players who do understand Omaha is about starting hands don’t “get” that starting hands only exist before the flop. They passively limp and “wait to see the flop.” If a huge part of Omaha is starting hands, then aggressively betting your hands before the flop should be an obvious conclusion.
Of course, raising with a hand you want to raise with is not always the best choice. A234 first to act is just about the worst hand to raise with. You certainly wish you could raise a bunch of people playing random junk, but you can’t. You are first. The best choice available is to limp and invite everybody you can possibly get into the hand – and hopefully get a raise from another player. The principle here is that you want to raise, but often you are unable to. You want to play A234 for two (or more) bets against 789T, 23QJ and J965, but if raising causes all of them to muck and have you end up playing head-up against AQ65, you screwed up badly.
The peculiar combination of thinking hands run close in value and not raising before the flop encourages the notion that all pre-flop raising does is increase bankroll swings. Let’s look at how foolish that notion is in itself.
For the sake of simplicity, ignore split pots for a moment and let’s say we have a situation where our hand and the big blind run close together in value and we each win half the time. If this is the situation pre-flop… why would you ever play a hand in a raked game? You and the big blind hand will just lose out to the rake in the long run. Simply calling the big blind would make no sense if hands indeed ran close together in value.
But the myth-makers might say, if you have position on the big blind, after the flop when the hands are more fully defined you will be able to extract value from the player in the blind. Obviously there is no downside to pre-flop raising if this is true. Put another way, how would you like to play in a game where when you are out of position you put in $10, but when your opponent is out of position you put in $20? If you have a positional edge after the flop then making the pre-flop betting essentially a double-sized “ante” is very much favorable to you.
But even that isn’t the end of it. Suppose you have basically a coin-flip situation against the big blind. What is better, giving him infinite odds by calling (that is, he already has money in the pot via a forced bet, and he gets to continue playing for free while you have to place a bet), or raising so that he has to put another betting unit into the pot – where he at least has an option to fold?
Think about that. Suppose we have a literal 50/50 confrontation, but the big blind doesn’t know that. It would be frankly idiotic to call the blind and flip a coin for the total amount. That would be nothing but deliberately creating pointless bankroll fluctuation. Instead, if you raise, the big blind player will fold some amount of the time greater than zero – even if by accident! Even if the big blind only folds once out of 100 times, that is better than merely flipping a coin 100 times.
Much of winning poker involves exploiting small advantages repeatedly. If someone offers to flip a silver dollar with you 100 times, taking him up on it would be pointless gambling. But if the person walked up to you and handed you a dollar for you to put in your pocket at the start, it would be foolish not to go ahead and then flip 100 times. And if instead of 100-1 our reward was more like 10-1 or even 3-1, the more clearly obvious the sense of the wager becomes.
If hands truly did run close in value, then the blinds would become almost the whole game. Getting more than your share of equity in the blinds would be the road to victory, so clearly a key tactic would be to raise before the flop, so as to get the players in the blinds to fold any amount of time greater than zero.
But the basic myth clearly isn’t true. As2s3dKd is a dramatically better hand than Jh9d7s5c. It makes no sense at all to let J975 have a free flop when you have a playable hand. Either charge them to see the flop, or let them fold and you take (or share) their blind equity. Either way is better than giving them a complete freeroll, since their blind is already in the pot. Omaha HiLo has some drive-the-betting type hands, and it has hands that often lead to a player being trapped in pots, trying to protect equity invested in a previous betting round (like the above two hands on a 8s7d4c flop). If you don’t make use of one, and focus on punishing the other, you won’t be a very successful Omaha player.
Myth: “Never raise with low”
This bit of gibberish is almost too good to expose. A very common sight in online Omaha Holdem games is to see terrible players raising on a flop of AJ8 with their naked 23 draws, and then freezing up like a deer in the headlights when they make their hand on the turn or river. Now, when they HAVE something they shut down and become callers. In the case of a 23 shutting down is a good idea (the come-betting and raising is insane), but very often “the never raise with low” myth will cause players to lose money because they are absolutely mortified of getting quartered. In Limit Omaha HiLo getting quartered is seldom a big deal, except head-up. (Pot Limit is a different story.)
Playing $10/20, if betting is capped on all streets three ways, a player will put $240 into a pot (playing with a bet and three raises). This will make a total pot of $720. One quarter of that is $180. So, the absolute worst case when getting quartered is to lose three big bets. Of course, more often the betting will not be capped on every single street, and there will be dead money in the pot from other players or from the blinds. You should be aware of situations where you are likely to get quartered, and bet accordingly, but the obsession most players have with being quartered is a very big hole in their game.
You should not be thinking about getting quartered. You should be thinking: “Can I get three-quarters, and if I can, how can I?” You should be raising often when you have the nut low hand and any sort of high, including as little as AK. Getting quartered on river raises in three way pots will often cost you one chip. But when you win three-quarters of a pot by making the better high hand lay down because of your raise, you will win many chips. For instance, again playing $10/20, suppose a pot is $200 on the turn. A player you believe has nut low bets into a K7487 board. You raise with your A24J. Both players call and you lose to a high hand with Kings up (but you do have the other low hand beat for high). Your raise will have cost you $5. But now if the player with Kings up folds, the pot will be $280 and you will get $210 of it (instead of $80 when you get a quarter of a $320 pot). You risked $5 to win much more than that. Even if the play works one out of ten times, you make money. More likely it will work about half the time.
“Never raise with low” is a nonsense statement. When the words pass through someone’s lips, it marks them as a poor player. Omaha hands are always four cards. Your hand always has more to it than just “low”.
Sometimes you won’t have any high hand value yourself, or you will face an obvious high hand that will not fold, but anytime you have ANYTHING at all for high, you should be thinking about how might manipulate the betting (usually by raising) so that you get three-quarters and not one-quarter.
Myth: “You play more Omaha hands than Holdem ones”
This is true of bad players but not good ones. Winning Omaha causes much smaller bankroll fluctuations than Holdem because that marginal group of hands that exists in Holdem is largely absent from Omaha. If you only played AA, KK, QQ, AK, AQ and JJ you would not have huge fluctuations if only because you would fall into a coma between hands. This would be an awful way to play Holdem because you would be eaten alive by the blinds, but you sure wouldn’t fluctuate a lot. The playable Omaha hands are on par with the weakest of these Holdem hands, but there are more of the Omaha hands. You don’t go into a coma (well, maybe you get close to a coma), and more important, you don’t lose to the blinds. To beat Holdem you have to play many of second and third tier hands and situations. These mostly do not exist in Omaha. There are more good or better Omaha hands, but less playable Omaha hands in total.
Holdem is a game where inspired post-flop play will win a lot of pots without a showdown. Great players can play more hands profitably than average players because they can extract profit from inspired play. Opportunities for inspired play do exist in Omaha, let’s be clear about that, but they are fewer – and very rare in “normal” loose games.
A sensible betting strategy can greatly increase your Omaha profit. For instance if on the river you have nut low and one pair, but when another nut low (who has no pair) bets, you raise and knock out a player who has you beat for high. There is a lot to Omaha post-flop play, but it pales in comparison to Holdem.
Outplaying opponents is a cornerstone of Texas Holdem. Showing down the winning hand is a cornerstone of Omaha Holdem.
Great players will often be able to identify exploitable situations where the actual cards they hold mean very little. This can happen on rare occasions in Omaha, but for the most part you simply can’t make silk out of a sow’s ear. Crappy Omaha hands are crappy Omaha hands. Before the flop, if your hand is one that normally does not have a solid positive expectation, you will seldom face situations where that hand is transformed into a positive expectation one. In contrast, KTo on the button in Holdem becomes a fine hand if everyone folds to you. Weak Omaha hands very seldom suddenly become similarly “fine.”
Of course, in thinking about this topic, we need to compare apples to apples, not apples to oranges. In a very weak, loose, passive Omaha game you should play more hands than a Holdem game with tight, aggressive, excellent opponents. The idea here is to compare parallel/similar type games.
The principal point however is not about how many starting hands to play comparing one game to another. In itself, that is a nothingism. What you should consider is that Holdem is a game of situational post-flop play, while Omaha is a game of making showdownable, nut hands. Choose your starting hands accordingly.
Myth: “You can’t bluff in Omaha”
Translation: “Bad players can’t bluff in Omaha.” Bluffing and semi-bluffing are very important parts of winning Omaha, even if rare. Suppose you play in a game where the average pot is six big bets, $120 in a $10/20 game. Now suppose you successfully bluff one of these pots a week. That is $6240 for a year. Suppose you even win only one out of three of your bluff attempts. A successful bluff one-third of the time once a week would earn you $4160 in a year. That’s 208 big bets. For players attempting to win one big bet an hour, that is profit for four hours a week for a year. The actual numbers aren’t important, but this should illustrate that even rare successful bluffs can earn you a significant amount of money.
Average Omaha players are trained to assume that bluffing in Omaha isn’t possible (even if they do occasionally try). People who think bluffing is impossible make good bluffing targets, but the more critical thing to keep in mind is the nature of Omaha itself. Bluffing is difficult because complete, nut hands happen easily. However, when a complete nut hand is difficult to make, bluffing becomes easier against non-savvy opponents. Flops of QcQsJh or KcQc9c are prime candidates for bluffing. Your opponent(s) may have something, but it is easy for them to have very little – very little, but still better than what you hold. Small pots with coordinated flops are extremely bluffable from early position. (The terrible players like to bluff from last position in Omaha.) Flop bluffing won’t yield six big bets, but the ratios should be similar. One small bet that earns four small bets is a very nice small bet.
Myth: “You can’t win with a set”
Translation: “I misplay flopped sets so I usually lose with them, and lose the maximum when I do lose.” Flopping a set (for example, you hold KQQJ and the flop is QJ3) in Omaha is flopping a draw. That’s it. A draw. One reason pocket pairs are weak in Omaha is because not only do you have to spike your set card, you have to also pair the board – unless of course you drive enough opponents out of the pot so that you also pick up some of the “blank” cards. Still, you continue to only be drawing, to either a full house or to catch a blank. A draw is a draw. To put it mildly, there is no guarantee you will make your draws. When you flop a set, you will often lose, but when you win you will often scoop. Scooping the whole pot is the aim of the game. However, there is a world of difference between flopping three Kings and flopping three jacks… and a universe of difference between three Kings and three fives. QQQ on the QJ3 flop should normally be played aggressively and viewed as a great hand. 555 on an 875 flop should normally be folded without a second thought.
Checking and calling when you flop a set is usually suicide. Either bet aggressively (or if you check, do it from strength, intending to raise the turn, etc.) or probably fold. Sure, there will be some times checking and calling will make sense, but those should be exceptions. Passively allowing everybody and their brother to draw to every draw under the sun will lead to flopped sets being shoveled into the muck as the pots are being pushed to gutshot straights and backdoor flushes – as well as half pots being pushed to garbage low hands.
Myth: “Aces never win”
Here’s a companion to the above myth. Some players cuss that they can’t win with pocket aces, as if aces should have some mystical powers. Pocket aces are a two-card hand in a game where five card hands win. Other folks think aces are nothing special, often not even part of a playable hand. Similar to flopping a set, playing aces passively is the road to their doom. Aces tend to dominate good Omaha hands, meaning Omaha hands with one ace in them. But aces have a harder time dealing with situations where one or more random crapola hands are added to the mix. In these cases it is easy for aces to take the worst of it in the post-flop betting. While it is silly to generalize the same behavior for AAJ9 with no suit and AA35 double-suited, aces are the prime pre-flop raising hand in Omaha HiLo. If everybody plays or everybody folds, that’s fine, but generally you would like to play against hands that are normally very good hands (hands that call raises), but that happen to play relatively poorly against aces. Raising before the flop (and reraising especially) will make it more likely that you will face a single opponent or opponents that is profitable for you to face. (Check out the Pot Limit Omaha High link at the top of the page for a bit on playing aces in that game.)
Many of these myths are interrelated and self-perpetuating. Passive, weak play leads to multi-way situations where most Omaha players end up befuddled. They only have themselves to blame. If you don’t stick your tongue against a frozen lamppost, it is unlikely your tongue will ever get stuck against a frozen lamppost. Omaha Holdem players who invite trouble situations end up in trouble situations, and then draw the wrong conclusions about the trouble. The “why” of why they are in trouble is simply that they put themselves into the trouble. It’s not that aces don’t win, or that sets don’t hold up, or that Omaha Holdem is a complicated game. Playing poorly gets you in difficult trouble.
Approach the game properly and the myths soon evaporate. Embracing the fundamentals of solid Omaha Holdem play leads to an uncomplicated, clear horizon, not one shrouded in myths. Few Omaha players ever reach this point. Once you do, then you can focus on the more subtle challenges of advanced play.