Omaha 8 starting hands

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A discussion on starting hand selection in Omaha High Low 8 or better
Congratulations. By deciding to play Omaha High/Low, you`ve picked the game where a skilled player has the most advantage over unskilled opponents. Omaha 8 (as it is often called because low hands have to be 5 unpaired cards 8 or below) has been described as holdem on steroids. That`s a pretty good metaphor, Omaha8 has more cards, more action, and more players who have no idea what`s going on.

Basically, you get dealt 4 cards in Omaha and always have to use 2 of yours and 3 of the board cards to make your final hand. The rest of the game structure (betting rounds, dealer button, blinds, 3 card flop, 1 card turn turn, and 1 card river) is just like Holdem - except that the lowest hand at showdown (if it has 5 unpaired cards below 8) takes half the pot.

The goal in Omaha, as with all split pot games, is to take the whole pot. If you only play hands with two-way potential (that means they have a chance to develop into the best high and the best low) then you`ve made a huge step towards being a winning player. Seriously, winning at Omaha 8 (at low to medium limits) is pretty much that easy. Start with hands that have scoop potential and only stay in on hands that have a good chance at being the nuts.

But how do you decide what hands to play? Four cards in your hand gives you six different two card combinations to consider. Having to use exactly two cards also reduces the value of some hands (for example, unsuited aces are not as useful as they are in holdem, because without a second card of that suit in your hand, you can`t make a flush, even with four of the suit on the board).

Well, there are a number of systems out there involving point counts, and combinatory rankings, and all sorts of interesting (to me anyway) stuff. Learning, or coming up with your own, system may well be the best idea in the long run, but for now, there are some simple rules.

1) No Ace = Don`t Play.

You want to scoop the pot. Because Aces are the highest and the lowest card, it will be very difficult to win the high and the low end of the pot without one. There are a few hands that are playable without an ace, but they aren`t great. If you don`t have an ace, rest assured that one or more of your opponents will, and you`re likely to be a dog. To start out with, just fold any hand that doesn`t have an ace - it will keep you from getting sucked in with second best hands.

2) Your Ace needs help.

Since you have to use two of your cards to make your showdown hand, an ace by itself isn`t much use - A99J has no chance at the low, and not a lot going for it in terms of high draws either. Obviously, having a second Ace is great - there`s one less out there for your opponents to have, and it gives you a good starting hand for high. It`s also very useful to have a two or a three or both, since this gives you a good chance at having the best low. It`s nice to have another low card as insurance against being counterfitted (pairing one of your low cards). If you pair one of your low cards, your hand has probably lost almost all it`s low value because now everyone has that card in their hand. If you only have two low cards, this is brutal because it means anyone with two cards lower than the highest low on the board now has a better hand than you.

3) Middle cards (especially 7-8-9, but 5 and 10 aren`t much better) are useless.

Well, obviously they are not totally useless, since they do theoretically have a chance at making the best hand. However, any straight that you make with these cards will either put a low on the board or make a higher straight possible. Similarly, you`re almost never going to make the best full house (a lot of money is lost in Omaha by people with second best full house).

4) You need two from a suit to make a flush

This means that any card (even a "useless" middle card) suited with your ace (see rule one) makes your hand more valuable because if you make a flush it will be the best one. However, because players have to use two from their hand and three from the board, the value of smaller suited cards goes up because it`s less likely your opponent will make the ace high flush. Suited Kings and Queens (not much good in holdem) are nice to have in Omaha because they may well make the best flush. Double suited hands are especially powerful because you`re twice as likely to get a flush draw on the flop.

So, applying these rules, we can see that AA23 double suited is probably the best starting hand in Omaha. It`s got a chance to make nut low, protection against getting counterfitted, and several ways of winning high.

Unforrtunately, unless you are in the world`s loosest Omaha game, you`ll need to play a few more hands than just AA23ss.

Here`s my quick guide to Omaha starting hands:

A word of warning - these guidelines are somewhat looser than you might want to start with, because I am disciplined enough to throw away hands on the flop that don`t offer correct odds to draw when other players might hang around.

Any four cards above a nine, double suited

These are very much flop it or drop it hands. I`m looking for straight or flush draws (or both). I would also take a good fullhouse- you can have a bad full house in Omaha! For example, if I have AKQJ and flop AAK, that`s a very good full house because it can`t be beaten by another full house, and quad aces are impossible for my opponents. If I have QJ9T and flop 99T, that`s a pretty bad full house (any higher card might well make one of my opponents a better full house).

When playing high-only hands, I woud really like to see no cards eight or below on the flop (meaning there`s not going to be a low hand). One low card is tolerable, two is a disaster (unless I have a very good draw for high). Basically, if you don`t know when and how to fold when you don`t have a good draw to scoop or a very good high-only draw in a multiway pot, don`t play these hands.

Any four cards above a nine with two of them suited

These are a bit more marginal than the double suited. I`ll play them if I can be fairly sure that I will see a flop for only one bet. This usually means I`ll consider them from middle position and later. If the game is even somewhat aggressive, these usually go in the muck. I`m also pretty quick to let them go on the flop, so the game needs to be fairly loose so I can scoop big pots on the few times I do hit.

Any four card above a nine, rainbow (late position only)

These are very marginal hands. I play them in passive games from late position, but otherwise it`s just too easy to get caught in a big pot with the second best hand. I could probably fold all of these and have almost no effect on my winrate.

Any A2

Obviously I`d like to have a third low card (preferably a three but even a five gives you a little bit of insurance) and a decent shot at high. Suited or double suited hands are good (especially if the other flush draw is queen high or better). It may be a good starting hand but an A2 without support, like A29J, is not usually playable. You`re pretty much just drawing at just half the pot, and won`t know if you have it until the river (and may well get counterfitted or quartered - see the Omaha problems article for an explanation). A2 hands don`t need much support though - I consider A25K playable under most circumstances.

Any AA hand

Holdem players get pretty excited when they see two Aces. They`re not bad to have, but unlike holdem, they rarely win without improving. Unless I can get headsup by raising when I have AA xx, I fold unless I have a bit of help. Because I want to scoop, I`d like to have a low draw. This pretty much means a two or a three, but even a AA4 is playable against bad opponents.

I`d also like my Aces to be at least single suited, so I have a chance to pick up a draw to the nut flush. Double suited is better, and I`ll probably even play trash like AA7J if it`s double suited just because half the deck helps me build a flush draw on the flop.

Broadway cards, even unsuited, are nice helpers to AA because they provide outs to the nut straight. That said, if they are the only help I have, I`ll need two of them before I consider the hand playable. AA and two unsuited high cards is very much a high only hand, and one without flush possibilities, so I`ll want as much chance as possible to make top straight or the best full house. AAK7 needs to hit exactly QJT (12 outs) to make the straight AAKQ can hit any three of KQJT. It`s only an extra couple of outs, but it also provides you with more outs on flops like Q88.

Hands like AA7J rainbow are pretty trashy, despite the Aces. They basically have no low and not a lot of outs to make a high. I`d play them from late position, especially if I can open raise to get headsup with one of the blinds, but otherwise, they can be mucked without a second thought.

Any A3 hand.

This is a tricky hand to play, because a lot of people like A2, so your low won`t be very safe without a 2 on board. As always, my opinion of these hands depends on what the helper cards are. If the ace is suited, it`s a big plus, and I might well play it from early position in a passive game. If the Ace isn`t suited, I`ll need to be fairly sure I can get in cheaply and with good position. Another low card, especially a four, is nice to have because of the counterfit protection that your opponents with A2 and A3 might not have. Two unsuited Broadway cards (Ten or above) provide enough options for high that I`ll probably try and see a flop. Similarly, a king or queen suited in another suit makes the hand playable because of the extra draw I have to a flush that will probably stand up.

Any 234 (late position only)

One of the rare exceptions to my "don`t leave home without an Ace" policy is 234. This is because some people think hands like A5 should be played for the low draw. Without the counterfit protection, I wouldn`t play it, but hitting a 2 or a 3 could be good for you if it counterfits an A2 or A3 while leaving you OK. Being suited (except with a K or a Q) doesn`t add much to the hand since the flush will be so weak. It adds a little value though especially when there are only a few other players in. You`ve also got the potential to make a poor quality straight draw. You have to be very careful of being making the low end of a straight in Omaha - it`s called the ignorant end for a reason.

There`s a lot to think about there, and you will probably want to play (a lot) tighter than I do, at least to start with, and maybe in general. With so many starting hand posibilities in Omaha, it`s tough to provide a definitive list. That said, I don`t think you will go far wrong if you stick to the following minimum hands.

H = a Ten or above, X= any card, L = 8 or below, s = at least one high flush draw, ss = two high flush draws.

AA2X, AA3X, AA4Hs, AA4Xs
A23X, A24X, A2LXs, A2HXss, A2HH
A3HH, A3LXs,

It is always easier to start with a very tight selection of hands, and then loosen up as you become more comfortable with the game. It`s also probably a good idea to practise board reading and calculating the outs that you have BEFORE you start playing for money.

I`ll be writing articles on these topics, but it`s probably worth dealing out some games by yourself. Deal out ten hands of four cards around a table. Look at each one in turn and try to judge if you would play it or not (your imaginary players will though).

Then deal a three card flop and go round the table again working out what each hand currently has and what outs they have to better hands (pretending you don`t know what the other hands have). Think about whether you would want to continue to play that hand.

Deal a turn card and do the same thing.

Deal a river card and work out which hand(s) have won.

By the way, if you can do this accurately the first time, you could probably have a good career as a dealer, since many of them get it wrong at showdown. Repeat as many times as you need to feel comfortable. I still do this drill every week for an hour or two to practise spotting outs and calculating odds quickly.

Once you are comfortable with Omaha, you will be much more profitable in an Omaha game than you would be in a Holdem game of the same limit (the players are just that much worse). Welcome to the game of the future!

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