Choosing Starting Hands in Omaha High

Omaha high is a devilish game. Because each player is given four hole cards, there are all sorts of ways to make trips, quads, straights, flushes, and full houses. There are so many cards in play, in fact, that every starting hand has what seems to be a decent shot at win- ning a given hand. As an example, consider the hands A♥A♦K♥K♦ and 2♥3♦7♣8♠. The first hand is the absolute best hand you can have in Omaha high: You have the two best possible pairs and two nut flush draws. The low-card hand is weak, lacking a pair

or even a flush draw. Despite its obvious advantages, however, A♥A♦K♥K♦ only beats 2♥3♦7♣8♠ 70 percent of the time. Yes, we say “only,” because the best Hold ’em hand, AA, will win 90 percent of the time against the worst hand, 72o. While having the worst hand win an additional 20 percent of the time might not seem like a big deal, it’s a huge

consideration when you play heads up. To state the problem in terms of odds instead of percentages, the best Hold ’em hand is just about a 9 to 1 favorite over the worst hand, but the best Omaha high hand is only a 2.3 to 1 favorite over the worst hand. When you play against more than one opponent, the edge a premium hand has over the field be- comes quite small.

So why should you even consider playing a game where you can’t get a big edge before the flop? Because good players can take advantage of their less-skilled opponents after the flop. Calling with marginal hands gives players opportunities to come up second best, and that’s where good players make their money.

There are 270,725 possible Omaha starting hands, and even though many of them are equivalent to each other (A♣K♥Q♠J♦ is the same as A♠K♦Q♣J♥ before the flop),
it’s useless to try to enumerate which hands are playable and which hands aren’t. Two authors, Mike Cappelletti and Ed Hutchison, have devised point count systems you can use to evaluate Omaha starting hands. You can find the Hutchison system online at http: //erh.homestead.com/omaha.html. Ed was kind enough to give us permission to detail his system in our book, so we’ll use it for our analysis.

Hutchison Point Count System

Hutchison used Mike Caro’s Poker Probe software to find the winning percentage of se- lected four-card hands against nine opponents. After he finished running the simulations, he correlated the hand’s winning percentage with characteristics of that hand, such as card rank, suitedness, pairs, and the distance between cards that could be used to make straights. His goal was to create a point count system that approximated the winning percentage for a given hand. He succeeded by assigning points for suited cards, pairs, and cards that can make a straight. Table 8.4 summarizes how to assign points for suited cards in the Hutchison system.

The second step is to assign points to your hand based on any pairs it contains. Table 8.5

lists those point values.

Finally, you need to take the possibility of making a straight into account. When your hand contains cards of four different ranks, you assign points based on the lowest card in your hand. Table 8.6 lists the values.

If there’s more than a two-rank gap between two of your cards, such as when you hold A♥K♦Q♠8♦, where the 9, T, and J fall between the Q♠ and 8♦, subtract one point from the total. For this hand, the total would be 10 points: 11 because the low card is an 8, minus 1 because of the gap of more than two cards.

There are two more cases you need to consider, though. The first case is when your hand contains a pair, which means it has cards of only three different ranks. If your hole cards contain exactly one pair, add six points if all cards are 8 or higher and four points for all other combinations. As before, you should subtract one point if there is more than a two- rank gap between any of your cards.

When you have two pairs in the hole, you only have two ranks and far fewer possibilities to make straights. As such, you should add four points when both of your pairs are 8 or higher; otherwise, add two points. Pairs more than one card apart are difficult to make the nut straight with, so subtract a point if there’s a gap of more than one card. If one of your pairs is AA, subtract two points to reflect the Ace’s limited ability to make straights.

Add and subtract points based on the contents of your hand to come up with a total. The total you come up with represents the hand’s approximate winning percentage against nine opponents if everyone stayed through the river. Against nine opponents, you will win one out of every ten pots, or 10 percent of the time. Hutchison recommends playing only those hands with scores of 15 or higher and raising with hands of 20 or higher. In tight games, where only three or four players see the flop, you should strongly consider fold- ing hands with scores of 15–17 when you’re in early position. In loose games, you might relax your requirements a bit and play hands with scores of 13–14 in middle or late posi- tion, but those hands are only slightly above average and could cost you a lot of money if the cards don’t fall your way.

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