Categorizing starting hands by playability
Editor’s note: What follows are edited excerpts from Jeff Hwang’s book Pot-Limit Omaha Poker: The Big Play Strategy.
Starting hands in pot-limit Omaha (PLO) fall into four basic categories:
4. Stuff You Probably Shouldn’t Play (Trash)
Premium: Premium hands have a better chance than others to hit the flop strongly. They include premium and “Magnum” A-A hands (which I’ll break down below); big double pairs such as Q-Q-J-J or K-K-10-10; four cards 10 and higher that are at least single-suited; suited perfect four-card sequential rundowns such as K-Q-J-10, J-10-9-8, and 7-6-5-4, though the smaller rundowns are more speculative; suited rundowns with a single bottom gap; four cards 9 and higher topped by a suited ace — the big Broadway wrap hands, including A-K-Q-9, A-K-J-9, A-K-10-9, A-Q-J-9, A-Q-10-9, and A-J-10-9 — and big pairs with suited and connecting cards, such as Q Q J 10. A suited four-card rundown with a middle gap is close enough to be included. These are the kinds of hands you would like to play for a raise.
Speculative: Speculative hands require some very specific cards to have value, but when they hit, they produce monster hands or draws. They include wrap hands such as Q-J-10-7, Q-J-8-7, and Q-J-9-7 (all at least single-suited). They also include smaller pairs with suited connectors, such as 9 8 7 7; pairs with suited aces, such as A 8 7 7; and ace-suited hands with small-straight side cards. Suited-ace Broadway wrap hands with danglers, such as A Q J 4, are included here, and speculative A-A hands also fall into this category. You would prefer to see the flop cheaply with these hands, although they can often stand a raise, particularly when the stacks are deep, the pots are contested multiway, and/or you have position.
Marginal: Marginal hands are one-way hands. They include three-card hands such as K-Q-J-3 (at least single-suited) or big uncoordinated pairs such as K-K, Q-Q, or J-J. In a full ring game, you’d like to see the flop cheaply with these hands in late position.
Stuff You Probably Shouldn’t Play (Trash): Everything else; hands that lack the potential to flop the nuts with a redraw, a big draw, or anything useful. 9-7-5-2 can flop a wrap, but one that is easily dominated. A hand such as K 4 2 2 is a waste of money when you miss, and will either lose a big pot or win a small one on those rare occasions when you hit. Throw them all away.
Categorizing the A-A Hands
Top set figures to be a favorite against all but the biggest draws. There is no overset to a set of aces; as such, a pair of aces by itself is a license to at least see the flop. Moreover, when you flop a set with aces, you are less likely to be up against a big wrap straight draw than you are when you flop a set of nines. This is because the biggest straight draw utilizing an ace is a nine-card “inside wrap,” meaning that the opposition would have to use the other two flop cards to form a big straight draw. But when you flop a set of nines, that is one card to a 9-8-X, 9-7-X, or 9-6-X board, which can produce as big as a 20-card wrap in the first case, a 17-card wrap in the second case, and a 13-card wrap in the third.
That said, unless the money is all in before the flop, any A-A hand is still a drawing hand. And much like every other PLO hand, the quality of any A-A hand depends on the side cards that go with it. For example, unsuited aces with uncoordinated side cards — as in A-A-8-3 — are speculative one-way hands. Meanwhile, the mark of a premium A-A hand is the ability to hit the flop multiple ways.
Key features in A-A hands:
1. A suited ace — or two: A suited ace allows for the possibility of flopping top set with the nut-flush draw. It also can flop an overpair with the nut-flush draw, which, as we noted earlier, is a favorite over even a 20-card wrap with a flush draw, as well as two pair. Even better are double-suited aces, which — according to Wilson’s Turbo Omaha Hi — will flop the nut-flush draw nearly 24 percent of the time, and potentially can make dual nut-flush draws on the turn.
2. Broadway cards: Having two Broadway cards yields wrap potential. With A-A-J-10, for example, you can flop an overpair with a 12-card nut wrap on a K-Q-X board, or top set with the nut straight, as well as other straight possibilities. The Broadway wrap can produce a dominating draw over an opponent with a bare wrap.
3. Connectors: Having connecting side cards — as in A-A-8-7 — adds straight potential. When combined with suited aces, you have a hand with excellent multiway possibilities. For example, if you have the A A 87 and the flop comes 10 62, you have the nut-flush draw with an overpair and gunshot-straight draw. It is much easier to draw to a set of aces when you have straight and flush possibilities to go with it.
4. A second pair: A second pair increases the probability of hitting the flop. A two-pair hand will flop a set 21.4 percent of the time. Combined, double-suited aces with a second pair will flop a set or the nut-flush draw 45 percent of the time, while flopping a flush, full house, or quads an additional 4 percent of the time.
Given those factors, I would put A-A hands into three categories by quality:
1. Speculative: A-A with one-way potential or limited multiway potential. These include trashy, unsuited A-A hands with uncoordinated side cards. Uncoordinated aces with a single suit are a notch better. At the very least, they are a ticket to see the flop.
2. Premium: Double-suited aces, or single-suited aces with either Broadway wrap potential, connecting side cards, or a second pair — especially a second big pair. This is a raising hand, particularly from late position.
3. Magnum: Ultra-premium aces. Double-suited aces with Broadway wrap potential, connectors, or a second pair. They are high-potential, higher-percentage aces with excellent multiway prospects. They are the very best starting hands in PLO, and are a raising hands from any position.
With that discussion out of the way, we are prepared to discuss actual preflop playing strategy in greater depth in the next issue.
This article was originally written by Jeff Hwang. Jeff Hwang is a semiprofessional player and author of Pot-Limit Omaha Poker: The Big Play Strategy. His latest book is Advanced Pot Limit Omaha Vol.1 and will be releasing Vol 2.
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