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I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now: Badugi

by Bryan Devonshire |  Published: Mar 20, 2013

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Bryan DevonshireThe first time I saw the game badugi was around the summer of 2006. I asked a fellow spectator, railing the $40-$80 mixed game at the Bellagio, what they were playing. He responded Badugi, I asked how you played, and he said it’s like ace-to-five triple draw, except you only get four cards, and your cards have to be different suits. I asked him what it meant, and he said that it’s Korean for a different colored dog.

Almost seven years later I’ve spent a lazy couple of hours researching the history of Badugi. Consensus is that history is unclear, but some trends seem consistent between the various sites chronicling the game. Most believe that the game originated in South Korea in the 70s or 80s, say that badugi sounds like padooki which means black and white and has something to do with the game Go, and spotted dogs are commonly named Padooki.

Several mention that Paul “Eskimo” Clark brought the game to Vegas and consequently North America in the early early 2000s. One site claims that Eskimo invented the game while in Vietnam, whence it spread to South Korea and gained popularity thereafter. That leaves a decade plus gap when Eskimo was in Vegas and nobody played badugi, but regardless of how the game got here, it is here to stay, being spread regularly in mixed games, online, and at the World Series of Poker.

Making a badugi in badugi is really, really, hard. Much more difficult than making a pair in hold’em. At showdown in badugi, the best badugi wins. A badugi is four cards of different suits without a pair. The best possible hand is A-2-3-4 with all different suits, narrowly beating A-2-3-5 but crushing the worst badugi, K-Q-J-10. If no player makes a badugi, then the best three card hand wins, and this is where the crux of the game lies. A-2-3 rainbow is the nut three-card hand and the rankings descend from there just like any lowball game.

When I was first introduced to the game it was widely believed to be a sick game of gamble, which it is, but play has become more refined over the years. Just like any game of poker, starting with the best hand is always optimal. Throughout the course of a hand four things can happen. Both players improve or don’t, or the two combinations of one player improving and the other player not improving. In three out of four cases the best hand usually wins. Badugi makes things muddy because the odds of both players improving equally is slim, and therefore the luckiest player will win the oversized pot when they both improve.

Because of this inherent fact of the game, players are given great odds to draw at their badugi when they know their opponent is drawing too. Multiway gigantic badugi pots are normal, and thus the myth of the game being a gamble-fest is born.

The thing is, they’re usually wrong to be drawing at their badugi when behind, especially on the second draw. And this is where we profit.

Beginning with a solid starting hand is a fundamental key and should only be deviated from with good reason. Badugi is an eight-handed game, however it is usually dealt six or seven-handed in mixed games. There’s a pretty big difference between eight and six-handed for early position ranges. Just like other poker games, with more players behind you, your hand has to be stronger. This fact is more important in badugi and means that we should be doing things like open folding king and queen badugis in early position when eight-handed.

When six-handed or less, I’m happy to open any badugi for a raise in early position. I’m also going to raise with any three-card hand six or better, meaning any three cards of different suits six or lower without pairing. I’m also going to raise good sevens, like A-3-7, but not bad sevens like 5-6-7. As we move to middle position I’m going to start opening with all three-card eights, and any good two card hands like 3-4 or better. On the button I’m going to open with any three-card nine or any two card hand 4-5 or better.

Three-betting ranges should narrow just like any other poker game. The gap concept applies here too. When an opponent opens in front of you, your range to continue should narrow, and like most limit games that are not split pot, you should be more apt to reraise than to just call. My three-betting range mostly consists of good three-card hands and made badugis, as it should. Obviously, in button versus blind situations ranges should widen.

If you have the best hand, put more money in the pot. If you don’t, then fold. Now that you’re on the first draw, deuce-to-seven principles come into play. If you’re a card ahead, they draw two and you draw one, you should always bet. If they raise, it means that they’ve improved to at least a strong three-card hand, but usually they’ve made some sort of rough badugi. Consider your hand, opponent, and proceed.

If you have A-2-3-x and they’re pat, then you have somewhere between one and ten outs, unless they’re snowing (bluffing). This makes pot odds and outs evaluatable. A-2-3-x versus K-Q-J-10 badugi is nearly a coinflip pre-draw. In general two card hands are undervalued, because a hand like A-2-x-x can improve with multiple outs being drawn at twice to beat marginal three-card hands, while three-card hands are overvalued since, well, they’re three card hands, and drawing one means you’re a card ahead.

The game’s fun, and the variance is greater than most games, but the fundamental tenets of poker still hold strong. Start with the best hand, put more money in the pot when you have the best hand, put the least amount of money in the pot as possible when you have the worst hand, draw to the best hand when you have the right odds, and bluff them out of their boots when they’ll let you. ♠

Bryan Devonshire has been a professional poker player for nearly a decade. With over $2m in tournament earnings, he also plays high stakes mixed games against the best players in the world. Follow him on Twitter @devopoker.