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Omaha Eight-Or-Better: What To Look For In A Starting Hand

by Kevin Haney |  Published: Nov 17, 2021

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Last issue we discussed some differences between loose, passive, full ring, and tight aggressive, shorthanded games, and how the number of players at the table and their varying skill levels can impact hand selection.

Many Limit Omaha Eight-or-Better (O8) players have an affinity for the low hands, even those that have limited high potential. And they do play well enough in soft games, in particular a dry A-2 holding can profit simply by winning half of a decent-sized pot created by opponents playing too many hands and generally going too far with most of them.

However, in tight aggressive six-handed (or fewer) games, these holdings lose value as your opponents are typically more showdown bound, it’s hard to scoop with one way low hands, and you don’t win that much money chopping a heads-up pot. There’s always a high hand awarded but not always a low, therefore having two-way potential is important.
Let’s examine some characteristics that make it relatively difficult to make a strong high and thus greatly diminish a starting hand’s overall potential:

Hand Deficiencies That Greatly Impair Value

1. Lack Of An Ace

The ace is both the highest and lowest card in the deck; therefore you are at an obvious disadvantage heading into battle without one. Any holding that would generally like to see an ace on the flop (e.g. 2Spade Suit 3Heart Suit 4Club Suit 6Club Suit) should often be folded when the pre-flop action is heavy, highly suggesting that a few aces are already out in your opponents’ hands.

In the case where we are on the button and several players fold to us, aces should be more live than usual. A friend of mine always likes to remind me that this means that the players in the blinds are more weighted towards strong hands, but I’m more of an optimist and believe we will generally see an ace on the flop. My buddy isn’t wrong though, and that is one of the reasons why we shouldn’t go too crazy on the button.
However, spiking an ace on the flop does not mean the battle is won as our opponent won’t always fold before showdown, and we still need to make a high hand in order to scoop. So it’s very important that when we play a hand without an ace that our hand is otherwise strong and has other possibilities.

Any holding containing a 2-3 with two broad-way cards (e.g. 2♣ 3♣ K♥ Q♦) can become an intriguing hand. In a somewhat sneaky way this hand type has all four cards working together when an ace flops. When there isn’t a pair on board or a nine, your hand will often have many possibilities. For example, on an A♣ 10♦ 5♥ flop, the 2♣ 3♣ K♥ Q♦ has eight outs to a nut straight and another twelve to the nut low.

2. Zero or Diminished Flush Potential

Since most playable hands are low oriented, not having any flush potential puts a serious dent in your high prospects. Some hands such as A♠ 2♥ 4♣ K♦ are strong enough to overcome this deficiency and are always playable, while marginal low oriented holdings such as A-3-7-9 are more dependent on being suited at least once.

Diminished flush potential refers to the times we are dealt either three or four of a particular suit. Having these extra suits reduces our flush possibilities by approximately 10% and 20% respectively, and also reduces our implied odds with a nut flush. If a hand is otherwise borderline, having extra suits is a good reason to pass.

3. The Nine

Without question, the nine is the black sheep of O8. An A-8 combination can make an emergency low, A-10 has the ability to make a Broadway straight, but an A-9 usually does nothing for you. Of course, sometimes you can flop trip nines or have a 10-9 combination and end up making a straight, but a nine is definitely a card you don’t want.

4. Middling Cards and Rundowns

Strong Pot-Limit Omaha High rundowns such as 9♠ 8♠ 7♥ 6♣ are not good hands in O8. Even if we are lucky enough to flop the nut straight we are often going to be splitting the pot. This fact is well known, but our hand value also suffers greatly when we just have two cards in the middling six to nine zone. For example, there’s a pretty big difference between having A♠ 3♥ 5♣ 10♣ versus A♠ 3♥ 6♣ 9♣ with the former hand being much more playable in many situations.

5. Small Pairs

Unless you flop a set (which may end up costing you money), a small pair is a handicap because it is unlikely to help win the high, meaning you are essentially playing a three-card hand. While there is some benefit to knowing that when we hold A♠ 2♥ 2♣ 8♦ another A-2 is much less likely to be out, this hand has little high potential. And a holding such as A♠ 4♥ 4♣ 8♦ is very weak and virtually unplayable outside of a button steal with tight players in the blinds.

6. Danglers and Half-Danglers

A dangler is a card that is a complete mismatch for the rest of hand, for example with K♠ Q♠ J♥ 2♦ the deuce does not work at all with any of the other cards and therefore adds very little value. In the case of K♠ Q♠ J♥ 2♥, the 2♥ would be considered a half dangler as it at least provides the ability to make a flush.

Danglers are typically a bigger issue with high hands as it’s more important with them that all four cards are working together. In tight aggressive games, we can defend the big blind with some high hands containing danglers, but outside of the blinds we generally desire four cards that are ten or higher suited at least once.

Now let’s move on to what we want to see in the hands that we are dealt:

Highly Desired Elements of Starting Hands

1 . Premium Low Draws

An A-2 is a key start in O8 not only because it will often make the nut low, but also because it increases playability and realization of equity. When flopping the nut low or a draw to it, our opponents’ weak high only hands will often have to fold to aggression. In multi-way pots, we can also often raise a bet trying to promote whatever high prospects we may have.

An A-3 is also a very strong start on the low side. In first position at a six handed table, there is only a 25% probability that someone behind you has you dominated for low with an A-2, A-2-3, or A-2-3-4.

There is, however, quite a large difference between an A-3 and A-4. The A-4 requires two specific board cards to make the nut low and there is a much greater 60% chance that one of the five players left to act will be dealt a better low draw. Although this includes some weak ‘2-3’ holdings that may fold to an open, we must overall be much more selective with A-4 holdings.

Having an additional wheel card always helps, not only does it provide counterfeit protection, it will also often add to your high prospects in the form of low straight wrap draws.

2. Suited Hands

Flush potential increases both equity and overall playability as it is a draw that provides many outs with which to semi-bluff. With a suited ace we have the luxury of hitting the nuts and the implied odds that come with that, however, any suited cards have value in tight aggressive games where many pots are played short-handed.

3. Pocket Aces

Two aces are good holdings in tough games where short-handed pots are the norm, and when accompanied with at least one suit and/or low cards, they are a premium hand. In addition, when we hold two aces, our opponents are less likely to hold hands that want to contest your open.

4. A-K or A-Q

Having an A-K or A-Q combination is underappreciated by many O8 players and is generally worth more than an extra low card. For example, even though it lacks a suit, A♠ 2♥ 4♣ K♦ is a borderline top 5% hand and has a lot more value in an aggressive shorthanded game than A♠ 2♥ 4♣ 5♦. The A♠ 2♥ 4♣ K♦ won’t automatically get shut out on high flops and is also a strong two-way holding on a low board such as A♣ 6♦ 8♠.

5. Big Pairs

While not nearly as valuable as aces, kings and queens form the basis of many strong holdings and become premium when accompanied with an A-2 or A-3. Without an ace, having two wheel cards is important and these hands tend to play better in heads-up pots. As always, being suited at least once is important because if an ace flops, a holding such as K♣ K♠ 5♦ 2♣ has better chance to take the high.

6. Premium High Rundowns

Four high cards greater than a ten and suited at least once are decent hands in O8 and may outperform rankings based upon “hot/cold” equity simulations. According to ProPokerTools, an online resource that can rank holdings for six-handed games, ASpade Suit KHeart Suit QHeart Suit JSpade Suit and ADiamond Suit 3Heart Suit 6Heart Suit 9Club Suit have an identical ranking of 21 out of 100.

While both holdings are playable in many situations, ASpade Suit KHeart Suit QHeart Suit JSpade Suit has all four cards working together and arguably offers better playability. When the flop comes high, ASpade Suit KHeart Suit QHeart Suit JSpade Suit will tend to smash it and often get action from inferior hands, however it can get out for a minimum investment on low flops. We can play this holding from any position and also don’t mind calling raises with it since we don’t care if the open-raiser has an A-2 or other low hand.

In contrast, while the ADiamond Suit 3Heart Suit 6Heart Suit 9Club Suit has the ability to make some nut lows and straights, it will more often have to pay off with more second-best hands. This could be the second nut low, a non nut flush, or an inferior two pair which can happen relatively often, especially when up against a high hand.

ADiamond Suit 3Heart Suit 6Heart Suit 9Club Suit can be folded from early position and it’s also often not strong enough from outside of the blinds to call a raise, especially against a strong range that will often hold A-2 which would have you dominated for low. When the threat of having the second-best low draw is very real, we need a little extra to contest the pot such as another wheel card, nut flush potential, or an A-K/A-Q combination.

In O8, as in any poker game, we must consider our opponent’s range and how our holding performs against it. It’s not always simply a question of how strong or weak our holding is, we must also consider playability against both the original raiser and in what still may become a multi-way pot. ♠

Kevin Haney is a former actuary of MetLife but left the corporate job to focus on his passions for poker and fitness. He is co-owner of Elite Fitness Club in Oceanport, NJ and is a certified personal trainer. With regards to poker he got his start way back in 2003 and particularly enjoys taking new players interested in mixed games under his wing and quickly making them proficient in all variants. If interested in learning more, playing mixed games online, or just saying hello he can be reached at haneyk612@gmail.com.