As I mentioned last week, I'm currently in Melbourne, Australia for the 2009 Aussie Millions Poker Championship. In between late nights of poker coverage, even later nights of heavy drinking, and a few off days spent enjoying the 100-degree Southern Hemisphere summer sunshine, I've managed to squeeze in some poker in the side games in the Crown Casino Poker Room. The usual no-limit hold'em and baby fixed-limit hold'em games are on offer here, but Crown also has a few poker variants you're not likely to see anywhere else. I'll spare you the details of two-card Manila (an Aussie game that even most Aussies don't much like) and instead focus on fixed-limit Omaha. High only.
When I first saw the Omaha game on the board, I assumed it was Omaha hi/lo. After all, I've been in poker rooms all over the world and can't remember ever seeing high-only Omaha played in any format but pot-limit. That was my first mistaken assumption. My second mistaken assumption was that because the game was fixed-limit and high-only, there wouldn't be much action. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Every flop in this game is taken a minimum of six ways. Pre-flop raises do nothing to fold anyone out of the pot. Players make the decision regarding whether or not to take a flop solely on the basis of their four starting cards, and even then don't seem to have many starting standards. Only the players that completely brick up and whiff the flop fold to any flop betting. Everyone else will stay in until at least the turn with all manners of screwball draws.
Some players will tell you that such a game amounts to four-card bingo. In a way, they're right. In order to beat the game, you will definitely need to catch cards that connect well with the board. Generally speaking, Omaha is a game of the nuts, but in a game where three to four players regularly see the river it's especially true. Anything less than the second nuts in a game like this won't often be the winner at showdown.
In a way, however, the players who decry the "four-card bingo" nature of the game are also wrong. Although you need cards to win, it doesn't mean that playing any old random hand and hoping it hits the board is the right strategy. In super loose-passive games like the one at Crown, the best strategy is to play lots of suited and connected cards. Hands like A-K-Q-J double-suited, already strong to begin with, and Q-J-10-9, go way up in value. Hands like A-A-x-x go down in value (especially if unsuited).
It's a similar concept to beating loose hold'em games. The difference with Omaha is that you're looking to flop a huge draw. In Omaha, there's less of a schooling phenomenon than in hold'em. This is because the player with the best hand on the flop in hold'em doesn't necessarily have to improve to win and often won't have much of a draw to win. Against four opponents with flush draw, straight draws and other two-pair draws, however, that player is often a significant underdog.
In Omaha, on the other hand, flopping the best hand is almost completely unrelated to winning the pot. Since each player has four cards in his hand for a total of six possible two-card combination, the winner in Omaha is more often the player who flops the biggest draw. I played the other night and flopped . Against any hand but a set, I was an overwhelming favorite. Even against a set, I was even money. With five players besides myself taking the flop, you can be sure I raised and re-raised my monster draw. As it turned out, it didn't get there, but if I play enough hands like that I'll win my fair share of some enormous pots.
Of course, variance being what it is, it's entirely possible to go on a streak where you miss bunches of these big draws in a row. Most of the players I've seen buying into the Omaha game at Crown buy in for a minimum of $1,000. Certainly, when you're playing 75% of the starting hands you're dealt, your swings are going to be bigger than average. But it's also entirely possible to lose $500 or $600 in the space of a few hands in a game like this despite only playing one out of every five hands.
The other strategy for a game like this is that it never makes sense to slowplay a monster. No matter how tightly you play, players are still going to call you down with all sorts of hopeless hands. Last night I was dealt and went for a preflop raise. As to be expected, it scared almost nobody out of taking the flop. We were seven-handed to a rainbow flop of J-6-5. When all of the raising was done, five of us paid three bets each to see the case six hit the turn, giving me quads. I bet them right out and was called by three people! The river was a blank that didn't fill any flushes or straights, yet my river bet was still called by one of my opponents. If I had checked the turn in order to look for a check-raise, I could easily have missed out on three big bets worth of value.
Playing in games like this will not do much to test a player's poker skills, but it will do quite a bit to test their patience and their discipline. Those that can adhere to their strategy without tiling at some of the eyebrow-raising beats they take will get the money in the long run. You can be sure I'll be testing my own discipline as much possible from now until the end of the Aussie Millions.