Poker’s more fun when the pot’s split between the high hand and the low hand, and perhaps more profitable too! Greg Vail, the newest addition to our Red Chip Poker coach roster, drops by this week to share his enthusiasm for Omaha 8-or-Better and Big O, two of the most popular split pot games being spread these days. Hear Vail break down the basics of how these games work, the common leaks you need to plug and exploit, and the strategies you need to adjust your hold ’em knowledge to compete in a split pot environment.
Zac: So I’m really excited to talk to you because I am one of the burgeoning hi-lo players out there and this is a podcast for anyone who has even been interested in playing hi-lo games, split pot games, PLO8, Big O, those types of things. You are the newest addition to the Red Chip Poker Coach roster and your specialty is in those hi-lo games. So I guess for all of our listeners out there, tell us how you got into the world of hi-lo games and eventually becoming a strategy content producer and a coach.
Greg: Sure. Well like everybody else I started playing Hold ’em in 2003 when I was in college and had no idea that there was a professional world out there until I saw it on TV just like everybody else. But as I progressed through playing for a living and trying to get into the Hold ’em world I found that there were many other games. I found Stud 8-or-better, I found seven-card Stud, I found Omaha 8-or-better, and then a whole slew of mixed games around 2005, 2006. I started to realize that the same players were always winning in split pot games, especially hi-lo, like four card Omaha hi-lo. The same players were always winning, the same players were always losing. When I was playing Hold ’em, I was noticing that you know the wins and losses would kind of shift around, that even the best players would lose and even the worst players would win.
I started to delve into mixed games about 2006 and I noticed that the skill that was involved in a lot of these split pot games was far and above that of Hold ’em. I know that’s blasphemy to say to Hold ’em players but it’s the truth. When I found Big O, which was called 2 by 5 back then, it was play two out of any five. That’s where the name came from. I found Big O at the Bellagio in a mixed game, I think it was a 30/60 mixed game in 2007. At first I just thought, “Hey why wouldn’t I want more chances to make the nuts? There’s five cards. I’m going to make the nuts much more often than I’m going to make them in four and two card games.” And then, I started to notice that this idea that you could make the nuts more often meant that I didn’t have to play anything else, that I could be more patient.
Well that led me to find out that there was a mathematical system behind all of this and there was a way to quantify everything. That led me to discover exactly how this edge works. I discovered through a few years of playing home games and mixed games and staying away from Hold ’em, that that edge that we all love as Hold ’em players, that edge over our opponents that gives us our win rate in the long run is much much bigger in hi-lo games than it is in the single pot games.
Zac: So that’s a pretty compelling argument to get into, hi-lo games right there in and of itself. But you did mention that it takes a higher degree of skill to master these games than Hold ’em. Could you expand on that?
Greg: Yeah. Hold ’em is very easy to learn and very hard to master. There’s subtle nuances that we all have learned to play and learned to exploit, but they take years and years and years to learn. I mean there are people that have been playing Hold ’em for 30, 40 years and they still don’t have everything knocked. None of us do, we all pretend we do. We all think we do, but we don’t.
In Omaha and Big O especially, five card hi-lo, it is a very hard game to learn but once you do learn it it’s a very easy game to master because the hurdles that you have to get over to learn Big O and any split pot games are very large hurdles to … get over and to really learn to change your game. The analogy I used with one of my students that really got him to understand that these are two totally different games. You can’t apply Hold ’em concepts and Hold ’em knowledge to Omaha and other split pot games, you just can’t do it. It’s like calling a football play on the ice arena, it’s just not going to work. You can’t take football knowledge and apply it to hockey and then expect to win in hockey. Yet that’s exactly what Hold ’em players do in split pot games. They take what they know in their game and try to apply it to hi-lo and they get absolutely destroyed.
Zac: So if I’m one of the players that’s getting absolutely destroyed, I’m not saying I am or not, what are some of the most common mistakes that you see Hold ’em players trying to apply that Hold ’em knowledge to those hi-lo games and getting burned?
Greg: Well number one above everything is that Hold ’em players have a distinct misconception about what the best hand in poker is. As Hold ’em players, we’ve all learned to come to this understanding that the current hand that is ahead right now is the favorite and the best hand to win. Now, 99% of the time that is the case in Hold ’em. You have top pair against bottom pair, you have a set against a flush draw or you have whatever made established hand that’s currently ahead right now if the hand were truncated and finished at this exact moment, that hand probably is the mathematical favorite 99 times out of a 100. Well the best hand in poker is the hand with the best chance to win. It has nothing to do with the hand that’s ahead right now. As Hold ’em players we’ve all come to accept that that is the truth.
Well in other games, especially split pot games, you have to factor in all of the cards that are available. If you’re playing Hold ’em and your opponent has two outs going to the river, you know you have 44 outs or they have two outs or whatever it works out to be, you don’t ever think about those 44 outs. You don’t ever think that I’m the one that’s drawing to all but two cards. You think they have two cards and I have the rest. Well in Omaha, especially Big O, you have to calculate every card to come, that includes the nut hand. The current nut hand on the flop can sometimes be a six, seven, nine to one underdog against the rest of the field. That’s because the best hand in poker is the hand with the best chance to win given the entire run out happens.
So all of our equities that we calculate in Hold ’em and all of our percentages, those assume that all the cards are shown and we run out the rest of the deck. Now in Big O, you do that every hand. Almost no hands finish without a showdown. So you have to re-assimilate the fact that the best hand is the hand with the best chance to win. That’s almost never the hard hand and that’s almost never the hand that’s ahead right now. Where Hold ’em players are trained to accept that if I flop the top set of eights, I have the nut hand and they don’t understand that a set of eights can never be the nut hand and they don’t understand that they’re drawing against 38 cards that can beat them or whatever it may be. They feel that they are the best hand when in fact they’re a huge underdog.
Zac: Right. I mean one thing we talk about time and time again on the podcast is the beginner mistake of overvaluing the absolute value of your hold cards or the hand that you’ve made, and so I imagine that that’s doubly so in the split pot games. There’s really two things going on right? There’s the split pot nature where, and maybe we should get into that explaining just how that works mechanically, and then also the extra cards I imagine is a whole other aspect. So starting with the hi-lo split, just for absolute beginners can you tell talk about the mechanics of you know what hand beats what and who gets paid out and how scoops work and all that?
Greg: Sure. If you’d never played hi-lo before, there are two pots, the high hand which everybody knows that’s your best poker hand, your two pair, set, straights, whatever. And then there is a low pot which is equally valuable as the high pot, there’s no difference each is worth 50% of the pot. That is if, well in Big O and in Omaha, in flop games, you have to have five unpaired unique cards 8 or lower that includes the aces. As long as there are three different cards on the board, the flop or the entire run out that are eight or lower, then there will be a low available. If the board is king, king, queen, jack, ten, there’s no low available and you only play the high hand.
Now, each pot if just as valuable as the other. There’s no fan favorite and there’s no mathematical favorite to playing the high only. You have to play for both pots equally. So, what Hold ’em players tend to do is tend to favor the familiar and favor the high hand and then, well I don’t really know much about the low pot so I’ll just kind of favor the high hand. Then they tend to miss a lot of value on their low and play the wrong type of starting hands.
Zac: And one thing I’ve been told and maybe you can correct me or confirm this, is that scooping is of utmost important in these hi-lo games. That your goal is not to win half the pot but to scoop, is that fair to say?
Greg: 100% correct. When you are playing at a higher level, higher not the highest, but when you’re playing at a higher level your goal is you play for the entire pot every time. There are a lot of times where it is correct to abandon your hand if you can only play for half. So we choose starting hands, we pick strategies and we go through our plan of our hand with the goal of taking the entire pot.
Zac: When we think about calculating these equities, you know figuring out other people’s ranges, we’ve got four cards even five in our hand, and you mentioned there’s a big mathematical hurdle in terms of learning the ins and outs and complexities of calculating all of that. Give me a window into where I would start as a Hold ’em player, starting to understand how to compare ranges and equities with all those cards on the table.
Greg: When you start as a Hold ’em player, you’re not going to be focusing on other people. There’s a large learning curve to learn how to play your hand. When we all start playing Hold ’em we kind of learn in three stages. In stage one, we learn to try and play our hand as best we can. Then when we’ve learned to play our hand pretty much as best as we can, we move on to learn other people’s hands, what other people are doing and try to focus on other players. Then when we’ve accomplished that, we move into stage three and we try to understand how to manipulate what other people think, how to change the game in our favor, how to try to convince our opponent what we have, what we don’t have.
Now, Hold ’em players automatically try to jump to the same stage that they’re currently in when they play Hold ’em in Omaha and it just simply doesn’t work. Hold ’em players have to learn to start small when they play Omaha, they have to try to better play their hand. They have to learn how to play their hand better and that means sticking to their premium starting ranges that means sticking to hands that can win both pots and that means not trying to manipulate what other people are doing.
I can’t even count how many times I see a moderately experienced Hold ’em player come to an Omaha table and start berating other players, “Oh how could you call with that? How could you do this?” When they’ve only played Omaha maybe 15, 20 hours their entire life. You know it just doesn’t work and you can’t manipulate other people’s ranges, you can’t manipulate other people’s actions if you don’t know how to play your own hand first. That’s what I tend to work with a lot of my students on, is how to better play their hands first. We’ve got to get you out of stage one before you move into stage two and three.
Zac: Right. It almost sounds like a sort of ABC strategy for hi-lo.
Greg: At first yes. At first you have to learn how to play properly before you can move into anything else and Hold ’em’s no different. When we all first started learning Hold ’em we had to figure out what hand was what and we had to learn that you know a pair of sixes is better than ace, king. We had to learn how to play our own hands first.
Zac: So it’s almost like re-learning the game of poker but in a completely different context. What are some of the other concepts that just don’t translate? I’m kind of curious about bluffing, I mean bluffing must be a completely different story in these games too right?
Greg: Yes it is. A lot of times I find myself not necessarily bluffing like a Hold ’em player would understand as bluffing. When I’m bluffing in Hold ’em or four card PLO, I am trying to move them off the hand and win the entire pot. In Big O, when I pull a bluff or when I run a big bluff on somebody, I’m usually running a bluff on half the pot. Like I usually have the low locked up and then will misrepresent the high. Or I will have the high locked up and then misrepresent the low. You’re doing so with a safety net as in you’re going to win half the pot one way or the other, you can do things and manipulate the action once you’re good enough to move somebody off of fairly certain half the pot. That’s a pretty advanced strategy, it’s something I’m not going to go into until my third book because you have to be very very good and very familiar with your opponents to even delve into those ideas.
Zac: Right. Another thing that comes to mind is bet sizing, just fundamentally different in these pot limit games. The games that I’ve played, most of the time you’re facing pot size bets and you’re making pot size bets. Talk a little bit about how bet sizing is different in these games.
Greg: Well it’s different and it’s the same all at once. Anybody who’s very good at Hold ’em understands range polarization. They understand that the bigger your bet size, the smaller the hand range is that’s going to give you action. If you have top set in Hold ’em and you bet seven times the size of the pot, you’re almost never going to get action from anything but middle set. In Omaha it’s the same except it’s done in different ways. When you have a monster hand that has all the draws covered, you have a lock nut low, the current best high hand with top set and the nut flush draw, and it’s pretty hard to lose your hand, you have everything so it’s kind of like having top set in Hold ’em. If you bet the full size of the pot, you’re not going to get action from very much but if you bring down your bet size you can get action from a naked nut low, or an inferior flush draw, pretty much anything that could give you action as long as you give them reasons to call.
That’s a concept I talk about in my book a lot, it’s called pulling where you’re doing your best to pull in the field and you do that by not overvaluing your hand and not over-betting. Just because you have a good hand doesn’t mean you should suck it up and say pot. But in Omaha, it’s even more important than it is in Hold ’em to be cognizant of not over-polarizing your opponents’ ranges down to something so small that you’re almost never going to get action. That concept does actually transfer over from Hold ’em to Omaha.
Zac: Okay. In terms of pot control, on the other side of the equation, are we really focused on stack sizes, post-flop planning, thinking about SPR and when we’re committed, I mean talk about the different dynamics compared to Hold ’em.
Greg: As far as stack-to-pot ratio, that is very important advanced concept, it’s not something I talk about with my beginning or intermediate students. That’s not something that comes into play until somebody has mastered how to play their own hand properly. But it is very important because there are certain ratios with certain hands that when you get a one to one stack to pot ratio in Omaha, especially Big O, it’s just getting in. There’s no avoiding it and there’s no other way around it. A lot of times when you get a two to one stack to pot ratio with opponents, there’s a very good chance that it’s getting in … it’s going to be a pretty wide range too especially at one to one. A lot of times amateur players and recreational players will fold their hands when they’re getting a one to one or a one to two even stack to pot ratio.
It’s very important but it’s not something I discuss with my beginning and my intermediate students because it is not as easy to discuss as it is in Hold ’em. In Hold ’em there’s a finite amount of ranges and a few amount of hands, types of hands that you’re going to be getting it in with, with certain stack to pot ratios like flush draws, straight draws, you know top pair and better, stuff like that that’s easy to quantify. Especially in Big O it’s very difficult to quantify those ranges because the combinations are vastly more.
Zac: Right. That makes sense. So, I guess you know to wrap things up I would love to get more in depth into strategy. We have to do that in a future podcast, for now to kind of lead into that let’s talk about the specific hi-lo games that are popular right now that people are playing and just talk me through each game, you know what the scene looks like right now, where people are playing these games and you know how can our listeners get into these games and start playing.
Greg: Sure. It’s going to depend on where you live and what you are doing. A lot of hi-lo games are very regional and are depending on where you’re living. There are also not too many mid-stakes games as far as hi-lo goes, it’s either really small or really big. I know you can find a couple of games in south Florida, you can find four and five card hi-lo all throughout the middle part of the country, especially in Oklahoma. For some reason they call Big O, Congress in Oklahoma. I don’t know where they got that name but it’s still five card hi-lo. You’ll find fixed limit in Vegas, you’ll find that in New Orleans it’s four card Omaha hi-lo, you’ll find that at the Orleans and a couple of other places in town. Big O is becoming more popular in California and you’ll find some small to middle stakes games there. Arizona has a couple of mixed games 20/40 and 40/80. Five card hi-lo is becoming very popular in the Pacific Northwest. You can find just about half the home games out there are usually Big O.
I live in Colorado, in Denver and there are several hi-lo games around town. There is one at the Ameristar in Black Hawk, which I play on the weekends, which is a spread limit which is a unique game that you don’t find too much. As far as the Midwest, I know Minnesota has a few fixed limit games, four card fixed limit at the card club at Shakopee.
As far as the east coast, I can’t really speak of too much of the east coast I don’t get out there very often. But, they are becoming more popular and the reason they’re becoming more popular is that the action in hi-lo games is far superior to any Hold ’em game. There’s three and four and five people that are all in damned near every hand, almost every hand goes to showdown and that’s almost never the case in Hold ’em or PLO for that matter.
Zac: Well I’m ready to play. I mean thank you so much for stopping by and giving us this great introduction to hi-lo games. Will you come back and give us some strategy tips? You know break down the more complex strategies, opening hands, that sort of thing?
Greg: Absolutely. Absolutely any time.
Zac: Awesome. Well Greg Vail, we’ll talk to you soon about that and thanks again for joining us.