How to play Badugi

Welcome to the weird four card game of Badugi where Aces are low and flushes are bad news

Players are always looking for something new to keep the action alive. One of the most recent variations to hit the poker scene in a big way is Badugi. Badugi is really the name of a hand-ranking system of Korean origin, which is different from the one usually used in poker, and it can be applied to most poker games. A Badugi differs from a traditional poker hand in the following ways:

  1. A Badugi consists of four cards instead of five.
  2. A Badugi is a low hand, with the Ace being the lowest card (4-3-2-A is the best hand).
  3. Each card must be a different rank and a different suit to count towards the hand. Straights are ignored.

The lowest Badugi hand will win at a showdown. For example, 7-4-3-2 beats 8-3-2-A at a showdown. If no player can make a Badugi, the best incomplete hand wins. For example, 3-3-2-A is not a badugi because it contains a pair. Similarly, 7-4-2-A is not a Badugi because it contains two cards of the same suit.

In this case, each player has a ‘three-card hand’, and plays their best three cards. The first player would win, with 3-2-A-x beating 4-2-A-x. Any Badugi beats any three-card hand. If a player cannot make a three-card hand, they play their best two cards instead. As before, any three-card hand beats any two-card hand, and any two-card hand beats any one-card hand.

Most games can be played with the Badugi hand rankings, but by far the most common version is triple draw and for reasons that will soon become obvious it is normally played with a limit betting structure. In other words, there are fixed bet sizes on all streets, with the bet size doubling after the first draw. The game is typically played eight-handed, both live and online.

Starting hands

Many people will tell you Badugi is a high-variance game, because there are three draws and a lot of action. However, that’s not necessarily true. Outdraws and bad beats are relatively uncommon in this game, as it’s actually very difficult to make a Badugi.

Think about it. Your opponent has 8-7-6-5. You hold 3-2-A and are drawing one card to hit a better Badugi. How many outs do you have? In actual fact you have just four outs: the 8, 7, 5and 4. The other 41 cards in the deck will lose for you, making you a 41/4 underdog (10.25/1).

Similarly, when two drawing hands do battle, the best is often a huge favourite. For example, with one draw remaining, a 3-2-A can be over an 82% favourite against a 4-2-A. To win, the 4-2-A needs to improve to a Badugi (not easy in itself), and then hope that the 3-2-A doesn’t improve to a better one. That high-variance comment certainly doesn’t apply to situations where you hold the best hand.

Unlike in a game like Omaha, it’s actually very difficult for the worst hand to catch up. Obviously, getting involved in big pots with the worst hand is not something you want to do often. Because the best hand is often such a huge favourite, you should try your hardest to be the person with that hand, and not the person doing the chasing.

However, you certainly shouldn’t just wait around for a Badugi. What can make Badugi high variance is the fact that in an aggressive game, raising before the first draw will often make the pot quite large. That, in combination with the likelihood that your opponents will be bluffing, the chance that your drawing hand is already winning, plus the chance of a big payoff should you hit the best hand means that often you’ll correctly be betting or calling bets with a draw.

When to raise

So what should you enter the pot with? Obviously, a pat Badugi is a strong hand, and any pat Badugi is usually worth playing aggressively. How you play a pat Badugi is very dependent on the action and your position. In early position you might back off with a very rough hand such as a K-Q-J-9 and see what develops in subsequent betting rounds.

A rough Badugi is a much more marginal hand in a multi-way pot, particularly if a player in early position has already entered for a raise and been called or reraised. In such a situation you might even fold your hand immediately, as the chances are that you are already behind. When you consider the chances that one of your opponents will draw out, playing a rough Badugi makes for an unattractive proposition.

With a weak pat Badugi, you should try to get the pot heads-up, in order to maximise your chances of winning the pot. If you can’t accomplish that, you’re better off keeping the pot small. This reduces the pot odds your foes receive to draw out on you, and makes it easier to make a correct fold yourself when you feel you’re beaten.

Conversely, with a strong Badugi or a strong draw, you welcome large pots and multiple opponents, and you should play accordingly. Raising to make the pot large accomplishes two goals: it extracts value from opponents who are losing by encouraging them to chase you when you might be a big favourite, and makes your decisions on future streets easier as you’ll usually be getting good odds to, at least, call.

Playing with draws

If you drew fewer cards than your opponent did, you should usually come out betting after the draw whether you improved or not. If you and your opponent drew the same number of cards, but you had the betting lead before the draw, you should also usually keep betting. If you were ahead before the draw, you’re very likely to still be ahead.

Normally, if you make a Badugi while drawing you should subsequently stand pat, unless you have strong reason to believe you’re still behind. With one draw remaining, a Badugi is typically a 75% favourite or more against a single opposing draw. Because it’s so difficult to make a Badugi, a common weakness of beginning players is that they fold too readily when they miss after the third draw. Therefore, your bluffs may be more successful than usual, particularly if you represented a Badugi by ‘snowing’ (standing pat with an incomplete or trash hand) on the last draw.

How you react to a bet yourself is very opponent-dependent. Some players simply don’t bet after the last draw without a Badugi, and you can take advantage of that by folding unless you have a Badugi yourself.

However, if your opponent is aggressive, and particularly if they were still drawing on the third draw, your calling range should be much wider, including all Badugis and stronger three-card hands. A-2-3-x can be an excellent bluff-catcher and should usually be played as such.

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