Omaha headaches

Raising in position in a heads-up pot-limit Omaha game is perhaps not always the best tactic

Raising before the flop in heads-up pot-limit Omaha is a personal style choice because there are arguments that can go either way

When playing any game heads-up there are large adjustments you will have to make to your play in comparison to playing in a ring game. Pot-limit Omaha is no exception. Let’s start at the beginning; the beginning of each hand, that is. Hand selection, in general, changes drastically when playing two-handed poker and pot-limit Omaha follows the same rules. When determining what hands to play you need to consider the following: how many cards are out against you and what your position is in the hand.

The number of cards out against you indicates what the likelihood is of you having the best hand right there, while revealing the probabilities of your opponent(s) folding and the strength of your hand if you have hit it. Also, your position on the hand tells you what the probability of you winning the hand is if you or your opponent misses and what the probability is of you making a big return on hands you hit.

Let’s take an example common in no-limit hold’em ring games: a hand like 10-9 suited in early position would not generally be considered a playable hand. With 18 cards out against you it is highly unlikely you are starting with the best hand. It is also unlikely that when you hit your hand (which will most likely be a pair) it will be strong against multiple opponents.

Don’t get tripped up!

In position, however, everything changes. When everyone folds to your button, 10-9 suited becomes a very playable hand. Firstly, there are now only four cards out against you, which increases the likelihood that either you have the best hand right there or one or both of your opponents will have a hand like Q-2 that – while better than your hand – they may deem unplayable. Under both these scenarios you are likely to win the pot right there. When one of your opponents does call and you hit a pair, that pair is now favourite to be strong.

Heads-up games are very much like playing from last position in ring games. In pot-limit Omaha the number of cards out against you goes from 32 to four, so almost every hand that doesn’t contain trips becomes playable. Playing heads-up hold’em on the button, you will only fold the truly terrible hands like 7-2 offsuit and again, Omaha is no different in this respect. You fold only the truly unplayable hands in position. But should you raise them on the button? In heads-up hold’em the answer is always yes, unless you are playing against a seriously aggressive opponent who will play back at you often. Firstly, if you have the best hand, you are going to be at least a 6/4 favourite and secondly, if you do have the worst hand, you know your opponent – on the majority of occasions – will miss the flop and you are the likely winner when you have position. Making the pot big when in position in no-limit hold’em heads-up is a value play. In pot-limit Omaha, however, no hand is that big a favourite. On top of that, your opponent will not be a favourite to completely miss the flop. And, when they hit the flop in a marginal way – a way they would not generally continue with after the flop in a ring game – they are much more unlikely to fold those very marginal holdings heads-up than in a ring game.

Consider a situation where an opponent flops a low straight with no redraws to a higher straight or the flush draw. In a multi-way pot, any pressure on this opponent will cause him to fold. This is not true when playing heads-up. That same opponent is likely to go to the mat with the hand in pot-limit Omaha heads-up.

Given all these factors, there is an argument in headsup pot-limit Omaha that raising before the flop has little value. There is very little chance your opponent will fold right there and then. If you have the worst hand, it is difficult to bluff after the flop when your opponent has hit a marginal hand or marginal draw.

When you do have the best hand it will not be a big favourite over your opponent’s. Unlike in no-limit hold’em, your opponent is also unlikely to ever fold a hand that is better than the one you are raising with. Raising your opponent gives you almost no information about his hand when he calls you, since he will call with just about any hand that does not contain trips. Also, this isn’t a play for value. You have little equity in your opponent folding right there when you have the worst of it and you are playing with a very small edge when you do have the best hand.

You should try and keep the pots small until the flop is on the table, allowing you to see whether you have hit your hand. If you have hit and you’re in position, you can then figure the line of play to extract the most money from your opponent; even when you miss, your positional advantage means you have a stronger chance of winning the pot anyway because you are now able to get a good read on your opponent. When you keep the pot small you reduce your variance in a game that has high variance – even in a ring game. Add to that the fact you are playing heads-up – a game in which you play almost every hand – and the variance goes through the roof. Keeping the pots small before the flop will help to ameliorate this.

There are some arguments on the flip side, however, for raising when on the button heads-up. The first is that you know when in position, you will have the biggest advantage – even if this advantage is not as big as it is in no-limit hold’em. The simple argument is that making a pot bigger when you have the upper hand is generally not a terrible idea. When you have the edge, getting your money into the pot should be a moneymaking proposition.

Bluff away

The second argument for raising before the flop has to do with how deep your stack is. By raising before the flop in position you, of course, make the pot bigger. This means the bet size after the flop will be bigger. Now, obviously the price the pot will lay your opponent when you bet will remain the same, but the price your stack will be laying him will be different. If you are playing a $25/$50 game and you have $3,000 in chips, a pot-sized bet of $100 after the flop is a very different bet than a pot-sized bet of $300. In the first case your stack is laying your opponent on his $100 call 30/1; in the other your stack is only laying your opponent 10/1.

When your opponent is considering a post-flop call with a marginal holding this price difference might well influence his decision; making it more likely he will fold in the case that your stack only lays him 10/1. Therefore, raising before the flop might increase the likelihood of a post-flop bluff working. Of course, this will only work against an opponent who thinks about such things. You also need to make sure you are not facing an opponent that thrives on playing big pots after the flop. If you raise against this type of player you are actually just increasing the pressure they can put on you while also increasing your own variance in the game.

Raising before the flop in heads-up pot-limit Omaha is really a personal style choice because there are arguments to go either way. I personally think the variance issue trumps the justifications for raising, making playing smaller pots pre-flop the primary choice. But, again, it is a matter of personal choice and personal gambling. When playing out of position, however, personal choice does not come into the argument. It is imperative to keep the pot small when out of position. You are at an automatic mathematical disadvantage, so keeping the pots as small as possible when you have the smallest of edges is always going to be the right choice. Being out of position makes it difficult to do two things: win the pot when you have the worst hand and extract a big pot from your opponent when you have the best hand.

Therefore, there is nearly no hand you would raise with from the small blind, except your very large hands. But raising only your large hands can give your opponent a read on you. If you only raise with really big hands, then your opponent will know very quickly you are weak when you check or flat call from the big blind and you are strong when you raise. So even raising with your large hands is not necessarily the best play since flat-calling gives your marginal and bad hands some disguise. This is a crucial point to remember: getting as much disguise on your hands when you have to act first every round is extremely valuable because it will help to reduce your opponent’s edge on you.

Pot-limit Omaha heads-up is a complex game. Next month I will go into depth on playing after the flop in and out of position with big made hands, big drawing hands, marginal hands and bluffs.

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