Split-Pot Games Are Awesome

As I’ve discussed before, there are actually poker games that aren’t Texas Hold’em. Shocking, I know. Stick around because we’re going to cover a whole new class of poker games.

Ones in which two people (usually) get the joy of winning the pot.

Yes, I’m talking about split-pot games. The most common way of splitting pots is to give half the pot to the best high hand and half the pot to the best low hand. In modern poker, it’s typical to have an “8-or-better” qualifier for the low hand. That is, your poker hand (however you put it together) must consist of five unpaired cards, the highest of which is no higher than 8 (aces count low). 8-6-4-2-A is a valid low hand, but 9-5-4-3-2 is not, nor is 7-5-5-3-A. If no 8-or-better low hand can be made, the high hand wins the entire pot. In all 8-or-better games, the perfect low hand is 5-4-3-2-A (a “wheel”). In flop games, the “nut low” is the lowest hand that can be created given the board cards. If the board is K-Q-7-4-2, any A-3 combination gives you the nut low (7-4-3-2-A).

Why are split-pot games so much fun? For the same reason that chocolate chunk ice cream is better than vanilla; there’s more variety. It requires you to think outside the box, consider different scenarios, and get away from the near formulaic play that pervades No-Limit Hold’em (NLHE) these days.

Sadly, I hear too many people—avid poker players—who are afraid to leave the confines of NLHE. Maybe I can talk some of you into joining us in the split-pot universe with one enticing offer…

You can crush these games by following one simple rule.

Do I have your attention now?

First, some vocabulary. You often see a split-pot game with a “/8” suffix to indicate that it’s “8 or better.” Omaha/8 (or “O/8”) is 4-card Omaha, high-low split, 8-or-better to qualify for low. Usually when it’s written like that, it means the fixed-limit version; e.g. “6/12 O/8” with 6 unit bets on the first two betting rounds, and 12 unit bets on the latter two. Stud/8 is seven-card stud played high-low. (Stud/8 is a great game, unlike its high-only cousin, which is like watching paint dry on growing grass.) PLO/8 is “Pot Limit Omaha 8-or-better.” “BigO” is (stay with me here) 5-card PLO 8-or-better.

And there are other games (“How weird a poker game can we invent?”) such as dramaha, baduci, badacey, and an entire rogues’ gallery of pathological variants that split the pot between two players. I’ll possibly cover those in a future article. For now, we’ll talk about the “traditional” split-pot games, where the pot is split between a high hand and an 8-or-better low hand (if any).

Which brings me to the secret to beating any kind of split-pot game, a two-step process:

  • Plan A—Win the entire pot, not just half.
  • Plan B—If you can’t clearly see how you’re going to win the whole pot, be sure you have at least half the pot locked up and are freerolling (no matter how thinly) for the other half.

Plan Z—the one that you never want to follow—draw at half the pot.

Let’s look at Plan A. Suppose you are playing PLO/8, and have this hand…

You probably recognize this is a legitimate monster. After some spirited preflop betting, you get this flop…

This is where you’d love to get a ton of money in the pot. You have an uncounterfeitable draw to the nut low. That is, if any non-pairing card 8 or lower hits the turn, not only will you have the nut low, but there is no card that can come on the river that will break the nuttiness of that low hand.

Furthermore, any club except the 7c will give you the nut flush. A 6 will give you a straight, but it’s worth noting 8-5 in somebody’s hand will give them the higher (nut) straight.

This is a real Plan A hand. You have so much equity in the hand it’s embarrassing; you will often win the entire pot and get to say that magic phrase of split-pot poker: “Nut, nut.”

Let’s discuss Plan B—the freeroll. You and one opponent get a bunch of money in the pot on this flop. The turn is the ace of diamonds, making the board…

Welcome to Plan B—the freeroll. You now have the nut low (7-4-3-2-A), still have the nut flush draw, and the draw to the 7-high straight. You’ve also added the 2h and 2s to your collection of outs, as either will give you a wheel, which would be the nuts. And any non-club 3 would give you a wheel, which might well be good for the high. Since this is Omaha, it’s rare that your pair of aces is any good. But that’s of little concern to you; you have the low half of the pot locked up and about ten outs to scoop both halves.

As an aside, it’s correct that if your opponent has a 3-2 combination, they are currently tied with you for the nut low. C’est la guerre. It’s unlikely they have more equity than you do. Furthermore, a deuce or trey on the river counterfeits their low hand, changing the nuts to a wheel. You don’t care because if either a deuce or trey hits, you have the wheel.

Now let’s look at Plan Z—the place you don’t want to be. Specifically, let’s consider the villain in this hand. They actually think they have a pretty good hand…

They say to themselves, “Any 8, 9, ten, or king will give me the nut straight, and a club will give me the queen-high flush, which might well be good.”

Sadly, for them, they’re clawing to get half the pot. And they should know it. If you’re putting any meaningful money in the pot on the turn, you always have a low, generally the nut low. Because they have zero low prospects, it should be painfully obvious that they’re vying for half the pot. In this particular case, your pair of aces is crushing them at the moment. But that’s not terribly important. Let’s give the villain a much stronger hand…

They have a set and a gutshot to a jack-high straight. Currently, they’re winning the high. But we’re still freerolling them. Yes, the 7 of clubs on the river gives them quads, so we have fewer high outs than we might be counting. But no matter what card comes on the river, we’re getting at least half the pot. The best they can hope for is to get half the pot. Of the 40 remaining cards in the deck, 8 non-pairing clubs, two non-club deuces, three non-club treys, and three non-club 6s—16 cards—will give us the entire pot.

40% of the time, our hapless villain will see all of their investment go to us. They will never get a single chip from our stack.

Split-pot games are always fun and interesting. Properly played, they can be wildly profitable because frankly, most people don’t play them well. When the entire poker world has been mono-focused on the plain old two-card flop game for almost 20 years, having some split-pot chops can allow you to fish in ponds where the competition is lighter and, truth be told, the game is more “fun.” Which matters.

BigO, anyone?

Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.