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Farha on Omaha
Expert Strategy for Beating Cash Games and Tournaments
By Sam Farha, Storms Reback
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2007 Sam Farha with Storms Reback
All rights reserved.
Basic Strategy I
If you've never played Omaha before, you're going to want to get your feet wet playing the most straightforward and (relatively) risk-free version of the game, limit high-only. After enjoying an initial surge of interest when it was first introduced into casinos in the 1980s, the popularity of limit Omaha has been on a long slow decline ever since. For every 20 tables of Omaha/8 or pot-limit at a typical online poker site, there will only be one table featuring limit high, and yet the game survives, not solely as a relic from a past era but also as a necessary stepping-stone along the path of every Omaha player's evolution.
In limit, nearly every hand results in a showdown on the river so you get to see what types of hands your opponents play. By watching the way other players play, you will learn what works and what doesn't. You'll see what sort of hands they like to play before the flop, how hard they'll chase a draw, if they like to bluff or not — all valuable information. By closely observing your opponents, you'll hone your ability to read other players, and in poker that's one of the most important abilities you can have. Interestingly, you can learn just as much from studying bad players as you can from studying good ones.
In this way limit Omaha is very similar to limit hold'em. It's the kiddie pool where you learn to splash around before venturing into the deep end. You can't get hurt too badly in a foot of water. When I played it for the first time, we were playing for dimes and quarters. That's how long ago it was. Dimes and quarters. Some beginning players are too impatient to start at this level. They want to jump right into the biggest game of pot-limit they can find, but the lessons they learn at the higher levels can be very damaging to their egos as well as their bankrolls. Playing pot-limit with little or no experience is like choosing to jump into the middle of the ocean with a severe nosebleed for one's first swim. The sharks are going to smell you from a mile away.
This is not to say that limit Omaha is an easy game. It's not. In fact, I find it more difficult than pot-limit because it requires so much patience, and I'm not a very patient player. I like to take chances, and in a limit game you simply can't do that. You have to play by the book. You have to play the "right way."
Because you bet in such small increments in a limit game, each decision you make seems fairly trivial. That's the trap that most beginning players fall into. They'll call a bet on the flop with nothing more than an inside straight draw and justify their decision by remarking how small the bet was compared to the size of the pot. They think that making a few bad calls like this isn't going to hurt them very much, but those players aren't thinking beyond their current session. Professional poker players think of poker as one long game, and over the course of a lifetime all these bad calls will eventually amount to staggering losses.
Chip Reese, one of the greatest limit players in the world, once described this disparity well. "In no-limit hold'em you can make some mistakes and come out smelling like a rose because it's no-limit," he said. "You know if you make the wrong move at the right time and win a big giant pot, you're fine. But in all those limit games? They are a little more precision-type games where there are little decisions you make that's a difference between one bet or two bets and ... those add up."
The most important thing to remember while playing limit Omaha is that you can't give your chips away because you won't get many opportunities to win them back. It's the same way in any limit game you play. You have to play like a Rock. You have to play good starting cards. You have to use your position at the table to your advantage. And you should play draws conservatively and made hands aggressively. This is the right way to play the game. And in limit poker even I play the right way.
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The first step to becoming a successful limit player is making yourself play great starting cards, in general the higher the better. In pot-limit I play all sorts of hands, but in limit I don't. For example, I'll almost always play a hand like 9-8-5-4 in pot-limit, but in limit I'll just throw it away. In pot-limit I'll play 7-6-5-4 every time. In limit I won't. Why? Because these are "gambling hands," hands that might win you a big pot once in a while but are big losers in the long run. You can get away with playing gambling hands in pot-limit because the reward often outweighs the risk, but in limit you can't. If you want to play limit the right way, you should always fold your gambling hands before the flop. In the long run you simply can't win with these cards. The better starting hands will inevitably take all the money.
Which hands should you play? I'll go into specifics in the next chapter, but the general rule is the bigger the better, and ideally they should be "suited," that is having two cards of the same suit. Being "double-suited," having two cards of one suit and two cards of another, makes a hand even stronger. The main reason you should try to avoid playing small cards is that you could make the low end of a straight and end up paying someone off who made the high end of the straight with his bigger cards. Or you could make bottom two pair — a bankroll killer in Omaha — and end up losing to top two pair. In the long run, playing little cards will cost you a lot of money.
As important as it is to play good starting cards, I value good position even more. Some believe that position is less important in Omaha than it is in hold'em, but I'm not one of those people. In fact, I think sitting in late position is the strongest advantage you can have in any form of poker. Being the last one to act gives you a huge edge over your opponents. Getting to see what everyone else at the table does gives you all the information you need when deciding how to play your hand. If everyone checks to you and you have a strong hand, you should bet, but if everyone checks to you and you only have a weak draw, you should check and take a free card.
In Omaha free cards are extremely valuable. A lot of players sitting in early position will check, hoping you'll bet so they can raise you, but if you check behind them, you can really punish them. Let's say a player in first position flops top set and checks, and it comes to you, and all you have is an inside straight draw. Check and take that free card. If you make your straight, you're going to be able to punish that player for his mistake. You can also pick up backdoor flush draws this way. If the flop completely misses you, and everyone checks to you, and you check, and a second diamond comes on the turn, and you have two diamonds in your hand, including the ace of diamonds, suddenly you have nine outs to make the best hand.
The other advantage to sitting in late position is that you can bluff at the end if everyone checks to you and you sense weakness, but the odds of you getting away with it depends on how many players are in the hand. If there are two or three players involved and you have no part of the flop, it makes no sense to bluff. One of them is going to call you. It's very hard to get away with a bluff in limit Omaha. You have to know exactly where you're at. If conditions are just right you can bluff on the river, but you can rarely get away with it on the flop.
* * *
While your position relative to the blinds is very important, you also need to be aware of your position relative to the most aggressive player at the table. I am usually the most aggressive player at any table I sit at so let's say you choose to sit at the same table as me, and you have a choice of two different seats. Do you want to sit on Sammy's right or on Sammy's left?
If you choose to sit on Sammy's left, you have the advantage of seeing how he's going to act before deciding how to play your hand. Because he's going to be raising nearly every hand, you're going to need to play much better before the flop, only playing great starting cards. What you really want to avoid doing is calling his raises with mediocre hands because if someone reraises him, you are put in the awkward position of having to decide whether to fold your hand after calling two bets (a terrible play) or calling and getting stuck in the middle of a raising war with a bad hand (potentially much worse). When you're sitting on Sammy's left, you need to play only the best starting hands and take full advantage of having position against him on the flop. You should punish him when the flop helps you and take a free card when it doesn't.
I know a lot of players like to sit on my left for these very reasons, but if I were them, I would prefer to sit on my right. Having Sammy on your left will force you to play great starting cards because you know you're going to get raised every time. The worst thing you can do in this situation is limp in with a bad hand and then fold to his raise. A lot of players will do this against me. They limp in for $100, I raise it, and they fold. "Why would you call $100?" I tell them. "Save your $100 next time. You know I'm going to raise every time." When you have an aggressive player like me sitting at the table, you should always expect to get raised. If you're not going to call the raise, don't limp in.
The other advantage to sitting on Sammy's right is that it will help you spot the traps other players will be trying to set for him. Let's say you have a playable hand in middle position and it's been checked to you. You should check and let Sammy bet and if it's only two bets to play when it comes back around to you, then you can call and see a flop. But if one of the players in early position checked with the intention of check-raising, you'll be able to see him do it, and you can muck your hand without having to put in a single bet. Sitting on Sammy's right, you can also be the one who does the trapping. You can check in early position with a great hand, let someone else bet, let Sammy raise, and then you can reraise when it gets back to you.
I am less concerned about Rocks, but I do like having them on my left. Rocks muck a lot of hands before the flop, which means if one of them is sitting on my immediate left I'll often be getting the button twice, which is a big advantage.
* * *
The key to success at limit Omaha is maximizing your wins and minimizing your losses. Good players win as much as they can when they have great hands and lose as little as possible when they don't. The easiest way to achieve this is by playing by the book. Always bet when you've got the best hand. When you flop the nuts in early position, you have to protect your hand by betting. In hold'em most players will check in early position after flopping the nuts, hoping to check-raise their opponents on the turn as soon as the bets double. You can't do this in Omaha. You can't check and allow your opponents the luxury of getting a free card.
Chasing draws can be tricky in limit Omaha. In general, it's not smart to bet on the come. Check and call until you make your hand. You can cost yourself a lot of money by trying to represent a made hand when you're on a draw because you can never get anyone out in limit Omaha. No matter how aggressive you are, your opponents are still going to call you all the way, and if you don't make your hand you have put a lot of money into the pot that you didn't have to. By checking and calling when you're on a draw you are minimizing your losses. You should be especially careful when you're on a draw and there are four or five other players in the hand because you have to assume that your opponents are holding a lot of the cards you need to win the pot. Call until you make your hand, and then charge them. In limit you will always get paid off at the end.
There is an exception to this rule, and that is when you have a very strong draw on the flop and you're sitting in late position. If a player raises, you should reraise him. If he comes back over the top of you, go ahead and cap it. This is a value raise. You want to get as much money as possible into the pot in case you make your draw on the turn, and if you don't make it, you can check and take a free card.
The most important thing to remember is that Omaha is a flop game, even more than hold'em. When the flop comes, you need to know exactly where you're at. To continue past the flop, you need to have made a very strong hand, at least two pair or a set, or a very strong draw like a big wrap. Don't chase backdoor draws. If the pot is huge, you're in late position, and it will only cost you a single bet, you can get away with taking one card off once in a while, but you should never call a raise in hopes of making a backdoor draw, especially if the pot is small or if you're in early position. This is one of the worst plays an Omaha player can make, and if you insist on doing it you're going to go broke in a hurry.
Everything changes as the number of players sitting at the table decreases. If you're playing short-handed — generally considered to be six players or less — the strength of the starting hands you need to play goes down and the likelihood that a non-nut hand will win the pot goes up. Playing short-handed, you can minimize the handicap of poor position by playing aggressively, but this strategy will only succeed if you're able to read other players well. To do that, you need to study your opponents. When I sit down at a poker table, I often spend the entire first hour watching the other players and making mental notes about their play: who is loose and who is tight, who is likely to pay me off on the river and who will fold. Only by knowing your opponents' tendencies can you make the best decisions against them. When I play poker, I prefer to play the player and not the cards. Unfortunately, in limit Omaha it can be very hard to do that.CHAPTER 2
Before the Flop I
The most important decision you have to make in limit Omaha is whether to play a hand at all. Those new to Omaha believe (falsely) that just about any starting hand is playable. While any four cards can win a large pot, in the long run only the very best hands will make money. So what are the best starting hands?
What you're looking for in a great starting hand are four cards that are so well coordinated they make six equally strong two-card combinations. For example, A-A-K-Q double-suited is one of the most powerful hands in Omaha because it gives the player fortunate enough to get it a pair of aces, two nut flush draws, and three different draws to the nut straight.
A simple rule of thumb to follow is that higher cards are always favored over lower cards. Q-J-10-7 and 7-6-5-4 are both playable hands, but look what happens if these two hands square off against one another and the flop comes 9-8-2. There are very few cards that the 7-6-5-4 can catch to make a straight that won't give the Q-J-10-7 a bigger straight.
Just like in hold'em, having suited cards adds some value to your hand because you can make a flush with them. Being double-suited, an occurrence only found in Omaha, adds even more value as you can now pick up two different flush draws — although you can still only make one of them.
While you should always aspire to have one of your suited cards be an ace so you can make a nut flush, it's still advantageous to have suited cards even if they don't include an ace. Having such cards will give you a chance to make a "redraw," a draw to make an even better hand after you've made the nuts. Let's say you make the nut straight on the turn after the 9 of spades falls and now there are two spades on the board as well as two in your hand. You are free rolling to make a backdoor flush, and when you make a backdoor flush in Omaha, it doesn't necessarily have to be a nut flush to win the hand. In fact, small backdoor flushes win more often than not.
While having suited cards can help you make your hand, they can also prevent your opponent from making his hand. If your opponent is trying to make the nut spade flush and you have two spades in your hand, you have effectively taken away two of his outs. These are called "killer cards." The same concept applies to straight draws. Let's say you and three other players see a flop. You make a set while all three of your opponents have wraps. Because your opponents are all trying to make a similar hand, most of the cards they're looking for will be in the hands of their opponents. There are not a whole lot of cards left in the deck for them to hit, so they have far fewer outs than they think. These killer cards make it much harder for your opponents to make a winning hand.
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As in most poker games, having two aces or two kings gives you a very strong hand, but players making the transition from hold'em tend to overvalue these hands. If you're not sure how to play them as well as they should be played, you shouldn't go crazy when you get dealt aces or kings. They can be very tricky hands to play and, just like in hold'em, you're as likely to lose a bunch of money with them as you are to win a bunch.
Excerpted from Farha on Omaha by Sam Farha, Storms Reback. Copyright © 2007 Sam Farha with Storms Reback. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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