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PLO Hi/Lo Strategy Guide - Part 2
IntroductionIn this article
- Playable starting hands
- Why hands without an ace are almost unplayable
- Playing high only hands
The starting hand selection of PLO Hi/Lo will have the largest influence on whether or not you become a winning player at the game. The stronger your hand, the easier it is to value bet it when you’re ahead, and the less likely you are to get it in and be dominated. Playable hands fall into one of several categories, we will now look at all the options and which of these are worth continuing with. The general rule of PLO Hi/Lo is “no ace – no race” which means that any hand without an ace in it immediately becomes unplayable. Obviously like all rules, there are exceptions, and will look at these as well.
PLO Hi/Lo is a game about building pots then getting paid, winning players will win less hands per hour than losing players, but those they do win will be bigger and also they will have far fewer losing hands. The starting hands we will focus on will be those that can flop strong hands where we can confidently bet each street and build a big pot. The biggest winning hand in PLO Hi/Lo is the same as pretty much all high hand games - pocket aces.
98% of AAxx hands are playable and should be raised from any position in PLO Hi/Lo. There is a small percentage that are unplayable such as AAA9 where you can’t make a straight or low. Here you would be better folding from early positions since you have one less ace to hit.
Aces will be your biggest winner because opponents need to improve significantly to beat you. This is also helped by the fact that the hands you will be up against will often include low cards such as A2345 and feature fewer cards of 6789T. This makes reading hands easier as we’re more likely to be ahead with AAxx on a Q88 board, than we are on a Q22 board. Any player with A2 or 23 is likely to call pre-flop but players with 8’s are more likely to fold.
Where you will encounter problems with Aces is when the board does show scary cards. With a hand like AA3K on a 456 flop we are given a tough decision with our hand. When someone bets this flop they might be doing it with A2 where we win half a pot with a high hand, or they may be doing it with 23, where our low hand is good. If the opponent has A23 we lose the whole pot to them as they have a better low and a straight for high.
In situations like this it’s fine to play “fit or fold” with Aces, but it’s important to remember that high board are more likely to be safe for aces than low boards. More players call pre-flop chasing low cards than high cards. On a Q94 board it’s more likely an opponent is calling a pre-flop raise with AQ35 than Q9xx. It is possible they have a hand like A2JT as well, so we should keep betting aces on boards like this, but obviously consider folding if raised if we don’t have good supporting cards to go all-in with.
This doesn’t mean a 1 year old child in a tuxedo, but instead refers to hands with an ace and other low cards where the ace is suited. Suited babies have a lot of potential to win low pots and scoop pots by either hitting a flush/straight, or by putting pressure on high hands to fold the winner through aggressive betting.
Every A2 suited hand is playable, the strongest of course being AA23ds and the weakest being something like A279. How we approach playing both these hands varies considerably however. With AA23 we can bet and raise with impunity from any position, it matters not whether we get 1 caller or 8, our hand is easy to play post flop because of its strength.
With a hand such as A279 our value comes from getting other players into the pot who will have worse low draws. So limping from early position to encourage players with A3/A4 to also come into the pot, or putting in a small raise from the button so we build the pot and don’t fold out any of the worse draws.
Where the suited baby comes into its own is on flops where it hits a low/low draw and a nut flush draw. To show how strong this hand is, let’s look at a few examples.
board , we have , our opponent holds . So here this is usually a poker players worse nightmare, being up against top set. Typically for Hold’em players, this is when you have the least equity. For the suited baby however, this is not the case. Running the hand through an equity calculator shows the result:
||Hi Win||Hi Loss||Lo Win
Pretty crazy stuff for the beginner to take in, we’re 55/45 favorite with our drawing hand over a player with top set. Unlike real life, these babies can be pretty strong. From this we learn that when we flop a nut low draw and a nut flush draw, we should play it as if we hold the nuts. For all intents and purposes, we do have the nuts.
Where top set would have an advantage over us would be if top set was accompanied with a nut low draw, in this case the outcome would be 38.5/61.5 in favour of top set. Still not a terrible situation, and definitely a worst case scenario. What can be deduced from all of this is that suited babies, when they flop well drawing to the nuts, are very easy to play and you can never get the money in badly whether you have one opponent or several.
Pair plus low hands are often referred to as “Plan B” hands. AA23, KK23, QQA4 are all examples of this, where we have a big pair that might be good for the high pot, but if someone else has better, then we have a chance at the low half of the pot. The strongest of these hands is of course AA23; it takes a perfect four cards to dominate AA23 on most boards. On a flop of K65, our equity against KKA2 would be 30%, and this is often the worst it can be when holding a live low draw. So it’s difficult to get money into the pot drawing dead with pair + low hands. Usually one of our draws, either to the high or low, will be live, if not both. These are often hands that play well heads up, but if there is a multi-way pot, we should be looking to have the nuts either high or low.
An example of this would be AQQ2, we have a big pair and a nut low draw on a J76 flop. When we bet this flop, we’re hoping someone else with A2 calls (or even better A3!), as for them to be beating us for high, they need a perfect two cards such as J6 or 77.
If the flop is multi-way and the turn comes a 5, this all changes. Now we’re likely no good for high, as there are straights showing, plus anyone can have 2 pair or better. We still hold nut low however and might be winning half a pot, or maybe we’re getting quartered. What we can do however is put pressure on the high hands by betting our nut low very aggressively. We may get a hand such as 77 fearing a straight to fold on a J765 board and end up quartering another player holding AKJ2.
Nut low hands with a big pair can be played very aggressively on scary boards, we can scoop by forcing a vulnerable high hand to fold 2 pair or a set on a straight or flushing board. If we get called we might find ourselves against another nut low where we quarter the other player due to him having no high hand.
A third situation would be to end up trapping a third player in the pot who has a medium strength low and high hand, such as A3 for low and a 7 high flush draw. It’s important to recognise when these situations happen as a lot of your profits will come from keeping the third player in the pot, and not forcing him out by having a pot bet and pot raise before the action gets to him.
When playing for low, sometimes you will end up making an accidental high hand, the most significant of these being a wheel, ace through five. On such occasions your hand actually loses pay-off value. On a 245 board, there are very few players who will call a pot bet and muck their hand if you hold A3. Your opponents will be likely to hold another A3 or 36 as it is a really obvious board for someone to hold a straight. Even a set can fold quite easily, the only hand that could frequently call would be A6 if he thinks you have 36 (in which case A6 is the best low), so A3 only wins money by betting quite small in this spot for value.
A big hand here is to hold a 6 along with our wheel low. A 345 board holding A26x will see us winning 3/4th’s of the pot against another A2 or 26. Likewise AK64 in hand on a 235 board has the same desired effect. The 6 with wheel cards improves our high hand and allows us to quarter another player with either high or low. We can bet these hands aggressively as no player with a straight will ever fold to a pot bet at small stakes. Going back to the main part of winning PLO, it’s not about having the nuts, but having the nuts on a board where players will pay you off with worse. If you don’t get called when you bet then it doesn’t matter what your hand is, a bluff would have been just as successful in the same spot.
High Only Hands
A high only hand is a hand where there is no potential at all for low, therefore we have no ‘Plan B’ with our hand, and have to just focus on winning the whole pot and hoping a low doesn’t hit. However there are lots of poor ‘high only hands’ that a beginner may confuse for a good starting hand because they are playable in PLO.
Strong high only hands include AA through QQ with coordinated side cards i.e. KKQJ, and also broadway wraps with flush draws as in AKQT with a suited ace. Again, we are looking at hands where we can scoop the pot, and also focusing on the fact that we need nut draws or to hit the nuts to bet our hand and get paid off, we realise that playing rundowns in PLO Hi/Lo isn’t very smart.
It’s a Trap!
Let’s take a rundown hand such as T987, this is an awful hand in PLO Hi/Lo. For us to bet the pot on multiple streets we need to hit the nuts, or have a strong draw to the nuts that will scoop the pot a significant percentage of the time by the river. For T987 this would involve hitting a straight, since our flush draws are weak. Every nut straight has 3 low cards on the board, 876 on the board for T9 going down to 654 on the board for 78. So immediately we can see that we are never scooping the pot in such a situation, we are only going to be winning half a pot. As mentioned in the opening comments and reiterated throughout, we are playing for a scoop of the pot, not half, therefore this hand is unplayable.
That’s not all however; there are multiple other issues that cause problems for our hand.
Firstly we will find ourselves in spots where we are getting freerolled by a low hand with some kind of flush or full house redraw. In this situation we will be putting 50% of all the chips into the pot, and our return on investment will be either 50% or 0%, clearly a bad thing.
Secondly we may be forced to fold the best high hand (or stack off with the worst hand should a flush hit or the board pair). This typically happens when heads up, and a player drawing to the low half of the pot hits their low, then realises he can now win the whole pot by betting big and forces out an obvious high hand that may be vulnerable.
Thirdly we might hit a bad flop that looks like a good flop for our hand, such as T987 on a flop of TT5. This looks like a great flop after hitting trips, but what happens in a spot like this is we either bet and take it down, because the flop is so dry there is no value in a call, or we get raised by another player with the other ten. Since most players starting cards are going to be hands like A2, A3 and AK etc, when we get raised we can expect to be in a bad spots versus a hand like A36T. We win a small pot or lose a big pot, not a good result long term.
Our equity is further reduced on a TT5 board by the times when we do get lucky and hit our full house, our opponent will often pick up a low draw to win half of the pot anyway.
Because high only hands get tough to play when low cards hit, such as AKQT on a T34T6 board, what becomes relevant in these spots is that we have position. When ahead, we will get more money into the pot, and when scary cards hit, we will get opportunities on occasion to take free cards, where we would otherwise be put to a tough decision by a low hand for our entire stack. We can also get off our hand cheaply in position as PLO Hi/Lo is not a game where bluffing out of position is an often used strategy. Typically a player needs half the pot locked up before they will consider bluffing at the other half.
Rundown hands aren’t just exclusively bad when high, they are also dangerous when played with low cards. Some poker articles on PLO Hi/Lo tell you to play “any 3 wheel cards preflop”. This is a dangerous strategy when those 3 wheel cards don’t include an ace.
A good example of this is 2456. We limp pre-flop and see a multi-way flop that comes . We have flopped the third best low, being beaten by A2 and A4 and we also have a weak draw to the high pot (though it looks like a good draw to an inexperienced player). To guarantee winning the high pot we have to hit a non heart 4, 5 or 6 and then avoid the board pairing, a flush hitting, or the river bringing a higher straight. Going back again to the main point of the article, we need to play hands we can confidently bet when ahead. With all the scare cards that may hit, this will rarely be the case, therefore the hand should be folded preflop.
Final list of playable starting hands
- All pocket aces apart from trip aces with a worse low than A4
- All suited babies, the worst being A567 with a suited ace from late position.
- Pair + low hands. A2 or A3 with any pocket pair. KK, QQ, JJ or TT with A4 or better for low (includes 23)
- High only hands. KKQQ, KKQJ, AKQJ, AQJJ etc. Hands where you can play “fit or fold” on the flop and that low draws will not hit so often when you make a straight (T9 in hand needs 3 low cards to make a nut straight therefore is bad for high)
The same rules apply in all poker games, the list is flexible depending on opponents and position. Tighten up from early position, loosen up from late, and raise more marginal hands if opponents are too tight.
In this article, you've learned about the categories of playable starting hands in PLO Hi/Lo and seen what kind of problems can arise.
In part 3 we shall look at flop play and common cheap mistakes made with low draws that may turn into expensive mistakes by the river.
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