Mastering Hi-Lo poker

August 28, 2007 12:54 AM
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One of the attractions of playing poker over other casino games (especially slots) is the element of skill. In fact, currently in Washington, D.C., some of our legislators are using the skill component of poker as a justification for changing the laws governing online poker.

Because skill plays a role, players can improve their game, perhaps even master it and succeed in a competitive environment.

Of course, some people try to avoid measuring their aptitude or skill for fear of inadequacy or refrain from mental effort just to escape reality. However, the rewards from winning strategy games such as poker are more than monetary.

Training the mind to analyze, building self-confidence, gaining insight into the human condition, and knowing your returns are the result of accomplishment rather than cosmic whim, all contribute to the mystique and attraction of poker.

And just as there are people who cannot relate to poker, some poker players cannot understand the allure of high-low games, such as Omaha Hi-Lo and Stud Hi-Lo. But truth be told, these games actually take more skill, thus giving the astute player even more advantage.

Beginning high-low players appreciate being able to play in more pots and still have a hand which is live in at least one direction but players more interested in monetary returns find fewer big wins in high-low games.

What are the pluses and minuses for high-low games? Is there a particular characteristic that indicates whether a person is suited to the style of high-low games?

One good reason to investigate high-low games is that skilled players have a bigger advantage over weaker opponents than in one-way poker. Novices often look for reasons to play rather than selecting quality starts and the high-low format offers these players more opportunities to get involved.

That translates into extra money in the average pot, which means better average returns for the winner. The learning curve to become a good high-low player is steeper than in simpler games, making the strong player a favorite for a longer period of time in a regular game.

Yet, the illusion that a player has attained a higher level is such that many players think they are better than they really are. Improving players may win more pots they start but still do not cash out ahead. There is more information available in high-low games and weaker players settle into readable styles.

On the minus side, analyzing opponents’ hands in high-low split is more complex, which sometimes requires more investment before decisions can be finalized. Winning is usually a slow and steady process rather than hit and run. It is much more difficult to run over a high-low split table because there are fewer hands which are truly dominant and because players have more reason to stay in and draw cards.

Pots are usually multi-way rather than heads up which dissipates the energy of players who like to move players around. Players who get behind find it hard to come back quickly, often becoming frustrated which leads to poor play (a minus for the loser but a plus for a good player at the table). Higher limit split games are not as easy to move up to because the style of play is almost the opposite of the lower limits.

Perhaps the most useful attribute a good high-low player needs is patience. A player willing to wait for hands in low limit split games will usually make money. Along with patience is recognizing when a hand has lost value. More money is lost by playing when the pot odds are insufficient than in any other circumstance.

Since a good player must understand quarter, half, three-quarter and full pot outs and their probabilities, mathematical skill is essential to the rapid growth of a split player.

Reading players is another element at which good high-low players excel. Because a player might only be betting a one-way hand, stealing the other half of the pot can be profitable if used judiciously. And one side benefit from this type of action is that weaker players, when looking at the inferior quality of what wins the other side of the pot, might be tempted to steal or call in the wrong situations.

Good player reading is made up of several components: Understanding the motivations of players, watching for body giveaways of strength or weakness, linking the abilities and tendencies of those players to the likely holdings, reviewing the betting action to verify consistency with other clues, and anticipating reactions to future possibilities. Last, but not least, a good split player must understand that winning more pots is not the secret to winning money. Hands that cannot sweep, even though they may vie for a portion of the pot, should not warrant serious investment. Players who cannot grasp this concept are forever doomed to mediocrity.