The Essence of Split-Pot Poker Games

By Lou Krieger | March 10, 2010

Split-pot games are different by nature than games like Texas hold’em, where the high hand is usually the only winner. Whenever the pot is split in hold’em, it’s because two or more identical high hands were made incidentally, and not by strategic design.

Things are different in Omaha/8 and in 7-stud/8, where someone always makes a high hand, but a low hand can win half the pot too, as long as it qualifies for the low side of the pot.

This arrangement – splitting a pot between two players – changes the basic nature of the relationship between the cost of betting and the portion of the pot that’s likely to be won.

We’ll use Omaha/8 to illustrate our points. As long as the flop doesn’t contain three cards with the rank of nine through king (remember, an ace counts as both a high and low card), there’s a chance that the best high hand will have to split the pot with the best low hand, and it’s a foregone conclusion that anyone with a one-way low hand will have to split the pot with a high hand.

Why Scooping is Twice as Good as Splitting

If you are playing in a Texas hold’em game, where presumably there’ll be only one winner, and you have two opponents, you figure to earn two dollars in profit for every dollar you have to invest to win the pot.

You bet a dollar. Joe and Tom call a dollar each. If you win, you get three dollars. One dollar is your investment; the other two dollars represent the profit you made by winning. The objective of split pot games is to scoop the entire pot, not to split it. If you follow the money, the reason for this objective becomes crystal clear.

Now, instead of playing hold’em, imagine you’re playing Omaha/8 against the same two opponents. You bet a dollar and are called by Joe and Tom. That same three dollars comprises the pot. But if you win the high side of the pot and Joe takes the low end, you’ll each come away with a dollar-and-a-half. One dollar represents your investment and the remaining fifty cents is your profit.

The cost to call was identical – a dollar each time – but the return on your investment was substantially less. In this case, you earned fifty cents on your dollar. In the hold’em game, your profit was two dollars – four times as much!

Suppose you had five opponents. In the hold’em game, you’d invest that same dollar and if you won after everyone called, you’d walk away with a total of six dollars, of which five was pure profit.

If it was a split-pot game and you captured half of it, your cost would still be a dollar but you’d walk away with three dollars whenever you won the pot. Two of those dollars would be the return on your investment.

The Cost to Play and Your Return on Investment

It’s clear that the relationship between the cost to play a pot and your return on investment for winning argues strongly for trying to win the entire pot rather than playing poker hands that result in having to share the spoils with a neighbor.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t ever play hands that have a shot at winning only half the pot. Far from it. Profit is profit. But your big winnings in split-pot games will come when you’re able to win a hand in both directions and scoop the entire pot – low as well as high – or win with a high hand when you have numerous opponents chasing a low draw that never pans out.

If you have enough opponents, splitting the pot is profitable, and you can and should play some one-way hands.

But my point is to make it crystal clear that your orientation and mind set in any split-pot game is to be greedy and scoop the entire thing.

The mathematical relationship between your investment and potential reward supports this approach. Regardless of whether you’re playing a one-winner game, such as Texas hold’em, or a split-pot game like Omaha/8, your investment costs are the same.

But in a split pot game, your rewards are reduced substantially any time you decide to play for only half the pot.

As a general rule, if you only have a shot a winning half the pot, trying to win the low end offers better value than going just for the high side. Why? Because it is easier to catch a card that will make your nut low than to catch a card for the nut high. As an added bonus, low hands can become high hands a lot more readily than high hands can go low.

Here are some examples. Suppose you hold A-2 in an Omaha/8 game with a board containing two non-counterfitting low cards and one high card, but no straight draws. You have 12 outs to make your nut low.

You hold the Ac-Kc and the flop shows 2 or 3 low cards with two clubs. You have 9 outs, some of which make the low or can even improve a low hand you’ve already made.

It’s not quite the same when you’re drawing for the best high hand. Suppose you hold T-9 and the flop is 8-7-2, all of different suits. You have 8 outs that can improve your holding to a straight, and in all liklihood you’ll have to split the pot with a low hand even if you complete your hand.

Suppose you have 8-8 and the flop is 8-7-3. Now you have 10 outs for the likely high winner if the turn is lower than an 8, and only 1 out for the nut high.

If you have 9-8 in your hand and the flop is 9-8-2, you have 4 outs if no card higher than a 9 comes on the turn.

Guideline: Look for a return of 4-to-1 or better on one-way draws, and avoid falling into the self-deceptive trap of using implied odds to justify making these kind of plays. Implied odds really only factor into two-way and scoop hands.

Say you are playing $10-$20 Omaha/8 and there is $80 in the pot. If there is a $20 bet and you call and scoop, you will get 5-to-1 on your call, but if you can only split, then you are only getting 2.5-to-1 on the cost of your call.

There’s a reason why split-pot games are predicated on scoops instead of split pots, and that reason is the unbalanced relationship between the return on investment when you scoop and the return you’ll earn when you split the pot. While the cost to call is the same regardless of whether you’re trying to scoop or hoping for a split pot, the return earned on a scooped pot is much more favorable.

By Lou Krieger

The author of many best-selling poker books, including “Hold’em Excellence” and “Poker for Dummies”. A true ambassador of the game and one of poker’s greatest ever teachers.


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