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An Online Draw Poker Play

I’ve been playing draw poker on one of the popular online gaming sites. The game is very different from draw poker as ever played in any cardroom anywhere. It’s a limit game, with an anteMichael WiesenbergMichael Wiesenberg made his living playing poker for 10 years before turning to a career as a writer. His books include 'Free Money: How to Win in the Cardrooms of California'; 'The Dictonary of Poker', and 'The Ultimate Casino Guide.  Check out his writings on everything online draw poker!  from each player. In that respect, the game slightly resembles the limit draw games played in Gardena until the “new games” (hold'em, stud, Omaha, and what were first known as the Asian games and then became the California games) drove out draw everywhere in the state (and, sadly, has almost—but not quite—eliminated lowball). In the on-line version, everyone gets dealt five cards, and has an option in turn to pass or fold. If someone opens, of course, the options change to fold, call, or raise. The first big difference from the brick-and-mortar cardroom games is that if no one elects to open, all players get to draw for free to their hands. The old Gardena games were also pass-and-back in (as distinguished from the bet-or-fold of blind games), but in them you took a risk when passing a hand in early position, because the pot might get passed out. Of course, the Gardena games were jacks-or-better to open. You might have a straight flush with the joker to draw to, but if you didn’t have jacks, too bad; you couldn’t open. There, too, the on-line game differs: It has no opening requirements; you can open on anything—and many players do. But since there is no risk in passing a hand, some players also sandbag a lot. The only risk they take is that the pot doesn’t get opened and they can’t trap anyone; they still get to draw to the hand and still have another chance to bet it—or pass again with yet another chance of trapping someone. Another difference: no joker in the on-line version. And another: In the Gardena version, after the draw, the betting started with whoever opened the pot. This affected strategy greatly. You could back in to draw to a flush, and if the player who opened was in a late position and drew more than one card, he would have to make a decision about whether to bet or “check to the one-card draw.” But in the on-line version, the betting after the draw always starts to the left of the button, no matter who opened. This, too, changes strategy considerably.

So, strategy differs greatly from anything I’m familiar with. I used to play a lot of no-limit draw poker, and I also played some Gardena-style double limit (first round of betting at one limit and second at twice that limit, as $2-$4 or $10-$20) and even spread limit ($4 to $40, for example). I had to throw out some of what I knew about beating those games, and improvise my own strategies. Must have worked, though, because I’ve been beating the games for almost three bets an hour. That’s not all that much in absolute terms, since I mostly play $2-$4. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to play higher, just that the “big game,” $8-$16, doesn’t get going very often. Three bets an hour is not bad, considering that hold’em players shoot for one big bet an hour in a game that has twice as many betting rounds. And it’s also not bad considering that the passed pots with everyone drawing cards considerably slow down the action. And my acquaintances from the Gardena days told me they were hard put to make even one big bet per hour in the draw games.

So, I will let you in on a secret. Those on-line draw poker games are eminently beatable. This is mainly because most of the players have no clue how to play. Apparently everyone thinks he or she knows how to play draw poker. That’s the game they see in the movies. That’s the game most common in kitchen-table home games. They’re wrong. If you don’t think you’re familiar enough with draw poker and want to ease gently into the swim, you could always start in one of the $0.25-$0.50 games.

The play of a typical hand illustrates principles that may be applicable outside of the narrow realm of on-line draw poker.

I jumped into a six-handed $2-$4. The very first hand, I was on the button with a pair of jacks. The way I normally play this hand is, if it’s passed around to me, I open. Even though many players like to pass and call with higher pairs and some players like to check-raise with big hands from early positions, in most cases, if no one has opened, my hand is best. I don’t want to give seven players a free chance to beat my hand. While it’s unlikely, everyone may fold, and then I win the $3 of antes without a struggle. In this game, everyone antes 50 cents each hand. Even if my hand is not the best, I still have a better chance of winning against one or two players than five. If, on the other hand, one of the players whose play I know to be relatively solid opens from any position, I don’t call. That’s where the big losers in these games lose the most, calling with “shorts.” “Shorts” are short pairs, that is, pairs smaller than jacks. In short-handed games, you can profitably open with lesser pairs in certain situations, but, particularly in games with six or more players, calling with shorts is highly unprofitable. Playing shorts profitably is advanced play, and poor players would save most of their losses by automatically throwing them away every time for a bet. Heads up, pair-against-pair, the higher pair is better than a 3-to-1 favorite. In a typical pot against three other players, a short pair wins maybe 15% of the time.

The player in first position opened. The next player called. Everyone else folded, and it got to me. If I just called, I could not be raised by a sandbagger. I wasn’t familiar with either of these players. I made a not-unwarranted assumption for this game. Until proven otherwise, an on-line draw player is loose and relatively clueless. I keep extensive notes, and I have lists of the tight players and the sandbaggers, plus tendencies of many players. One of the nice things about playing on-line poker is that you can have another window open into which you type notes as situations come up. I keep track of things like which players open with shorts, which ones pass and then back in to draw to them, which ones open to draw to straights and flushes, which ones never open to draw to them, which ones back in to draw to them, which ones open in early positions with small two pair, which ones don’t, which ones always keep a kicker when they have three of a kind, which ones keep a kicker when they draw to one pair, and so on.

I thought one of the two in the pot might have my pair of jacks beat, but I thought there was a good chance I had one of them beat. The second player hadn’t raised, and so likely had either one pair or a draw to a straight or flush. Even though I might be beat, I felt that I could outplay them after the draw, so I called. This put $9, four-and-a-half small bets, in the pot. The first player drew one card, the second two, and I took three to my pair.

I made up my mind before the after-the-draw betting what I would do in all scenarios, based on what I caught and what the others did.

If I didn’t improve and either player bet, I would fold; if it was checked to me, I would just show down my two jacks and hope for the best.

If I made two pair and the first player bet and the second folded, I would call. This would be for two reasons. One is that a lot of players in these games open with two pair and then bet the hand unimproved after the draw. The other is that some players draw to straights and flushes and bet even if they don’t make the hand. So my two pair might be the best if the other player was betting two pair, and I might pick off a bluff. If the first bet and the second either called or raised, I would fold. If the first checked and the second bet, I would fold. If neither bet, neither would I, and again hope for the best. My reasoning at this point was that the first had two pair and the second was drawing to a pair with an ace kicker. Some players don’t bet the hand even when they make the two pair they’re trying to make, and the first player might have a better two pair, so I wouldn’t bet two pair if passed to. Against only one player, I probably would bet with two pair if passed to, but against two players, I would play it safe. A slight possibility also existed that the second had small trips and was either afraid to raise with the hand (but not afraid to call a raise), or was hoping to lull someone with two pair behind into raising. In any case, a bet from the first player and a call from the second would tell me that, while I might have the first player beat, I would not have the second beat with jacks up. And a bet from the second would tell me the same.

If I made trips and the first player bet and the second folded or called, I would call. If the first bet and the second raised, I would fold. If the first checked and the second bet, I would raise. My reasoning on the second decision is that if a one-card draw bets and a two-card draw raises, the two-card draw has to have made a complete hand. I couldn’t call with trips. Even if the two-card draw didn’t have a complete hand, I might be looking at a reraise if the one-card draw made his hand. Might the two-card draw raise with worse than my hand (three jacks)? Possibly, but unlikely. If the two-card draw didn’t raise before the draw, he was probably not going to raise after with worse than a complete hand. The one-card draw might be betting small two pair; a lot of the on-line draw players do that. It doesn’t make sense, though; once in awhile someone will call them with one pair hoping they missed, but much more likely they’ll call with a better two pair or higher. Nonetheless, though, enough on-line players bet their unimproved two pair that a call has positive expectation, which is why I would call with trips if the first player bet and the second folded or called, and why I would call with two pair if the first player bet and the second folded. In the case of a raise by the second player, though, while the one-card draw might be betting a missed draw (or unimproved two pair), the two-card draw couldn’t know that and wouldn’t raise with trips or two pair. Once the one-card draw checked, though, and the two-card draw bet, even though I didn’t know whether he started with small trips, or, more likely, made aces-up, I wouldn’t care. I would raise, because three jacks beats both possibilities. Now, if the one-card draw was slow-playing, I would be in trouble. But that would not be likely. There had been no predraw raising, thus not indicating strength that would be likely to bet if checked into so the first player could then raise. Yes, some players do frequently pass big hands after the draw, but most are straightforward. I would be taking a chance raising with three jacks, but not a big one. And, yes, the two-card draw could have made a big hand, but that would also not be likely.

So here’s what happened: I made three jacks. And remember, I already knew what I was going to do. The first player passed, the next player bet, and I raised. The first player immediately folded, leading me to think he had been drawing to a straight or flush—and that was a mistake, by the way, unless it was a draw to a straight flush or an ace flush. You shouldn’t draw to a straight or flush in a limit draw game played without the joker unless you already have pot odds of 4-to-1. You can’t know that when you open with the hand in early position. There are no implied odds, because you don’t know how many players will be in the pot and whether you’re likely to get paid off after the draw. You can make an exception with something like a draw to a straight flush, or to an ace-king flush, because of the extra outs, since you can pair the ace or king and possibly win with the high pair. Anyway, the second player thought awhile, and finally called with two pair, aces and nines. He had drawn to a pair of nines with an ace kicker, hit his kicker, and bet, thinking he had the first player beat and that a three-card draw behind him wasn’t likely to make better than that. He hadn’t counted on a raise behind him. My initial small bet netted me more than seven times my investment.

My starting pair of jacks also had a third possibility. If I had made a five-card hand (full house or quads), I would just cap any post-draw betting if it came to that.

In all betting scenarios, had the second player drawn one card, I would just have called with my three jacks. I would have had a better chance of winning than the odds against me, because some players habitually draw one to trips, without raising one player before the draw, while others don’t raise with two pair but do bet them after. Still others bluff in that situation, when they are second to draw one card after the first one-card draw passes. A raise, though, would be too dangerous against two one-card draws. Of course, if passed to, I would bet.

Another manifestation of my outplaying the others after the draw is what they would do compared with what I would do in some of the aforementioned situations. If they made two pair and the first bet and the second called, or if the first checked and the second bet, they would call (while I would fold). If they made trips and the first bet and the second raised, they would call (while I would again fold). They would sometimes get trapped for three or four bets that way. If the first checked and the second bet, they would just call (while I would raise), fearful of the one-card draw (even though the one-card draw passed) and fearful the second had trips all along better than theirs. Yes, they lose less than I in those situations in which they’re beat, but I make more than enough in all the other situations to pay for those few times. The second player made a very big mistake calling the initial bet and then drawing to a pair of nines with a kicker. When I called, my jacks had a reasonable chance of being second-best and maybe even best of the three hands. But with four players to act behind him, the holder of the nines did not have that chance. And he could hit his kicker and lose two big bets, just as he did.

Had either the opener or the caller been one of the solid players or sandbaggers listed in my notes, by the way, I would never have called the first bet. But I didn’t know the two, and I don’t lose a lot of money assuming on-line draw poker players are live until I know better.

This article originally appeared in Card Player Magazine.  © 2006 Michael Wiesenberg.

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