Omaha hold 'em (or Omaha holdem or simply Omaha) is a community card poker game ("flop game") similar to Texas hold 'em, where each player is dealt four cards and must make his best hand using exactly two of them, plus exactly three of the five community cards.
In North American casinos, the unadorned term "Omaha" typically refers to the high-low split variant played with fixed limits called "Omaha eight-or-better", while the original game is more commonly known as "Omaha high-only". In Europe, "Omaha" still typically refers to the high version of the game, usually played pot limit (sometimes abbreviated as "PLO"). Pot-limit and no-limit Omaha eight-or-better can be found in some casinos and online, though no-limit is more rare.
It is often said that Omaha is a game of the 'nuts', i.e. the best possible high or low hand, because it frequently takes "the nuts" to win a showdown.
The basic differences between Omaha and Texas hold 'em are these: first, each player is dealt four cards to his private hand instead of two. The betting rounds and layout of community cards are identical. At showdown, each player's hand is the best five-card hand he can make from exactly three of the five cards on the board, plus exactly two of his own cards. Unlike Texas hold 'em, a player cannot play only one of his cards with four of the board, nor can he play the board, nor play three from his hand and two from the board, or any other combination. Each player must play exactly two of his own cards with exactly three of the community cards.
Some specific things to notice about Omaha hands are:
- As in Texas hold 'em, three or more suited cards on the board makes a flush possible, but unlike that game a player always needs two of that suit in his hand to play a flush. For example, with a board of K♠ 9♠ Q♠ Q♥ 5♠, a player with A♠ 2♥ 4♥ 5♣ cannot play a flush using his ace as he could in Texas hold 'em; he must play two cards from his hand and only three from the board. A player with 2♠ 3♠ K♦ Q♦ can play the spade flush.
- Two pair on the board does not make a full house for anyone with a single matching card as it does in Texas hold 'em. For example, with a board of J♠ J♦ 9♦ 5♥ 9♣, a hand of A♠ 2♠ J♥ K♦ cannot play a full house; he can only use his A-J to play J♠ J♥ J♦ A♠ 9♣, since must play only three of the board cards. A player with 2♣ 5♣ 9♠ 10♠ can use his 9-5 to play the full house 9♠ 9♣ 9♦ 5♥ 5♣.
- Likewise, with trips on the board, a player must have a pair in his hand to make a full house. For example, with a board of J♠ J♦ A♦ J♥ K♣, a player with A♠ 2♠ 3♥ K♦ does not have a full house, he only has three Jacks with an Ace-King kicker, and will lose to a player with only a pair of deuces. This is probably the most frequently misread hand in Omaha. (Naturally, a person with the fourth jack in his hand can make quads because any other card in his hand can act as the fifth card, or "kicker").
In high-low split, each player, using these rules, thus makes a separate five-card high hand and five-card ace-to-five low hand (eight-high or lower to qualify), and the pot is split between the high and low (which may be the same player). To qualify for low, a player must be able to play an 8-7-6-5-4 or lower (this is why it is called "eight-or-better", or simply "Omaha/8"). A few casinos play with a 9-low qualifier instead, but this is rare. Each player can play any two of his four hole cards to make his high hand, and any two of his four hole cards to make his low hand.
The brief explanation above belies the complexity of the game, so a number of examples will be useful here to clarify it. The table below shows a five-card board of community cards at the end of play, and then lists for each player the initial private four-card hand dealt to him or her, and the best five-card high hand and low hand each player can play on showdown:
|Board: 2♠ 5♣ 10♥ 7♦ 8♣|
|Alan||A♠ 4♠ 5♥ K♣||5♥ 5♣ A♠ 10♥ 8♣||7♦ 5♣ 4♠ 2♠ A♠|
|Brenda||A♥ 3♥ 10♠ 10♣||10♠ 10♣ 10♥ 8♣ 7♦||7♦ 5♣ 3♥ 2♠ A♥|
|Chuck||7♣ 9♣ J♠ Q♠||J♠ 10♥ 9♣ 8♣ 7♦||
|Daniel||4♥ 6♥ K♠ K♦||8♣ 7♦ 6♥ 5♣ 4♥||7♦ 6♥ 5♣ 4♥ 2♠|
|Emily||A♦ 3♦ 6♦ 9♥||9♥ 8♣ 7♦ 6♦ 5♣||7♦ 5♣ 3♦ 2♠ A♦|
In the deal above, Chuck wins the high-hand half of the pot with his J-high straight, and Brenda and Emily split the low half (getting a quarter of the pot each) with 7-5-3-2-A.
Some specific things to notice about Omaha eight-or-better hands are:
- In order for anyone to qualify low, there must be at least three cards of differing ranks 8 or below on the board. For example, a board of K-8-J-7-5 makes low possible (the best low hand would be A-2, followed by A-3, 2-3, etc.) A board of K-8-J-8-5, however, cannot make any qualifying low (the best low hand possible would be J-8-5-2-A, which doesn't qualify). Statistically, around 60% of the time a low hand is possible.
- Low hands often tie, and high straights occasionally tie as well. It is possible to win as little as a 14th of a pot (though this is extraordinarily rare). Winning a quarter of the pot is quite common, and is called "getting quartered". One dangerous aspect of playing for the low pot is the concept of 'counterfeiting'. To illustrate, if a player has, for example, 2-3 and two other cards in his hand and the flop is A-6-7, that player has flopped the 'nut low'. However, if either a 2 or a 3 hit the board on the turn or the river, the hand is 'counterfeited' and the nut low hand is lost (the player still has a much weaker low hand however). This is why there is significant extra value in possessing the 'protected' nut low. To illustrate this, if the player has 2-3-4 in his hand his low is protected, i.e. if a 2 or 3 hits the board he still has the lowest possible hand. To lose the nut low in this case both a 2 and a 3 would have to hit the board on the turn and the river, an unlikely possibility. For similar reasons it is significantly better to possess the protected nut low draw over the low draw. For example, this could be having A-2-3 with a flop of 7-8-9-Q; any low card below 7 on the turn or river gives the player the best low.
- When four or five low cards appear on the board, it can become very difficult to read the low hands properly. For example with a board of 2♦ 6♥ A♣ 5♣ 8♠, the hand 2♥ 4♠ 5♠ K♦ is playing a 6-5-4-2-A (either his 2-4 with the board's A-5-6, or his 4-5 with the board's A-2-6--either way makes the same hand). In this situation he is often said to be playing his "live" 4, that is, his 4, plus some other low card that matches the board but still makes a low because the one on the board isn't needed. A player with 3♠ 5♠ 10♥ J♦ is playing a "live" 3, for a low of 6-5-3-2-A, which makes a better low. However, a player with 3♣ 7♦ Q♦ Q♠ can only play 7-5-3-2-A low; even though he has a "live" 3, he must play two low cards from his hand, and so he must play his 7-3, and cannot make a 6-high low hand.
- Starting hands with three or four cards of one rank are very bad. In fact, the worst possible hand in the game is 2♠ 2♣ 2♥ 2♦! Since the only possible combination of two cards from this hand is 2-2, it is impossible to make low; since no deuce remains to appear on the board, it will be impossible to make three deuces or deuces full, and anyone with any matching card to the board will make a higher pair. Likewise, starting with four cards of one suit makes it less likely that you will be able to make a flush. Starting with four disconnected cards and/or from four different suits provides no chances for straights or flushes.
- Computer models have shown that a larger percentage of Omaha starting hands are profitable compared with Texas Holdem. Nevertheless a key skill is in deciding which hands are worth playing with. The strongest possible starting hand is A-2 suited, A-3 suited, which has been proven to be the most profitable of all starting combinations. A-2-3 is also very strong, virtually guaranteeing the low pot (or a share of it) if the subsequent community cards allow a low split. Other strong hands include A-2 (suited) and A-3 (suited), although both of these, especially A-3 (which often achieves the second nut low or just a draw to one), need considerable care and experience to play well. Another playable starting hand is 2-3 (which mainly relies on an Ace hitting the board) and also 2-3-4 is quite strong. Hands where all the cards held are high (ie 9 or higher) tend to be strong. In this respect picture card pairs have the best chance of hitting the highest ranked set (which often promote to the top ranked full house or even quads) and suited Aces can be useful for giving the player confidence that he has either the nut flush or, at least, a draw to one. High connectors (especially J-10) have the best chance of making the nut straight. Hands to avoid tend to contain mainly middle ranked cards, which are of little use for any low splits and which tend to generate lower pairs and sets, weaker flushes and lower straights and can be very expensive.
- Low hand ranks from best to worst: 5432A ('the wheel'), 6432A, 6532A, 6542A, etc., 87654.
Sometimes the high-low split game is played with a 9-high qualifier instead of 8-high. It can also be played with five cards dealt to each player instead of four. In that case, the same rules for making a hand apply: exactly two from the player's hand, and exactly three from the board.
In the game of Courcheval, popular in Europe, instead of betting on the initial four cards and then flopping three community cards for the second round, the first community card is dealt before the first betting round, so that each player has four private cards and the single community card on his first bet. Then two more community cards are dealt, and play proceeds exactly as in Omaha.