Starting Hands (Part 1)

“For he who fights and runs away
May live to fight another day;
But he who is in battle slain
Can never rise and fight again.” – Oliver Goldsmith

The most important portion of an Omaha hand is the decision as to whether or not to play the hand. Three concepts underlie the decision: (1) Can I scoop the pot, (2) Do my cards work together and (3) Do I have multiple ways of winning.

The goal at the beginning of an Omaha hand is not to split the pot but to win all of the pot. Remember the character Gordon Gekko’s line from Wall Street: “Greed is good.” While obtaining half the pot may be all you can hope for as a hand progresses, by mostly playing hands with a chance of scooping the pot you will be a step ahead of your competitors.

It is also important that your cards work together. Here are two hands: A279  and A237. Which would you prefer to play? It’s not a close decision; the table (below) lists out the nut hands that each of these two hands can make:

A2345 (makes all A2 lows) A2345 (makes all A2 lows)
56789 A2345 (makes all A3 lows)
6789T A2345 (makes all 23 lows)
789TJ (not a nut hand) 34567 (not a nut hand – but will also have nut low)

The first hand has one way of making a wheel; the second hand has three. The first hand can make three high straights while the second hand can make only one. However, straights usually do not win in Omaha – flushes or full houses predominate (see the discussion under Suitedness below). A straight with the nut low is a good hand. Note that the first hand can make two combinations of this (A2345 & 56789) while the second hand has four combinations that have this (A2345, A2345, A2345, and 34567).

There is not much of a difference between the two hands. All I did was change the 9  to the 3 . But it makes a world of difference in the playability of the two hands: the first hand is a marginal starting hand while the second hand is a solid starting hand.

The third underlying concept is having multiple means of winning a pot. Having the nut low draw is good; having the nut low draw and the nut flush draw is better. Then if you lose one draw you still have another. Similarly, flopping the nuts is great but if you don’t have any redraws you may find yourself with a losing hand on the river. By playing hands that have a good chance of flopping the nuts or nut draws you will maximize your chances of winning pots.

Folding Is Half the Battle

When your starting hand meets the three criteria listed above, you should play the hand. When you have four random cards that do not meet the criteria, it’s an easy fold. One of my mantras in Omaha is, “When in doubt, fold.”

Most low limit Omaha players see 50% (or more) of the flops. Winning low limit Omaha players see between 10 – 15% of the flops. Be one of the winners and learn to fold.

Suitedness: It’s a Good Trait

Omaha is dominated by flushes. Why? About 53% of the time, there will be three cards of one suit on the board. Thus, having suited cards (or, better, being double-suited) is a useful addition to any Omaha hand.

But not any suited cards – if you play Omaha for any length of time you will see players staying to the river with the eight-high flush (and nothing else) losing to the nut flush or the second nut flush. Having the nut flush draw (Ax of a suit) or second nut flush draw (Kx) can make a hand playable. Having an eight-high flush draw adds little to your starting hand.

The Ace: Don’t Leave Home Without It

Do you remember the old American Express commercials? The ones that ended, “The American Express card – don’t leave home without it!” The same can be said of the Ace in any high/low game.

In order to make the nut low you must have an Ace in your hand or on the board. A pair of Aces occasionally wins high. The nut flush requires an Ace.

While there are some playable starting hands that do not include an Ace, they are few and far between (e.g., 2345, preferably suited/double-suited, is playable). You will receive an Ace as part of your starting cards about 23% of the time. One reasonable strategy is to only play hands with an Ace in them. The reality is that there are few good starting hands that do not contain an Ace.

Advanced Concept: When a backdoor flush (there is only one card of the flush suit on the flop; the turn and river are both of the flush suit) happens, a small flush frequently will win the high in an Omaha hand. While staying in a pot with just a backdoor flush is not a good idea, if you have other draws (e.g. the nut low draw) the backdoor flush outs add to the strength of your hand. For example, you hold A 2 6 K , and the flop is 5 8 Q . While you would primarily be seeing the turn and river for your nut low draw, if the diamond flush happens to hit you would have a reasonable chance of winning the high.


Take a deck of cards and deal yourself starting hands. Rate the hand as (a) solid starting hand; (b) marginal starting hand; (c) poor starting hand; and (d) dreadful starting hand. Use the criteria of (1) Cards that work together; (2) cards that can make the nut low; (3) hand with multiple ways of winning; (4) hands that contain a nut flush draw(s) and second nut flush draw(s); (5) hands that contain an Ace.

In the next lesson we will examine specific starting hands (low, high and middle cards). Until then, keep practicing. Also, you may want to observe an Omaha game and look at what hands end up being winners.

Rate each of the following hands as either (a) solid starting hand; (b) marginal starting hands; (c) poor starting hands; or (d) dreadful starting hand.

1. 62J2
2. J446
3. 7K7A
4. 4A105
5. 4QA3
6. 82610
7. Q293
8. 2K4J
9. 6354
10. A2A3


1. (c) This hand cannot make the nut low, has four cards that don’t work together, and two bad flush draws. What keeps it out of the truly dreadful category is that it does have two flush draws. Note that this hand can never make the nut full house.

2. (d) The cards are not working together, there are no flush draws, and the hand cannot make the nut low.

3. (c) While this hand has a nut flush draw, there is little else to like about the hand. You can’t make the nut low, the King and the sevens do not mesh, and sevens full is rarely a winner. Change the 7 to the 2 or 3  and this becomes a solid starting hand.

4. (b) While the 10 does not match with the 4 and 5, the other three cards are working together. This had has a nut flush draw and third and fourth nut low draws. On the negative side, there are three cards of the flush suit (diamonds) lessening the chances of making the nut flush. In order for the low to be good you need a 2 on the flop. This is a hand I’d play in late position in an unraised flop. In other situations I’d be wary with this hand.

5. (a) This hand has two flush draws (one nut), three cards to a wheel (with second nut low draw and counterfeit protection), and cards that are, in general, working together. I’d play this hand from any position in any game.

6. (c) This hand cannot make the nut low but it does have a flush draw. This hand can make some straights, so, to a degree, the cards are working together. I’d be happy to get this hand in the big blind (but I wouldn’t call a raise with it).

7. (c) This is a trap hand. In order to make the low, you must have an Ace on the board (and you have no counterfeit protection). You have a Queen-high flush draw. The nine doesn’t mesh with any of the other cards. While I’d consider throwing in a chip from the small blind with this hand, I’d be praying for a perfect flop.

8. (c) Yes, there are two cards to a wheel, but to make the nut low you need both an Ace and a three. You have a Jack-high flush draw. This is a worse hand than number 7 (above).

9. (b) / (c). This is an extremely marginal hand. The cards are all working together but you need both an Ace and a deuce in order make the nut low. Random hands will scoop the pot more than this hand. The flush draw (five-high) adds little to the hand. In late position in an unraised pot, you might consider playing the hand. I’d be happy to have this hand in a blind. I tend to throw this hand away, because it scoops pots so rarely.

10. (a) This is the absolute monster hand of Omaha. You have two nut flush draws, the nut low draw with backup, pocket Aces (so you can make the nut full house).