World Champion Steve Badger Reveals Omaha High-Low Secrets

Steve BadgerDuring the 1999 World Series of Poker, Badger defeated 185 opponents to capture the $2500 buy-in Omaha HiLo championship. He was the only player listed by a single name on the 16 tournament result boards that decorated the walls of Binion's bingo room from April 27 to May 13. What happened? Didn't anyone know his first name was Steve? Quite the contrary. "Badger" was sufficient to describe the man who has won more Omaha High-Low tournaments than anyone in the 1990s.

For two days I watched the big guy play his favorite game, Omaha High-Low (also known as Omaha8 and Omaha-Split). He plays it very well. According to many poker professionals, he plays this increasingly popular game better than anyone in the world when it comes to tournaments.

I invite you to join me (figuratively) inside the part of Badger's brain that is dedicated to Omaha. We will examine Steve's proven, complex, and often unique strategy concepts. You will also discover him to be open, funny, and witty.

First, let's recap Badger's hard-fought victory in Event #9 when he won $186,000 and the precious gold bracelet awarded to World Series of Poker winners.

I watched Steve play for three hours on May 4. He struggled with below-average cards early on and went to the dinner break in a precarious chip position. His capacity to read players allowed him to steal a few pots and stay alive while others departed. The ability to nurse your stack through a drought is very important in tournaments. Back from the buffet, Badger kicked into gear. After 14 hours of play, 177 players had been eliminated. Steve was the chip leader. His final-table opponents were tough, including Phil Hellmuth and Ted Forrest, world-class players.

Final-table action began at 4 p.m. on May 5. Play concluded at 12:36 a.m., May 6. My "dedication" ended at midnight. Thanks to Mike Paulle's superb Internet reporting, I am able to tell you what took place. Before I left, Larry Anderson (hitting terrific river cards) and Badger had eliminated three opponents including Frankie Havard, who Badger buried with A-K-5-2 when the board came J-10-6-2-Q. Steve flopped the nut-flush draw, then hit the nut straight to scoop the pot. Anderson knocked Tom Jacobs out in sixth place. Phil Hellmuth was eliminated with a strong, double-suited holding (K-K-Q-J) when he flopped a straight (A-Q-10). However, a second ace turned, giving Dolph Arnold a full house. Anderson eliminated Arnold with a club flush. Larry took the chip lead at this point and increased his advantage by picking off Paul Scherr's all-in bluff attempt. Now there were two... Badger and Anderson. They would get to know each other very well in the next four hours as the lead changed hands many times.

An hour into two-way action, Badger won two huge pots to gain a substantial lead ($388,000). Anderson, down to $77,000, battled back by scoring three queens. He then hit sevens-full on the river. But Badger had a few aces left and played very aggressively. He regained the lead and kept the pressure on his fellow Californian. The end came (with limits at $15,000-$30,000) when Badger raised before the flop holding A-Q-9-3 (a good heads-up hand). Unexpectedly, Anderson came over the top, raising all-in. The board (4-4-2-A-2) gave the ruggedly handsome, 40-year-old Los Angeles resident aces up... enough to win.

When asked to provide a tournament synopsis, Badger said, "I just played 22 hours of Omaha high-low. Seventeen of those hours were like watching paint dry, three were even duller, but two hours were like bungee jumping from a helicopter into a vat of flaming eels." He continued (smiling), "I wish I were good at something else."

Lee Munzer: Put modesty aside and tell us about your poker accomplishments.

Steve Badger: I don't normally like to talk about this stuff but since you asked, I've won more major Omaha8 tournaments in the last five years than anybody: the WSOP, LA Poker Classic, Legends of Poker twice [now three times], the Gold Coast Open, as well as a half-dozen other second-level Omaha8 wins at the Winning of the Green, Oktoberfest, Masters of Poker, National Championship of Poker and others. I've also won the California State Lowball Championship and a half dozen other lowball or Hold'em titles. I've done well, but haven't won a major Stud8 tournament yet. That goal is on my poker 'things to do' list.

LM: How do your results compare in the different games?

Steve BadgerSB: Between 1994 and 1996, I finished in the money literally the same percentage of the time in Limit Hold'em events as opposed to Omaha8, but I won more money in Omaha. That's definitely not the case now. Limit Hold'em is only my fifth tournament choice: Omaha, Stud8, Hold'em shootouts (in shootouts you beat all the players at one table to advance to a final playoff), the hated Lowball, and finally Hold'em. Texas Hold'em is a great live game but, in my opinion, not a great tournament game. Just 'cause I'm feeling feisty I'll say this: Hold'em has a lot of short-term luck. That's why it's such a popular game. The weaker players can do better... Hold'em tournaments are more of a crapshoot luck-wise. In addition, many more players enter Hold'em events. Hold'em tournaments are not very enticing, to me anyway.

LM: What are your strengths?

SB: Focus, discipline and self-control -- especially when 'running bad'. I never go on tilt -- never. I may get frustrated or angry, but I won't let that affect how I play, not even one hand.

LM: How do you handle 'running bad'?

SB: In my subjective opinion, I have run bad often. My whole style of play has developed from an assumption that I will very likely run bad, and get flukily unlucky. I prepare for the worst, but know what to do when good stuff happens.

LM: Do you have a weakness?

SB: I don't like playing poker very much. Okay, 'don't like' may be the wrong way to put it. Poker isn't much fun for me. I don't hate it or anything, but playing is no great pleasure. Winning is a lot of fun, but that's all. You once asked me about wearing headphones while I play. I like listening to music a lot more than playing poker. I wear in-ear headphones that my neighbors can't hear, but still provide very good sound. Music helps me fight boredom at the table, and it also helps me focus on what opponents are doing at the table. What they say is seldom very important, but what they do always tells a lot. Mostly though, I'd just rather be listening to Bruce Springsteen than the usual poker gabbing. The funny thing is if I forget my Walkman, I usually start chirping like a lunatic. While that might work in my favor, it's just too nasty a thing to inflict on my opponents!

LM: Referencing the World Series, you said, "I won an important early pot when I called a fairly obvious bluff with A-J-x-x, no pair." What did you see that led you to believe the player was making a move?

SB: First of all, I always say, when no pair starts winning pots, they start coming my way! I think I'm five of six with my Omaha tournament no-pair calls (spread out over the last 18 months or so). In the WSOP instance, it was a pretty easy call. He bet the flop when it came with two low cards. He checked the big card on the turn, then he bet the pair on the river. A-Q was the nut no-pair holding, but I figured A-J was good. I've made much tougher calls with no pair in Omaha (including the final hand to win a tournament in 1998). This one was just at an important juncture early on.

LM: Our mutual friend, Daniel Negreanu, half jokingly told you, "I always knew you'd win the Omaha bracelet one day even though I don't understand how you play sometimes. The last two Omaha events you won I finished fourth and 12th and I remember you making this one play about eight times! A raise came from early position and you made it three bets with hands like A-K-9-5 (non-suited). Obviously, I'm missing something ... I'm curious to find out from you what the hell you are doing! And, why does it work so well?"

SB: (responding to Daniel) 'I made two (I think) risky plays when we were at the same table, obviously including that A-K-9-5 play against you. And I know I raised you at the Commerce with a smiliar hand. The main thing is, in both cases, I think I had the chips to play about 1 3/4 hands aggressively and correctly. I could have laid the hand down and hoped for something better to come along before taking my big blind a second time. Or I could try and play this middling hand against one person. Calling would be very wrong. The hand isn't so bad against one person in position, but it is worse three ways and out-of-position. I was just making a stand earlier than I absolutely needed to. I think that is, in general, a good thing to do in Omaha tournaments.' AK is a very strong and generally undervalued aspect of a head-up Limit Omaha High-Low hand. (See also The Secret of Omaha Tournaments.)

LM: I believe your ability to develop and deploy this type of unique strategy has enabled you to do so well. So the idea is to avoid waiting until you have only enough checks for one hand to make a move with a marginal hand. In addition, you advocate taking this stand in position.

SB: Yes, and I also suggest making this move a bit earlier in Omaha8 than you might in a Hold'em or stud tournament.

LM: Why does this type of play work better in Omaha? Don't you receive more playable hands in Omaha8 than in Hold'em for example? What am I missing?

Steve BadgerSB: This might be interesting to talk about. In my opinion, in general (depending on the texture of the actual game you are in), the more cards in your hand, the less hands you should play. So, however many hands a round you play in Hold'em, you should play less in Omaha (not counting the blinds where Omaha hands tend to be a little better value). This obviously runs counter to your thoughts, but I think Omaha8 should be played the tightest in terms of starting hands. This also defies conventional wisdom, where players say: 'It's all in the flop in Omaha'. Baloney! It's all in coming to the fight properly and adequately armed. But, that's a ring game. In tournament play, when you are short-stacked and playing against one opponent, you have a good chance to split... in addition to the possibility of scooping. That potential doesn't exist in Hold'em.

Look at that A-K-9-5 hand. I hate the nine, but this is still a hand that played (in position) against another good hand isn't going to be a big underdog. In addition, the extra raise can give you hidden perceived value. Suppose the board on the turn is 9-8-7-3. A-K-9-5 can bet that board if the opponent checks; but now suppose you are the other player with A-K-Q-4? While A-K-Q-4 is clearly a better starting hand, that player is faced with having to call two bets with no high against a reraising hand. If A-K-9-5 gets called, it's a split... not a bad thing. If the A-4 folds, A-K-9-5 scoops... even better. My point is you want to take a shot with a hand like this sooner in an Omaha8 tournament than Hold'em or Stud because of the split considerations and because you have enough chips to hurt a player who would have to make two marginal calls. Clearly, with that 9-8-7-3 board, you want to be able to bet twice into that A-4, hoping for a fold. Also, you are more likely to get a fold when you look like you aren't making a desperation play because you have more chips than what normally would be thought of as the desperation level.

LM: I've read 200-page books that didn't provide as much valuable information as you did discussing the play of A-K-9-5. This brings me to a topic you and I have discussed previously. You 'post' poker concepts and advice (as I do) over the RGP Internet newsgroup. Aren't you worried about providing information to someone who will eventually use it against you?

SB: You won't see me discuss much about how I play in a tournament, especially Omaha. Most of my contributions are geared toward helping newer players improve their game and achieve an appropriate attitude. You got me pretty involved with that A-K-9-5 hand, but I don't usually discuss specifics on the way to play. Also, the A-K-9-5 is a pretty rare, specific play, so I don't mind talking about it. Online, I'm more interested in helping people see that the way to get better is through attitude and discipline, which will lead them to discover the important things themselves. I don't want to just say something like, '4-4 is a terrible hand that should never be played in a Hold'em tournament'. For example, a recent 'poster' requested advice on the way he played a specific hand. I responded (from recollection), 'As you have implied, I think you did make several mistakes here, but what concerns me is your attitude -- during the hand and in your analysis of why you played the hand the way you did. You allowed an 'aggressive player' (who, by the way, only limped in before the flop) dictate the action. The strategy you used, and even the ones you considered in hindsight, are merely reactive. The burden of action is on those who play with reactive strategies. If you are the one reacting to what another player is doing, you are playing his/her game. Make them play your game. Adopt initiative strategies, for example, in this hand you could have reraised the flop; bet the turn; check-raised the flop; checked the flop, then bet the turn; etc. Make an opponent try to figure out what you hold, not the other way around.'"

LM: What do you gain from RGP?

Steve BadgerSB: A friend of mine believes that my RGP involvement was helpful to me in winning at the WSOP. And I think this is true, though not to the degree he thinks. It gets me thinking about my game, the psychology of my opponents, and how to exploit the basic makeup of weak players. I learn and pay attention to that stuff at the poker table too, so all RGP does is give me an organized way to think about the psychology of poker at home. More important though is I gain satisfaction in 'giving something back' to poker. I learned early on that a successful player needs to give something back to the poker community at large. Players who just leech off poker almost never succeed during hard times. They don't have the attitude for it. Anybody with some ability can win when things run good. Doing reasonably well when the kitchen sink of adversity is being thrown at you, now, that is a sign of a really good player.

LM: What separates really good tournament players from the second-tier players?

SB: Several things, but one that comes right to mind is a desire to win, as opposed to surviving. The top players almost never think in terms of 'sitting on their chips' or 'waiting for others to go broke'. Those thoughts exemplify 'second-tier' thinking.

LM: Can you tell our readers anything else that will help their game?

SB: More than starting hands, tells, or math, to be a strong, overall player the most important thing to master is your own temperament. You can get mad (or happy) at the table, but don't let it ever affect your play. Tilting one time, for one hand even, is a sign that you need to improve as a player.

Your greatest asset at a poker table -- and your greatest enemy -- is yourself.