Reading The Board In Holdem & Omaha High
Reading the board quickly and accurately is an important skill for both players and dealers. It is the process of looking at the community cards and determining the following information:
- What hands are possible on the current board
- What draws are possible (assuming there are cards to come)
- Where a given set of hole cards sits into the range of possible hands, or how two hands compare
Reading the board correctly is not a particularly difficult task if done correctly, but it requires practice and it’s easy to make mistakes if you do it wrong. The key concept is that you analyze the board first, and only then look at how specific hands fit into it. Starting with the hole cards and then looking at the board leads to errors. Since this is exactly the way most novices approach reading the board, they inevitably make those errors.
Looking For Hands in Reverse Order
With one minor exception, it’s easiest to look for possible hands in reverse order of strength, that is look for the strongest hands first. This is accomplished by looking for the following things in order: Ranks, Suits, Runs.
Multiple Cards of the Same Rank
Any time the board is paired, it’s possible to have four of a kind or full house hands. Without at least a pair on board, these hands are impossible. As such, paired boards produce much stronger hands than unpaired boards, especially in Omaha.
When there are two pairs on board, full houses and quads are still possible, but it’s now possible to make a full house with only one hole card in holdem. Omaha still requires that you use two. It’s worth noting that in holdem with a board like AA77 it’s very easy to make either 7’s full or A’s full using only one hole card. As such, the 7’s full hand is not nearly as strong as it appears.
When there are three cards of the same rank on the board, there exists the possibility of 1-card full houses and quads in holdem, and under-full houses made using a pocket pair. A full house on board is much like trips on board - one card quads are still possible, as are higher one card or pocket pair full houses depending on the ranks involved. One tricky situation to note is when you have a board like QQ777, hole cards of AA make a higher full house, but it’s deceptively weak because the 3 remaining Q as well as the remaining 7 make an even stronger hand using only 1 card. However, the AA would be somewhat stronger on Omaha since a lone queen would not be enough to beat it.
When there are quads on board, it’s impossible to make any other hand in holdem. The only distinction between hands is the highest sidecard they can provide. Of course a board of quads plus an A (or K for quad As) has the nuts on board and can’t be improved upon. In Omaha, you can’t play all 4 cards from quads on board, so it’s essentially trips on board plus a blank card. Furthermore, you know no more cards of that rank are outstanding, which substantially reduces the possible full houses. As such an under-full houses made with pocket pairs or that only play 2 from the quad rank can be deceptively strong.
In terms of draws, there’s always a possible draw to a full house or quads on an unpaired board - the board just has to pair. Since this draw is omnipresent in both holdem and Omaha, it’s usually not discussed as a specific feature of the board. It becomes relevant however when betting indicated someone has a large made hand on an unpaired flop, and the turn brings a straight or flush and a second players indicates they made their draw. Then it’s somewhat likely that a paired board on the river, if it comes, will improve a two pair or trips that were best on the flop past the straight or flush by making a full house or quads. This is why players often ask for the dealer to pair the board after a scary turn card falls.
The suits of cards on board will determine whether flushes are possible. When the board is rainbow (that is, only one card of a given suit) it’s impossible to have a flush or one-street flush draw. By extension if cards of all 4 ranks are present on 4th street, no flush is going to be possible that hand since there is no 6th street.
When the board has two cards of the same suit or 2 cards each from two suits, no flush is possible but there is a flush draw (or 2) if there are cards to come.
When there are three cards of a suit on the board, a flush is possible and one-card flush draws are possible in holdem.
When there are 4 of a suit on the board, 1 card flushes are possible in holdem but not Omaha. With 5 of a suit on the board, it plays as a flush in holdem and higher flushes are possible by playing only one card. 5 of a suit, like 4 of a suit, does not have any effect in Omaha.
Runs of nearby cards create the possibility of straights or straight draws. To figure out how close a group of 2, 3, 4, or 5 cards are to each other, simply take the rank of the highest card (converting J to 11, Q to 12 etc.) and subtract the rank of the lowest card in the run. If the difference is 4 or less, that run can be part of a straight or straight draw. be aware that an A can play low, as a “1″, for the purposes of making straights in all forms of high poker so there may be a run of low cards formed in that way.
A run of 2 cards within 4 creates a possible straight draw. If they are within 3 (or closer), that straight draw may be an inside draw but if they are 4 apart it has to be a gut shot draw. Each step closer beyond 3 adds another 8 out straight draw. So 2 cards 3 apart have 1, 2 apart have 2, and 1 apart have 3.
A run of 3 cards within 4 creates a possible straight, 3 within 3 creates 2 possible straights, and 3 within 2 creates 3 possible straights.
A run of 4 cards within 4 creates the possibility of a one card straight in holdem but they can’t all play in Omaha.
A run of 5 cards within 4 is a straight on the board in holdem but again they can’t all play in Omaha.
An interesting aside is that sometimes there is more than one possible run on the board. This can create circumstances where two gutshot straight draws add up to a 8-out draw that behaves much like an inside straight draw. For example, a board of AJ8 has two groups exactly 3 apart (AJ and J8). As such, each group by itself creates at least one 8-out straight draw (KQ and T9 would be the hole cards). But there’s another 8-out draw, QT, that uses a gutshot draw from each group. As a general rule, any time you have two groups that share one card, and each the sum of the distances of the groups is 6 or less, there will always be these “double bellybuster” straight draws.
Once you’ve looked for suits and runs, if you find both it may be that a straight flush or draw to one is also present. If the cards from the group are the same cards that are suited, this is case.
Stuff That’s Always There on Unpaired Boards
Certain types of hands are possible with any board. Pairs, two pairs, and sets of trips are possible on any unpaired board. And of course it’s always possible to hold unpaired junk in the hole on such a board.
Fitting in Your Hand
Once you know what hands are possible, it’s fairly easy to fit the hand you actually hold into the picture - it will simply be one of the hands you saw when reading the board. The key is to determine what’s possible, and then what you’ve got. Do it the other way around, and it’s very easy to stop after figuring out just what you’ve got. They you’ll be surprised by a hand someone else holds that you didn’t even realize was possible.
Practice Makes Perfect
Board reading is a skill that requires practice to get good at and stay fast. Beginners especially need lots of practice to ensure that they don’t miss possible hands. The easiest way to practice is simply to deal yourself boards of between 3 and 5 cards off a deck, and then list out from strongest to weakest what made hands and draws are possible. Once you’ve listed off the possible hands and draws, you can deal yourself a set of hole cards and figure out what you’ve got. By NOT dealing yourself any hole cards initially, you’ll be forced to look at what’s possible, not what you have. With practice, this will become old hat.
This article is part of Project Cash Game No Limit Holdem - You can find more great strategy articles there.
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