A Guide to the WSOP Dealer’s Choice Championship

World Series of Poker Event #67 – $10,000 Dealer’s Choice Championship kicks off tomorrow and promises to be one of the toughest and most interesting events of the series. The Dealer’s Choice format debuted at last year’s series as a $1500 event which was well-received by participants despite drawing a relatively small field of 419 players.

That event was repeated this year as Event #52, which finished up earlier this week. It also happens to have been the only open-field event won by a woman so far this year. Carol Fuchs, a professional screenwriter and amateur poker player took it down for $131,689, besting a tough final table which included last year’s winner, Robert Mizrachi.

Event #52 drew a slightly smaller field than last year’s, and than this year’s $1500 events for its component games, such as 2-7 Triple Draw, but that doesn’t mean that we should expect a low turnout for the Championship. Rather, mixed games in general tend to be popular with the top professionals, because they require such extensive experience and are often played as high-stakes cash games.

This year’s Dealer’s Choice events, meanwhile, features a wider assortment of games than has ever been seen before in tournament poker. This was true for last year’s events as well, at the time; the inaugural event featured 16 games, but this year’s events top that record with another three games added to the mix. That being the case, I think we can expect a lot of big names coming out for this event, including some tough players for whom a $1500 event simply wasn’t juicy enough to be worth their while.

How the format works

There are 19 different games to be played in this year’s Dealer’s Choice events and, as the name implies, the selection for each hand is made by the player who has the dealer button. The choice isn’t completely free, however. In order to ensure that all styles of game are played, the games are broken into three categories: Limit Flop and Draw Games, Stud Games, and No-Limit/Pot-Limit games. Each one-hour level allots 20 minutes to each of those categories and, as in all mixed games, the size of the blinds and antes varies between these categories in an effort to keep average pot sizes somewhat consistent throughout.

What makes this format more interesting than a typical mixed game is the additional layer of strategy presented by the opportunity to select a game. Each player will tend to have more experience with some games than others and players will naturally want to select a game they’re comfortable with. On the other hand, that familiarity cuts both ways and there’s a competing incentive to pick games the other players are not comfortable with; everyone knows Hold’em pretty well, after all, while no one in the world has a comparable level of experience in something like Baducy. There’s a third consideration, as well, which is that each game has different properties in terms of average pot size, variance and the percentage of starting hands which can be considered playable, which means that there are situational considerations as well.

Dealer’s Choice is a game within a game, in other words. It is of course the players’ skill which gives them an edge within a given hand, but success in the tournament hinges equally on the ability to maximize that edge by making the best use of the right to choose the game when the button comes around. Mizrachi, after having won the inaugural event last year, stated that his win was made easier by his opponent Aaron Schaff’s poor game selection: Schaff kept choosing Pot-Limit Omaha, which Mizrachi later revealed was his best game all along.

Given the success of the inaugural event, I wrote a series of articles this winter explaining each game’s rules in detail, plus its basic strategy and the considerations involved in selecting it. If you want to read the full series it begins with this article, but a nutshell explanation of each game is given below, with links to the individual pieces if you want additional info on a specific game.

Limit Flop/Draw Games

Limit Hold’em: Texas Hold’em is the basis of all other flop games and its rules probably need no explanation. Its Limit version is considerably less popular than No-Limit, but still an interesting game. It tends to play quite tight preflop and loose later on. Once a player has made a pair or better it can be quite difficult to fold. It probably produces the smallest pots on average of the games within the Limit category.

Limit Omaha Hi: Omaha is the next step up in complexity from Hold’em, using four hole cards. This makes is a looser game which produces larger pots and allows more hands to be played preflop. As a highball game, it is most often played Pot-Limit, and in fact the Limit version was not included in the original Dealer’s Choice format; it is one of the new additions this year.

Limit Omaha Hi/Lo Split Eights or Better: Unlike Omaha Hi, Omaha Hi/Lo is most often played as a Limit game. Aces are critical cards as they play both high and low and an all-high or all-low flop changes the game dramatically, due to the “eights or better” qualification rule for low. Because of both the number of hole cards and the shared community cards, it’s very common for one or more players to have the low nuts, making freerolling and quartering important parts of the strategy. Though the pots can grow large, the likelihood of coming away with part of the pot makes it an okay choice for a player simply trying not to bust.

Limit A-5 Triple Draw Lowball: The simpler of the two Triple Draw games, this version has Aces playing low and ignores straights and flushes. This means that all five wheel cards (A,2,3,4 and 5) are of fairly similar value to a starting hand and the main determining factors of a hand’s strength are the highest card being kept and the number of cards being drawn. The way the odds run in this game, folding a pat hand or a decent draw can be difficult, and so it’s a less bluff-heavy game than most. It’s the most straightforward game in the category, and thus a good choice at a tough table.

Limit 2-7 Triple Draw Lowball: The fact that Aces play high in this game is simply a cosmetic change, but the addition of straights and flushes (which count against the player) complicated matters, and means that not all low cards are equal; Deuces are critical and Sevens almost as much so. This means that more two- and even three-card draws are playable, but one-card draws which can easily make a straight or flush may not be. It also makes “snowing” (pat bluffing) more feasible than in A-5, in that a player who holds multiple Deuces and/or Sevens can rely on them for blocker value.

Badugi: Badugi is popular in Asia but unfamiliar to many Western players. It’s a Triple Draw Lowball game like A-5 and 2-7, but played with only four cards and the additional restriction that matching suits count against the player much like pairs. For all four cards to play, they must be unpaired and all of different suits; in the case that neither player can make a valid four-card hand (“badugi”), the best three-card hand wins and so on. It’s very difficult to make a badugi – even a bad one – which makes the bluffing strategy much more important and complex than in the other Triple Draw games. It’s a very challenging game in which the best players can hold a strong edge over the rest of the table.

Badacy: A hyper-modern split-pot variant based on A-5 Triple Draw Lowball, but in which half of the pot goes to the best Badugi hand. Compared to straight Badugi, this will much more often be a three-card hand, because a mediocre badugi will take the player out of the running for the A-5 half of the pot and therefore will usually have to be broken. On the other hand, a strong badugi with even a halfway decent A-5 hand is a monster. As a fairly recent innovation, played mostly as a high-stakes live cash game, very few people can be considered experts in its strategies.

Baducy: The most complicated and unusual game in the Limit Flop/Draw category, Baducy is the 2-7 equivalent of Badacy. Once again, the best 2-7 Triple Draw hand and the best Badugi hand split the pot, with the one modification that Aces are high for the Badugi half as well as the 2-7, so 2-3-4-5 four-suited is now the Badugi nuts. The game combines all the subtleties of bother 2-7 Triple Draw and Badugi and is the least well-understood game in the entire Dealer’s Choice format.

Stud Games

Seven-Card Stud Hi: Stud was the world’s most popular poker variant before the rise of No-Limit Hold’em. In this and all other Stud variants, players begin with two face-down hole cards and one face-up door card, and receive a total of three more cards up, one at a time, then one final card down. With five streets of betting and a lot of information available, it’s a challenging game which demands a lot of attention and puts an emphasis on hand reading. It can be very difficult to fold later streets in a big pot and so early mistakes can easily be compounded. Given its subtlety and recent fall from popularity, it’s a game in which you might expect the older players at the table to hold an edge.

Seven-Card Stud Hi/Lo Split Eights or Better: The standard way to play Stud Hi/Lo is with the “eights or better” qualifying rule for the low half of the pot. The smaller number of cards and lack of shared cards means that, unlike Omaha Hi/Lo, non-nut low hands can scoop quite often, and quartering is extremely rare. One of the game’s most interesting features is the fact that the low card brings in, meaning that unlike Stud Hi or Razz, the bring-in will often have a fairly decent hand, which makes stealing a risky proposition. The best starting hands in Hi/Lo tend to be quite speculative: three low cards with straight and/or flush potential. This makes 4th and 5th street play even more important than in Stud Hi.

Seven-Card Stud Hi/Lo Regular: Despite the name, this is an unusual way to play Stud Hi/Lo and this year’s new addition to the Stud category. “Regular” means that the usual qualification rule is dropped for the Lo half of the pot, so the only way to scoop is to have the better hand both ways. This makes straights and flushes all the more important, as other strong Hi hands make it more difficult to win the Lo, and one can no longer simply freeroll on a Hi and hope the opponent fails to qualify.

Razz: The straight lowball version of Stud is by far the most straightforward game in the category to learn, and the easiest not to be completely terrible at. Since the only objective is to get the five lowest unpaired cards you can, evaluating the strength of one’s hand is easy, as is establishing the maximum possible strength of the opponents’. This makes it a good choice for players at a tough table or for whom Stud games in general are a weak point. It’s not without subtleties, however; a lot of the strategy comes down to using betting patterns and tells to deduce whether an opponent has paired her hole cards or not. In that way, it can also be a good game for players who are good at reading their opponents, since the simplicity of the rules sweeps away the rest of the clutter and lays bare that aspect of poker.

No-Limit/Pot-Limit Games

No-Limit Hold’em: What needs to be said? Anyone who plays poker in 2015 knows No-Limit Hold’em. That said, its characteristics within the Dealer’s Choice format are that it’s a good game for blind-stealing when short-stacked, but allows the best players at the table to enjoy a greater edge than any other game in the category when stacks are deeper. This is because it places an emphasis on hand-reading and plays bigger than 2-7 Single Draw, while featuring less variance than Pot-Limit Omaha and its offshoots.

Pot-Limit Hold’em: Pot-Limit Hold’em is, post-flop, rarely very different from No-Limit, as bets larger than the size of the pot are uncommon to begin with. The most significant difference is in short-stacked preflop play, because the betting limit prevents large all-ins and therefore makes stealing and re-stealing more difficult. It is therefore a situational choice for a medium-to-deep stacked player who wishes to take advantage of his position by forcing others to play post-flop with him.

Pot-Limit Omaha: This is a game which produces big pots and creates a great deal of variance. Preflop equities tend to run close, and so a lot of different hands are playable, while position is very important. Post-flop, the four hole cards mean that massive draws are possible, and there are more turn and river cards which change things than there are blanks. This leads to both a lot of bluffing and a lot of all-in situations where both players have a big piece of the board. It’s a great game for a player who wants to gamble, and likewise great when the situation is such that the other players are trying to avoid playing big pots, since it then allows them to be bullied easily.

Pot-Limit Omaha Hi/Lo Split Eights or Better: This is an even more gamble-heavy game than Pot-Limit Omaha because it’s hard to have a preflop hand which is a favorite for both ends of the pot. It’s a great game for short stacks to just get the chips in and hope to get lucky, but it can also lead to complex post-flop situations between very deep stacks. Because the Pot-Limit format means that so many more chips go in on later streets, the danger of being quartered is vastly greater than in the Limit version; here, it is entirely possible that a player will be forced to fold the nut low when they have little chance at the Hi, whereas in Limit there’s often no choice but to call down.

“Big O”: The name Big O is shorthand for the game’s rather cumbersome full name: Pot-Limit 5-Card Omaha Hi/Lo Split Eights or Better. It is identical to Pot-Limit Omaha Hi/Lo except that players receive five hole cards instead of four. The strategic implications of this are that double-suited hands – and therefore flushes – are much more common. This and the fact that a player can more easily have several high and several low cards both make it easier to catch strong hands both ways, meaning the game produces more scoops and quarterings and fewer splits than the four-card version. It’s also simply a less common game and therefore less likely to be familiar to the majority of players, making it a good choice for anyone who does have much experience with it.

No-Limit 2-7 Single Draw: The big-bet cousin of Limit 2-7 Triple Draw Lowball, the differences in this game are its No-Limit betting structure and the fact that there are only two rounds of betting and one draw. This affects the play considerably, making marginal pat hands much better and two- and three-card draws all but unplayable. It also means that bluffing is considerably more important, particularly when a player finds himself with a poor starting hand but which contains multiple low blockers, particularly Deuces and Sevens. Maligned by some players due to its low information content, it’s a bit like Razz in that it brings basic people-reading skills to the fore. It’s also a good selection for players who would like to avoid playing big pots, because it has only half as many streets of betting as any other game besides Five-Card Draw.

No-Limit Five-Card Draw: This could be considered a new game this year, but is really just a modification; last year’s Dealer’s Choice event included Pot-Limit Five-Card Draw, which has been swapped for No-Limit this time around. With only one chance to draw, it’s very hard to make straights and flushes, so players will largely be playing strong one-pairs, two-pair and three of a kind. The only public information in the game is the number of cards drawn, so one of the game’s subtleties involves mixing up one’s draws – taking only a single card with three of a kind to make it look like two-pair or a flush draw, for instance. Because it is straightforward and produces small pots, it is similar in selection strategy to 2-7 Single Draw as a good game for players who are looking to survive the level and wait for the Limit games to come up again. This is also the likely reason for the switch from Pot-Limit to No-Limit, to give 2-7 Single Draw a fair shake – played as a Pot-Limit game, Five-Card Draw would be the hands-down better choice for survival.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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