Today’s feel-good story in the world of poker is Christian Pham, who registered for Event #23: No-Limit 2-7 Single Draw by accident and went on to win it yesterday, for $133,683 and his first gold bracelet. Not only had Pham never played Deuce-to-Seven Lowball before, he didn’t even have the slightest inkling of the rules until some helpful players at his starting table taught him the basics.
He’s not the first newbie to have won the event, either. Matt Perrins, who won in 2011, also had no prior experience with the game prior to entering the tournament, although he at least knew what he was getting into. He says that a friend just gave him a quick lesson and showed him a YouTube video about it.
Pham’s event only attracted 219 players, and Perrins’s 285; obviously, the small field makes it more likely for any given player to win. Nonetheless, you wouldn’t imagine that very many people would be entering a $1500 buy-in tournament with no prior experience, so for two such people to win in the span of a few years suggests that there’s something about the game that makes it friendly to beginners. Is it just easy to pick up, or is the nature of the game such that a virgin mind might actually be an advantage?
It’s definitely a simple game, probably the simplest. It’s one of the only two forms of poker with only two streets of betting, Five-Card Draw Hi being the other; all other common variants have either four or five streets. It also has less explicit public information than any other game; there are no up cards as in Stud, no community cards as in Hold’em, and it’s rare for players to draw more than one card, as they might in other draw variants.
All you have to go on in Single Draw is one round of betting, a single binary bit of information – your opponent draws or he doesn’t – and then one more round of betting. This means that there are only six basic scenarios you can be up against: your opponent patted with a monster; he patted with a marginal hand; he’s on a pat bluff; he drew and hit a good low; he drew and caught a high card; or he drew and paired.
All the other games have more information and/or more streets of betting, so hands unfold as a sort of narrative, which can require some experience to interpret. Until a player can do so, they’re limited to playing their own cards – what we call “level one” thinking. After all, it’s hard to determine if someone is being straightforward or deceptive if you can’t even understand the story they’re telling. The six basic scenarios of Single Draw, on the other hand, can be grasped in a matter of minutes.
Sticking to the fundamentals
Its simplicity makes Single Draw a very pure form of poker. The mechanics of the game itself are secondary to the need to observe one’s opponents, learn their patterns and get inside their heads. You’re not asking yourself “could he have floated with a gutshot, but caught third pair instead and now he’s trying to get to showdown?” Rather, the question is usually just “does he have it or not?” or “does he think I have it?” If a player is good at any form of poker, they’ll already be used to thinking this way, and thus have the most critical Single Draw skills right off the bat.
For players that are particularly strong in the people-reading department, unfamiliarity with Single Draw may even occasionally work to their advantage. Once players start studying the finer points of a game’s tactics, it’s common to see them lose sight of the forest for the trees. Most of us have at one time or another had the experience of committing a terrible error in Hold’em because we tried to get too cute against an opponent who was thinking about the game in much simpler terms. There aren’t a whole lot of fancy tricks to pull in Single Draw, and so a player who is focusing too much on the subtle details to try to find an edge may end up moving away from the fundamentals to his detriment.
Consider how Pham says that he got his Day 1 chip lead: by snapping off an opponent’s bluff with a pat Ten-Nine. This is the sort of spot where you can talk yourself into making the wrong move by thinking too much about blockers or your lack thereof. In all likelihood, Pham simply saw that he had a hand which could beat a bluff, figured that it was a spot where his opponent could be bluffing, and decided to call down. Poker, pure and simple.
None of this is to say that players should avoid learning anything about Single Draw before playing it, nor even that it’s a particularly good game. But despite its lack of popularity, it does have this one thing going for it: If you only know one way to play poker, and you’d like to learn some others but it seems like too much to learn… No-Limit 2-7 Single Draw is by far the least intimidating way to get your feet wet. If you know how to bluff, and you know how to call a bluff, you’ll feel right at home.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.