For many people growing up, at least those of us who grew up well before the poker boom, 5-Card Draw “was” poker – the game we’d sit around with our friends and family and play for pennies or play money. Aside from the need to learn the hand rankings, the mechanics are exceedingly simple, so it’s a good variant to teach to the total novice. This simplicity and general familiarity is part of the reason that it forms the basis for most video poker machines, and it’s in that context that it’s most often seen today.
The drawing mechanic is itself also the earliest addition to the game, dating back to 1850 or earlier, but the game quickly fell from popularity as a serious gambling game once other variations such as stud and community card games began appearing.
In the modern poker world, it’s one of the least popular games there is (except for hyper-modern inventions like Badacy/Baducy which haven’t yet had a chance to catch on). This is perhaps largely due to the association of it being “for kids,” or a relic from the past. It hasn’t had its own World Series of Poker event in a long while, rarely appears in mixed-game lineups, and although it is available as an option on many online poker sites, rarely attracts many players.
Note: This article was originally written about Pot-Limit 5-Card Draw Hi, which was included in the inaugural 2014 Dealer’s Choice event. For the 2015 WSOP that game has been replaced with its No-Limit equivalent, so the article has been updated to reflect that – the game’s strategic aspects remain essentially unchanged.
Although originally played with antes only, in modern casino play Five-Card Draw is almost always features a small and big blind, like the other flop and draw games. The Dealer’s Choice event is no exception in this regard.
Players are dealt five cards each, face down, and there is a round of No-Limit betting.
There is next a drawing round, in which each player still involved in the hand can exchange any or all of their cards, receiving replacements from the deck. This proceeds in typical order, starting with the player to the left of the dealer button.
There is then another round of betting, followed by a showdown, with the highest hand collecting the entire pot.
Generally speaking, in 5-Card Draw, you want to be playing only hands which are quite strong to begin with – two pair or better, and sometimes big hands with a single pair.
Despite the name, drawing hands (by which we mean four to a flush or straight) are quite weak in 5-Card Draw, because with only a single drawing round, they’re rarely going to hit – less than 20% of the time, in fact – and can never form a better hand than one pair when they miss.
One pair hands are slightly more likely to improve, at about 25%, but most of the time that will only be to make two pair. Two pair and trips are extremely unlikely to improve, but of course if they do, it will be to a full house or better.
The only thing that prevents the game from being purely about starting hand strength is the information conveyed by the draw. With no community cards or up-cards, that is the only concrete information players have in the hand, and so it is very important.
All that being the case, the basic strategy for No-Limit 5-Card Draw centers around three things: choosing appropriate starting hands, interpreting and concealing information via the draw, and bluffing.
As with any game, appropriate starting hands depend largely on position. Two pair and better are generally worth opening with from any position, though you might fold the smallest ones from early position at a tough table. The tougher question is when to play single pairs.
Most single pairs are not worth playing from early position, except for the very largest ones, and only then if the table dynamic is such that you can expect to be called by worse. If you don’t expect to be called by less than two pair, even a pair of Aces is basically a semibluff. In later position, you can start opening with large pairs, and maybe even smaller ones with a big kicker.
Facing a raise, you should almost always fold single pairs, except when defending the big blind from a player with a tendency to try to steal. For two pair and better hands, it all depends on what you think the player’s opening range is.
Straight and flush draws are, as stated, extremely weak in terms of showdown value, but they do have great implied odds, since a straight or flush will usually win a showdown. You can sometimes call with them, therefore, but only in position, and usually only in a multi-way pot. Heads-up, you can potentially call in position, but only if you think there’s a good chance that you can win post-draw with a bluff, or are sure you’ll get paid off for a big raise if you hit and your opponent bets into you.
In terms of drawing, the choice is usually obvious. With two pair or a straight or flush draw, you will always be drawing one for obvious reasons. With a made straight or better, you will be standing pat. The only complication is with one pair or with trips. With these hands, the obvious thing is to draw three and two respectively, but you can sometimes choose to draw fewer in order to add deception to your game – largely to avoid giving away when you do have trips.
Trips are the only type of hand for which it is natural to draw two, so in order to conceal them you need to be drawing two with a one-pair hand on occasion, and likewise sometimes drawing only one with your trips. With the one-pair hands, the best time to draw two is when you have a kicker bigger than your pair which you can keep. This increases your odds of making a good two pair, partially compensating for the reduced chance of making trips.
With trips, drawing only one is always a sacrifice in terms of your chances of making quads, but a small sacrifice because those odds were never good to begin with. Instead, the decision should largely be made based on the opponents in the hand and your own image. That is, the question is whether you can more convincingly under-represent your hand as two pair (by drawing one) or one pair with a big kicker (by drawing two). Or even, perhaps, as a missed straight or flush draw, by drawing one and then making a raise which looks like a bluff.
This brings us to the subject of bluffing. Like any game with blinds, blind stealing is an important part of the game. It’s also what leads to most of your post-draw bluffing situations, as you’re generally only opening with made hands when you’re not stealing the blinds, and thus less likely to want to turn your hand into a bluff post-draw.
Obviously, position is important when blind stealing, as are table dynamics. You can steal more at a tight table, and when you have position, and less at a loose table and when you’re in early position. When stealing, you’re usually going to do it with one of two intentions when called: that you’re either semibluffing with a drawing hand, or pat-bluffing with total air.
Semibluffing is best done in later position if possible. Good semibluffing hands are small pairs with a large kicker (preferably an Ace), plus straight and flush draws. With the small pairs, you’re going to draw two, keeping the large kicker, and try to represent trips if you are called and miss. With the straight and flush draws, obviously you draw one, and then try to represent a good two pair if you are called and miss.
Pat bluffing is far riskier and should be done rarely, but position matters far less, as the hands you’re representing are much stronger. When you’re pat bluffing, it will usually be with a garbage hand, but ideally one which contains an Ace or some face cards as blockers, to make it a little less likely that you’re called. If called, you then stand pat, and play very aggressively post-draw, attempting to convince your opponent that you were dealt a straight or better.
Like any poker variant, there are obviously more complex strategies that one could adopt against specific opponents. For instance, against an opponent who loves to snap off pat bluffs, you could actually stand pat with trips in order to represent a bluff. Such plays are entirely situational, however, and up to a creative player to discover at the table as the situation demands it.
5-Card Draw is probably the best game to pick when you’re trying to avoid variance. Because the general strategy is to play quite tight, and the game has only two rounds of betting, it will tend to produce smaller pots than any of the other games at most tables. Because it’s so simple, and focuses so strongly on made hands, you can also play it very straightforwardly and not do too badly. Thus, if you’re just trying to avoid losing more chips than necessary while waiting for the bubble to burst, or for a pay jump, or for a particularly tough table to break, it’s the ideal choice.
You could also, perhaps, pick it as an image play, in a situation where you have a tight image and your opponents expect you to be in survival mode. It’s not a game that they would expect you to pick if you were hoping to pull off a big bluff, so in some sense it’s a good choice in order to do so… but only if the players at your table have shown an awareness of selection strategy themselves. Otherwise, you’d be shooting yourself in the foot, and better off picking a game that actually is suited to bluffing, like No-Limit Single Draw or Hold’em.
Aside from this, it isn’t particularly appropriate for any specific situation; it’s not the best choice to leverage a deep stack, nor to double up with a short one. It’s also not the best choice to make use of your dealer button. It’s a game for when you don’t really want for anything much to happen one way or another.
Up Next: Limit Omaha Hi (New game for 2015)
The Dealer’s Choice series runs weekly, with one game (or pair of related games) explained every Tuesday. If you’d like to start from the beginning, click here.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.