Introduction to Mixed Games

I love mixed games. I hardly ever get to play in them because where I usually play, the only mixed games spread are at very high stakes.

At PokerStars there are mixed games of all types running 24/7. Blinds range from 10c/20c all the way up to $1,000/$2,000

I decided to discuss some aspects of them here. I will discuss:

  1. What are mixed games?
  2. How are the games selected?
  3. Are mixed games for you?
  4. What are some guidelines for playing them?

In my case, it is easy to see that my Q-Q-3 hand is totally devoid of aces, and the previous analysis shows there is no compelling alternate reason to play. So, I concluded that in crazy pineapple eight-or-better, my hand was a clear fold. The pocket queens in a hold’em-like game would appear to be tempting, but analysis using theoretical principles told me to fold.

1. What are mixed games? If more than one game is spread, it’s a mixed game. The players can agree to any number of games from two (frequently, you see a table with Omaha eight-or-better and seven-card stud eight-or-better) to eight, 10, or even 12. Some of us might have a hard time even naming 12 games, but there are tables that spread them.

The most popular mixed games are Omaha high, hold’em, Omaha eight-or-better, stud, stud eight-or-better, and, recently, deuce-to-seven triple draw. Other games commonly played include hold’em, razz, ace-to-five triple draw, crazy pineapple, and crazy pineapple eight-or-better.

2. How are the games selected? There are two methods: negotiation or dealer’s choice. In the negotiation method, the first players to start the game all vie to have their favorite game(s) included, and their least favorite game(s) excluded. Some top players try very hard to be the ones to start the game, so they can include their preferences. Latecomers are faced with a game in progress, and they can either join with the current mix or stay out. (Sometimes they join, play one hand, and immediately start lobbying to change the mix.)

One of the funnier sights I witnessed at a poker table involved some of the poker world’s brightest high-limit luminaries. Several years ago I was at Binion’s Horseshoe during World Series time. A cash-game table was set aside, and all of these stars bought in for $50,000 or more. A dealer sat down with cards – and nothing happened. No poker got played, as everyone was sitting there lobbying for the games they were going to play. I guess this was a form of poker, with bluff and counterbluff at work, but here was the largest fortune I had ever seen on a table, the best players were sitting there, and no cards were dealt for more than a half-hour. Remarkable.

The other method of game selection is dealer’s choice, which is actually player’s choice, of course. Each player in turn names a game, and the game is played for either a set amount of time or set number of hands. Playing a game for a preset duration keeps players from calling a game with a positional advantage for the one time they will be on the button.

3. Are mixed games for you? For you to be able to play mixed games well, you must have an extremely clear understanding of poker theory. You will encounter unfamiliar situations and challenges, and you can’t adapt quickly without a very strong theoretical foundation. If you learn to play a single game, eventually you will recognize situations by rote or experience, and can learn to play decently with a limited understanding of theory. Of course, theory will always help make you better. But when the game keeps changing, you need to understand the underlying theory of poker to handle those unfamiliar situations.

Speaking of the game changing, you also must be able to switch mental gears rapidly. Strategies that may work well in your favorite game may be disastrous in another one. Every game has different guidelines for starting-hand selection as well as playing strategy.

If you are faced with a game you rarely play, you will have to rely on your basic understanding of how and when to play, fold, or raise, which starting hands have value for the game, pot size manipulation, hand reading, and much more. You will often be creating new strategies when you see a hand or get involved in a pot. This challenge, being forced to consider fundamentals and to develop strategies at every step, can be very invigorating. It will also help you find new ways to think about your “specialty” game.

Mixed games can also be fun. If you find yourself falling into a rut, with your main game becoming boring, you might have a great time at a table where you are changing games over and over.

Of course, this being poker, if you believe you can adapt to a changing environment better than your competitors can, or you simply understand the games being played better than they do, mixed games can also be very profitable.

4. What are some guidelines for playing mixed games? Let’s build this discussion around a hand I held recently. We were playing crazy pineapple eight-or-better, and I was dealt the Q(h*) Q 3(c*) in middle position. One player had limped in. How should I play it?

First, let’s make sure we all understand the rules of this game. Players are dealt three cards and there’s a round of betting. Then, a flop is revealed, and there is another round of betting. Now, each active player must discard one of the three cards he was originally dealt, leaving him with essentially a hold’em hand. Two more betting rounds on the turn and river are followed by a showdown. The highest five-card hand wins the high half of the pot, and if there is a low of 8 or better (playing zero, one, or two cards from a player’s hand), the lowest hand wins the other half. If no low is present, the high hand wins the whole pot.

Let’s get back to my Q-Q-3. I needed to decide whether I should raise, call, or fold. What criteria should I use? Since I do not fancy myself a crazy pineapple expert, I relied on theoretical principles.

  • In flop games in which you get three or four cards, your hand should be coordinated. In this case, I have pocket queens, which is good, but I also have what seems to be a useless 3. If I elect to play my hand, I will essentially be playing a two-card hand (Q-Q) against opponents who may have coordinated three-card hands (K-K-Q, J-J-10, A-K-Q, A-K-2, A-2-3) – which is a large advantage to give up.
  • In high-low split games, always play for scoops (hands that win the whole pot). Split-game players often ignore this guideline, but it is fundamental. Given that, what is the scoop potential of my Q-Q-3?
  • I certainly cannot win low, so I have to hope I win high and there is no low. If I do not flop a set, what do I want the board to look like? I do not want an ace or king, because that would put out an overcard to my pair, with my opponents looking at three cards to choose from. I do not want jacks, tens, and nines, because that would put a potential straight on the board. I do not want low cards, as I might in hold’em, because that would mean someone will win half of the pot, and I will playing for only 50 percent of the money, and that is only if my one pair holds up.
  • Even if I flop a set, I have to get a little lucky. Say the flop comes Q-5-4. This means that any player with a 3-2, 6-3, or 7-6 has an open-end straight draw to beat me, and another set of cards that will make a low and give my opponents half the pot. An A-2 or A-3 will give my opponents a gutshot-straight draw and low draw. So, even with a set, if I get any opposition, I might get half or none of the pot.
  • In high-low split games, possession of an ace is almost mandatory. Yes, there are hands without an ace that can at least look at the flop, and some hands with an ace that can’t, but overall, the absence of an ace means you have to have a very compelling reason to play. Since an ace can act as the highest card or the lowest (or both at the same time), it is by far the most powerful card in the deck. When in doubt in split-pot games, don’t leave home without one.

Conclusion: If you understand poker theory, enjoy variety, can handle a challenge, and like to think your way through hands, mixed games can be for you. If you can find a group of like-minded people, most cardrooms will spread them if you ask. Mixed games are fun, interesting, different, and – if you have the right mix of knowledge, skills, and flexibility – potentially very profitable.