Draw poker is any poker variant in which each player is dealt a complete hand before the first betting round, and then develops the hand for later rounds by replacing cards.
The descriptions below assume that you are familiar with the general game play of poker, and with hand values (both high and low variations). They also make no assumptions about what betting structure is used. In home games, it is typical to use an ante, and betting always begins with the player to the dealer’s left. In casino play, it is more common to use blinds; the first betting round thus begins with the player to the left of the big blind, and subsequent rounds begin with the player to the dealer’s left, thus draw games are very positional.
Some sample deals below will assume that a game is being played by four players: Alice, who is dealing in the examples, Bob, who is sitting to her left, Carol to his left, and David to Carol’s left.
Standard five-card draw
This is often the first poker variant learned by most players, and is very common in home games although it is now quite rare in casino and tournament play. Two to eight players can play.
Other draw games
Gardena jackpots (“Jacks to open” or simply “Jackpots”)
Played as above, with standard hand values, and with a single joker in the deck acting as a bug. Always played with an ante and no blinds. On the first betting round, no player is allowed to open the betting unless his hand already contains a pair of jacks or a better hand. Other players who checked on the first round may subsequently call or raise if someone else opens. If no player opens, a new deal begins and everyone antes again into the same pot. The player who opened the betting keeps his discarded cards near him on the table so that he can prove, if necessary, that he had a sufficient opening hand. For example, a player with the K, J, 9, and 7 of clubs and the J of hearts has a pair of jacks and may open. He may wish to “break openers” in this case by discarding the jack of hearts in an attempt to make the club flush, so he keeps the discarded jack to prove that he was entitled to open.
The game is named after the city of Gardena, California, where this game was especially popular from the 1930s to 1970s (though it was always secondary to lowball). At that time, there were more public poker tables in that small city than in all the rest of the United States. Public poker rooms are still a big industry there, though Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and other locations now have many more poker rooms than they did at that time. Because “Jacks to open” was the primary form of high-hand draw poker played there, traditional draw poker was often described by the retronym “Guts to open”.
In home games, it is common that when a deal is “passed out” (that is, when no one opens), the players re-ante, and the qualifier to open is raised to a pair of queens. If that deal is passed out, the qualifier is raised to kings, and finally to aces. This is called “progressive” jackpots.
This was the primary poker game played in California during the heyday of Gardena in the 1970s. It is still played today, though its popularity has somewhat lessened since the introduction of stud poker and community card poker to the state.
Played as above, using ace-to-five low hand values, with a single joker in the deck. Always played with blinds rather than antes, so players may not check on the first betting round (but may on the second round). A player with a 7-high hand or better who checks after the draw forfeits his right to win any money placed in the pot after the draw. (In other words, you may not check a “seven” unless you intend to fold when someone else bets). Another common rule in low-limit games is that a player who checks on the second betting round may not subsequently raise on that round. This latter rule is never used in games with a pot limit or no limit betting structure.
Also sometimes known as Padooki or Badougi, Badugi is a four card ace-to-five low lowball variant where traditional poker hand rankings are changed. A Badougi is a four card hand where all the cards are of different ranks and suits. Any cards which match another card in rank or suit does not play and the first criteria for evaluating hands is the number of cards which are playing. The following is the ranking of several example of hands from best to worst:
- Ace of spades, 2 of clubs, 3 of hearts, 4 of diamonds: 4 card 4 high best possible Badougi
- 4 of spades, 6 of hearts, 8 of diamonds, J of clubs: 4 card J high Badougi
- Ten of clubs, J of hearts, Q of Diamonds, K of hearts: 4 card worst possible Badougi
- Ace of hearts, Ace of diamonds, 4 of clubs, 5 of spades: 3 card hand, 5 high
- Ace of clubs, Ace of spades, 4 of spades, 6 of spades: 2 card hand, 4 high
Badougi is usually played triple-draw, with a 1-1-2-2 betting structure, although it also plays well at no limit.
Other forms of lowball
Five-card draw, with no joker, and deuce-to-seven low hand values is called “Kansas City” or “Low Poker” or even “Billy Baxter” draw in honor of the player who dominated the world championship in the event for many years. The 7-high rule and the no check-and-raise rule do not apply. In the eastern United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, ace-to-six low hand values are common.
California high/low split
Played as above, with a single joker, used as a bug. High hand and low hand (using the ace-to-five low values) split the pot. An 8-high or better low is required to win low. If no hand qualifies low, high hand takes the whole pot. Played cards speak, that is, players do not declare whether they intend to win the high or low half of the pot (or both); they simply show their cards and the best hands win. Because ace-to-five low values are used, a hand such as a low straight or flush can win both high and low, called “scooping” or “hogging” the pot.
High/low with declare
This is common in home games but is rarely found in casinos today. Played as are other versions of five-card draw, but after the second betting round and before the showdown, there is a simultaneous declaration phase. Each player takes two chips from his stack and takes them under the table, bringing up a closed fist that contains either no chips (indicating that the player intends to win the low half of the pot), one chip (indicating that the player intends to win the high half), or two chips (indicating that he intends to scoop). When everyone has brought up the closed fist, the players all open their hands simultaneously to reveal their choices. If any player shows two chips, and his hand is the best low and the best high, he scoops the pot. Otherwise, half of the pot goes to the player with the highest hand who declared high, and the other half to the player with the lowest hand of those who declared low. There is no qualifying hand to win either high or low, and if no one declares in one direction, the full pot is awarded in the other (for example, if all players declare low, the low hand wins the whole pot rather than half). A player who declares for a scoop must win both ends outright, with no ties. For example, if a player declares scoop, has the lowest hand clearly but ties for high, he wins nothing. The other player with the same high hand wins the high half of the pot and the next-lowest hand wins low (assuming he declared low–if no other player declared low, the high hand who declared high wins the whole pot).
This game can be played with deuce-to-seven low or ace-to-six low hand values, but in that case it is nearly impossible to scoop (though you can still win the whole pot if everyone declares the same direction).
Double-draw and Triple-draw
Any game above can be played with two or three draw phases and therefore three or four betting rounds. Double-draw California lowball is a particularly good game. Triple draw lowball, either ace-to-five or deuce-to-seven, has gained some popularity among serious players. The 2004 World Series of Poker included a deuce-to-seven triple-draw lowball event.
Another variation that can be applied to any game above, but that is especially suited to lowball. On the initial deal, only four cards are dealt to each player. A betting round follows, then each player draws one more card than he discards, completing his hand to five cards. Then the final betting round and showdown. Note that it is impossible to be dealt a “pat” hand, that is, a hand (such as a straight or flush) that is complete before the draw.
Johnson (and “Jacks back”)
Played with one joker which acts as a bug. Must be played with antes and no blinds. Each player is dealt five cards. The first betting round begins with the player to the dealer’s left, who may check or open with anything. If any player opens, the game continues as traditional five-card draw poker. If the first round is passed out (that is, no one opens), then the player to the dealer’s left may now open if he chooses, but the game has switched to California lowball. On the rare occasion that the deal is passed out yet again, players re-ante and deal again. This game plays well head-up (that is, with only two players). When the game is played that a pair of jacks or better is required to open on the first high-hand round, the game is called “Jacks back”.
Some examples might help clarify: On the first deal, players ante and Alice deals five cards around. Bob sees that he has a 6-high straight, which is a very good hand for both high and low. He also wants to be deceptive about the value of his hand, so he checks. Carol opens for $1, David folds, Alice raises to $2, and Bob (who now realizes that Carol and Alice want to play high hands) reraises to $3, which is called by Carol and Alice. Bob announces that he “stands pat” (draws no cards). Carol draws three cards, and Alice draws two. Bob bets $2, Carol folds, Alice raises, and Bob calls. Bob shows his straight, but Alice has made a full house and wins the pot.
On the second deal, Bob has the same hand: a 6-high straight, and makes the same play, checking. This time, Carol also checks, as does David, and finally Alice. Now it is Bob’s turn again, but now they are playing lowball. He opens for $1. Carol folds, and David raises to $2. Alice folds, and Bob reraises to $3 (a 6-high is a very good low hand; much better, in fact, than a 6-high straight would be for high). David calls. Bob stands pat, and David draws one card. Bob bets $2 (he is required to bet under California lowball rules since he has a hand better than 7-high), and David calls. Bob shows his 6-5-4-3-2 low, and David shows 7-5-4-3-A low, and Bob wins with his 6-high.
This is a lowball game designed by Michael Wiesenberg that combines some of the variations mentioned above. It is generally played with three blinds–one unit from the dealer, one unit to his left, and two units for the second player to the dealer’s left. The deck contains one joker. Each player is dealt three cards, followed by a round of betting beginning with the player immediately after the big blind who may call the big blind, raise, or fold (there is no checking on the first round). Next, each player is dealt a fourth card, followed by a second round of betting starting with the still-active player to the dealer’s left. No checking is allowed on this round either, despite the fact that there is no bet facing the first player; the first player must open or fold. Each player is then dealt a fifth card, followed by a third betting round beginning on the dealer’s left. At this point, checking is allowed. Finally, each player draws as in normal draw poker, followed by a fourth betting round and showdown. Ace-to-five low values are used.
Played at fixed limit, it is recommended that the betting structure be 1-2-2-4; that is, the second and third betting rounds should allow a bet of twice the amount of the first round, and the final bet should allow four times the amount of the first round.
These are somewhat less-serious games that are typically played only in home games at small stakes. This does not necessarily mean that there is less opportunity for skillful play, just that the games are seen as more social than competitive.
To help grow the betting pot in a home game, one can add a variant known as the “kill card” to the rules. Kill cards work best with stud games or shared card games as no one player can control when the “kill card” is played.
One popular “kill card” game is called Chernobyl Cowboy. The “Chernobyl Cowboy” is the King of Hearts. Whenever the King of Hearts appears face up in a stud or shared card game the game is dead. All bets remain in the pot and the game begins again with a new ante and a new deal. Anyone who has folded is out until the game concludes. For example: In a seven card stud game each player gets two cards down, then four cards up, then one final card down. In a seven card stud game with a “Chernobyl Cowboy”, if the King of Hearts comes up during the time the four up cards are dealt, the game is killed and everyone who is still in antes again for a new round.
Shotgun (“Roll ’em out” and “Skinny Minnie”)
This is a draw game that plays much like a stud game. First five cards are dealt to each player, followed by a betting round, and a draw. Now, in place of a second round and showdown, there is a rollout phase, which begins with the players arranging their five cards in any chosen order, placing them face down in front of themselves. Each player’s top card is now revealed, followed by a betting round. Then each player reveals his next card, followed by a betting round. Then a third card is revealed, followed by a betting round, a fourth card, a betting round, and finally a showdown. Players may not change the order of their cards at any time during the rollout phase.
This game can be played for high or low, but plays best at high-low split, in which case it is called “Skinny Minnie”.
Spit in the ocean
This might be classified as a hybrid draw/Community card game, but it is placed here because it plays mostly as a draw game. On the initial deal, each player is dealt four cards, and then a single card is dealt to the center of the table face up. This card plays as if it were the fifth card in every player’s hand. It is also a wild card, and every other card of its rank is also wild. The first betting round is then played, followed by a draw in which each player replaces cards from his hand with an equal number, so that each player still has only four cards in hand. A final betting round is followed by a showdown. High-hand values are used.
Here’s a sample deal: Alice deals four cards to each player, then deals the next card face up to the center of the table. it is the 6 of diamonds, and this makes all 6-spot cards wild. Bob opens for $1, Carol raises to $2, David folds, Alice and Bob call. Bob discards two cards, and receives two replacements. Carol draws one card, and Alice draws one. Bob checks, Carol bets $2, Alice raises to $4, Bob folds, Carol reraises to $6, and Alice calls. The cards in Carol’s hand are Q-Q-6-4. Because the 6 in her hand and the one on the board are wild, her hand is four queens. Alice’s hand contains K-J-9-7, all spades. With the shared wild card, this gives her a flush, which loses to Carol’s four queens.
Anaconda (“Pass the trash”)
Seven cards are dealt to each player. Before the first betting round, each player examines his hand, and removes exactly three cards from his hand and places them on the table to his left. After each person has thus discarded, he picks up the cards discarded by his right-hand neighbor and places them in his hand (thus, each player will have given three cards to his left-hand neighbor). It is important that each player discard before looking at the cards he is to receive. After the first pass, there is a betting round. Then a second pass occurs, each player passing two cards to his right. A second betting round is followed by a third pass, each player passing one card to his left. Finally, a fourth betting round and a showdown, in which the player with the best five-card high hand he can make out of the seven in his hand wins the pot.
In some casual games, the showdown is replaced by a rollout phase, as described above in “Shotgun”. This makes a total of eight betting rounds in the game, which generally destroys any chance for skillful play in the later rounds.
Ad hoc variants
Any of the above games can be modified in many ways upon player whim, by designating additional wild cards, betting rounds, more or fewer cards, altered hand values, and any other change agreed upon by all players prior to each deal. You can announce such a game by using the name of an existing game and specifying the variations, for example “Three-card Triple-draw California lowball, Kings wild” (a surprisingly good game heads up). Many times this will result in a game that does not play well, but occasionally will produce a game that is well-suited to a particular group of players. Even if it doesn’t, such games can be used sparingly to enliven an otherwise serious game.
Here are some general guidelines:
- If you want to designate some normal suited cards as wild, choose cards that would otherwise be bad for the game being played. For example, deuces wild for high-hand games, kings wild for lowball, 9-spots wild for high-low split (where an 8-high or lower is necessary to win low).
- High-low split games play best with more than four players.
- When playing high-low split, it is necessary to have either a declaration phase or a qualifier (but not both). The most common form is 8-high or better to qualify low, but also common is any pair/no pair (that is, a pair or better is required to win high, and no pair or better low is required to win low), and 9-high for low.
- Designating more than four wild cards (or possibly six) will result in considerable confusion and many ties.
- Two to five betting rounds makes a good game. One round or more than five rounds reduces the amount of skill involved.
- Sometimes there is no betting round before the draw; players pick up their cards, discard and draw, and then the betting starts.
- Giving each player more than eight or nine cards usually makes a bad game. (Note that in Anaconda, each player will have seen up to thirteen cards!)