On to more important issues: The Santa Fe Poker Variations. A loosely serialized description, in random installments.
First: the key role of high/low declaration games. “Declaration” is that moment at the showdown when you indicate whether you are trying to win the best high hand or the best low hand. The system here is to hold your fist out over the table, clutching one chip if you are declaring high, no chip if you are declaring low, and two chips if you think you have both the best high and the best low. After about 8 years of playing pretty much once a week, I am beginning to get a sense of declaration as a play, without regard to my actual hand. I used to declare solely based on my cards, without also trying to figure which way the other players still in at the end were probably declaring. This is safe, and fits my overall style anyway, which is generally to either have a real hand or not be in. Over time I slowly noticed that people stay in with pretty bad hands if they feel they might “go solo,” that is, be the only one declaring either high or low. So the mysterious intuitive and observant sense of which way players are going to declare can be refined and give you a stronger shot at more frequent split pots, even if you haven’t made a very good hand. This is especially true in three way hands at the end, which at a 5 person table is fairly common.
There is a distinct difference between low hand values and high hand values in many of the games. Hand values in general are extremely tricky, depending on wild cards, exposed cards, community cards, etc. Low hand values are often far more easy to determine than high. As a result, the general trend in many games is for most of the players to be trying to build a low hand. The best low hand here is a “64,” i.e. A2346. With no wild cards this is called a “natural 64” or a “natural” or even just a “natch.”
Low hand details: “the math”: two competing lows are compared by counting down from the highest ranked card. For example, a 6543A loses to a 6542A, since the 2 is lower than the 3.
Role of wild cards: The lower the wild card(s) the better: a hand of 643(wild 2)A loses to 6432(wild ace). A 64 with one wild card beats a 64 with two or more wild cards no matter the suits.
Crucial role of “suit tiebreakers”: two competing low hands that are identical in every respect are compared by suits starting with the 6. Highest to lowest suit: spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs. So, for example, with two “natural 64’s” 6d432A vs. 6c432A, the one with the 6 of clubs wins. In fact, a “natural 64” (no wild cards) with the 6 of clubs is unbeatable, and will always win half the pot. It’s something like the equivalent of a “natural” straight flush (or 5 aces high in a wild card game). If two 64’s share a 6 (because the 6 is a community card as in texas hold ‘em or Omaha) then the suit of the 4 determines the winner, etc.
The vast majority of hands dealt are high/low declaration games. So understanding the mechanics of low hands and getting savvy at playing lows and figuring out what’s happening low around the table is crucial. One of the facets of play that’s “incorrect” from a technical standpoint is the infrequency of so-called “two way” hands, also called “scoops.” The pros say that the best strategy for winning in split-pot games is to focus on hands that can potentially go both ways, taking down the entire pot. But in the Santa Fe game there is a lot of jockeying for half the pot without regard to “scooping,” and two way hands are quite rare. Next time I’ll write about the investment vs. winnings math of this one way play and analyze the positives and negatives of it.