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For a home game, which rule is better, “cards speak” or “the player must call his hand?”

We play home-game poker for low stakes and so far we’ve played that a player must “call his hand.” We’ve been discussing playing more like the casinos where “cards speak.” Is one way better than another? How can one play a hi-lo game (Omaha) where “cards speak?”

I think “cards speak” is a better rule, because it makes it more likely that the player with the best hand wins the pot, and especially when novices are playing, sometimes a player will overlook his hand (e.g., he was so focused on trying to make a flush that he didn’t see he made a straight). Aside from that, the differences aren’t too important, except for the very game you mention: high-low split.

In home games played with a declare, the art of reading where the other players are at is very important. Sometimes a player with a rotten hand can win half a pot just by declaring the right way. I remember one game where I became firmly convinced one of my opponents who looked low had a monster high hand, and I declared low with three kings against him and two other opponents who looked high, and won, because everyone else declared high, including my accurately read “low-looking” friend who had four sevens. “Declare” is not inherently superior or inferior to “cards speak,” just a very different kind of game. In casinos and cardrooms, high-low split games are always played cards speak and almost always with a qualifier, that is, unless someone makes a hand that is at least an 8-low, there is no low and the highest hand scoops the whole pot.

High-low split with the qualifier is an excellent game. If you make a hand like a wheel (A-2-3-4-5), you can just turn your hand over at the end, know that you can only be tied on the low end (and probably won’t be of course with such a strong low) and can still be live for the high end of the pot with your straight. In declare games, where the rule is almost universally that a player who declares both ways must win both ways, “swinging” a wheel can sometimes be disastrous, if someone else is lurking with a better high hand.

If you are interested in high-low, I suggest you look at my article about high-low poker in the “learn poker” section, and also look through the “Ask Andy” archives, because there are several questions and answers about how pots are split in complex declare situations. When you go the cards speak route, who wins what is usually pretty clear.

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