Although starting off with three low cards is the way to go, not all low combinations glisten as brightly. Holding an ace is often the key. It’s like an additional card; the highest one in the deck as well as the lowest, and unbounded opportunities are open to skilful players whose starting hand contains an ace along with two other low cards.

Here’s an example to consider. Both 5-4-2 and 5-4-A are excellent starting hands. Despite the fact that three-cards to a wheel is as good as it gets, there are some obvious differences between these holdings. While both can grow into a wheel, the hand without an ace is essentially a low-draw — nothing more. It will only become a high hand when the holder is fortunate enough to catch two perfect cards, and that’s a real long shot. There’s also the sobering possibility that a low hand might not be made at all. Even if another low card arrives on fourth street, it’s not uncommon to strike out by catching three bananas, or high cards. (Among 7-stud/8 players a banana does not grow on trees; it comes right out of a deck of cards with a rank of nine or higher).

Since players who are drawing to low hands usually want to complete them inexpensively, high hands tend to raise early, to make it costly for drawing hands to stick around in hopes of winning half the pot. Once any opponent looks like he’s completed a low hand and now holds claim to half the pot, the high hands generally slow down, except for humongous hands like full houses or quads, which are certain to capture their end of the pot.

While a hand like 5-4-A is almost surely the best low draw on the first betting round, it’s still a draw and not a made hand. After all, a low hand cannot be completed until fifth street at the earliest. But that ace isn’t just a low card; it might also be the best playable high hand on the first betting round too, since hands like K-A-4 are generally not going to enter the fray. After all, someone holding that kind of hand is really playing six cards against seven of his opponent’s — and that’s a certain prescription for failure.

A hand such as 5-4-A is flexible enough — it can go high, low, or veer off in both directions simultaneously — to be played more aggressively than any one-way draw to a low hand. If a raise winnows the field down to one or two opponents, our hero might wind up with the best hand in each direction and, if his opponents realize this and fold, so much the better.

Pairing that ace on fourth street also puts our hero in an enviable position. Even without completing his low, he can win by pairing any one of his other cards. After all, aces-up is generally a money-winning hand in this game.

While hands this good won’t always pan out, that’s poker. It doesn’t come with any guarantees, and 7-stud/8 is a game replete with situations where a player must take a risk and draw a card. When those draws don’t materialize it’s frustrating, costly, and can put one quickly on tilt. But that’s no reason to deviate from playing properly. And one of the keys to proper play is to realize just how powerful holding a low draw with an ace really is.