If no-limit hold’em is the Cadillac of poker, then PLO might well be the turbo-charged smoking Lamborghini
The high-stakes tables on Full Tilt Poker are constantly filled with the world’s top poker superstars battling it out in $100k+ pots. On any given night, railbirds can watch the likes of Phil Ivey, Gus Hansen and Patrik Antonius splashing cyber-chips around with reckless abandon. But it isn’t no-limit hold’em they’re playing – the real nosebleed action is taking place on the pot-limit Omaha (PLO) tables.
Brian ‘Stinger88’ Hastings has just come off a phenomenal month in which he won over $1m playing PLO cash games, while fellow CardRunners pro Brian ‘sbrugby’ Townsend recently enthused that PLO is ‘a beautiful game, and so much more complex than no-limit hold’em.’ In fact, Betfair’s Ben Grundy has gone so far as to say that he’s not playing any more no-limit hold’em (NLHE) cash games this year because his PLO results are going so well.
It seems that pot-limit Omaha is fast becoming the game of choice for the discerning online pro. So how did this happen and does this spell the end of no-limit hold’em’s reign?
MAKING THE SWITCH
Online legend Phil ‘OMGClayAiken’ Galfond describes why he picked up PLO: ‘It was gradual for me. I saw a lot of PLO games running at $200/$400, while no-limit hold’em was drying up. Most of the players at that time were European. They’d been playing PLO already for a while. I learned a lot from practice and from Tom ‘durrrr’ Dwan, who was one of the first big no-limit winners to make the switch. I just put in the hours and eventually picked it up.’
Compared to hold’em, which has countless books and training videos devoted to it, not to mention strategy forums and TV exposure, PLO is still in its infancy. This means there is far more value in PLO for the top players. Daniel Negreanu sees this as a vital factor in its rising popularity. ‘Online poker has a lot of excellent no-limit hold’em specialists and they are finding it tougher to find value in playing each other,’ says Kid Poker. ‘A game like PLO attracts more action players and there is often a lot more value to be found in these games.’
Grundy has played both hold’em and PLO cash games at nosebleed stakes for a few years now and his tale reveals the state of online poker today. Grundy managed to win over $1m in 2007 playing PLO but then lost over half of that playing the hold’em cash games. His reasoning is that there is simply no edge at high-stakes hold’em for anyone but the very, very best: ‘You could pit the top 20 hold’em players on any site against each other and nobody would know who would win. Whereas in PLO there’s a far bigger difference between the best of the best and the best of the rest.’
No-limit hold’em is now so advanced at the very highest level that the top players – people such as Dwan, Ivey and Townsend – have little edge over most players. And for them the game simply holds little value compared to the potential found in PLO.
The top online pros have started to look elsewhere for their higher-stakes action and pot-limit Omaha is the next logical step for a maturing player, as the core of the game is the same. ‘People make out the differences between PLO and NLHE to be big, but they really aren’t,’ says online pro Andrew ‘muddywater’ Wiggins. ‘The same fundamentals apply: use position and play aggressively.’
Although PLO and no-limit hold’em are close cousins, BlueSquare pro Karl Mahrenholz explains that even at high stakes, players moving into PLO have major leaks that are easily exploitable – yet another reason why the game is proving so popular. ‘People need to be aware that there are also many new skills and principles to learn,’ he says.
‘The main difference between the games is the differing strengths of the starting hands. The key to being a good PLO player is knowing how to play with and against Aces. While it’s true that A-A-x-x is a favourite pre-flop against any other hand, it is quite rare that you will ever be all-in pre-flop in PLO.’ To be a top PLO player, then, you must be able to play a wide variety of hands both pre- flop and on the three subsequent streets.
Grundy claims that there are many players who simply cannot appreciate this key difference, which gives players like him a huge edge. ‘I remember two years ago when I played PLO online and the biggest stakes were $25/$50. I kept thinking that everyone would suddenly get really good (like they have in no-limit hold’em), and then how would I be able to win? But it just never happened.’
Grundy sees the lack of training resources as a crucial factor in this. ‘There simply aren’t many good Omaha authors out there at all. All the books written about PLO are mainly from old-school players who were playing the game ten years ago and the game is completely different now from what it once was.’
This means that many players jump into PLO without a fundamental understanding of the intricacies of the game, such as mastering the myriad of straight draws around which PLO centres. ‘I’ve been playing against the same people for three years and some of them still aren’t very good. They don’t seem to learn or get better – they just hit a level and stay there.’
Galfond sums up why he and the other high-stakes pros have made the switch. ‘Almost nobody who plays $200/$400 no-limit hold’em isn’t a shark. But PLO still has bad players who choose to play the game at high stakes.’ Wherever the fish go, it’s only natural that the top poker players will follow.
FOR THE GAMBLE
As we all know, poker players love to gamble, and this is a key reason why pot- limit Omaha is red-hot right now – it’s full of huge swings and constant action. Who cares about a classic A-K vs Q-Q coin-flip when you can get a $429,000 hand with top set versus the nut flush draw versus a straight flush draw?
By having four cards, the number of made hands and draws that players can have on the flop is multiplied. This leads to a far higher degree of variance. ‘The swings are far bigger in PLO because there are a lot more all-ins and also a lot more coin-flips,’ says Grundy.
‘It’s very easy to drop ten buy-ins in a day in PLO but very, very difficult to do the same thing playing hold’em. I would say you need double the bankroll for PLO to play the same stakes.’
Due to the variance, PLO still offers the illusion that anyone can win at any one time, attracting gambling fish who think they have a chance in the big games. And they do… for a while. ‘There’s more action and bigger swings in PLO than no-limit,’ says Galfond. ‘That makes it more fun for everyone, especially recreational players, and it means that a very bad player can win for a long time.
Also, bad players can easily convince themselves that they are good because of all the coin-flipping involved. If fish like the game more, that means the pros should like the game more.’
ON THE EDGE
As in all forms of poker, anyone can run good. Often in PLO, even the nuts on the flop will only have a 55% chance of winning against another hand due to the number of draws out there. But it’s by pushing these small edges that allows the top pros to win out. Playing PLO against bad players can be much more profitable than hold’em because the pros are constantly getting their money in with significant equity and not relying on pre-flop coin-flips.
‘It is this aspect of the game that makes it profitable for better players,’ says Mahrenholz. ‘They understand where they have significant equity with their drawing hands and will not get involved in non-nut draws that can get you into a world of hurt.’
So does this mean pot-limit Omaha is primed to supersede our beloved Texas hold’em? ‘That’ll never happen,’ says Daniel Negreanu. ‘Just like you don’t see the big mixed game at the Bellagio trickle down to the smaller games, neither will you see pot-limit Omaha challenge no-limit hold’em. Hold’em is the best suited format for television, and for that reason it will always be the most popular form of poker.’
Andrew Wiggins takes a similar stance. ‘No-limit hold’em will always be king. In fact, I don’t think the popularity of PLO will ever rival no-limit hold’em in America. I feel that PLO will continue to grow, however. It’s an action-packed game and exciting to play. So, although hold’em isn’t going anywhere, I think people will be drawn to PLO because of the variety, action and profitability.’
The bottom line is that the no-limit hold’em market has matured to a point where even the games as low as $1/$2 are proving tough to beat, so it makes sense to try your hand at a game where you have a decent edge. You may never – and probably never want to – experience $1m swings, but it’s worth dipping your toe in the PLO water. You could soon be wondering why you’ve been playing with just two cards all this time.