Hold’em to Omaha

If you’re making the move from the relative safety of hold’em to the wild world of ?pot-limit Omaha cash games heed these lessons

When you play poker you have to have your mojo fully engaged, and a few months ago mine had upped and left the building. It would seem that 12 years of hold’em was plenty and I needed a new challenge. Pot-limit Omaha was the answer, as it is for an increasing number of players. The brutal fact is hold’em games, particularly cash games, have become far tougher in the last two or three years. The general standard of play has increased a lot, the games are tighter, more aggressive and there are far fewer casual players.

In Omaha the level of awareness is far lower, there is much less educational information and the game is not as close to being ‘solved’ as hold’em. The problem when you move across from hold’em is that at first you are the dead money. This article will look at some key adjustments you need to make if Omaha is going to be your pot of poker gold.

Before we look at specific adjustments it should be noted that many of your general poker skills are transferable. Aggression is still key to being a winner. Isolating limpers and weak players in pots, taking and keeping the lead in a hand, three-betting in position light, check-raise bluffing scary boards and so on are still going to be valuable in PLO. Also your well-honed basic poker instincts about hands and your opponents’ tendencies will help you get a head start in the new game. However, you will need new knowledge and skills to be a winner.

Playing Pre-flop

There is still some debate about the amount of hands you can play profitably and win. Good six-max players seem to settle around a 27/21 (VPIP/PFR) style. However, there are players playing much looser, playing up to 40% of their hands. You certainly can win by ‘nitting it up’ at the low to medium stakes and playing tight pre-flop. There will usually be a bigger gap between your VPIP and PFR numbers than in hold’em as you can cold call more raises and you’ll also find yourself in more multi-way pots.

The classic adage that hold’em players overvalue big pairs in Omaha still holds true. It takes a lot of trial, error and loss to finally accept that hands with Q-Q or J-J in them (unless highly co-ordinated) just aren’t very strong. In fact, having a pair in your hand kills a lot of your equity: 9s-8c-7s-6c is much stronger than 9s-8c-8s-6c.

Also two good hold’em hands do not a good Omaha hand make: Kc-Qc-8s-8d is a weak pre-flop Omaha holding. We’re looking for hands with four cards that all work well together and can make the bigger hands we need in Omaha. Many experienced poker players will be aware of these ideas but understanding them and playing in accordance with them takes time.

Equities Run Closer

This idea that equities run closer is true both pre and post-flop. It means that as a general concept hands are much closer together in Omaha than they are in hold’em. So for example, in hold’em you have regular match-ups where one hand is a big favourite. This is just not the case in Omaha. Most pre-flop match-ups are very close with more than a 55/45 advantage being rare.
A-A holdings are still a powerhouse pre-flop and usually the more money you can get in with them, the better. However, even against A-A hands other hands will almost always have 35% or better. Even a super extreme example of strong hand versus weak hand such as Ac-Ad-8c-7d vs Kd-9h-6c-2s the weaker hand has a 30% chance to win.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t push pre-flop equities, and you should still be three-betting and four-betting for value. However, it does mean that you can call far more three-bets and cold call more raises. The hands are often close enough in equity terms that the price you’re getting from the pot makes seeing the flop correct, which is a big difference to hold’em.

Post-flop you will also have a closer match up in equity terms with 75/25 and 80/20 match-ups far less common. The norm will most likely be 60/40 match-ups and closer. So in a situation where both players have top-pair – one with a wrap and one a flush draw (such as a flop of Jd-5c-3c and hands of Ah-Js-2d-4h vs Qc-Jh-8c-6d) the match up is 44% vs 56%.

Understanding the value of your hand in Omaha takes time and if you move from hold’em it’ll often be the case that you have far more equity than you think. This means that you will sometimes be folding less in Omaha and because other players have the same knowledge you’ll have less fold equity when you attack them.

C-betting and Turn Aggression

Taking the lead pre-flop and continuation betting is still a very profitable strategy in most Omaha games. It is true that you need to continuation bet slightly less than in hold’em because your opponents will call you more on the flop. However, you should still be firing a lot of flops until given a reason not to because a lot of their holdings will be weak. They may either give up immediately or you are in a position to continue firing on the turn if they just call. In lower stakes games you should be decreasing your c-betting in multi-way pots.

For example, on a flop like Ks-Jh-10c it may be fine to fire against one player if you’ve missed as this is a scary board for him if he doesn’t hold high cards. However, against two or more players this would be spewing money as this board connects to so many hands.
There are lots of good reasons to play the turn aggressively in Omaha and in situations where you wouldn’t in hold’em. There are so many spots where your opponent has enough equity on the flop to continue but hasn’t improved enough on the turn to call another bet; or is now convinced your hand is much stronger than his. This is particularly true of weaker players in the lower limits who like to peel flops because they have a bit of something but will give up on the turn.

So let’s say we have a weak holding on a flop of As-10c-4s and we’re heads-up. Our opponent calls our c-bet on the flop. The turn brings a 7d. In hold’em we may not fire again on the turn as the board hasn’t changed and won’t scare our opponent into giving up. In Omaha our opponent will often hold hands like a flush draw and low pair, and we can now charge him a price he doesn’t want to pay. Some players may also give up with unimproved Ace hands.

Value Betting

Value betting correctly is something most hold’em players have to work on. When you start to play Omaha it’s likely you’ll feel completely lost as hand values have changed so much. Most players, including this one, have many cringe inducing moments where you ‘value own yourself’: betting what you think is the best hand only to be called by a better one.

There are many spots in Omaha such as making the nut flush on a paired board where you may be tempted to value bet but actually you should be check-folding. Knowing when you can value bet is always going to be situational and player dependent but there is a big adjustment to make from hold’em because the hand values change so much.

Other Key Concepts

The challenge with writing this article was picking the key concepts. There are of course many more you’ll need to get to grips with like the heightened importance of position, boards you can attack against aggressive players, playing in re-raised pots and so on. And all of this is without mentioning the key skill in any poker game of hand reading, which will stink when you start to play a new game and will take real work to excel at.

The final thing to mention is the psychological adjustment you’ll have to make to the increased variance in the game. Not only do you need a bigger bankroll in terms of buy-ins to sustain the swings, you need a much calmer disposition. If you’re multi-tabling you can lose several buy-ins very quickly without doing much wrong and you’ll have days when you want to launch the computer through the window. There’s not much you can do about this as it makes no sense to minimise variance in a high variance game, but you need to make the psychological adjustment or Omaha may not be the game for you. I hope it is and you also get your mojo back.

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