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The World Turns

by David Downing |  Published: Jan 01, 2007

There used to be a great divide in the world between the USA and Europe, and I don't just mean a bizarre fondness for Evangelical television. The other great religious divide was that the USA played almost exclusively limit poker, mostly hold'em and stud, and Europe played almost exclusively pot-limit poker, mostly Omaha. However, post-Internet explosion, almost everyone now plays no-limit hold'em (NLH), either of the tournament or cash-game variety. But the world invariably turns; it now seems like the very, very biggest NLH players are struggling to find a game. At the 200-400 level and higher, there are fewer weak bucks to butt heads against and only similar seasoned stags. So many of these players are moving to the perennial action game, which is kinder to the weaker players and guaranteed to create fast and furious action: pot-limit Omaha (PLO). Now, as a player who has made the transition the other way, from PLO to NLH, what advice can I give these PLO arrivistes?

Riding the Variance Roller Coaster
NLH is a game of massive edges. In fact, some players, derisively termed "set miners," simply hang around waiting for monster hands and the aforenamed hidden set on the flop before they give any action. This, in the right hands, can be a simple winning strategy. Even more creative players are generally looking for big edges before they commit, and it's not uncommon to get all in and find that your foe has no more than two outs, and occasionally, even no outs. This simply doesn't happen in PLO. First of all, hand values run very close preflop; A-A is no sure thing in PLO, and is often only slightly better than even money versus a good drawing hand. By the time we get to the flop, even the worst players typically have a generous handful of outs if they find themselves all in. Things get worse in games with good players. In NLH, good players often find themselves lightly sparring, but only rarely getting involved in monster pots with each other. The action focuses on catching the fish. PLO is very different. Drawing hands are common and so powerful that the games become what regulars call a 60-40 fest. That is, in most hands, you are either the 60 percent favourite or the 40 percent underdog, and it's a matter of trying to get the right side of this equation more often than your opponents - and then get lucky. All of this means that moving from NLH to PLO will provide swings beyond the imagination of a typical NLH player.

The Worst is Not Enough
It's not unusual to find yourself in a NLH game with someone who has no chance to win. Not only has he or she no chance to win over even the short term, but seeing the session out with anything other than empty pockets is an unlikely possibility. At this point, the pros come out of the woodwork and the waiting lists lengthen. In PLO, it is almost impossible to find such a plump fish. The game itself, with its myriad drawing options and much more common backdoor draws, simply protects these players and gives them a much longer half-life. In fact, they can even turn themselves into half-decent players because they get much more time to survive.

Spin That Wheel
A lot of NLH players are rocks. The thought of gambling makes them blanch and gets Adam's apples bobbing. This could never be said of PLO players. PLO players, weathered through the storms of outrageous fortune, are gamblers, and tend to be dismissive of any tight play or players. A classic role model of a PLO player would be Sammy Farha - full of action and not afraid to gamble. So, not only is the game itself more of a gamble, the players make it worse.

Bets are Bets
Because it is so hard to make a hand in NLH, so much of the play can come down to playing the fine edges of not-much-of-a-hand versus another not-much-of-a-hand. The epitome of this is the continuation bet, whereby the preflop raiser invariably bets the flop whether it has helped his hand or not, knowing full well that it is very hard for his opponent to have improved his hand, either. In this way, many bets really mean not much at all, and it's often correct to call or even raise such bets very thin. Developing a nose for sniffing out bluffs is critical, as is developing a feel for when a player is betting simply because he bet the round before. PLO has a different nature. Although bets sometimes are representing a made hand, often they are made with draws, which paradoxically are favourites over the made hands they are pretending to be. Continuation bets are made, but with a much smaller frequency, and it is very rare that a continuation bet on the flop invariably leads to another continuation bet on the turn. Bets in Omaha mean more. This doesn't mean that there is no bluffing in the game, just that there is much, much more semibluffing, or betting with two-way hands that are semistrong but have great chances to improve.

In general, it's a good move for uber-stakes poker if it moves to PLO, as it is inherently a more sustainable game. But NLH players should be wary of assuming they know too much of the intricacies of the game and that it is just hold'em, but more of it. Times do change, but a poker pro should be careful that the turning of the world does not leave him behind. spade

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