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Learning Pot-Limit Omaha

The road to a final table

by Matt Matros |  Published: Jan 08, 2010

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It finally happened. I’ve played hold’em for many years, in its limit and no-limit forms, and this summer, I finally started feeling a bit of hold’em burnout. While there is always more to be learned and new levels for one’s poker game to reach, I just didn’t have the motivation to work hard at hold’em anymore, at least for a while. So, I thought, why not try something else? And thus began my experiment in pot-limit Omaha (PLO).

I didn’t have to start completely from scratch. I’d logged a few dozen hours of PLO over the years, and even cashed in the $1,500 PLO event at the 2007 World Series of Poker. But there is a big difference between knowing the basics of a game and knowing how to play a game well. My goal was to learn PLO well enough to have an edge in most major PLO tournaments.

At first, I thought I’d just jump into some medium-stakes games online and try to learn as I went along. That was a really bad idea. It was quickly obvious to me that I should supplement my play with some reading material about the game, so I purchased Card Player columnist Jeff Hwang’s two PLO books. They were extraordinarily helpful, and I highly recommend them to any aspiring PLO player. Once I knew a little bit more about starting-hand selection, a little bit more about hand valuation on the flop, turn, and river, and a lot more about the style differences between a PLO specialist and a no-limit hold’em specialist, PLO started to make a lot more sense.

My newfound knowledge had little or no impact on my results. Indeed, I got pretty crushed as I continued to read the Hwang books and log more and more hands. I really thought I was improving, but the results weren’t coming. Luckily, I had some software that enabled me to keep my sanity. Omaha Manager keeps a nice stat that shows how much you should be winning or losing, assuming that you earned your expected value every time you got all in. For example, if I jam the pot with a big draw, and get it all in with 55 percent equity against a set for a $1,000 pot ($500 from myself and $500 from my opponent) and lose, in real life I’m down $500. But given how the money went in, I actually should be up $50, because I’m supposed to get back $550 (55 percent of $1,000) from the pot. Omaha Manager would tell me that my result was $550 worse than my EV [expected value]. Start losing a bunch of all-in showdowns, and your results can vary from your EV quite substantially. Mine sure did.

Thanks to Omaha Manager, I was able to say, “Yes, I’m losing a lot, but I should be losing only a little,” and then, “Yes, I’m losing a little, but I should be pretty much breaking even,” and then finally, “Yes, I’m breaking even, but I should be winning.” I thought I was improving as I went along, and my database provided some evidence that I was right. The variance of PLO was unlike anything I’d ever experienced in hold’em, and I’d been through some pretty bad downswings in hold’em. This is the kind of thing you can read about and accept on an intellectual level, but you really understand only when you go through it.

When I saw that there would be a televised PLO tournament in Atlantic City, a two-hour drive from my home, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to test what I’d learned. So, in mid-November, I headed down to the Taj Mahal for this U.S. Poker Championship (USPC) event. Early in the tournament, I got it all in for about 100 big blinds with my opponent on a flop of 5-4-3 rainbow. I held 8-7-6-4. His hand? A-J-10-2. I had learned enough to be sure to have the redraw to get a lot of chips in on that kind of board. My opponent, meanwhile, seemed to be using a hold’em valuation for his hand. At first, I marveled at how bad his play was, but then I realized that a few short months ago, I might’ve made the same horrendous mistake (I hope not, but who knows?). My training had earned me some equity.

Later in the tournament, I had an ace-high flush on a paired board that had been checked through by four players on the flop and turn. When an opponent bet the river, I just smiled and folded. I’ve learned that you don’t need to call with bluff-catchers nearly as often in PLO as you do in hold’em, mostly because you’ll have a lot more nut hands in your range, and a flush on a paired board is certainly a mere bluff-catcher in PLO. I’ll never know if my opponent had the full house or not, but I’m very happy with my fold.

Whatever I did in the USPC PLO event must’ve worked well, because you’ll get to see the results on SpikeTV in January. A strong group of players are among the final seven, including Matt Glantz, Amnon Filippi, Steve Zolotow, Michael Binger, and Allie Prescott. In total, the seven of us have more than $15 million in tournament cashes; and I can’t speak for the other guys, but I thought we had a really fun rapport at the final table. It should make for good TV. You’ll also get to see me break my rule about not calling on the river with bluff-catchers. Tune in to see how that final table turns out. Spade Suit

Matt Matros is the author of The Making of a Poker Player. He is also a featured coach for stoxpoker.com.