Dipping Your Toe In PLO

At some point in your poker career, you probably heard that in hold’em you get dealt aces once ever 221 hands. Obviously that’s “on average”, which means you likely have some very long dry spells without seeing those lovely two A’s looking back at you.

Suppose I told you there was a game where you get dealt aces every forty hands, almost six times more frequently? And if that weren’t enough, you have not one, but six two-card combinations to work with.

Welcome to Omaha. And specifically, Pot Limit Omaha, or “PLO” as it’s known the world around. First, key differences between PLO and no-limit hold’em (NLHE):

  1. You get four cards instead of two. That’s pretty straightforward and easy to understand.
  2. You must use exactly two cards from your hand and exactly three cards from the board. This will bite you in the butt at least once before you’re done playing PLO.
    1. If your hand is KKK6, it’s unplayable. You don’t have trip kings – in fact, you have a pair of kings, and one of the kings you’d like to see on the board (giving you a set) is dead in your hand
    2. If there are four diamonds on the board, and you have the ace of diamonds but no other diamond, you do not have a flush. You do, however, have what the PLO crew calls “the nut blocker”. It’s a classic big bluff opportunity.
  3. The “PL” or “Pot Limit” piece simply means that the most anybody can bet at one time is “the amount of the pot”. Here are the two rules you need to understand how much you can bet or raise:
    1. If there’s been no bet already, you can bet the amount of the pot. If there’s GC5 in the pot, you can bet GC5, no more. The minimum bet is still the amount of the big blind, as it is in NLHE.
    2. If there has been a bet in front of you, the amount you can raise is the amount that would be in the pot if you just called. Yeah, I know – it’s a bit confusing. Suppose there’s GC5 in the pot, Alice bets GC3 and it’s on Bob. Bob announces “Pot”, meaning he wishes to raise the pot. Imagine Bob putting in GC3 to call Alice’s bet. So now there’s GC5 + GC3 + GC3 = GC11 in the pot. Bob raises GC11 over Alice’s GC3 bet, making it GC14 to go.

      Some people like to compute this by saying, “Three times the bet, plus whatever is in the pot before the bet." So three times Alice’s GC3 bet is GC9, plus the GC5 that’s in the pot makes GC14 total. Either way you get there is fine.

    Of course, the good news is that the software does all this work for you, and only permits you to bet a legal amount. All that explanation above was just so you’ll understand what’s going on and why the max bets are what they are.

So those are the mechanics, but how do you beat the game? So glad you asked…

Tips for getting into PLO without getting damaged

  1. PLO is a game of hitting the flop – it’s really a big flop lottery. So good play is all about how many lottery tickets you have. In hold’em, you have just one two-card combination. But if you’re looking at four cards, you have six two-card combinations (mathematically it’s (4 x 3) / 2) ). If you play a hand that just one or two useful two-card combinations, you’re at a huge disadvantage to an opponent who has four, five, or even six useful two-card combos. They have many more lottery tickets than you do, they’re going to hit a much larger percentage of flops than you are, and they’re going to hit them harder.

    As a specific example, beware the “dangler”, as the PLO aficionados call it. That’s a card that serves no good in the hand. For instance, suppose you have Ad-Kc-Td-6s. Unless you get some kind of miracle flop with two sixes in it, that six of spades is useless. Recall that even with a flop of 3-4-5, it does you no good, since you have no second card to use to make a straight. So instead of six two-card combinations, you really have only three. You’re going into a gunfight with a knife.
  2. Realize that preflop equities in Omaha run much closer than they do in hold’em. That is, in hold’em, there’s a huge equity difference between “good” and “bad” hands preflop. In Omaha, that equity range is compressed a lot. So you’re not earning the big Sklansky$ preflop the way you can jamming up a premium hand preflop in NLHE.
  3. Pot-limit betting prevents you from truly jamming things up preflop with the best hand. In NLHE, as the bets pile up preflop, sometimes you can just get stacks in with your aces and then take your chances on a run-out. A pair of aces is still comfortably in front of any other hand preflop in PLO – all things being equal, you’d be happy to get all the money in. However, once you put in (for instance) a 3-bet, you’ve basically put everybody on notice that you have aces. Now they flat call and play a pot with you, knowing with near-certainty two of your cards. This can leave you in a very bad position.

    While it’s usually correct to raise with a pair of aces (at least the “better” ones) preflop in PLO, you don’t need to put in a third bet, particularly if you’re out of position. Wait and see if you get a favorable flop.
  4. Position. Position is crucial in all forms of poker. But it’s even more important in PLO because post-flop stack depths are often greater than in NLHE. Deeper stacks favor the in-position player, so being out-of-position in PLO is even more uncomfortable than it is in NLHE. No matter how positionally sensitive you are in NLHE, be that much more aware of your position in PLO. Dump, without hesitation, awkward or marginal hands until you get to the cutoff or button. This is good advice for NLHE, but it’s life-saving advice for PLO.
  5. The nuts. In an eight-handed NLHE game, there are eight two-card combinations in play. In an eight-handed PLO game, there are 48 two-card combinations in play. If you’re not looking at it, somebody probably is. The way to win at PLO is to make the nuts, preferably with some redraws to better hands. The way to get broke at PLO is make pretty second-best hands. Here are some quick examples:
    1. Good PLO players will routinely fold the nut straight on the flop when the action suggests that somebody else has them tied. The idea is that often the opponent has them tied at the moment and has redraws to flushes and/or full houses, so the hero is being freerolled.
    2. Bottom set is a good way to get broke in PLO.
    3. Getting big money in with a straight draw when a flush draw is possible is another good way to get broke. Straight draws do poorly against flush draws.
    4. PLO is famous for straight “wraps” – straight draws with 13, 17, and even (in pathological cases) 20 outs.1 Learn your pot odds for such massive draws, and when you have (e.g.) a set, consider the possibility that the guy jamming up the flop is looking at a third of the deck (or more) as outs.
    5.   Also, when counting those wrap outs, make a hard distinction
        between nut and non-nut outs. If you have 654x in your hand
        and the flop is A78, it can be tempting to say “Oh, any 4, 5, 6,
        or 9 makes a straight.” Only the 4 makes the nut straight.
        Anything else you might be totally dead, and even if you hit
        your three-outer to the nuts on the turn, there are dozens of
        cards that can kill you on the river. This is actually a pretty
        trivial fold on the flop.

PLO can be a ton of fun and if you like a rollercoaster, it’s the poker game for you. Give it a try sometime and let me know how you like it.

Lee Jones plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.

1 What's such a pathological case? The board is 9-8-2 and you have JT76. Any 5, 6, 7, T, J, or Q makes a straight, though many of them are not the nuts.