The Transition from NLHE to PLO
I'm writing this a little more than eight months into my PLO transition. In April of 2016, I went from primarily playing and studying NLHE live cash to PLO live cash. Of course, I still think about NLHE almost as much as I do PLO when teaching my students and when recording our weekly podcast, which has yet to cover a PLO hand (although we have covered a crazy combined PLO and NLHE hand). I started this transition to PLO at first as just a personal study transition. After learning more about the game and realizing how much money is being left on the table, within two months I was playing a majority of my hours at the PLO table. After far too long, it was too hard to ignore the upside in playing live PLO cash versus bad 2/5 games at the Jack Casino in Cleveland.
What I always told myself was that even though PLO had potentially much more expected value for a similar stake (1/2/5 PLO versus 2/5 NLHE), I was so much better at NLHE and the variance was much lower that I convinced myself it wouldn't ever make sense to switch. In retrospect, I wish I squashed this attitude months if not years before I eventually made the transition. While the variance is much greater, the upside truly does make up for this. Recreational players make significantly more fundamental mistakes and even winning regs are consistently making large mistakes, the kind that rarely happen in 2016 in NLHE.
While I was quickly happy to switch over to the much juicier live PLO game that I have access to, this article is about my continued love of NLHE despite my success at PLO. I still will play primarily PLO over the next two months before I move from the Cleveland area. That doesn't mean that I like the game more. On the contrary, learning more about PLO has more firmly rooted my love of NLHE.
1) Playing Heads-Up Pots
In NLHE, even at the best games where people are playing loose, think 35% VPIP at a 9-handed table, you're still going to see significanlty more heads-up and three-way pots than at a standard 9-handed 1/2/5 PLO game. In the PLO game that I play in, the vast majority of pots include far more people. Because many of the people in these games stack off with non-nut hands and non-nut and dominated draws regularly, it makes this game still more profitable than even a good NLHE game, but all the decisions are a lot more clear and straightforward.
With the ability to overbet and two less cards which makes it harder to make as good of an absolute hand, there's a lot more room to do things like value bet thinly, get 100s of BBs in with a top of the range value hand, and make big bluffs and get people to fold hands near the top of their range. These types of plays not only let me utilize the skills I've picked up playing and studying poker, but they allow me to play to my specific opponent. While live reads including the things people say, timing tells, and body language is of course important in any live game, it has the biggest impact on one's winrate in a game with uncapped betting and where ranges are more clearly defined. Taking maximally exploitative lines that deviate from the GTO play requires more creative on the fly thinking, and with that greater focus at the table.
2) The Ability to do In-Depth Range Analysis
In NLHE, while sometimes tedious, it's certainly possible to breakdown an opponent's range to every combination possible in a given spot. In PLO, doing this type of combinatorics is very difficult and not practical for even the studied live professional to do on a daily basis. I thoroughly enjoy doing the podcast breakdown and being able to solve for reasonably what the best possible decision would have been within a given set of assumptions.
In PLO, it's not as simple. The game is not even as close to as being solved as NLHE, not that either are particularly close. The few times I've used a tool like PokerJuice to construct an opponent's range, even with years of experience doing this type of work for NLHE it takes me hours and hours to do a single hand to achieve the same level of certainty about a given action as in NLHE. It also took me a similar amount of time to do this when I first started doing in depth range analyses for NLHE. There are two extra cards and exponentially more complexities the come along with those increased variables. Even when I get to a similar level of doing PLO range analyses as I'm at with NLHE, I imagine it will still take much longer to fully breakdown a single hand.
Of course, none of this means that it is less valuable to do this type of work for PLO versus NLHE. I honestly should do much more of this work myself; it's hard if not impossible to do too much. It's just more much satisfying knowing that I can breakdown an entire hand in great detail in less than an hour because I don't always have blocks of hours at a time to seriously study poker.
3) The 'Math' is Less Important
In PLO, understanding how your range of hands interacts with an opponent's range of hands in terms of equity is a lot more important than in NLHE. In my opinion, the greatest skill in 9-handed live PLO cash comes from knowing when to play draws aggressively against a range that consists of many draws and medium strength made hands. These types of scenarios give you the opportunity to be a larger favorite than the classic made hand versus good draw that happens in PLO more often than in NLHE. It's rare here that someone is more than a 60% when all the money gets in on the flop.
A lot of my PLO studies have consisted of thinking about the types of hands in my opponents' ranges, what they're willing to stack off with given stack sizes, and when it makes sense to push my range advantage. Most of the breakeven or slightly winning regulars in the Cleveland frequently don't push these edges enough. Instead, playing most of their draws, even nut draws passively, and only making large value bets with the nuts and nothing else.
All of this said, it doesn't mean I don't understand the immense value in doing quantitative-based poker study. I do it frequently myself and recommend it to our readers, listeners, and students constantly. But I would be lying if I said my favorite part of poker wasn't putting something on a specific range of hands, a range where I can actually imagine all or close to all the hands that they might have in their range, and taking an incredibly exploitative line. This is something not possible in PLO.
Playing PLO is Still Pretty Damn Fun
I still find playing PLO, and playing in most lineups of live poker, quite fun and engaging. In many ways, why I love NLHE more than PLO is because it's more fun for me to think and study about the game. In PLO, you frequently have a lot more gambly types, who are more talkative than the average player, which makes the game a lot more fun. I've also found that in Cleveland as well as other casinos I've played at like Maryland Live!, most of the PLO regs are much more social than the no limit regs. If any of you know counterexamples where the NLHE regs are friendlier than the PLO regs, I'd love to hear which casinos this might be true for!
I still very much love the great 4-card game, but for now, I'm happy I have the Just Hands Poker podcast to regularly think about and discuss what to me is the greatest form of poker I've ever played: No-Limit Texas Hold'Em.