Perhaps as far back as 7 years ago, a prediction I had read by several high stakes pros was that Pot Limit Omaha would eventually overtake No Limit Holdem as the game of choice. Being that it offered an excessive amount of action, presumably what the recreational players craved, fish would be drawn to it en masse like moths to a street lamp. It’s now closing in on 2013, and PLO, which has admittedly made some modest gains in popularity, has completely failed to surpass Holdem. What happened?
First off, a disclaimer: I don’t play PLO. It’s not because I didn’t want to, or rather, because I didn’t want to want to, but because after spending my first few years educating myself in the realms of LHE and NLH, I really didn’t care to be bothered to learn what in my mind essentially amounted to a more complicated version of NLH with two wild cards. I understood the concept of how guys would overplay “Holdem hands” like aces or kings in the hole, but I really didn’t like the idea of having to completely relearn how to interpret things like bottom set or when you should dump your nut straight in a large multi-way pot on the flop because one or more players are probably free rolling you with redraws while your hand is otherwise dead to the entire rest of the deck.
Furthermore, the times I did try it, I was immediately put off by trying to remember exactly what my four hole cards were. The fact that you can only use two and must use two and that they weren’t dealt out neatly arranged by suits and ordered from deuce to ace made it really difficult for a novice player to read his own hand, and I certainly was never going to get caught dead trying to do this on my own while people were staring me down at a casino like I was some backwoods schmuck.
I like to compare it to my old job as a waiter at Applebee’s. It took my first 9 months on the job to memorize and become comfortable with the contents and ingredients of each item on the menu. Occasionally, I would attempt to make the switch to a potentially higher earning service job like the ones at the Olive Garden, but that meant another large time investment where I would have to begin again as a complete rookie, bumbling people’s orders while standing in front of an entire restaurant full of people.
So with the assumption in mind that I’m not a fish (depending on whom you ask, of course), who’s coveted business ultimately determines the success or failure of a given game, how does my own experience relate to the recreational player’s concept of what makes a game enjoyable or worthwhile? It actually shouldn’t be surprising at all. If I could sum it up in a single word, it would be “complexity”. If you were around long enough ago to witness the dawn of the free “pub tournament”, which is enormously popular in America, you would remember the days of when 90% of the players would have to be instructed on how to post their blinds and fistfights would break out because one player couldn’t understand why his top pair with a 6 kicker somehow didn’t split the pot with the guy holding a 9 kicker. After a tedious 3 years or so, most of them had a grasp of the rules and the progress of the game would progress as smoothly as is possible in an environment where people are constantly spilling drinks on their hole cards and wandering off to take a piss just before passing out in the stall.
This would be the arc of the evolution of the common fish, as I see it. Although still terrible, they did eventually learn that a weak ace shouldn’t necessarily go to the felt and that 22 normally needs to flop a set in order to continue. The last thing these folks want is a new reason for people to yell out “c’mon!” while they fumble with their cards trying to determine what they have and having to face a new round of humiliation the first time they show down the nut flush, only to go busto once they are condescendingly reminded that they only hold the single ace of the suit.
Fish might crave action, but it might not be in the flavor of what you might consider fun or rewarding. I did read an article long ago by Rolf Slotboom which strongly recommended that casinos spread PLO to keep the recs interested, being that a larger short term luck factor would lead to them having some really huge nights. There is an extreme flaw to this argument: the converse is also true. Since it is no secret that potential winrates at PLO far exceed that of Holdem, this means that the recs are confronted with some devastating losses as well. Even though it seems like the fish have a complete disregard for money, that doesn’t mean they have endless pockets and enjoy going to home to their wives and explaining how they dropped $400 on some game they don’t even understand after being gone for just 45 minutes. They still have a pain threshold that needs to expand slowly and the massive swings and difficult river decisions with seemingly big hands in PLO are frightening. Unless playing on short money, they will have to play a lot more uncomfortable turns and rivers because they aren’t offered the “easy way out” granted by the all in play of Holdem, a not-so-elegant facet of the game that made it even fun and accessible for grandma to play on New Year’s Eve because she could just push in all her chips the moment she felt herself nodding off from all the champagne and painkillers.
Lastly, the concept that is the easiest to overlook and the one I believe contributed the most to the lack off takeoff is…..it’s really freaking hard to calculate the pot! Holdem’s rise to popularity is attributable to its simplicity: any two cards can win, after all! Simple to read your cards and simple to figure the pot. PLO requires that you constantly need to recalculate what is in the pot in order to figure what size raise is allowable, and even then it isn’t so straightforward. I constantly need to remind myself of how open raising for pot in a $1/2 game is somehow $7. This leads to ridiculously complex side pots and split pots, which further leads to lengthier hands and, most assuredly, lengthier arguments over who won the hand and how the pot should be divvied up fairly. Since so few people spread this at home games and fewer still spread them in home tourneys (I have yet to hear of this occurring), this would naturally lead to fewer games online and even fewer in brick and mortar casinos.
Lorin Yelle has been playing all forms of hold’em professionally for 7 years and blogging about them for 5. Diligently avoiding all types of Omaha, he now focuses on playing, coaching, and writing about short buy in strategies.