Updated: Jun 6
Every year, somebody insists that Pot Limit Omaha is about to pass No Limit Hold’em as the
top poker variant. They point out how the high action players are leaving NLHE and gravitating towards PLO. That’s usually when they look across the room and point out a PLO game with massive stacks and a splashy lineup. The allure of PLO is that with four cards rather than two, there are so many more possibilities to make a strong hand. We are talking about the difference between 1,326 starting hand combinations for NLHE compared to 270,725 combinations for PLO! This added excitement, coupled with PLO being a less-studied and widely misunderstood game generate a certain buzz for the game and create rumors of an untapped goldmine. So if PLO is really on the verge of overtaking Hold’Em, why does a typical card room’s table lineup still look something like this?
Advantages of NLHE Over PLO for New Poker Players
Even in 2023 with the ever-growing popularity of PLO, it is typical to see 80-90% of the tables being used for NLHE in a given card room, and with good reason. NLHE’s marketing has it entrenched as the top game that new poker players learn. Start with the World Series of Poker: As long as the main event remains a NLHE event, there will be no ambiguity as to which game is king. PLO just does not stream well for TV as the hands are too slow, and the complexity of four cards can turn off casual viewers. NLHE remains the Cadillac of poker precisely because of its simplicity and its depth: It is an easier game for new players to learn, but it also has the strategic richness to keep them engaged for a lifetime. For these reasons, new poker players will tend to gravitate towards NLHE over PLO.
The Variance Roller Coaster of PLO for Experienced Poker Players
For more experienced players, NLHE has different advantages. Professionals and serious recreational players tend to prefer NLHE because of its lower variance compared to PLO which allows their edge to shine through more reliably. For example, pocket aces in Hold’em have more than 85% equity compared to a random two-card hand. But in PLO, AAxx hands only have around 65% equity against a random four-card hand. Equities run even closer for other hands that don’t include pocket aces in PLO. This leads to less of a preflop edge which in turn creates more multi-way pots as many players believe their cards always have a chance. Once the pot goes multi-way with hands that are fairly close in equity, variance goes through the roof. The conventional way to zoom past variance is to play more hands, but with live PLO averaging only 10-15 hands per hour (compared to 25-30 for NLHE), this is often not a realistic possibility. The long run in PLO just does not statistically arrive soon enough, leaving players with a roller coaster of swings and uneven results which can last for months.
PLO also restricts the bet sizing to the pot, so it can be a lot harder to price out opponents from chasing down draws. This leads to the multiway pots often going to the turn and river with multiple players involved, and with each holding four cards, they can almost always find some rationalization to stay in the hand. In NLHE, your hand reading abilities and your bet-sizing freedom give you extra opportunities to exert your will over the game. In PLO, your own cards matter much more often, and it is harder to win without holding the best hand. The hand-reading complexities with four cards and pots with 5 or more players involved can sow confusion and turn the game into more of a lottery. Ultimately, the biggest source of edge in PLO is coolering weaker players on the river who chase down non-nutted draws and who call down with dominated made hands. But you’ll need to actually hold the best hand at showdown in PLO to profit from these blunders. If you only play three or four of the 10-15 hands on average in a given hour (which is recommended for proper preflop play), there’s a very real chance that multiple hours go by without any profitable opportunities.
Other Key Mindset/Mental Game Differences in PLO vs. NLHE
These key differences create a certain divide where the players who enjoy more gambling choose PLO while players who prefer to think deeply about the game strategy and grind out consistent, steady wins select NLHE. In both games, having a strong mental game is essential, but one needs to be a borderline Zen master to successfully withstand the monsoons of variance that PLO creates. The emotionally taxing nature of a game with such huge swings can make it hard for players to stick with PLO for the long-haul. As a poker coach, I have seen this trend all too often. Some of my students will turn to PLO in times where they are card dead in NLHE, only to realize after numerous river suck-outs that the grass was not greener on the other side.
All in all, PLO will remain a fun game to provide a change-up for players when NLHE occasionally feels stale and repetitive. But it simply does not have the marketing power, streaming appeal, extensive history, and awesome simplicity to attract new players at the same rate as NLHE. Its massive variance can appeal to some action players, especially while it creates the illusion that anyone can be a profitable player. And in PLO, this illusion can last for longer than in NLHE because the variance takes longer to smooth out and for results to reflect actual skill levels. But as players come to their senses over larger data samples and the shine wears off, they’ll eventually return to the Cadillac of poker. On any given day, the best poker lineup in the room might still be in a PLO game. But until PLO finds a way to overcome all of the previously mentioned factors, NLHE will remain the king of the card room like it has been for decades.
Contact Joel Wald today at firstname.lastname@example.org or book a free 30-minute Zoom call and discuss how PTO Poker can help you achieve your poker goals!