The Declining Edge in NLH: Time to Switch Variants?

Ed. Note: I received this guest submission from a longtime reader of this poker blog who wished to remain anonymous. I liked the post and feel that a lot of readers out there will probably identify with his story – I know that I do to a certain extent. While I rarely play online anymore, I have always been a proponent of playing mixed games (and even wild card games). In any event, I hope you enjoy what the author has to say. Be sure to let us know what you think in the comments section below and on our Facebook page.

NLH PLO

Image credit: Betfair.com

“Remember the glory days of online poker?”

It’s a common theme that ‘old timers’ in their early 30s love to reminisce about. Well actually… No I don’t. Regrettably I am too young to have been a part of the poker boom. When the question is discussed, eyes mist over and the story of poker’s online expanse is recounted in hushed tones as a seemingly magical time when anyone with a copy of Doyle Brunson’s Super System and Windows 98 could go pro and make their millions. I am from the decidedly less glamourous post-2011 era of Poker Tracker 4, Hold’em Manager 2, Heads Up Displays (HUDs), GTO (Game Theory Optimal), substantial overuse of acronyms, and Vitamin D deficiencies. LOL.

Now I am not a poker writer who claims that No Limit Texas Hold’em is dead, but the obvious question remains: Where are my millions? I make a good living, but the skill level I have in NLH now yields a much lower return than it would have 10 years ago. The games have become much tougher as time has progressed for a number of reasons. Chief among these, in my opinion, are the withdrawal of many markets from the international player pool as well as the increase in skill level of the average player. My skill in NLH is greater than it has ever been. But even though my increase in skill has outpaced that of average players, it continues to provide diminishing returns on my edge and – perhaps more importantly – my invested time.

The fact is game theory is allowing us to get closer and closer to “solving the game”. If rake didn’t exist, this would not be a serious problem. Advanced as the applications of game theory have become to Hold’em, coming very close to fully solving six-handed games for example, is a long way off yet. The need to beat the rake, however, means that theoretically a point can come where nobody has the edge to make a profit even if one player is always superior. Now this is all very depressing for those of us who love No Limit Hold’em. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that this is the most extreme scenario that could occur and it’s by no means a certainty.

These realisations have recently forced me to question if continuing to play and study NLH is the most productive use of my time. This has been difficult to do as I expect it will be for other players in my situation. I am unreasonably proud of how technically strong my NLH game is and on some level am loath to give that up. It is of course nice for the ego to be great at something. However, from an EV perspective, it is likely I would make more money being a very good Omaha or mixed games player than a great No Limit Hold’em one. As time progresses, this will just become more true.

Why PLO and Mixed Games?

PLO and the mixed games have a key advantage over NLH when it comes to sustainability. Both games are much more complicated from a game theory perspective. Omaha has the same basic rules as hold’em but is made more complex as there are two more pieces of unknown information in each opponent’s hand. Mixed games have more complex basic rules than hold’em, which makes them more difficult to create optimal strategy for. A further obvious plus is that no other poker discipline has been strategically examined anywhere nearly as closely as NLH. In non-NLH games, regs can have still have a substantial edge over one another as the development and distribution of strategy to players has been very limited.

mixed games

One great aspect of PLO is that anyone who plays NLH will understand the rules even if they play it terribly. This allows recreational players to get involved without having to learn a whole new set of rules. A common complaint is that variance in PLO is much higher than in NLH. While this is true, this should not be considered totally negative. A problem with NLH has always been how quickly the recreational players will go broke. If a recreational player can win a lot at a game in the short term then they are more likely to continue playing in the long term as it will remain more appealing. PLO offers more action to recreational players, more potential mistakes to be made and higher profit margin to the skilled player even if it will be hard to show consistency in the short- to mid-term. [Ed. Note: Omaha creator and Cardplayer Lifestyle contributor Robert Turner has plenty of additional good reasons as to why you should play Omaha.]

Mixed games also carry the appeal of “something different from Hold’em”. Whether you are a regular or recreational player, perhaps the time has come to be honest with yourself for a moment: aren’t you tired of NLH yet? I know I am. I love the game but that doesn’t mean it can’t get boring. Playing mixed games presents an exciting change no matter how long or how often you ante up to play NLH. I know that it would be a long time before I’d ever get bored of playing an 8-game mix. Am I a master of every game? Not even close. But I am at least competent at each and when a decent chunk of the player pool doesn’t even know the rules of some of the games and are just there for a good time. With that said, it becomes hard to justify putting in long hours to gain a tiny edge in NLH anymore.

My Predictions and the Bottom Line

future poker predictions

Image credit: pokerology.com

In recent years, more and more poker players have made the move, both online and in live settings to PLO and mixed games. On most days more high-stakes action can be found at the PLO tables than anywhere else. While I don’t foresee NLH going anywhere anytime soon, perhaps the shift to non-NLH poker variants is inevitable. PLO would seem the smart money but there is the possibility that we will end up with a more even distribution of players throughout each game rather than one game that dominates 90% of the player pool. If you have the skills to be a good NLH player you can likely apply yourself to another poker discipline successfully. You just need to find reason to motivate yourself to do it. Perhaps you will find it in this post.

It seems that I will be heading to the PLO tables for some expensive lessons in how it’s done. Hope to see you there.

2 Comments

  1. Nolan Dalla
    Nolan Dalla February 20, 2015 at 10:58 pm

    Total agreement. Well done.

  2. cardplayerlifestyle
    cardplayerlifestyle February 21, 2015 at 7:00 pm

    Yup. When i got it in my Inbox, it reminded me of your post in pokernews Nolan. Thanks for reading, as always. -Robbie

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