For many people these days, “poker” and “no limit hold’em” (NLHE) have become synonymous. Everything from training material to television coverage emphasizes this single variant, that also dominates card rooms and even many home games.
It wasn’t always this way. Go back twenty years and NLHE cash games were rarely spread in casinos at all, with limit hold’em and seven card stud being the primary options. And when the best US poker sites and international sites first began the massive expansion of the game, it was limit hold’em (LHE) and not NLHE that was offered.
Variety Is The Space Of Life
Most people play poker for two reasons, and ideally both at once: to have fun and to make a little money. Poker training sites have made it possible for the dedicated poker student to develop a significant edge against their opponents, but is this edge half of a double-edged sword? Specifically, with so much readily-available information about NLHE strategy, are profit margins in the solver era being eroded?
Our conclusion here at Red Chip is that there is still plenty of money to be made in NLHE, but it definitely requires greater dedication to studying than it used to. If such hard work is enjoyable to you, it may be that monothematic dedication to a single branch of the vast poker tree is the way to go.
But are you sure? Have you tried playing other poker variants? Are you, for example, PLO curious?
One of the advantages of online play is you can indulge your desire for variety at a negligible cost. In the old days, the only way to learn a new variant would be at the low, but still significant stakes offered live. It’s still the case, for example, that while you’ll occasionally find a $1/$1 PLO game in a casino, the more common structure is $1/$2 with a $5 bring in. And PLO plays much bigger than NLHE.
Many online sites will allow you to practice this, and other games, at penny stakes. This gives you the opportunity to determine if the nuances of a given variant appeal to you, without having to invest several hundred dollars or more to find out.
A Cautionary Tale
Even if you’re perfectly content playing NLHE and making a nice profit from it, you might want to seriously consider adding another couple of arrows to your quiver. In fact, I’d argue this may be more important for those of you who rely on poker for some or all of your income.
As mentioned above, NLHE was not always the primary poker variant. For many years, including the early stages of the online era, limit hold’em held sway, with seven card stud having a major presence on the US East coast.
The dominance of LHE in particular naturally produced professional specialists and dedicated amateurs who, in many cases, devoted all their study and practice to this single variant. And when the game basically evaporated over the course of a couple of years, they were left in a bit of a pickle.
I lived through this period, and can tell you from bitter, first-hand experience that simply “switching from LHE to NLHE” is not nearly as easy as it sounds. Despite following the same rules, they are very different games. Many key skills in LHE simply do not translate to NLHE, and failing to appreciate this crucial fact cost many players their bankrolls.
And the real lesson here is that basically nobody saw the LHE to NLHE switch coming. In retrospect, the change was an unintended consequence of the poker boom. Televised poker consisted nearly exclusively of NLHE tournaments, thus NLHE took over as the dominant casino cash game. But most of us blithely assumed that soft LHE would continue into a happy future.
Are there signs NLHE is about to be replaced by something else? Frankly, no. But the sudden and unexpected demise of LHE should at least cause us to consider the possibility and consequences of NLHE going the same way. If it does, what’s your back-up plan?
If Not NLHE, Then What?
Suppose you’ve only ever played NLHE. What might be a good second game? If you’re looking primarily to preempt the possible demise of NLHE, it’s probably worth recognizing that you’re pretty much guessing.
Pot-Limit Omaha (PLO) is the nuclear fusion of poker in this regard. If you ask a specialist when nuclear fusion will become a viable source of commercial energy, they will likely claim a timeline of around twenty years. This has been the case since the 1950s. Similarly, PLO has been heralded as “the game of tomorrow” for as long as anyone can remember.
Even so, PLO is a natural addition to a NLHE player’s arsenal. At first sight, the only difference is a couple of extra hole cards and a restriction on the bet size. Specialists would argue that it’s this surface-level similarity between the two games that makes PLO so profitable for those who study it. The nuances of PLO and the dangers for an unwary hold’em player are well beyond the scope of this article. We do, however, offer introductory material in our PRO library.
Related games such as Omaha-8 (a split-pot variant of Omaha that can be played fixed limit, pot limit, no limit, and even with five or six hole cards) have a similar appeal, in that the basic mechanics of play resemble hold’em, but the details of winning play are even more subtle and removed. Again, our PRO library contains content on these variants.
Be A Fox, Not A Hedgehog
We’ve suggested above that non-NLHE variants are fun, and may provide an insurance policy if fashions shift and the current NLHE hegemony collapses. This is not the end of the story, however.
First, understanding the theory behind any poker variant invariably deepens one’s theoretical appreciation of another. Understanding the purpose of betting in one game, for example, strengthens our grasp on the general purpose of betting in poker.
For those of you who have ambitions of playing in really big games, a knowledge of multiple variants is essential. Even when NLHE took over the poker landscape, poking your head inside Bobby’s Room at the Bellagio would have revealed the nose-bleed players were switching from triple draw, to PLO, to stud-8 frequently, typically on the whims of the biggest donator in the game.
And for years, the most prestigious tournament at the WSOP was the $10k HORSE world championship. That was the event in which our own Fox, Chris Wallace, won his WSOP bracelet.
You can enjoy and profit from poker as a hedgehog that does one thing really well: playing NLHE. But the opportunities to play in a wider variety of games, and the potential fun and profit associated with them, are only opened up if you become proficient at multiple variants.