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Pot Limit Omaha Poker From Square One Part II: Starting Hands

Starting Hand Selection in PLO – Opening & Defending

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In Part I of Pot Limit Omaha Poker From Square One, we discussed some of the general principles of the game, looking mainly at the similarities and differences between PLO and No Limit Hold'em as the latter is the game variation that most players begin their poker journeys with. While some ideas and strategic concepts transfer pretty well to PLO, it is essential to understand these are two completely different games, and hopefully Part I made that pretty clear.

In Part II, we'll take the next step and focus solely on the game at hand, namely Pot Limit Omaha, leaving Hold'em behind. And what better place to start than with how to choose what hands to play from what positions?

Pot Limit Omaha Starting Hand Selection Guidelines

Starting hand selection is essential in all poker games, and mastering this element is necessary for all future strategy talk. Like in Hold'em, if you keep playing trash hands out of position just hoping to get lucky, no amount of after-flop strategy or reads will help you as you'll constantly be at a mathematical disadvantage against your opponents.

We will begin by first describing general qualities of PLO starting hands and how they account for the way in which you choose hands to play before the flop. Then we’ll look into several main categories of hands based on this principle, which should make it easier to create your game plan. Finally, we'll look into some examples of hands from these different categories to try and really bring the point home.

But before any of this, we’ll address a topic that we’ve already covered to some extent in the first part but that plays a huge role in determining what hands we’ll go with before the flop. You may have already guessed it – we’ll once again talk about position.

Starting Hands & Position: A Crucial Factor

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There is really a world of difference between playing in and out of position in PLO, and it all starts with the kinds of hands you choose to play before the flop. While we’ll go into more detail a bit later, the main point to keep in mind is that getting involved with weaker hands out of position is way more difficult than when you’re in position.

Basically, you should be very careful when playing marginal and speculative hands out of position. These hands are very dangerous, and you’ll have hard enough time with them in position let alone out of position. To demonstrate, here’s a quick example of a solid but speculative hand out of position.

You’re dealt Kh 8h 7c 6c. It is a playable hand with a rundown, but it lacks some of the nut potential we’ll discuss in a moment. So, you open from UTG+1 and get called by the player on the button.

The flop comes disjointed with two hearts (no Ah). You bet, and your opponent calls. The turn is another heart, giving you the King-high flush.

In theory, you have a good hand, but being out of position, you have very little information about your opponent’s holdings. He could have you beat already with the A-high flush, in which case you’ll want to check and try to lose the minimum. Or he could have a hand like a set or two pair where you’ll want to bet big and give him bad odds to try and draw out on you.

If we switch positions with the same hand, you’re in much better shape. When the turn comes, you’ll be able to get a lot of information based on what your opponent does.

If he checks to you, it is unlikely he has the nut flush as he would want to bet for the reasons described above. He might play it tricky some percentage of the time to try and get the check-raise in, but in general, most people will keep betting here.

If he bets the turn, you can still call and see the river and make your decision there. Unless he has the nuts, he’ll have a hard time playing the hand out of position.

Once we discuss more details about PLO starting hands and their key factors, this point will make much more sense. For the time being, though, keep in mind that position is one of the crucial things you need to worry about in Pot Limit Omaha, and it will play a huge role in your hand selection process.

Key Elements of a PLO Hand

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Pot Limit Omaha is a fairly elaborate game, and there are different strategic approaches out there, many of which seem to be quite effective. So the ideas proposed here may not be the only way to go about things, but there are some concepts generally accepted by a large majority of players and PLO writers.

When looking at a PLO starting hand, there are three major factors you should consider. How these factors break down will determine how strong your hand is and how often you should get involved with it.

  • Nut potential (nuttiness)
  • Suitedness (ability to make flushes)
  • Connectivity (ability to make straights)

We’ve already mentioned these factors in Part I, but now we’ll go deeper under the surface and look into how all of these elements work together to help us create a range of PLO hands that can basically be split into:

  • Premium hands
  • Speculative / marginal hands
  • Trash hands

Nuttiness

One of the first things you should learn about PLO starting hands is that you want to play hands that have a decent chance to make the nuts, i.e., the best possible hand, or very close to it. So, what you’re aiming for are:

  • Top full houses and/or quads
  • Nut flushes
  • Top straights on non-flush boards

So with that in mind, we can analyze what kind of hands have the ability to make the nuts. You’ll want suited hands containing an Ace of the suit, hands with high pocket pairs, which are likely to make top set when you do flop a set, and hands that can make top straights on a number of runouts.

For example, a hand like Ah Qh Ks 10s is an absolute premium. If you make the heart flush, you’ll always have the nuts, you can have the nut hand in spades if the As is on the board, and every straight you make will be the best possible straight. Additionally, a large number of your two pair hands that turn into a boat can be the nuts (like Aces Full of Queens, for example).

Of course, this hand actually contains both of the other two important factors we’ll discuss, which is exactly why it is so strong.

Suitedness

Flushes are a very important part of Pot Limit Omaha, and suited hands that have the potential to make flushes are always better than ones that don’t. Ideally, you want hands that can make top flushes, like the one from the above example, but depending on the hand you’re up against, any flush could do.

Equity Simulation of Weak Double Suited Hand vs. Aces9752ds Isn't Too Far Behind AAKKds

If we look at this example, even with a hand that’s pretty week overall and up against an absolute premium, double-suited Aces and Kings, we have almost 40% equity because both of our flush options are alive and there are, of course, some straight possibilities, two pair options, etc. This is also another clear indicator that preflop equities in PLO are much closer overall, which is why this game tends to be more volatile than Texas Hold’em.

Connectedness

Suited hands have potential to make flushes while connected hands contain cards that work well together towards making various straights. In PLO, the strength of your hand doesn’t come from just flopping the nuts but also from the possibilities you get when you hit a flop where many turn cards will give you the nuts.

With these hands, you can bet big and put the maximum pressure on your opponents. You'll often take the pot down with what may technically be the worst hand, but you have so much equity that you don’t have to worry too much about what the other players have.

Equity Sim of Wrap + Pair Against AAKKMaking Big Draws Allows You to Put Pressure on High Pairs Postflop

With connected hands, there are many good flops we can hit where we’ll be able to win pots by making our hand or by outright aggression. In this example, we can put a lot of pressure on our opponent and force them to fold what is technically the best hand (although we’re the slight mathematical favorite) because they’ll have a hard time getting to showdown unless they hit some of the cards that give them additional equity on the turn.

Putting It All Together

Two Puzzle Pieces

Now that we have explained these three crucial elements of a PLO hand we have everything required to create a distribution of hands into several categories according to their strength. With this being a beginner’s guide to PLO, we’ll try to make things as simple as possible and we’ll go with three main categories of hands for the time being.

Premium PLO Hands

Premium hands are those hands that you’ll want to get involved with almost always. How you go about playing them will depend primarily on:

  • The effective stack size
  • Your position
  • General tendencies of other players

Premium hands in PLO are the ones that have at least two of the three important factors working together. Ideally, you want hands that have a bit of everything in them as it gives you multiple ways to win a pot.

So, for a PLO hand to be classified as a premium, it first needs to be double-suited, i.e. have the potential to make two flushes. So, all hands listed below should be double-suited:

  • Aces with other big pairs (down to pocket 9s)
  • A-A-J-T (mathematically the second best starting hand after A-A-K-K)
  • Double suited Aces with any two cards
  • 8-9-10-J
  • K-Q-J-T
  • Other big pair combos
  • Other combos containing high straight and flush cards (down to J-J-T-9)

As mentioned, equities in PLO run pretty close, so things aren’t as clear-cut as in No Limit Hold’em, but from what we’ve discussed so far, you should have a pretty good idea of what it is you’re after when selecting your starting hands. You want to play with hands that can make the best possible five-card hand often, which will make it possible to extract a lot of value from the second-best hands that inexperienced players tend to overplay.

PLO Equity Matchup: JT98ds vs. AA74JT98ds Is Almost Even Against AA74

As you can see, unsuited pocket Aces are virtually a coin toss against a good, double-suited rundown. So, while big pocket pairs still hold a lot of value in PLO, they are much more susceptible to being outdrawn, which is why it is important to have a backup in the form of flush or straight potential.

Speculative Hands

Defining what makes a speculative hand in Pot Limit Omaha can be a bit tricky because there are different ways of looking at it. For the purposes of this article, though, we’ll go with the hands that have a decent potential to make solid hands but can be tricky to play because you’ll often end up with what’s the second or the third nuts.

Some of the hands in this category would be:

  • Big pairs with no suits for a backup
  • Suited middle connectors (like 5h 6h 7s 8s)
  • Double-suited middle pairs (like 7 7 8 8)
  • Suited Ace plus a pair (like As 5s 10 10)

Some of these hands are better than others, and we could further break them down, but, as mentioned, we’ll try to keep things fairly simple and straightforward for the time being. The main idea you need to take away from this discussion is that there is a large group of hands in PLO that look far better than they actually play.

Inexperienced players often tend to overvalue hands like middling suited connectors because they seem so powerful. The problem with this particular group of hands is that you’ll rarely flop the nuts or the nut-draw with them, and even when you do, your hand will be very vulnerable.

Let’s consider this scenario:

Equity Calculations of Made Straight vs. WrapWeak Rundowns Are Vulnerable Even If They Flop Well

Here, we have a middling rundown and got pretty much as good of a flop as we could hope for (although a rainbow one would be better). As you can see, we’re a solid favorite against our opponent’s hand, but the problem is: We aren’t playing with cards face-up. There are so many bad turn cards that will either improve their hand or give them an opportunity to bluff on either the turn or the river (or both) that we’ll have hard time playing this hand out of position.

We’ll end up in spots similar to the one shown above very often with these hands, which is why we put them in the speculative category. While they do have some potential, and they certainly aren’t an auto-fold in all situations, you need to be very careful about when to get involved, and you’ll need solid postflop skills to play them profitably. Additionally, these hands play much better in position while you’re probably best off avoiding them as much as possible out of position at least until you get a better grasp of the game (if you’re a complete novice).

Trash Hands

The last and by far the biggest group of PLO starting hands actually belong to the category of trash hands. Inexperienced players are easily seduced by the fact that you get four cards before the flop, which makes it seem like you have so much potential that you should just be playing almost any four cards. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While it is true that preflop equities run pretty close in Pot Limit Omaha, since this is a pot limit game, you won’t be getting all your money in before the flop all that often. Instead, you’ll be playing a lot of flops, turns, and rivers, and these hands are going to cost you a lot of money because they’ll almost always end up giving you a marginal holding where you’ll be hoping your hand is somehow good despite it being far from the nuts.

We’ve described the main elements of a good PLO hand, and trash hands are the ones where these elements don’t exist or are only marginally there. Disjointed hands with non-nut flush draws make terrible starting hands, and playing these from any position is a surefire way to lose a lot of money.

The actual list of hands in this particular category would be way too long to enumerate, but just look at what we discussed in the previous two sections, and if the hand doesn’t seem to belong in either of them, it is probably a trash hand. Even if you err on the side of caution and fold a marginally playable hand, you’ll probably be making a +EV decision in the long run.

You don’t need to play a bunch of tough hands to be profitable in PLO. You need to play good hands, and, more importantly, you need to play as many hands as you can in position.

Extra Tips for Starting Hands: Big Pockets & Gaps at the Top

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Another mistake players transitioning from Hold’em to PLO often make is overvaluing their big pocket pairs. We’ve already seen how some hands stack up in Omaha, and it is quite clear that having even pocket Aces isn’t all that big of a deal. Of course, pocket Aces are still a statistical favorite against most hands, even if they’re of a bad (unsuited) variety, if you can get a big chunk of your stack in before the flop is dealt.

Other pairs, however, like Kings or Queens, aren’t nearly as powerful and you shouldn’t be looking to get your stack in with Kings before the flop. Against even semi-competent opponents, when you do manage to get all the chips in the middle, you’ll usually be up against Aces, and you’ll be a decent underdog to win the pot. And even against bad players, your preflop equity won’t be nearly as good as you might hope.

Equity of A655ds vs Bad KingsEven Marginal Pairs With an Overcard Have Significant Equity Against Bad Kings

As you can see, bad Kings are virtually a coin-flip against a hand that certainly wouldn’t be defined as a particularly strong one. This is the kind of hand that an inexperienced player might be likely to overvalue and get a lot of money in with before the flop, but as you can see, if you only have pocket Kings with not much else going for you, they wouldn’t even be making a mistake.

Avoid Gaps at the Top

We’ve discussed how connectedness is an important component of a PLO hand. When considering a hand from this particular angle, one additional consideration you should keep in mind that gaps at the top are best avoided if at all possible. To illustrate what I mean, here are some examples:

  • 6 7 8 10
  • 7 8 9 J
  • 8 9 10 K

All of these hands have a “gap,” i.e., there is a disconnect between the two highest cards. You would much rather have these hands without the gap, and you especially want to avoid big gaps like the one in the third example (8 9 10 K). If there is a gap in your hand, you’d much rather have it between two middle cards, like 6 7 9 10 or 4 5 7 8.

This is important because you’re looking for flops where you can get a “wrap,” i.e., a situation where you have as many outs as possible on the turn and / or river to make your straight. Hands without the gap at the top are more likely to achieve these situations, which makes them easier to play and get value from.

Raise First In: Tight IS Right in PLO

Cards and Chips

Now that we have defined all the different aspects of a PLO hand and what it is that we’re looking to achieve through our selection of hands, let’s look at how we should define our opening ranges. Keep in mind that we’re talking about six-max tables here as this is the usual PLO setup, and there aren’t very many nine-handed tables kicking about. All we can say about nine-handed play is that you should be even more selective when raising first in from an early position as you have even more players to go through.

Playing from Early Position (UTG, UTG+1)

In Hold’em, when you raise, you can expect to steal the blinds a decent percentage of the time or at least go up against only one other player, preferably from the blinds, where you’ll have position for the rest of the hand. In your average PLO game, however, you can pretty much forget about stealing the blinds as many flops will go multi-way, and you can expect your open to be called by one or more players in between.

What this means is that you’ll often have to play the flop out of position, and firing a continuation bet won’t work nearly as often as in Hold’em because people will connect with the flop in some way, shape, or form much more often.

When you take all of this in the account, you really need to tighten your early position range and come in for a raise only with top premiums that you know will play well against various ranges. Furthermore, these are hands that play very well in 3-bet pots where you’ll have an option to sometimes call and sometimes go for a 4-bet, especially against active players, knowing you are highly unlikely to be very far behind.

Equities of High Rundown Against AcesHigh Suited Rundowns Have Enough Equity to Open in Early Position

When we open only the strongest hands from early position, it is very hard for our opponents to take advantage of this. We’re doing well against their entire range, and are well ahead of many hands that may want to try and take control of the pot by 3-betting. Even against hands like pocket Aces, we’ll be doing pretty well with big suited rundowns and similar premium hands.

What you may want to consider with some good but not great starting hands is limping from the early position. While this isn’t a standard strategy, it is one that is much more often found in PLO than in Hold’em. By doing so, you’ll control the size of the pot, and when the action gets back to you, you’ll have a much better idea about what you want to do.

Opening from Late Position

From late position, you can expand your range somewhat to include more speculative hands as you have fewer players to go through, and when you do get called, it will more often be by the players in the blinds, which means you’ll get to have position on the flop and beyond. Since position is paramount with these more speculative hands, as already discussed, this is exactly the setup you’ll be looking for.

Keep in mind, though, that not that many hands in PLO are finished before the flop, so even when you raise from late position, you can expect to take a fair amount of flops. For that reason, you shouldn’t be opening weak, trashy hands that are likely to get you into trouble at least not until you gain more experience.

Of course, like with all forms of poker, a lot will be situational. If you’re playing on a tight table where the blinds are likely to give up easily and don’t defend much, you should expand your range to include even some of the weaker hands as you can expect a fair number of folds.

Defending from the Big Blind

Shield

What hands to raise with is just a part of the equation. Like everyone else, you’ll also have to play from the blinds. You will need to occasionally defend your big blind as you can’t simply fold every time and let opponents steal whenever you’re in the big blind position.

Since position plays such an important role in PLO, I would suggest not 3-betting as much from the big blind especially not against early opens. You can still go ahead and 3-bet with your very strong hands, but other than that, you should play for pot control and try not to bloat the pot too much, knowing you’ll be out of position for the rest of the hand.

Of course, with a hand as strong as pocket Aces, for example, you’ll probably want to get as much money in before the flop as possible as this is the best way to minimize your positional disadvantage and make as few mistakes as possible later in the hand.

Against later position raisers, you can expand your 3-betting range somewhat to include other strong hands, like double-suited Kings and Queens and good rundowns. Of course, if you have more information about a particular player and their tendencies, you can adjust accordingly and 3-bet or call more or less often depending on what your perception is.

On the other hand, you will be getting odds to call with a great variety of hands. While you don’t want to play weak hands out of position in general, being in the big blind, you’ll be getting a discount, so you will need to call with more hands especially with equities being so close. You’ll have the mathematical odds needed to get involved.

K952 Equity Versus AAKKdsEven K952 Isn't Trailing Too Far Behind AAKKds

Even a hand as weak as Kc 9c 5h 2h has more than 30% equity against the best possible hand, and you already have money invested when you’re in the big blind. So while you may not want to get involved with every hand, and this one is probably a fold, you do need to defend with a fairly wide range and try to realize your equity.

Conclusion to Part II

Pen on Paper

Hopefully, this article has given you a good idea about how to build your starting hand ranges in Pot Limit Omaha and what you need to pay attention to when doing so. For those transitioning from Texas Hold’em, these ideas should help you understand why certain hands that may seem very strong aren’t all that strong and realize that, in general, preflop edges in PLO are much smaller.

That’s exactly why we continue to emphasize the importance of position when playing Pot Limit Omaha as acting out of position is very tricky in this game, and even when you have big hands before the flop, things can quickly become increasingly complicated and hard to navigate as the hand progresses. Having position will make your life much easier and provide you with more opportunities to get value or lose the minimum.

In the next part of this series, we’ll continue with the preflop discussion, but we’ll turn to situations where you’re faced with a raise and deciding between cold calling and 3-betting. Both plays have their merits in certain spots, and we'll try to bring these points home through general discussion and some actual examples.

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Tadas Peckaitis is a professional poker player, author of the free book “Formula for Poker Success,” and founder of MyPokerCoaching.com. He may be a coach, but he wisely strives to improve his poker game every single day to not only better his results but to have a greater wealth of knowledge to share with his students, on his website, in his books, and in exhaustive Pot Limit Omaha guides such as the one you have just read!

If you want to master strategy, find poker cheat sheets, and learn about other interesting strategy topics, you can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.