The Hold'em Skateboard

Different Poker Game Skills

Draw Poker"One of the healthiest ways to gamble is with a spade and a package of garden seeds." -- Dan Bennett

"Poker" is not like chess where a clear picture of the game appears from just one word. Besides "video poker" and "poker runs", which hijack the word into unrelated territory, there are many forms of poker. These different games feature some cards face-up, some face-down; sometimes you get more cards at the same time, sometimes you get one at a time; sometimes you share pots; sometimes you try to make high hands, sometimes you try to make low hands. Different poker games have many different features.

It shouldn't be surprising then that different poker games value different skills, and even have different relationships with the concept of "skill".

Texas Hold'em is the most common form of casino poker. But interestingly it is often not the first game many players learn. Draw poker or stud poker often come first. But draw and stud are both games where skill differences are so massive that new players would never have a chance against solid, experienced players. Newbies would go into casinos and get slaughtered. So along came Hold'em -- an easy to understand game with bucketfuls of short-term luck. To be blunt, Hold'em is the most popular casino card game because most casino poker players don't play well. Hold'em gives these undisciplined players a reasonable shot at not just having winning days, but big winning days.

So does Hold'em's high random luck mean it is easy to master? Nope. It doesn't work that way. The challenges of Hold'em are tough nuts to crack. Limit Hold'em is all about exploiting small advantages over and over and over. Small advantages applied time and again mount up. Most people simply don't have the discipline, let alone the true skill, to meet the challenges of the game. On the other hand, No Limit Hold'em played well is about getting large edges for large pots, and avoiding as best as possible the coin-flip aspect. This exploitation of big edges is nearly completely different from the Limit variety.

Now let's compare Omaha to Texas Hold'em. Texas Hold'em is easier to play instantly. You get two cards, make Draw-type five card hands, and you normally end up with mundane hand values like one pair. Omaha is much more complicated. You get more cards. You can play various combinations. You often play a high-low split variety. The winning hand normally is a very strong one, often the "nut" hand possible.

If you would ask many players, they would answer they just don't "get" Omaha. They stick with the simpler game of Hold'em. But looks can be deceiving.

Hold'em is like a skateboard, while Omaha is like driving a car. Hold'em is easier to do instantly, but tougher to get to a well-above-average skill level. Any physically fit person can roll along at a slow pace on a skateboard without even ever having seen one before. But driving a car requires multiple basic skills, and is nearly infinitely more dangerous. Almost everyone needs driver's education before they are fit to handle a car at even slow speeds.

But after the basics, put most adults in even the hottest racecar and they could drive it. Now hand an adult a skateboard and ask them to do those loops and spins and extreme sports junk you see on ESPN late at night. Not only can't they do it, they can't come close to doing it. Performing above-the-rim excellence with a skateboard is a lot harder.

While Texas Hold'em is easier to simply sit down and play, and is designed to have a high luck factor, getting to a well-above-average level of mastering the nuances of the game is a more difficult task than with Omaha. Where Hold'em excellence involves dozens of miniscule skills, Omaha allows players to reach a high level of competence (relative to their opponents) easier. You only have to master a few Omaha skills (in limit: play good starting hands, build pots early, exploit huge edges; in pot limit: play position and bet-able hands). This is largely because most people play Omaha dreadful, much worse than they play Hold'em. Much worse. You can be a successful Omaha player (given enough game selection) while on autopilot. Not so with Hold'em. Since Hold'em has so much random luck, winning Hold'em is work -- spotting an edge and pouncing.

Okay, it's not really this cut and dried. Omaha has small skills to exploit too, and Hold'em has a few major hurdles to jump, but the basic idea is valid. When Omaha is played among a group of outstanding players, it now easily surpasses Hold'em on the complex skill front. At the highest skill levels, Omaha's true complexities comes out -- all those cards, all those middling values (especially playing High-Low), all those ways to have a strong hand but actually are second-best for high and second-best for low. Now Omaha is not merely driving a car. It's an Indianapolis 500 skill and endurance contest. Autopilot is definitely no longer an option. Of course, this highest level of play doesn't come into play for the vast majority of players.

Skill works somewhat counter-intuitively. Hold'em is simpler and more elementary, so exploiting skill edges is often quite inspirational. In contrast, Omaha has more moving parts and complexities. It's easier to do an inspirational move with a skateboard than it is with a Saturn rocket... but when you do make an inspirational move with a Saturn rocket, you end up on the Moon, not just doing a loop-de-loop in a skate park.

Another way to say all this is Omaha is the more difficult and complex game... because of this, most players play Omaha much worse than they play Hold'em... which means to win at Omaha, a sensible player usually doesn't have to work that hard at winning. If your opponents insist on throwing themselves on your spear, how difficult is it to just hold a spear up?

Next time you go into a casino, imagine all the Hold'em players on skateboards. Most are just teetering along at a snail's pace. Some of the snails even think they understand the game. But then pick out the extreme sports equivalents... doing loops and spins and running rings around the snails in every hand. Now that is Texas Hold'em. Over at the Omaha tables, the good players are usually just squashing weak players like bugs in comparison -- unless that Omaha game is that much more rare Indianapolis 500 type game.

See also Winning Texas Hold'em Pots and The Basics of Texas Hold'em