Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Boredom, Terror, or None of the Above

Boredom vs. TerrorNot sure who was the first to describe no limit hold’em as “hours of boredom and moments of sheer terror,” although I believe it was probably Tom McEvoy who first uttered the line in his 1995 book Tournament Poker. Whatever its origin, the phrase has probably edged over into poker cliché territory by now, sidling right up next to “chip and a chair.”

I wonder how appropriate the phrase is, actually. I understand, I suppose, how it might accurately describe a certain type of player’s approach to NLHE tourneys and/or perhaps cash games. And I also see how the phrase includes a bit of (probably purposeful) hyperbole, with “boredom” and “terror” jokingly standing for the differing activities of watching others play hands and playing a big pot oneself.

Was playing some pot-limit Omaha again yesterday ($50 buy-in), and as usual found myself getting involved in lengthy sequences of smallish pots ($1-$3), a few medium-sized pots ($5-$15), and then the occasional monster ($50-$100 and more). It occurred to me that to an untutored observer, the game might well look like it well exemplifies that “hours of boredom and moments of sheer terror” idea.

But the fact is my experience of the game is nothing like that at all.

I suppose that in order to figure why this is -- why, that is, I don’t sense the boredom/terror dichotomy so much in PLO -- we might consider those two fundamental differences between PLO and NLHE, namely, the difference between Omaha and hold’em, and the difference between a pot-limit game and a no-limit game.

Starting with four cards instead of two certainly adds a thick layer of uncertainty onto every situation in PLO that tends to keep even the most mundane hand from being boring (to me, anyway). That’s not to say that there aren’t very familiar or “obvious” situations in PLO that tend to play out the same way (and thus perhaps cause interest to wane). But on the whole, I am consistently fascinated by PLO, much more so than by NLHE. (I understand, of course, that hold’em players find much that is fascinating about their game, too.)

The difference between pot-limit and no-limit games might seem the less significant of the two, but in fact, I think this might be the difference that primarily prevents PLO from exhibiting that stark contrast between “boredom” and “terror” that some say happens in NLHE. That’s because the pot-limit restriction means one never suddenly becomes in danger of risking one’s entire stack without advance notice.

If the players are playing with full buy-ins (e.g., 100 big blinds), a series of actions -- raises and reraises -- is always required in order to get to that monster pot. Sure, there will be hands that play out in strange, unpredictable ways, and one might be surprised by the end to find all of his or her chips in the middle and at risk. But there’s always adequate warning before we get to that point, thanks to the pot-limit format.

Of course, what I really might be talking about here could simply be the difference between knowing what the hell is going on -- and thus not finding any particular reason to be bored or terrified -- and being unsure about why bets are being made or what to do when faced with various decisions.

So maybe it ain’t so much a function of the difference between PLO and NLHE, but the difference between inexperience and understanding, that inspires such doubts about this here poker cliché.

Or not. After all, I must’ve been at least a little bit bored at the table to have thought about all this.

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