Pot-Limit Omaha: Starting Hands

Even if you play like Sam Farha, a good starting hand still helps.

Regardless of your playing style, success in Pot Limit Omaha depends largely on the starting hands you choose to play.

Because you're dealt twice as many cards as in Hold'em, you need to play the hands with the most equity possible.

Your opponents will have pairs and combo-draw potential. If you don't have the same, you're starting at a disadvantage and will be relying on luck to make up ground.

The top 30 Omaha starting hands are as follows:

1. A-A-K-K 11. K-Q-J-T 21. Q-Q-A-K
2. A-A-J-T 12. K-K-T-T 22. Q-Q-A-J
3. A-A-Q-Q 13. K-K-A-Q 23. Q-Q-A-T
4. A-A-J-J 14. K-K-A-J 24. Q-Q-K-J
5. A-A-T-T 15. K-K-A-T 25. Q-Q-K-T
6. A-A-9-9 16. K-K-Q-J 26. Q-Q-J-T
7. A-A-x-x 17. K-K-Q-T 27. Q-Q-J-9
8. J-T-9-8 18. K-K-J-T 28. Q-Q-9-9
9. K-K-Q-Q 19. Q-Q-J-J 29. J-J-T-T
10. K-K-J-J 20. Q-Q-T-T 30. J-J-T-9

*All hands in the top 30 list must be double-suited.

As you can see, as in Hold'em, large pairs still hold a lot of value. The only difference is the need for redraw possibilities.

This is why A-A-J-T double suited is the second-best hand, ahead of AA-QQ double suited. Having the J-T in place of the QQ opens the door for far more straight potential.

It's crucial to understand how spread out the distribution of equity is in Omaha starting hands. In Hold'em the No. 1 starting hand (A A) holds 83% preflop equity over the second-best starting hand (K K).

In Omaha the best starting hand (A A K K)  is only 33% to win (41% to tie) against the second-best starting hand (A A T J). There is only a 6% edge for the best Omaha hand to win against the second-best Omaha hand, versus the 66% edge in Hold'em.

The lower down the list the Omaha starting hand is versus the best, the more of an edge AA-KK will have over it.

If you compare A A K K to K K J J, A A K K has a 69% chance of winning.

Although this 39% edge is a vast improvement over the 6% edge in the previous comparison, if you make the same comparison in Hold'em (the No. 1 starting hand A A versus the No. 10 starting hand A T), A A holds a massive 73% edge.

How the Equity Affects You

This spread-out equity distribution in Omaha translates into players rarely having a strong edge over their opponents. You will rarely find yourself with more than 60% equity heads-up, with your equity dropping massively with every additional player in the hand.

This means that it is possible to get an edge in Omaha.

So, the game can be beaten, and be profitable for a winning player. But even a winning player will suffer extreme swings.

It's easy to understand the amount of variance you should expect in Omaha by imagining a game of Hold'em in which you move all-in preflop every hand, each time holding the same hand of A-K, and your opponent calls every hand holding Q-T.

Even though you have the better hand, and are sure to make money in the long run, Q-T has a 34% chance of winning, meaning your opponent will win the pot over a third of the time. This will cause your session to suffer from massive variance.

It is very difficult to hit a flop in Omaha which gives you much more than 60% equity to win. There are simply too many possibilities for draws to be in such favorable situations.

For this reason, success at Omaha requires a player to adhere to the following three strategies:

1. Select starting hands very carefully.You simply cannot afford to play hands consistently starting you at a disadvantage against your opponents. It's too difficult to make up ground post-flop.

2. Value-bet. It's rare to have a real edge against the field in Omaha; when you do, you need to extract maximum value.

3. Minimize losses. It is imperative to lose the minimum amount, and win the maximum.

It's simply impossible to play Omaha without variance, so instead of fighting it you need to make the variance work for you. You need to make the inevitable downswings as small as humanly possible, and the upswings as steep and long as you can.

Every opportunity you miss for extracting value allows your downswings to have a greater impact on your long-term results.

Preflop Raising

Some players question the value of raising preflop in PLO, as they feel that when you have a small edge at best, it does nothing more than increase variance. This mind-set is technically correct, but detrimental to your game.

Raising preflop will increase variance, as you will be playing in larger pots. But if you have a hand with an edge, no matter how small, it's profitable in the long term to maximize the size of the pot at that time.

The more money you make your opponents pay when you have any edge in equity at all, the more money you can make at the game. You simply can't afford to forgo any opportunities to extract value when you have an equity lead; doing so will cost you serious money in the long run

A Final Tip for Beginners

If you're just learning the game, or you simply want to rebuild your Omaha foundations, you should simply stick to playing only very strong Omaha starting hands. Any of the hands in the top 30 list are very strong hands even if not double suited.

Other than the hands on that list, the only hands I would recommend a beginner play would be four-way connected hands, such as 8-9-T-J. Hands like these will typically give you a very strong hand on the flop, or a very weak hand, making it difficult to make large mistakes while playing them.

As soon as you start playing weaker hands at a full Omaha table, such as A K 4 T, you're going to start losing money. It takes very strong reads on the game and on your opponents to play weak hands profitably in Omaha.

Leave the weak and marginal hands out of your game, and you'll be on the fast track to Omaha profit.

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