Book Review: Transitioning from NLHE to PLO

My One Minute Recommendation: The Pot Limit Omaha Book: Transitioning from NLHE to PLO scores a 9/10. There are probably better books for all-around poker noobs, but experienced NLHE players looking to get better at “the other big bet game” would be hard-pressed to find a better resource.

The Good: Advanced tactics, high-level strategy, strong theoretical grounding, well-explained, genuinely insightful, appropriately calibrated for its target audience

The Bad: Some concepts, including but not limited to certain basic skills, not covered in great detail

The Ugly: A little unpolished, with some typos and minor grammatical errors; feels pretty much like reading a Word document, albeit a nicely laid out Word document

Tri “Slowhabit” Nguyen’s Transition from NLHE to PLO delivers just what the title promises: a strong guide to Pot-Limit Omaha, delivered at a pace and level appropriate for a poker player with a fairly sophisticated understanding of No Limit Hold ‘Em. Though there is plenty of practical advice and hand examples, this is not a soup to nuts “how to” guide offering a ready-to-play strategy. In fact, it could stand to be a bit more comprehensive in its advice for specific, common situations. Rather, it is a rigorously mathematical theoretical framework for approaching the game. It will require a thorough understanding of poker to appreciate the depth of this book, but for someone with such an understanding, it should prove an invaluable text, certainly worth its not inconsiderable $375 price tag.

Nguyen could be more explicit about his intended audience, though the title and I imagine the marketing strategy will likely make this clear enough. The introduction does promise, accurately enough, to “teach you the nuances of PLO and what variables you should consider during hands to turn yourself into a more profitable player,” with the ultimate goal of getting the reader “crushing small and mid-stakes PLO.” The text assumes a sophisticated understanding of crucial poker concepts such as equity, hand ranges, semi-bluffing, and planning ahead. None of it should be beyond an active reader of 2+2 or my blog, but this is not a mass market book. The Glossary includes only two terms and offers a superficial description even of those.

The only time this affects the quality of the discussion is with Nguyen’s use of the term “outs”. I’ve generally understood the term to mean something like “cards that could come to win you the pot when you are not currently ahead”, but Nguyen sometimes uses it to talk about cards that will improve a hand, whether or not that improvement is actually enough to win the pot. Given that it is so important in PLO to distinguish between nut and non-nut draws, it couldn’t hurt to define these terms more explicitly.

Though the book is definitely written with a NLHE player in mind, it should be useful to any serious poker player. There are a lot of helpful analogies, though, where Nguyen considers similarities and differences between how specific concepts function in the two games or explains that holding X hand in PLO is akin to holding Y hand in NLHE. Being primarily a NLHE player myself, I found these very insightful and helpful tools.

It also helps that many of the hand examples, integrated into every chapter via convenient sidebars alongside the relevant text, seem drawn from the author’s own transition from NLHE to PLO. It is both welcoming and encouraging to see him admit to misplaying a hand as a result of a misunderstanding common to NLHE players learning PLO. I found I was able to recognize specific mistakes that I had made and begin to understand why my past forays into PLO had not gone as well as I hoped- and that was before I got to the “Common Mistakes” chapter.

Such reinforcement is nice, because while Transitioning from NLHE to PLO rekindled my excitement for the game, it also made me realize how much I don’t know and how much work will be required to master hand reading and equity calculation, both of which are far more complicated than their NLHE equivalents. It’s not that the tools aren’t there. The text provides plenty of examples and in-depth analysis of advanced concepts like blockers, backdoor draws, and floating. It just makes me realized what a tall mountain there is to climb. Thankfully, Nguyen also emphasizes how many players in today’s PLO games don’t have an inkling about any of this stuff, which is reassuring.

It does beg the question of the book’s longevity, though. There’s a mix of tactics that seem fundamental to playing the game well in any context and those designed to exploit mistakes and tendencies common in contemporary PLO games. It will be interesting to see how long the latter remain viable. Since Transitioning is an e-book, Nguyen could theoretically update it, though to my knowledge he hasn’t promised anything like this.

I’m not particularly familiar with e-book technology, but I would guess that Transitioning falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum with regard to balancing the reader’s convenience with the protection of the author’s intellectual property. The book is protected by LockLizard Safeguard, meaning that you need to download and install a special PDF viewer, then register your version of the book, before you can read it. This sounds like a hassle, but the instructions were clear, and it took me less than five minutes to set up. After that, I had full rights to read and print, though not copy and paste, the document indefinitely.

The other potentially intimidating aspect of the book is the math. It isn’t actually that complicated, and the author does a great job of explaining it, but there are a lot of graphs and calculations and even some algebra. Next to The Mathematics of Poker, it’s the most math-heavy poker book I’ve seen.

Not that that’s a bad thing. In fact, these were probably the best parts of the book. I particularly liked a chart enumerating the possible hands on each street in PLO vs. NLHE, and Nguyen’s quantification of the heretofore nebulous concept of “post-flop playability” struck me as pure genius. Understanding it does require interpreting a graph of hand equity on all possible flops, though. Again, the text offers a crystal clear explanation, but I’m sure a good high school math education helps.

The other concept I found very helpful, and which seems to motivate Nguyen’s general approach to the game, is equity realization. Basically, because hand values tend to run close together in PLO, Nguyen places a premium on bluffing, fold equity, and winning pots without showdown. He argues quite convincingly for making a lot of turn and river bluffs, often deferring aggressive action on an earlier street in order to make a better, often more aggressive, decision later in the hand.

Amidst all of the more advanced theory and strategy, certain concepts do feel a bit glossed over. Although the chapter on pre-flop hand selection is one of the longest, it still offers relatively vague advice about exactly which hands to play from which position and how to play them. It’s consistent with Nguyen’s general approach of “here are the key considerations, work through the specific situation yourself”, but readers will probably be accustomed to finding more specific starting hand advice in a poker book. That’s probably as much the nature of PLO as it is a flaw in the book, though.

More disappointing is the “River Play” chapter, which covers barely three pages. As much emphasis as Nguyen places on river bluffing, it was disappointing not to get more hand examples and an extended discussion of key concepts like value betting and inducing bluffs.

Nguyen’s writing style is less professional than I’m accustomed to seeing in a poker book. Some will find the casual tone welcoming, though nits like myself will be perturbed by minor grammatical errors, none of which influenced my understanding of the text.

Overall, Transitioning From NLHE to PLO is a fantastic book for a veteran No Limit Hold ‘Em player who wants to make a serious effort at learning Pot Limit Omaha. Nguyen requires a substantial investment of time, effort, and money from his readers, but it’s hard to imagine any smart poker player not getting very good at this quite complex game if he spent enough time working with this text.

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