The future of televised poker: pot-limit Omaha

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Most people learn poker from 5-card draw or 7-card stud. Once they grasp “what beats what” and pick up some basic strategy, they look to broaden their horizons by adding wild cards or learning other games such as hold’em and Omaha. Humans generally tend to grow bored with the same ol’ same ol’ (or they just love the action), but you can bet they won’t stick with 5-card draw (unless they’re named Mike Caro).

It’s this innate trait that televised poker should embrace. Networks need to experiment, get ahead of the curve, create or discover the “next big thing.” And they need to do it now. Poker on TV these days is mostly no-limit hold’em, which makes sense since that’s how the boom started. But hold’em does not equal poker. It’s merely one tiny facet that makes up this great game. ESPN has announced it will not broadcast non-hold’em World Series of Poker tournaments this year; even the $50K H.O.R.S.E. event will go dark.

Yes, poker’s popularity needs the World Poker Tour, Poker After Dark and WSOP as cornerstones (though my sources say PAD has no plans to tape future episodes). But it’s been six years of no-limit hold’em on television. We’ve grasped “what beats what” and we want to broaden our viewing horizons. We’re ready for our big-boy pants. Most fans that still watch these days are actual poker players, and we’re ready for something different (ESPN be damned!).

Networks have tried to televise live tournaments, but those always proved boring and technically difficult to pull off; plus it was just more NLHE. Why not change the game? During an interview on our Ante Up PokerCast we asked Poker PROductions’ Mori Eskandani about the possibility of televising a game other than NLHE.

“Even with pros, they get confused playing Omaha,” he said. “I’ve seen seasoned pros throw half the pot away playing hi-lo split Omaha. How could I possibly envision that, in my lifetime, I could get the viewing public to understand Omaha? Yes, I will have a very small percentage of the people that are interested in the game to watch it, but I can’t expect it to be popular. Texas Hold’em just has all the qualities you need. It’s a simple game to learn, and despite that, it’s a long ways away from people becoming good at the game. … It is just a business decision. … I would say the second-best game to (put) on television is 7-card stud.”

That interview was nearly two years ago, and there’s still no stud on TV. His contention was 7-card stud is the same as hold’em but no community cards; everyone gets seven cards. My contention with televised stud is there’s an extra betting round, it’s limit, and there are too many cards to keep track of on the screen. Plus, the worst hand makes the bring-in bet, but on fourth street the best hand bets first. On each street the initial bettor can change, thus further confusing the audience. It was (notice I said was) great for hardcore poker fans to watch a novelty stud WSOP episode on ESPN (again, there’s no chance of seeing one this year), but as a steady diet I think it would be doomed.

So, what’s the next big thing in televised poker? Enter the Aussie Millions Cash Game Invitational. Imagine my surprise when Barry Tompkins and Bart Hanson announced the game would be played half no-limit hold’em and half pot-limit Omaha! Kudos to FSN and the Crown Casino for boldly going where no televised cash game has gone before. Pot-limit Omaha is the most natural progression from no-limit hold’em and makes the transition for viewers very smooth. Plus, by making it just Omaha and not Omaha/8 it loses the complexity that might derail some of the audience.

There are five community cards, the betting rounds are the same and players can bet up to the amount that’s in the pot. The only differences between the games are you get four cards instead of two, you can’t go all-in (unless you have less than what’s in the pot) and you MUST play two cards. Other than that the games are the same. But the action is so much juicier.

In the first broadcast on FSN there was an Omaha hand that will go down in televised lore. It was so amazing I have to tell you about it. Patrik Antonius, considered one of the top two or three pot-limit Omaha players in the world, squared off against young Internet pro Andrew Robl, and it was nothing short of remarkable. With $1,500 in the pot preflop Antonius held {9-Hearts}{8-Diamonds}{6-Diamonds}{5-Diamonds}, a paltry hand at best. But he thrives on deception and the ever-changing bluffable board, so he raised to $3,500. Robl, in the small blind, looked down at

{a-Spades}{q-Spades}{q-Diamonds}{j-Clubs}, a much better proposition. He understandably raised pot ($11,500), knowing Antonius’ penchant for playing rags. But Antonius insta-called.

With the pot at $24K the flop came {4-Diamonds}{a-Diamonds}{7-Spades}. As the cards lie Antonius was a 73 percent favorite with a flush draw and a nuclear wrap to a straight! But Robl chose to bet $16K with his aces. Of course Antonius raised pot ($72K) and Robl, surprisingly, shoved. Even Hanson said it was an easy fold. Anotnius called knowing he was a huge favorite and the pot ballooned to $262K.

OK, so this doesn’t sound that exciting given that High Stakes Poker had almost a million-dollar pot between Tom Dwan and Barry Greenstein that same week, but the best was yet to come. As a rule, poker players at that level tend to like to avoid variance. So when they’re playing high-stakes cash games and get it all-in they like to run the cards twice, meaning they would deal the turn and river two times and split the pot in half. But Robl said, “Let’s run it four times,” meaning there would be four turns and rivers and the pot would be split into quarters.

The first turn-river was {k-Hearts}{2-Hearts} giving Round 1 to Robl. But each card that didn’t help Antonius only increased the odds he’d win the next round. The next turn-river was absolutely brutal for Antonius as the {j-Diamonds} came on the turn to give him the flush, but the {a-Clubs} on the river gave Robl a running full house and another win! Surely Antonius would win the next one, right? The {10-Hearts} and {k-Spades} would disagree as Robl took the third pot. With just a quarter of the pot left Antonius was around an 80 percent favorite to win. The {3-Spades} came on the final turn to give him his straight, but Robl picked up the nut-flush draw and the {10-Spades} sealed Antonius’ fate on the river, giving Robl the entire pot as a 27 percent dog (or worse) on four occasions!

Hanson said the chances of that happening were less than 1 percent. It stands as one of the most amazing statistical anomalies ever broadcast in poker history, and we owe it all to FSN and pot-limit Omaha. No-limit hold’em will always be the “Cadillac of Poker” and the straw that stirs the poker ratings’ drink, but we need something else to help our poker viewing grow, and pot-limit Omaha is the way to go. Come on, Mori, give it a try.