You must three-bet more in PLO, but at the right time

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I recently had another breakthrough with a student. “Joel” was desperately trying to beat low-stakes pot-limit Omaha, almost to the point where I think he was going to have a nervous breakdown. I told him we’d go over some of his three-bet-pot hands because that’s usually where newer players lose a lot of money. We went through maybe five hands before I realized his catastrophic leak.

In PLO, it’s important to distinguish between three types of pots: limped, raised and three-bet. A limped pot is one where there are no preflop raises. These pots are, for the most part, insignificant. I advise my students to only get involved in limped pots if they have the nuts or an incredibly strong draw. Raised pots come up in situations where there is a preflop raiser followed by callers. These pots are decent-sized. I try to show my students appropriate situations where you can bet to take these pots down. I always remind them, however, that raised and limped pots aren’t where the money is; that distinction lies with the three-bet pot.

Depending on how experienced you are in handling them, three-bet pots can be incredibly lucrative or exceedingly dangerous. A three-bet pot is a pot in which there was a preflop raise followed by a reraise and a call. These hands can be daunting and stressful to new players, as the pot will often be worth close to a third of your stack. Depending on the student, the tendencies on these flops range from passively check-folding away decent amounts of equity to aggressively and thoughtlessly shipping any flop.

It’s interesting these tendencies usually lie in the polarities though, hyper-aggressive or incredibly passive, not in the middle ground, where the correct play often lies. I’ve seen great, thinking students make the most illogical decisions when it comes to three-bet pots. They bring out the worst player in all of us at first. It takes a calm, level head to think lucidly when a quarter of your stack is in the middle and you don’t hit that dream flop. This is why I spend the most time during training on these pots, stressing that you have to consider all of the variables when trying to figure out the best play. Going back to my student, Joel, however, he had shown a lot of progress with his three-bet pot play. But with him, it wasn’t how to play three-bet pots, but how to get himself into them.

The catastrophic leak I found was he had no notion of when to three-bet without holding a premium hand. We use a program called Hold’em Manager that tracks our stats; so I asked him to pull up his three-bet percentage for me. Just as I had thought, his three-bet percentage was only around 3 percent. By contrast, mine is often around 9 percent. We went through some more hands until I saw one that explained everything: Joel was in the small blind with Q-J-10-8, single-suited. The action folded around to the button, who bet the pot. It came to Joel and he … called?

“Joel, what are you doing here?”

“I mean, It’s a good hand, right?”

“Exactly, Joel. That’s why we three-bet it.”

Joel hadn’t been taking advantage of one of the most important spots in my PLO game: three-betting a late-position raiser when you’re in the blinds. While three-betting this hand from the button or cutoff is more than OK, I prefer a call with this hand if you’re going to have position. It gives you more maneuverability to see free cards as well as a better chance to win without showdown. Hands such as Q-J-10-8 single-suited often flop well, giving you a lot of top two pair and draw potential. Heads-up in a small pot, out of position is tough to play, a situation in which Joel constantly found himself. Being heads-up in a three-bet pot, out of position, this hand can be immensely profitable.

Think about a flop like K-10-8 with a flush draw that you don’t have. You’ve hit bottom two pair and an open-ended straight draw. Not great in a raised pot, but this pot is three-bet, so it’s huge at this point. With bigger pots, weaker players are going to make more mistakes. At lower stakes, if you lead for the pot here with your bottom two pair and straight draw, so many hands will just get it in with you hoping to get it in against bare aces. Remember, we three-bet. A lot of these lower stakes players automatically assume a three-bet means aces. It may not sound enticing to just stick your money in when so many hands would be willing to gamble with you, but even if your opponent has edged you out equity-wise, the fact that you’re the one betting means you get to add that 5-10 percent chance of them folding into your equity (this is called fold equity).

The play will be profitable in the long run. This hand is one example, but a principle can be extracted: When you have a strong drawing hand from the blinds and a late-position player bets, a three-bet is a profitable play if utilized against a weaker player.

If you find that when playing PLO, three-bet pots are happening to you rather than because of you, you may be in the same spot Joel was. It’s a tough skill to master and it takes patience waiting for those perfect hands that you need to three-bet. But believe me, if you can master the preflop and postflop three-bet game, you’ll be on your way to moving up in stakes in a flash.

— Jay Houston is a Team Pro with DeepStacks and a PLO specialist who crushes the mid-stakes online cash games. Derek Houston contributed to this column.