Spun it up
Well, it took about six weeks - I started with one million play chips on PokerStars and spun them up to over 100 million, playing PLO.
It was neither as easy, nor as hard, as I expected. Here's what I mean: my first thought was, "Oh, it's play money - I'll be able to do it without thinking." I was wrong. In particular, we're all trained that with certain hands, you just put the money in and let the poker gods work out the rest.
For instance, in the PLO forums I read, the general consensus is that aces, even "bad" ones, are worth getting all the money in preflop if you can (recall that in pot-limit format, you don't have the option of just shoving in your whole stack). Well, that's fine if your bankroll can stand the variance, and believe me, putting aces into a four- or five-way preflop shove-fest is a rollercoaster. You certainly have +EV to do it, but that EV is cloaked in an impenetrable cloud of variance. If I wanted to move up quickly, I had to operate on fewer buy-ins, which meant that I had to be variance-averse.
But once I had determined that, it was simply a matter of finding the right strategy, which was "show them the nuts". The mix of players was very interesting - many grossly overvalued hands (check-raise shoving a non-nut flush on the river with a paired board). On the other hand, many weren't completely sure when they had a very strong hand, or at least weren't willing to leverage it - I can't tell you the number of times I saw somebody flat call a bet on the river and then turn up the stone cold nuts.
So my strategy got quite simple: wait for a very big hand, preferably the nuts, and then bet until somebody ran out of chips. Also, I learned to give up quickly when my big hand suddenly looked vulnerable. Suppose I flopped the top set, bet it, got called, and the flush card came on the turn. My only question at that point was "Are they going to give me the right price to draw at a full house?" Not "Does he have the flush?" or "Can I move him off the non-nut flush?" Just "If I'm going to call a bet, he has to lay me a 3:1."
Lest you think I have no gamble in me, I got stacked twice - once I ran quads into a straight flush, and the other time, I simply wouldn't give him credit for quads when I had the top full house. It's funny - but when you see hands like that, you understand why people think the game is rigged. I mean, in three decades of live poker, I've never had quads beaten and I can remember the two times when I had the top full house beaten. In a quick six weeks online, I suffered two similar beats.
Also, I got good at game selection (who knew that was so valuable?). If there were 2-3 preflop raise-bots at the table, I avoided it completely - I wasn't willing to flip for all my chips (even with an edge) and two such players is all it takes to make the game degenerate into a series of preflop flips.
Interestingly, many of these same players became incredibly passive post-flop. So they'd raise every single hand preflop but then go completely quiet postflop unless they hit the flop. If there was exactly one player like that, I was delighted to play - for the price of a raise preflop, I could draw at whatever I needed for free or close to it. Furthermore, the preflop raise and 3-4 callers bloated the pot to a point where it was fairly easy to get stacks in if I hit.
So will these skills help me in real money PLO games? Well, it was interesting to read the primer that a 2+2 poster gave to people who wanted to give PLO (the real thing, with real money) a try. It was basically, "Don't try anything fancy. Don't bluff. Just show them the nuts." That was my mantra throughout this exercise. And in fact, this play money experience provides really good training for the discipline you need to play that way. You just constantly throw away hands - hands that were the nuts on the flop, nuts on the turn, and then you throw them away on the river. But more often, they're still the nuts on the river, you make a big bet and get called by a weaker hand. It's not nuanced poker, but it gets the chips.
Finally, the best lesson I got out of the experience was this: man, they're having fun in the PM games. Almost every pot being pushed to me got a "nh leej" or similar from one or two seats. Conversations took place in various languages - yes, I know it's supposed to be English-only, but both my French and Spanish are good enough to know they weren't cheating. In fact, they were chatting over the poker table, which is something I think we're actually encouraging now.
Indeed, it's fun poker. And I've definitely never grown a bankroll by a factor of 100.
Lee Jones the Head of Poker Communications at PokerStars; he first joined the company in 2003. He has been involved in the professional poker world since the mid 1980's.