Mix It Up: The Benefits of Learning Other Games

Knowing different games increases your versatility.
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Most of us first began playing poker by learning one particular variation of the game. Very likely we didn't necessarily choose the game, but it "chose us" -- that is, we played whatever game our friends first invited us to try, or whatever was being dealt at the poker room we first visited.

If everyone else is playing no-limit hold’em, what benefits are to be had from bothering to learn other variations of poker?

For those coming to poker in recent years, that likely meant no-limit hold'em provided their first taste of poker. Those of earlier generations probably started out with stud games or traditional five-card draw. In any event, we all eventually become aware that other kinds of poker exist, and if we stick with the game long enough we're bound to get curious about some of those other poker variants, too.

We frequently hear the advice delivered by top pros that in order to become "a complete poker player" we need to learn all the games. Such an idea is further reinforced by the fact that when we read about the top pros getting together to play their high-stakes cash games, most often they do so by playing a rotation of different games, not just no-limit hold'em.

For example, the so-called "Big Game" that until recently was played in Bobby's Room at the Bellagio before moving over to the Aria this year (and lowering its stakes) routinely features a dozen or more variations of poker played in rotation. Among the many games spread there are hold'em (limit and no-limit), Omaha (O8, PLO, PLO8), razz, seven-card stud (high only, and high/low with and without qualifiers), 2-7 and A-5 single draw (no-limit), A-5 and 2-7 triple draw (limit), plus a few others, too.

So we see the top pros playing all of these games, and we hear them say over and again how it is important to learn multiple variations of poker. But if we aren't planning on sitting at the table with those guys over at the Aria, do we really need to bother with learning other games? If everyone else is playing no-limit hold'em, what benefits are to be had from bothering to learn other variations of poker?

Three spring to mind.

1. The game you are playing might not be your best.

As those who bother to learn new games quickly find out, differences between variants often require different skills from players in order to be successful. As such, there is probably a game that best suits your own unique combination of hand-reading ability, understanding of math and probability, and even memory. Stick with just one game, however, and you'll never discover if another game might better suit your particular skill set.

Differences in game play might also prove to suit some players' personalities better than others. A conservative, patient player who dislikes high variance will obviously be more comfortable playing limit hold'em than pot-limit Omaha, just as a player with more gamble in him might well prefer PLO to LHE. But without trying other games, such players might never find the game that best suits their psychological profile.

2. The game you are playing may not be the one others are playing.

While no-limit hold'em is far and away the most popular variant these days, there are still likely going to be occasions when the game being dealt isn't the one you most often play. In Super/System Doyle Brunson talks about the need to "be versatile" and thus be willing "to give action" by playing others' preferred games.

"If you get a reputation for playing only when you have the best of it," Brunson explains, alluding to the "specialist" who refuses to play games others wish to play, "you'll get very few people to play against you." Just as you want to bet weaker hands sometimes so as to get calls when you bet strong ones, so, too, is it beneficial "to give action" by playing others' games in order to get action in return in the games you want to play.

3. You can learn more about the game you are playing by playing other games.

This is a somewhat abstract concept to consider, but the fact is all poker games have elements that overlap with each other, and thus one can actually become better at one variant -- can "see" things that might otherwise be less apparent -- by playing other games. As David Sklansky says early in The Theory of Poker when speaking of the great variety of poker games, "there is an inner logic that runs through all of them, and there are general precepts, concepts, and theories that apply to all of them."

To give a concrete example, understanding the importance of position is a skill that applies to all variations of poker. However, in some games position can play a more significant role than in others. For example, pot-limit betting in PLO makes it harder to control the size of the pot from early position, thus making the advantage of playing from late position more readily apparent in that game than it might be in others. Position is important in LHE, too, but an LHE player who tries his hand at PLO might well gain a better understanding of that fact after a session of PLO than he would otherwise.

There are more benefits to be had by learning other games, including the fact that variety often helps keep us mentally alert and open to learning. By playing the same game over and over, you're likely going to settle into patterns of thinking that make it less likely you'll be learning anything new, not to mention that your enjoyment is probably going to decrease, too.

So learn a different game and remind yourself the joy of discovering something new. And take another step toward becoming a more "complete" player.

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