Most poker players think they prefer active games, that is, looser (as opposed to tighter), with a lot of betting and bigger pots. Whereas these active games are certainly more interesting (fun?) and have greater potential for big wins, the more dull passive games generally afford a professional high Omaha player a greater percentage of winning sessions, and, if you will forgive the expression, provide greater job security.As used here, “passive” game does not refer to an ultra tight game where only one or two players and the blinds see the flop. You simply should not play in such a game. A passive game may seem somewhat tight because, since there is less betting and raising, the pots are smaller. But if there is a lot of loose calling, then the passive game is one of the most favorable of all poker games!

Several months ago we discussed the concept of the “bulk” game, referring to a typical table where too many players (collectively) were seeing the flops. Note well that it would be difficult to win under casino conditions (with rake), if you were NOT playing in a bulk game. Luckily, almost all Omaha games seem to be bulk games (with some rare exceptions, like some of the 4/8 games at Binions). So to be more precise, what we are really discussing here is a comparison between “active bulk” Omaha games versus “passive bulk” Omaha games.

So what are the advantages of passive games? Why does an expert limit high Omaha player seldom lose at a bulk passive table (if you like numbers, probably less than one out of five times)? Since, by definition, in a bulk game, more than half the players usually see the flop (again, you should not be playing in the game otherwise), the house rake is offset, and there is money to be had. In high Omaha there is a blessed amount of skill involved in seeing the flop and betting after the flop. It is certainly easier to win when you are one of the few players who raise before the flop (of course mostly in later positions). It is certainly an advantage when you get to do more than your share of the betting, and when you see most of your good draws at bargain rates. And more generally, it is a great advantage when you have some degree of control over the betting. In an active game, most of those “skill” advantages are seriously diminished or non-existent.

In active games you can lose a lot more money when you are not hitting, when you are getting last carded, or when you are bluffed or pressured out of a win. Although there must be some ideal active games with a high skill factor (finder’s fee considered), usually the extra action actually diminishes many of the skill factors of the game. If there is just one “dangerous” player (not necessarily a good player, but most typically one who makes frequent, perhaps even arbitrary, bets and raises) in the game, a skillful player can usually take advantage of the situation by making appropriate adjustments (like changing seats and by calling more). But, when there are several lunatics (or perhaps just one whose lunacy
seems to be contagious), their antics are often compounded and can create annoying
and costly big money gambling situations (thereby introducing yet another “wrong place at the wrong time” luck factor, reminiscent of certain detestable high low situations).

In active games, although there is some increase in big pot “poker” skills (ie. just knowing when to hold’em or to fold’em), often even these skills are greatly diminished with the onset of uncontrollable showdown like situations. In the extreme case where almost every hand is capped out before the flop, much of the expert’s delicate flop seeing judgment has been obviated. And the odds often require that you fish along after the flop, gamble more money, and shoot-it-out. Obviously, when playing in this mode, luck is more dominant and a run of bad luck means big losses. The expert’s by-session results in a very active high Omaha game have a much greater deviation (perhaps two or three times greater) than his passive game results. But, on the other hand, if the active game is truly “overall favorable” (all factors considered), the expert’s net dollar expectation or average win should be higher in the active games in the long run (essentially, the stakes are higher).

Usually your main skill advantage in these extremely active games is achieved by playing mostly prime quality starting hands. Quality starting hands not only give you better primary holdings (which keep you playing after the flop and win say 20% or more), but quality hands also have a greater likelihood of hitting secondary paydirt (”plan B” or “swoozle” hits) say around 5% of the time (which 5% can make a big overall difference in your finances). However, players who play very tight in these situations and sit out a conspicuous number of hands are more subject to short run bad luck, and may encounter hostility problems that are generally bad for business. For example, if “locksmith” tendencies become too obvious, certain fun-loving (sadistic) opponents may choose to verbalize abuses (which talk can be costly if it tips off an otherwise oblivious likely caller into a rare correct fold). Sometimes a tight player might even trigger tacit or spontaneous hostile betting conspiracies (ie. “let’s get the locksmith”), which may or may not work out to his advantage, but would be best avoided for long run considerations.

If you can work out an optimal formula for playing in a given active game (probably not super tight but rather some degree tighter than most of the other players, see my article on “relativity”, March 20, 1992), you should be able to win more money overall than in passive games (ie. in the long run, if there is one). But, again, since the deviation in these active games is much higher, you should be prepared to have a higher percentage of losing sessions than in the safer passive games.

All in all, action games, if not adversely extreme, do have the potential to generate large wins – especially when you are running well. This is particularly true when you know the players and perhaps have some extra “personal” advantages going for you. However, when it comes to putting bread on the table, there is also much to be said for the greater skill advantages and security that you get at a passive table. Bottom line: active games are more like gambling, passive games are more like working.

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