Monday, September 28, 2009

Boats and Quads in Stud-Eight

A complaint I've heard from poker players about high-low poker, is that it frustrates them to win little or nothing with a rare monster hand because of the split-pot rule. Competing heads-up with quads against a low hand, generates rake for the house, but no income for the players. This frustrating feature of high-low poker can be especially aggravating in Seven-Card Stud High-Low (Stud-Eight) because holding a full house (boat) or four-of-a-kind (quads) disqualifies the hand from claiming the low pot. In contrast, Omaha High-Low allows the possibility of holding a qualified low and a full house or quads at the same time. Ironically, in Stud-Eight, filling up can actually reduce the monetary value of a hand. If you hold trip 4s with an Ace, 2, 3, 6, you can win the low half of the pot with a 6-high. However, trip 4s with an Ace, 2, 3, 3, means no low hand is possible. If the trip 4s alone are good enough for high, filling up at the end might lose half the pot to another player who qualifies for low.

However, there is a flip side to the split-pot rule. The possibility of a low hand will generate action in many instances that would not have happened otherwise. You can start with rolled-trips in Stud-Eight and have it hold up for high without improvement. However, no one starts with a qualified low. A player competing for the low pot will be on a draw until at least fifth street and sometimes all the way to the river. Many of these draws will not materialize, but the player contributes to the pot on every street. When the draw succeeds a player with quads or a boat feels extremely frustrated. But, had the draw not been possible, no action would have occurred.

In one session of Stud-Eight, I had a sudden run of good cards. In a period covering just ten hands, I received a full house three times. In each case I had just one opponent calling me down. Twice the pot was split netting me nothing, and once I got to scoop. It sounds like little reward for such a great run of cards. But, consider what would have happened in a Seven-Card Stud high-only game. Absolutely no action would have occurred at all. No one holding 2, 3, 4, 7 after fourth street is going to call someone with an exposed pair in a high-only game. In fact, the hands would never have gone on long enough for me to fill up, so I wouldn't even be recalling such a great run of cards.

In multi-way pots with more than one opponent competing for low, if you're lucky enough to be receive a boat or quads early on, you can be hyper-aggressive without driving away action. A decision on whether to slow-play, that players in high-only games must make, is unnecessary. Raising and re-raising can build an enormous pot, of which you might only get half, but again, without the low possibilities your total action might be much less than half of the large pot generated by the competing lows.

You do need to be cautious with big hands when the possibility of being second best arises. It is much more costly to be second best in Stud-Eight than in other limit forms of poker, because simply calling another player down is often not an option. For example, in one hand I played, I started with rolled-trip 6s, followed by a Jack on Fourth Street and a second Jack on Fifth Street. I was confidently betting and raising with my boat against two other players. One player had a Queen for a door card and picked up a pair of 7s on Fourth and Fifth Streets. He respected my raises leading me to believe he had two-pair, Queens and 7s. The other player had three exposed low cards, including the fourth 6, was re-raising, and appeared to have no intention of leaving the hand. Clearly he had a made low hand.

But, on Sixth Street, a second Queen appeared in my opponent's hand, giving him Queens and 7s on the board, that he immediately bet out. The other player raised and now I had to make a decision. It is not possible for my hand to improve to beat his most likely holding, Queens-full. Even though the pot is large, I cannot call him down to be sure. It will cost me eight big-bets to make showdown because if I cold-call the two bets at the moment, he will re-raise and the low will cap it. That same four-bet action will occur again before showdown. I mucked my boat rather than risk getting caught in between a better high and a made low.

My assessment turned out to be correct. But, had it not been correct I would have only lost half of the pot, rather than the entire pot. In a high-only game, holding a boat with the entire pot at stake, and only two-large bets needed because no low hand would be raising, I would have simply called him down.

A full house or better plays differently in Seven-Card Stud High-Low than in high-only Seven-Card Stud. Yes, it is frustrating to split large pots when you have such a powerful hand, but you will get action that you otherwise might not have had. You need to stay alert to the reasons for that action and keep out of the middle between a possibly better high hand and made low hand.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Terminology for Seven-Card Stud High-Low

Seven-Card Stud High-Low Eight or Better Poker is one of the most complex, intricate and least understood variations of poker. For those reasons it is a profitable game to master. This Blog will be an ongoing discussion of the strategies and tactics of this game that I will refer to simply as “Stud-Eight.” This short form makes the most sense to me because it is the “E” from the word eight that is used in acronyms for mixed-game poker formats to represent this high-low variation of Seven-Card Stud. Mixed-game poker competitions have become more popular recently. The $50,000 HORSE championship at the World Series of Poker is eclipsing the no-limit Texas Hold’em event in prestige. In the HORSE acronym: H=Hold’em, O=Omaha High-Low Eight or Better, R=Razz, S=Seven-Card Stud, and E=Seven-Card Stud High-Low Eight or Better.My first post is a brief overview of the terminology I will use in writing about Stud-Eight. A more extensive glossary of terms can be found at

Poker, like all other activities, has a technical jargon that allows its participants to concisely communicate situations, actions and ideas. As with any jargon, it is gibberish to the uninitiated even though the words often have simple meanings. Poker vocabulary is extensive and cryptic at times. However, because it simplifies the writing I will make frequent use of some terms that describe key ideas in Stud games and High-Low games in particular. The terms explained below are used throughout the site.

The seven-card games of Seven-Card Stud (high-only wins) Stud-Eight (high and low split the pot), and Razz (low-only wins) all begin with each player being dealt three cards—two down and one exposed. The exposed card is referred to as the “door card” and determines the player forced to make the “bring-in” bet. In Seven-Card Stud and Stud-Eight the low door card has the bring-in while in Razz it is the high card that must bring-in.

In the rare event that all three cards are of the same rank, the three-of-a-kind or “trips” are said to be “rolled.” A more common event is for the first three cards to include two of the same rank or a “pair.” If the pair includes the door card it is a “split-pair.” If the two down cards or “hole cards” are paired it is a “wired-pair.”

Consider having three cards that include a pair. If you randomly turn one over, two out of three times you will split the pair and the other one-third of the time you will be left with a wired-pair. That means a pair is two times more likely to be split than wired. As a result, when a player bets to represent a pair, the opponents will usually assume that it is the door card that is paired.

On later streets a player can obtain an “exposed pair” and if the exposed pair includes the door card opponents will consider trips as a possible holding. Wired pairs are a less likely and more valuable holding because no one will know the rank and it is possible to make trips without an exposed pair.

Starting cards with sequential ranks such as 3, 4, 5, are said to be “connected.” It is better to hold connected cards because these are much more likely to complete a straight than cards that have “gaps.” If you have 3, 5, 6, you must pick up a 4 to have an open-ended straight-draw. But with 3, 4, 5 you have eight cards available, known as “outs” to improve to an open-ended straight draw that will then give you eight additional outs to complete the straight. Sequential cards can also improve to pairs or even trips later on. For 3, 4, 5 you also have nine outs to improve to pair which would then give you a draw to trips or two pair. All total with sequential cards you have 17 outs to improve to a draw for a powerful high.

Starting cards with large gaps have fewer outs available for improvement. Any three starting cards can make a straight, but a hand such as 2, 8, K needs to pick up a 9, 10, J, Q and nothing else for the remaining four cards to straighten.

The number outs needed to improve a hand depends on the exposed cards in other hands known as the “board.” This is a major difference of Stud games compared to flop games such as Hold’em and Omaha where the cards on the board belong to all players. In Stud games cards on the board in other hands will never be part of your hand. That means in counting outs you have to subtract off the exposed cards that would help your hand but are “dead.” An accurate subtraction often requires memory of exposed cards in previously folded (“mucked”) hands. If none of the outs necessary for your hand to improve are exposed your hand is said to be “live.” The longer your hand remains live the better because as more cards are exposed the fewer cards that remain in the deck are more likely to include the cards you need.

A hand that cannot be beat by any of the other players is referred to as the “nuts.” In split pot games it is possible to have a nut-low and a nut-high. Because of the manner in which cards are exposed it is much easier to know if you have a nut-low. Any player with three exposed high cards cannot have a qualifying low. It is much more difficult to know if you have nut-high because your opponent’s three unexposed cards could all be of the same rank, or suit, or be sequential and complete a powerful high with one or more of the four exposed cards.

In Stud-Eight the cards ranked A, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 7, 8 are referred to as the “low cards” and 9, 10, J, K, Q, A are the “high cards” . The low versus high distinction is a result of the rules that requires a low hand to “qualify” for the low pot by having no card in it higher than an eight. Notice that the Ace is a special card because it is simultaneously the best low card and the best high card. That dual role makes Aces in split-pot games even more valuable than in high-only games because it is equivalent to having an extra eighth card in your hand. The low cards also have added value because they can simultaneously be part of high and low hands. The high cards present problems because they can only work “one-way.”

The dual nature of the low cards is best seen in the hand A, 2, 3, 4, 5 known as the “bicycle” usually shortened to “wheel.” This is the best possible low hand or “nut-low” and it is guaranteed a share of the low pot because the best another player competing for low could do is have another wheel to split the low pot. At the same time the hand competes for the high pot as a five-high straight. The five-lowest cards are referred to as “wheel cards.” The ideal hand in Stud-Eight would be a “steel wheel” which is A, 2, 3, 4, 5 all in the same suit. This hand is both the nut-low and a 5-high straight flush that would defeat any full house or quads for the high pot.

A hand that is viable for just one-half of the pot is a “one-way hand.” A starting hand of K, K, J is a one-way hand for high because it is impossible for it to ever qualify for low. A hand such as 2, 5, 7 is usually played as a one-way hand for low although it is possible that such a hand could “back in” to a high hand with the right additional cards. The ideal in split pot games is to compete simultaneously for both halves of the pot. Winning the high pot and the low pot is known as a “scoop.” The big money in Stud-Eight comes from scooping. It is usually best to play hands that have a reasonable chance of scooping.

A “kicker” is a card that is not part of a grouping. If you have 9, 9, 7 you have a pair of nines with a seven kicker. In Hold’em kickers are important cards because the use of community cards mean that players often share the same pair and in those cases it is the kicker that decides the winner. In Seven-Card Stud, kickers are less important because two players with the same pair is a rare event. Also some groupings possible in Hold’em, such as shared trips or quads, are impossible in Seven-Card Stud.

However, in Stud-Eight kickers are important cards because they determine the likelihood of scooping. A hand of A, A, 2 (pair of Aces with a 2 kicker) is much more likely to make low than A, A, 9 (pair of Aces with a 9 kicker) and the Aces are a powerful start for high. Even if the kicker won’t make low it can threaten low and put pressure on the other players.

You will not win at poker unless you place bets. Checking and calling is needed in some circumstances but if that is all you do you will lose. Part of the reason for this is that bets have a “fold equity.” When you bet, the other players are forced to make decisions. Folding could be an outcome of that decision and if everyone folds, you win.

Jamming refers to the act of betting or raising with the intention of re-raising if the action returns to you. If you raise each time you have the opportunity you are “jamming” your opponents. Stud-Eight has more jamming than any other form of poker because in many cases it can be done free of risk. If you have a made low and are up against one or more players with three exposed high cards there is no reason not to jam the others if given the opportunity. The most common jamming situation is a made low and a monster high such as a full house or quads jamming a third player with a strong but second-best holding. A person with a straight or flush in these situations can be cleaned out if not careful. This is an important difference between Stud-Eight and Stud-high. If you hold a flush in Stud-high you might check and call down some one you suspect has a full house. In Stud-Eight you are better off getting out of the hand in that situation. Remember that even if your hand holds up you will only win half of the pot. The pot odds are not in your favor.

Freerolling refers to the ability to make risk-free bets while drawing for the entire pot. This concept is explained on the page “Unique Features of Stud-Eight.” It is not unique to Stud-Eight because you will find freeroll possibilities in other poker variants. Consider a Hold’em hand with two players in which one holds 6s, 7s, and the other 6d, 7d. The flop is 3s, 4s, 5c. Both players hold the nut-straight but only player can improve to a flush on the later streets. If the players go “all-in” against each other the player with the 6s, 7s is on a freeroll. She cannot lose because the worse that can happen is that she will split the pot. But, if a third Spade hits she wins the entire pot.

Freeroll situations are rare in Hold’em, more common in Omaha, but routine in Stud-Eight. A player with the best qualifying low after 5 or 6 cards and a lock on half the pot, often has opportunities to back into a high hand and claim the other half. Any small pair could improve to trips, a four-flush could become a flush, or an inside straight-draw could hit. There is nothing a high hand can do to “protect” his holdings.

Bricks are cards that do not improve a hand in anyway. A beautiful looking start such as 2-Diamond, 3-Diamond, 4-Diamond, 5-Diamond, that is followed by J-Club, 9-Club, K-Spade, has been hit with bricks and needs to be mucked (folded) at the end.