|You might want to limp with marginal hands to test the water|
The third leg of the H.O.R.S.E. format is Razz, otherwise known as Seven- Card Stud Lowball – a game that has been played in Las Vegas for decades in low stakes limit games or as part of bigger mixed game rotations. But it only came into the public eye when the 2004 Razz World Series of Poker final table was televised, even though the broadcast mainly consisted of the finalists thumping their heads in frustration and eventual winner T.J. Cloutier announcing, ‘I hate this game more than any other!’
Now, though, it has reached the internet, both as part of H.O.R.S.E. and as a game in its own right. So you’ll have ample opportunity to play it in whichever format suits you best: tournaments, sit-and-gos or cash games.
Low, low, low…
As you’ll soon realise, Razz is the most straightforward of the H.O.R.S.E games, with a player’s hand rarely well disguised and the winner often being determined by luck as much as any other factor. But there is still skill involved and a few interesting situations that most players aren’t aware of, so it’s well worth knowing what to do – especially since other players often play Razz quite poorly.
The first thing to consider is the effect of the high card having to post a bring-in bet to start the action in a game of low cards (whereas in Stud Hi-Lo it’s still the low card that posts the bring-in). Effectively this player is dead in the water from the outset so if everyone folds to you in last position you should almost always raise and expect a fold, even if you have something like --8 against a Jack. Even if they call (which either means they’re crazy or have something like A-2 in the hole) you can still win by catching good on the next card when they catch bad.
However, if you’re in early position relative to the bring-in, things are more complicated and you need to consider not only your hand, but your card that is visible and what your opponents are showing. The latter exercise serves two purposes: firstly, to tell you how likely you are to have the best hand; and secondly, whether any of the cards you need to make a good low hand later are dead.
For example, if you’re dealt [A]--8 in early position there’s a great deal of difference between having the Eight and the Ace exposed (as other players will be looking at your hand to see what you might have, too). If everyone at the table is showing a face card it doesn’t matter much as you should expect to raise and win the hand (even without such good hole cards). But if a couple of players are showing cards lower than an Eight and you raise with an Eight showing they will be far less scared of you than if your Ace is up and you may have trouble knowing if they’re trying to bluff you later in a hand or have you beat, forcing you to proceed with caution and possibly make costly errors.
Going beyond this, if many low cards are out your best option may be to muck the hand as you’re unlikely to be best, although in doing so you should also consider whether the cards showing are ones you need or not. If there are two Fours, two Aces and an Eight showing and your Ace is up you would certainly want to raise and see what happens in the knowledge that your hand is very live. However, if the Four or Eight is up and there are many Twos, Threes, Fives, Sixes and Sevens showing you would have an easy fold.
Depending on the ante structure, you might also want to limp with some of your more marginal hands to test the water since there is little bluffing in Razz. If doing this you must be careful not to give away the strength of your hand, sometimes limping with strong hands or raising with weak ones. However, limping in general is only a good strategy in cash games where the ante is small relative to the limit, whereas in tournaments and bigger cash games with an ante of around one-tenth of the big bet you should raise from the outset as the dead money in itself is worth winning.
In general terms then, when playing pre-flop you should just try to play strong low hands but adjust to other circumstances accordingly. [A]--3 is clearly the best starting hand in isolation, but if you wait all day for something like that you’ll be anted away. As the above example of [A]--8 might suggest, an Eight low can probably hope to be of about average strength by the river in Razz, with Seven or Six being very strong and Nine through to Jack very marginal. However, this can all change as the later streets unfold…
Dancing in the streets
Play on the latter streets in Razz is mostly determined by the new up cards that are dealt, with the lowest hand on the board acting first and almost always choosing to bet and represent the best hand overall. As you can see, this leaves little room for finesse, so often the issue is whether to continue when you fall behind, and whether there’s a good chance your opponent could have paired with a hole card or be betting on the fact that you caught bad.
Typically, you should be prepared to take another card on fourth street for a single small bet if you fall behind but think you were initially winning, but you’ll need to improve to a potentially winning draw on fifth street if you are to continue calling your opponent. For example, if you raised with [A]--6 and were called by an Eight high, which caught a Seven on fourth street to your King you would certainly call a bet and chase all the way if you caught a Two, Three, Five, Seven or Eight on fifth street (but fold otherwise). This is because in Razz you can always see what your opponent’s best possible hand is, and even if you both caught Deuces on fifth street your [A]--4-6-K would have an ample chance to improve against even [A]--3-7-8.
Fifth street, as suggested above, is the key point in the hand, due to the bets doubling; once you call here you’re often committed to going all the way unless your opponent catches extremely strong cards and it becomes likely that even making your draw will not guarantee victory. It’s also an interesting point in the battle between draws and made hands, as at this point a bad Nine like [A]--4-8-9 is actually losing to a strong draw such as [A]--4-7-K, and against someone who doesn’t know this you may win extra bets! Sixth street is fairly routine in Razz unless disaster strikes, but with seventh street being dealt face down things can often get interesting. In basic terms, there are usually so many bets in the pot that even if there’s only a slight chance you can win you should call a bet in the hope your opponent has paired along the way. You should also value bet if checked to or raise for value when your board is extremely strong, even if you think there’s a chance you’re beaten as you’re unlikely to be re-raised.