Beginners guide to H.O.R.S.E.

1. Limit Hold’em

With the overwhelming emphasis placed on no-limit Hold’em over the last few years it was inevitable that other formats would come along to provide alternatives from the constant cries of ‘all-in’ or ‘coin-flip’. The most popular contender at present is H.O.R.S.E. – a rotation of five different limit games (see left). It broke major ground this summer when the World Series of Poker introduced a $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. event, which was quickly dubbed the ‘unofficial world championship’. Now you, too, can play it in cash games, sit-and-gos and tournaments at sites like PokerStars and Full Tilt.

No-fold’em Hold’em

The first of the H.O.R.S.E. games is limit Hold’em, the less famous format of the game everyone is playing, no-limit Hold’em. Don’t be fooled though, for although the mechanics of the game are the same, limit Hold’em is a very different animal and requires some significant adjustments from what big bet players are used to (see Limit vs no-limit, right).

The betting structure is the main determinant of these changes, and a game is usually described by the size of the bets allowed. For example, in a $10/$20 game the blinds would be $5 and $10, with bets and raises of $10 allowed pre- and post-flop, and bets of $20 allowed on the turn and river (up to a maximum of four bets per round, at which point the action is ‘capped’).

What this means in effect is that the flair and bluffing of no-limit Hold’em is curtailed and to win at limit Hold’em you must play a more straightforward game, at least at a full table. This starts with fairly strict starting hand requirements, although since H.O.R.S.E. is played with eight players you can play a bit looser than at a standard 10-handed table; you should also expect the game to be a bit more aggressive than normal ring games because of this.

In early position (the first two seats after the blinds) you need to mainly stick to big Aces (A-10 to A-K) and big pairs (8-8 or better) and raise with them to thin the field. Depending on how loose and passive the game is, you can also limp in with smaller pairs and sometimes suited connectors, but if the game is overly tight or aggressive you won’t be getting the pot odds required to make them profitable. Also remember to mix up your calling and raising hands occasionally to confuse people! Once you get to mid and late position you should invariably be raising with any hand you intend to play if you’re to open the betting, in the hope of knocking people out, gaining position or even stealing the blinds. The next few Aces (A-7 to A-9) become playable in middle position (the next two seats) and the rest in late position (the cut-off and button), though bear in mind that a suited Ace probably elevates its status by one pip, so A-9 suited is about equivalent to A-10 off-suit for the purposes of opening raises. In these positions you can also open with any court card combinations, any pair and suited connectors to help mix up your game, though weaker hands like Q-10 off-suit or 9-7 suited should probably be left for late position only.

If someone has limped or raised before you, you should generally only re-raise when you’re pretty sure you have a better hand, although you should be more inclined to re-raise with marginal hands from late position against loose or middle position raises in order to shut out the blinds and take control of the hand. Obviously, if players have only limped in, accomplishing the latter is harder and so you should be more inclined to limp with all but very strong hands (this is also the best time to play small pairs and suited connectors). Playing in the blinds is a special situation in this format as it will often only be a single bet for you to call, giving you excellent pot odds. For example, if the button raises your big blind and the small blind folds in a $10/20 game you will be getting odds of $35-to-$10 to call, and since a raiser invariably bets the flop in limit Hold’em when checked to, this is actually more like $45-to-$10.

Therefore you should be prepared to defend with a wide variety of hands, though beware of raises from tight, early position players and junk hands like 9-3 or 10-2 off-suit, which are likely to cause you more trouble than they’re worth out of position. Against aggressive button-raisers however, almost any face card, connected cards (for example, 7-8 off-suit) or better are defensible, though re-raising is only advised with very strong hands when you purposefully want to bloat the pot. In the small blind you have less invested, the worst position at the table and a player behind you, so you mainly need to fold bad hands and raise good ones unless multiple players are in.

Flop it to me good…

Play after the flop is obviously crucial to winning at limit Hold’em as you may need to make decisions on three streets, but you should bear in mind that the bets don’t double until the turn so you should often stay in on the flop with as little as a low pair or a gutshot draw if there are a lot of bets in the pot. This is also the case as it is routine for the pre-flop aggressor to bet the flop in the hope of thinning the field (particularly against a single opponent), whereas on the turn they may take a free card to avoid the threat of being checkraised by a strong hand for a double bet.

As the aggressor in a hand you should bet the flop yourself if you’ve narrowed the opposition to one or two players, or if you have a decent hand or draw, in the hope of winning it there and then or setting up a free card on the turn. Against players who routinely call the flop or with any kind of hand to protect, you should also bet the turn to further define or protect your hand, but if you get called on the turn when you have very little it’s usually illadvised to try and bluff the river as well. It’s also worth trying to mix up raises with strong hands and draws throughout a hand to make them harder to distinguish.

When you face aggression after the flop in any form, you need to consider the profile of your opponent as well as the texture of the board when deciding how to proceed. For example, you should probably call aggressive players on drawing boards with marginal holdings, because there’s a good chance you’re ahead and it lets them know you won’t fold easily in the future. Above all else, remember that tenacity and aggression (combined with good hand selection and reading skills) are the keys to winning at this game.

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