H.O.R.S.E. Play

Being able to spot the weak players at your table is an essential component of
excelling at H.O.R.S.E.

The main attraction of H.O.R.S.E. is that everyone will have weaker and stronger games

For years now, in the face of a no-limit hold’em tidal wave, the elite players of the world have spent their time quietly playing and propagating mixed games as the ultimate test of a poker player. In the Big Game at Bellagio, where Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Phil Ivey, Barry Greenstein and Jennifer Harman are fixtures, they play as many as a dozen different games on a regular basis. In the face of a swollen main event at this year’s WSOP, a $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. (hold’em, Omaha hi-lo, razz, seven-card stud and seven-card stud hi-lo) event was introduced, regarded by those in the know as the ‘real’ World Championship and duly won by consummate professional Chip Reese.

The five H.O.R.S.E. fixed-limit games are played in rotation, eight hands at a time, and with a maximum of eight players. H.O.R.S.E. is finally available to online players, too, in the form of cash games, sit&gos and tournaments. Here, we look at how more inexperienced players can hold their own.

Playing by the rules

Rudimentary as it sounds, make sure that you know the rules to all of the games and also which game you’re currently playing. Even at the higher limits, it’s not uncommon to see someone sit down with no idea of how to play one or more of the games, or for someone to miss a change over between stud rounds. This in itself is an instant source of profit for the attentive player. Beyond that, the main attraction of H.O.R.S.E. is that everyone will have weaker and stronger games, and the specialists you see at other tables won’t be able to compete without having to play games they’re less familiar with. As such, you should become at least competent in each of the five games, and learn to spot other players who aren’t and focus on them in their weak games.

This may sound like a mammoth task, but there are some general principles that can be immediately employed in profiling your opponents. For example, newer players will be most familiar with hold’em, and some will have naturally branched out from here into Omaha hi-lo as another community card game.

However, stud games will be uncharted territory, particularly with younger internet players. As the rotation progresses, they’ll display increasing weaknesses through razz, which is a deceptively straightforward game; stud, which has a high skill factor, but also a high luck one; and stud hi-lo, which is a game of equally high skill but far less luck. Of course, older players will likely have been around since the height of stud’s popularity, but these players will be in the minority in online games.

Breaking it down

There are also certain keys to each game that good players will know and bad ones won’t, and this will instantly reveal a player’s ability in a given game. Let’s take a look at them.

Hold’em: good short-handed players (remember that H.O.R.S.E. seats eight or fewer) are invariably very aggressive both pre-flop and post-flop, and extremely tenacious in calling down their opponents with marginal holdings so that they aren’t easy to bluff. They’ll defend their blinds liberally and will often make continuation bets when they raise pre-flop, as well as three-betting opening raisers if they intend to play. Anyone who shows undue passivity, or who seems to give up too often in a hand, especially on the river, isn’t a hold’em expert.

Omaha hi-lo: this is a game of hitting flops, but aggression and pre-flop raising are becoming increasingly important in the eight-handed format. Starting hands are still key, though, so watch for people who play too many middle cards, high-only hands or non-nut draws for a lot of bets. A good tip for newer players is to usually have a two-way hand with nut outs in at least one direction. As such, any A-2 would be playable, but you would want an A-3 to have a nut-flush draw and A-4 or A-5 to also have some broadway cards – for example, A-4-K-Q. These requirements loosen somewhat in steal positions or in the blinds, but they’ll help you to avoid getting jammed in between other nut draws and made hands the rest of the time.

Razz: of all the stud games, this is the one in which stealing antes is the most prevalent. The high card is forced to bring-in, and it has no defence against late-position low cards. This means good players automatically raise the bring-in if they’re in late position with a low card up and little opposition behind them, often with little or no hand. Even if they’re called by another low card, they can still continue representing the best hand if they catch good and the other player doesn’t. By contrast, bad players are less aware of the power of position and a good up-card, and sometimes even fold around to the bring-in. Similarly, they stay too long in hands where they’re obviously drawing thin and are unaware of simple rules, such as a smooth wheel draw being a favourite over a rough nine on fifth street. They’ll also pay insufficient attention to discards, the relative strength of their hand against the cards showing, and the significance of which of their low cards are showing.

Seven-card stud: stealing antes is still a popular strategy in stud hi, as the low card brings in. However, you should be in very late position to try it with no hand or at least have some potential if there are multiple players to go through. Again, players who don’t take advantage of these opportunities are unlikely to be stud experts; neither are those who take low pairs up against likely bigger ones without an overcard. Those who draw to hands where many of their outs are gone due to discards are also newcomers.

Seven-card stud hi-lo: the number-one tell of a bad player in stud eight is overvaluing big pairs (excluding Aces), which can be played only in very select situations. Big pairs should never be played against an Ace or multiple lows. The second tell is staying too long in small pots where they can only win half and risk getting scooped, again with big pairs, but also with bad low hands. Stealing in this game should be attempted less frequently than in other stud games, as the bring-in will often have something with which they can defend. You should watch for players whose opening standards are too loose or who stay too long, and aim to get them in spots where you’ll usually half and possibly also scoop.

Tournament adjustments

In H.O.R.S.E. tournaments and sit&gos, the above strategies mostly apply, as do other general tournament concepts. However, because of the transitions between the various games, and between playing with blinds and antes, there are other considerations that only apply to H.O.R.S.E. events. First, because you only have limited chips in a tournament and so will be under pressure at various points, it helps to know which games offer the best opportunities to increase your stack with the least risk, and vice versa.

The first thing to recognise is that stud games will allow you far better opportunities to wait for a hand, as you only have to pay antes. As such, with a short stack close to the money, you may wish to take fewer risks in community-card games, particularly as the rotation then progresses to razz, where stealing is easiest and you’ll have a fair idea of where you stand in any hand. After that, stud eight is the second-lowest variance game, as by starting with a quality three-low, you’ll only rarely end up with nothing. Stud hi has a higher risk factor, as only one hand will win. However, at the pressure points of a tournament, made hands tend to go up in value, so likely high pairs will be respected and Aces won’t encounter a lot of opposition.

But remember, the jump back to hold’em will produce a wave of destruction due to higher blinds and fewer players exiting in stud games. You need to be adequately prepared for it if the blinds are set to hit your short stack early in the round. Hold’em is the highest variance game, and you should be extra careful how you play this round. Omaha hi-lo, by comparison, is slightly lower risk if you employ a cautious strategy that involves more limping pre-flop and playing hands with counterfeit protection and opportunities to scoop. Although, again, the high blinds can cause chaos.


Fancy your chances at H.O.R.S.E.? How would you fare in these situations?

1. In hold’em, you call in the big blind with 4-5 after a button raise and the flop comes 4-7-K. Your opponent bets after you check, do you a) fold, b) call or c) re-raise?
2. In a H.O.R.S.E. sit&go, you get A-2-K- 10 double-suited on the bubble with seven big blinds in your stack. You’re under the gun and third in chips, do you a) fold, b) call or c) re-raise?
3. Close to the final in a H.O.R.S.E. tournament, everyone folds to you in stud and you have 2-5–(J) rainbow against the bring-in with a much deeper stack. Do you a) fold, b) call or c) re-raise?


1. CALL Any time you hit a piece of the flop in this situation, you should stay in, possibly all the way. Note that you also have backdoor flush and straight possibilities.
2. CALL Your stack, the bubble and the fact that it will soon be stud mean you want to see a flop before committing your chips to this hand.
3. RAISE Stealing should be automatic in stud here most of the time, and even more so in any kind of high-pressure situation!

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