Razz is less of an improvisational game than no-limit hold’em, but that’s what makes the game so attractive to smart poker players
Razz, or seven-card stud low, has gained increased public attention, mainly because of ESPN’s decision to broadcast the 2004 WSOP razz final table. It’s also an integral part of the popular mixed-game rotation H.O.R.S.E., whose popularity will certainly soar off the back of its high-profile billing at this year’s WSOP. As such, it’s worth getting to know the game.
Razz plays with the same dealing and betting structure as other stud games where up to eight players receive three cards, two face down and one face up called the ‘door card’ (third street). This is followed by three more up-cards (fourth to sixth street), and a final down-card (seventh street). Betting rounds trail each street on a limit format, with the bets doubling on fifth street, and the game is played with an ante posted by all players and a compulsory ‘bring-in’ posted by the highest up-card. So in an $8/$16 razz game, you might ante $1.50 with the bring-in being forced to post $3, the next player being able to ‘complete’ to $8 and so on.
The aim is to make the lowest five-card hand from the seven you’re dealt, and straights and flushes don’t count against you, so the nuts is any wheel – that is, A-2-3-4-5. It may sound simple, but there are still tricks and tells that separate the Vegas veterans from the internet newbies.
As in most poker games, the most important decision is whether to play your hole cards or muck them, and this is even more crucial in razz, as the strength of your holding is often fairly obvious. You’re looking to start with three ‘babies’ (low cards) so A-2-3 would be the perfect draw, and ordinarily you’re hoping to end up with a high card of 7 or at most 8.
However, the hard and fast rules generally stop there, as you’ll need to adapt to your opponents’ up-cards and the changing circumstances along the way – both of which can cause you to deviate from the basic premises of the game. For example, if you have 2-6-(9) and the other players are showing higher cards, you should be more than happy to play, as you’re certainly winning. However, if you have 6-7-(8) and there are lots of lower cards out, you should pass.
RAISING THE DEAD
While you need to consider the cards of opponents active in a hand against you, you also need to pay attention to ‘dead’ cards, as they may turn a dog into a favourite. For example, A-5-(7) is an almost 55% favourite over 2-6-(8) in absolute terms, but if the other six players’ up-cards are 2, 2, 3, 6, K, 8, then the 2-6-(8) becomes a 57.5% favourite, and (since this is a somewhat contrived example) you should note that it only takes a couple of favourable dead cards along the way to swing two hands towards being even money.
All of this assumes you have the hand your up-card says you do, which will usually be the case. But you should also bear in mind that this makes stealing the antes when first to act in late position with the best upcard a far more attractive proposition in razz than any other game. If you have K-K-(2) against a Queen and a Jack, for example, this is an automatic raise for you and an automatic fold for your opponents. Virtually any time you have the best low card showing against people showing 9s or worse, you should raise.
However, things can still go pear-shaped at any time, so it’s important to keep evaluating the situation street by street, particularly since so much new information is revealed to you at each juncture. An important part of playing all fixed-limit games is calibrating your decisions according to when the bets double, and this is also the case in razz. Providing you have a strong initial holding and the new cards dealt on fourth street don’t spell disaster for you, you should be prepared to take one more cheap card in the hope of catching up if you have ‘bricked’ (caught bad) there. However, if you brick again on fifth street, or your opponent catches a perfect card and you a mediocre one, it’s usually time to abandon ship.
On fifth street players are faced with the prospect of a double bet that’s often the make-or-break moment in a hand. We’ve discussed situations where you catch bad and are forced to fold, but it’s also important to realise when the tables turn and you have the opportunity to force your opponent out of a hand – usually by betting on fourth and fifth street with the best up-cards showing, and especially when your opponent has caught bad. There’s comparatively little trapping or check-raising in razz, as holdings are often transparent, so putting your opponent to the test in this way should be routine.
Fifth street is also interesting as besides being where the stakes double, it’s also when the value of made hands and draws can be confused by amateurs, allowing expert players to get extra bets in while they’re a favourite. When deciding whether to bet or not in razz, also remember that since there is little trickiness you should usually bet when checked to if there’s a good chance you have the best hand or can steal the pot.
The latter streets in razz tend to become a drawing contest, with each player trying to decide if they have the advantage or not based on the up-cards, and only seventh street provides some interesting questions. You should always call on the end if there’s even a remote chance you can win (bluffing isn’t recommended, as the pot is so big) and bet for value almost any hand you think is winning. Then go back to the start and repeat until you either love the game or hate it!