In his latest article looking at a world beyond hold’em, Alex Scott shows you how to beat the frustrating but rewarding game of Razz

Razz is a game with a negative reputation. When Howard Lederer made the final table of the WSOP Razz event in 2004, he was quoted as saying ‘after playing Razz for a whole day, you really feel like you want to beat someone up’. He busted out shortly afterwards. Physical violence might be an extreme way to deal with it, but Razz can certainly be frustrating.

Perhaps because of its tendency to confuse and frustrate players used to other poker formats, Razz is a staple of the world’s highest stakes mixed games. When you’re going through a bad run, it can be difficult to bluff or play creatively to get yourself out of the hole. Razz isn’t about winning enormous pots though clever bluffing, but about extracting extra bets here and there. If you have strong technical skills and good discipline, you could do very well at Razz.

How To Play

Razz is an Ace-to-five lowball game. Unlike in traditional poker, the lowest hand wins, with a couple of caveats: straights and flushes don’t count and Aces are a low card. The best hand is a ‘wheel’ or ‘five low’: 5-4-3-2-A of any suits. You might have seen this system before as it’s commonly used in hi-lo split games like Omaha eight-or-better. But unlike most hi-lo games, there is no qualifier for a low in Razz. The lowest hand will win, regardless of whether it is 8-7-4-3-2 or a pair of Kings. Razz is dealt just like seven-card stud, except that because the game is played for low, the highest door card brings it in, and the lowest hand showing starts the betting.

Starting Hands

In all stud games, you are giving up a significant edge to your opponents if you don’t look at the up-cards that are displayed around the table. But that’s particularly true in Razz since the up-cards will frequently cause you to change your strategy entirely. For example, 8-7-6 is an extremely marginal starting hand, but it becomes much stronger if you see that many eights, sevens and sixes are already dead.

If you’re less likely to pair up later in the hand, and more likely to hit the low cards that you need, your starting hand value increases accordingly. Conversely, a hand like 7-2-A, which looks fairly strong at first glance, shrinks if you see that many threes, fours, and fives are dead. In many situations, how ‘live’ your hand is can be more important than how low it is.

Your own up card is also very important, and the higher it is the more it reveals about your hand. If you’re showing an Ace, your opponents don’t know if you entered the pot with a very strong hand like 3-2-A or a very marginal hand like 9-4-A. However, if you’re showing an eight, your opponents know that you likely have three cards to an eight (since most people wouldn’t enter the pot with something worse) and they can play accordingly.

Stealing The Antes

One area where both starting hand concepts come into play is stealing the antes. This is something you should be doing quite a lot in Razz, since many opportunities will present themselves. Stealing often will not only keep you afloat, but earn you action on your strong hands. A telltale sign of a weak or inattentive Razz player is failing to steal enough, particularly in obvious situations such as when they are showing a low card and all the players left to act are showing high cards. In this situation, which is one of the few absolutes in poker, you should attempt a steal every single time.

You should steal more when your hand is live, because this gives you a back-up plan should you get called. If your hand is live, you can either back into a strong hand, or you can catch a board that is frightening enough to make your opponent fold. Secondly, steal more when your up-card is strong. If you have a weak card showing, like a King, it will be impossible to steal against an opponent who has, for example, a nine. However, if you have the King in the hole and an Ace showing, that same opponent might fold their hand without much thought.

Stealing And Completing

Because stealing the antes will be such a major part of your strategy, you should almost always complete the bet when entering the pot as the first player in. This serves to disguise your steals by mixing in some genuine hands, and also stops your opponents from getting a cheap opportunity to outdraw you. If somebody else has already completed, you should often consider a re-raise if you are going to play.

You should particularly consider a re-raise if you have them board locked, such as when you have 6-2-A against your opponent’s six or seven showing. In more marginal confrontations, such as when you have a 7-6-5 against an opponent’s eight, there is an argument to keep the pot small if you are up against a loose opponent who will call anyway. By doing so, you give your opponent a chance to make a significant mistake later in the hand by calling when the pot odds do not justify it.

But what starting hands are actually playable? At a full table, and assuming your cards are neither very live nor very dead, you should be cautious about entering the pot with any hand worse than an eight. Below that, the ‘smoother’ your starting hand, the better. Starting with 3-2-A ensures that whatever hand you make will likely be the best of its type, while starting with 6-5-4 means that you will tend to make ‘rough’ hands that are much more likely to lose at showdown.
If you are unlucky enough to be the bring-in, and are showing a high card like a King, you can pretty much resign yourself to folding straight away. Even the best King, K-2-A, has only a 20% chance to make an eight low or better by the river. If you never defended your bring-in against a steal, you wouldn’t be giving up much. However, if you do choose to eke out those few extra cents of EV by defending, do so only occasionally, when your two hole cards are lower than the opponent’s up-card.

For example, with K-2-A you should defend more often against a five than an Ace. This gives you a chance to back into a hand if your opponent actually has something strong. Defending will massively increase your variance, but can win you some really big pots when it works out.

The Later Streets

In Razz there are two possible commitment points, depending on the third street action. If the pot is small (for example, you completed and one player called), and your opponent catches good while you catch bad, then you should often simply check or fold to a bet on fourth street. David Sklansky calls this your ‘money maker’ as you will often save a bet here when your opponents would erroneously take another card. If the pot was raised and re-raised on third street, then it will usually be big enough for you to continue, at least for one more street.
If you were the third street raiser, and assuming you still have the best hand showing, you should usually continue to bet, whether you improved or not. As with seven-card stud, fifth street (when the bets double) is your main commitment point. If you call a bet on fifth, you should normally be willing to call bets on sixth street, and perhaps also the river. If your hand is too marginal to do that, then you shouldn’t call on fifth in the first place.

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