Stud Hi-Lo

In his latest article looking at a world beyond hold’em, Alex Scott shows you how to beat the game of stud hi/lo

If you’re a good poker player with solid theoretical knowledge, it’s in your interest to seek out complicated poker games. The more complicated the game, the more likely it is that your opponents will make mistakes and poor decisions. And one of the most common ways to make a game more complex is to add a split-pot element.  

In split-pot games, the pot is divided into two or more parts, with each part going to a different type of hand at showdown. The most common type of split-pot game is hi/lo split, in which half the pot is awarded to the best traditional (high) poker hand, and half to the best low hand. It’s possible for the same player to win both parts of the pot, using different combinations of the available cards for each part. Continuing our look at stud variants, this month we’ll delve into stud eight or better.

How To Play

Stud hi/lo is essentially half Razz, half regular stud. However, unlike in Razz, there is a qualifier for low. If you don’t have an Eight low or better (at least a straight eight, 8-7-6-5-4) your hand doesn’t count and you automatically relinquish the low half of the pot.

If nobody can make an eight low or better, the entire pot is awarded to the best high hand. Stud hi/lo is dealt just like regular stud, except that no double bet is allowed on fourth street. On third, the lowest door card brings it in, and from fourth onwards the highest hand showing starts the betting.

Starting Hands

In all poker games, good starting hand selection reduces the number of difficult decisions you’ll make on later streets, which is particularly important if you’re new to a game. The number one objective in any split-pot game is to win the entire pot or scoop, by making the best hand for both parts. From this, you should deduce that the best type of hand to start with is one that can develop into a strong high (like a straight or a flush) as well as a strong low (like a five or six).

Hands such as (K-9)-K just don’t have that scoop potential. Instead, you’ll tend to make only a mediocre high hand like two pair, and no low. Similarly, a pretty looking Razz hand like 7h-6c-Ad doesn’t have much potential for high. A tell-tale sign of a weak hi/lo player is a tendency to continue for too long with these types of weak one-way hands.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t play strong high only hands – rolled up trips is still a dream hand in stud eight, and big pairs that improve early can be powerful. Because it’s possible for a high hand to win the entire pot when nobody shows a low hand, you will occasionally be rewarded for taking one to a showdown.

The Importance Of Up-cards

In previous months we’ve talked in great detail about the importance of the up-cards to your decision making. Suffice to say you shouldn’t be thinking about entering the pot with a high-only hand unless these are in your favour. You want your hand to be both live and disguised, and preferably to be up against only a single low draw or weaker high hand. If the situation is not perfect, you should play with extreme caution.

Much better are hands like (A-A)-2, which gives you a pair of Aces for high, and two cards to the best possible low. A hand like 6-5-4 gives you three cards to a straight plus three cards to a good low. The hand everyone wants to see is 5h-4h-3h, which gives you a draw to the best possible low, plus straight and flush draws for high.

Early Street Play

Because there are so many possibilities in stud eight, and because the bring-in may be waiting to pounce with a monster hand, it’s a little more difficult to steal the antes than it is in most other stud games. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try it, but in general you should have some kind of back up hand when you do so, since you’re more likely to be called.

In stud hi/lo you won’t necessarily always enter the pot with a raise. In fact, if you have a strong low hand and all the players still to act look like they have high hands, you welcome them in the pot since these are the very opponents you’re looking to scoop. Depending on the situation and your exact opponents, you can consider limping in, hoping that one of them will enter the pot behind you, giving you a chance to win a huge pot on later streets.

Playing The Later Streets

Stud hi/lo is a game of monster draws, which you should not be afraid to bet strongly when necessary. For example, lets say you have (7h-6h)-5h-4h on fourth street, your hand is live, and you’re up against an opponent who is showing a pair of nines and some other high cards.

Don’t allow your opponent to get away from this situation cheaply. You’re a significant equity favourite (around 75% depending on the dead cards) and you should be getting as much money into the pot as possible, even though you haven’t made a hand either way yet.

In previous articles we talked about recognising board lock, which is a situation where, because of the exposed cards, you know that your hand must be equal or superior to your opponent’s. In hi/lo games, it’s equally important to recognise a freeroll.

A freeroll occurs when you have already made a low hand, and your opponent either has no low hand, or a low hand that cannot beat you. For example, you have (6-4)-3-2-A, and your opponent is showing 9-K-K. There are no cards that your opponent can catch to give him a better low than your smooth six, and you have a chance to beat him for high by catching a five to make a six-high straight.

In this situation, you should play as aggressively as possible, both to build the pot for the occasions when you scoop, and to encourage your opponent to fold when you don’t. Some players will criticise you for ‘feeding the rake’ in this way – but those players are out of their tiny minds unless the rake is for some reason extremely significant relative to the stakes.

Playing By Numbers

One last tactic to be aware of in split pot games is how to manipulate the number of opponents in the pot based on your holding. For example, if you have a board lock for low with no chance to scoop, and you’re up against two opposing hands, it’s to your advantage to keep both of them in the pot, to increase your winnings. You’ll therefore bet in such a way as to trap one of your opponents in the middle of you and the third player, building the pot in small increments which will be easy for him to call.

Conversely, if you have a low hand with some potential to win high, you often do better by playing aggressively and forcing out other high hands, giving you a better chance to scoop. For example, if you have (5-5)-3-2-A, knocking out a player with a pair of Kings for a high increases your equity substantially.

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