Within the last year, H.O.R.S.E. tournaments have exploded in popularity, both live and online. The World Series of Poker added $2,500 and $5,000 buy-in H.O.R.S.E. events to their 2007 schedule in addition to the return of the $50K H.O.R.S.E. World Championship that debuted last summer to much success. $1,000 buy-in H.O.R.S.E. tourneys were spread at nearly every stop on the WSOP Circuit tour this year, and top online rooms Full Tilt and Poker Stars offer over a dozen daily H.O.R.S.E. tournaments and multi-table satellites between them. Standing for Hold'em, Omaha 8 or better, Razz, Stud, and Stud 8 or better, H.O.R.S.E. is a true test of poker skill as it requires players to excel at multiple poker games in order to be successful.
The first step in becoming a successful H.O.R.S.E. player is to evaluate your own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the five different games. In today's poker climate, players will tend to have the most experience with hold'em and the least experience with the three stud games. In the early stages of play it's important to identify which games the players at your table are uncomfortable with and adjust accordingly. Are they folding their way through Omaha 8? Limp-calling too many pots in razz with weak hands? Can I steal relatively easily against their bring-in from late position in stud? These are the tools you'll need to survive the later rounds of the tournament when the blinds and antes are higher. Conversely, remember that the stronger players at your table will be taking the same kind of notes on you. Also, pay close attention to when the stud games change. I wish it didn't need to be said, but everyone makes the mistake of raising with something like (4-5)2 in stud high, still thinking the game was razz.
In the early levels of a H.O.R.S.E. tournament (essentially the first rotation of the five games) it's not a bad idea to play tight and wait for a good hand. Let's take a closer look at some of the quirks of the first "round" of each game.
H: Hold em: Many players will come out fast and immediately start raising pots in the first hold'em round. Typically these are the ones that are looking to get some chips in their best game so they can fold their way through their weaker ones. Pots in that first hold'em level will often be large and multi-way relative to the blinds. Of course if you flop a big hand or a big draw early, by all means, take advantage of the situation, but don't go to war against three guys with one pair just because it's limit and it's early. Save those chips... you're going to need them.
O: Omaha 8: Omaha 8 or better is a game of playing starting hands that have a lot of potential to develop into the nuts. Look to hit a flop hard or aggressively play a big combination draw with outs to scoop both halves of the pot. There's no reason to get fancy this early. Watch for weaker opponents without much O8 experience hitchhiking along for the ride on hands with only one-way draws– they're the ones who are going to pay you off in a big way later on.
R: Razz: Though the very mention of razz induces nausea in many a poker player, it is perhaps the most straight-forward game in the H.O.R.S.E. lineup and should be played in the same manner. Start with three cards below an eight, keep track of which low cards have been folded, and let your up-cards do the talking. If you have the best hand or the best draw, bet. If you brick and your opponent catches good, fold. Again, don't get fancy in these early rounds–just focus on accumulating chips. The first round of razz is also a good spot in the tournament to start some serious stealing. Don't forget the power of position and a low up-card even if the two you have in the hole leave something to be desired. Let's say a jack brought it in and the table folds to me. There is one more player behind me with a up and I hold () . This is a great spot to put in a raise and take the antes. Plus, even if the guy with the up calls, I still have multiple ways to win the hand. I could catch a good card on 4th street and my opponent could catch bad and fold to my bet. Or, I could catch a bad card and he could catch a worse one– in that case I'm still representing the best hand and it'll be hard for him to call again. Obviously, if he catches good and starts betting at me, it's time to let it go, but this is a play that doesn't need to work every time to still be very profitable.
S: Stud: Again, this is a round where players need to recognize their steal opportunities. The low card brings in the action in stud high, so if it's folded to you and you're sitting on a king up with a ten behind you and a 4 stuck with the bring-in, raise away. Play a good, solid game on this round and the next (stud 8). Accumulate, accumulate, accumulate. Because after that, things are going to get a little funky.
E: Stud 8: Due to its position in the lineup, this game always comes around well into the tournament and some players will be approaching short-stack status by the time the first stud 8 round hits. Hitting the stud 8 round is also a signal that the game is about to change from the low-volatility of a split-pot game with an ante back to the high cost per round and quick pace of limit hold'em. If a player hasn't yet added significantly to his stack, this is pretty much the last level he can wait to hit a big hand. If I'm sitting on a stack of 1600 chips in the first stud 8 level where the ante is 15 chips (limits 80-160), I'm not feeling too much pressure to play a big pot the next chance I get. However, once the game changes back to hold'em, players are not only just facing higher blinds (50 and 100 with 100-200 limits), they're facing blinds that will come around much more quickly due to the faster pace of the game. That 1600 chips is suddenly a lot less powerful. The hold'em rounds are by far the most expensive ones to play in H.O.R.S.E., especially later in the tournament. As the first stud 8 round is drawing to a close, think about where your stack will be at once hold'em hits again, and make moves accordingly.
Though H.O.R.S.E. tournaments can be a huge mental challenge, they are also both incredibly juicy and a lot of fun. Practice your weaker games at low limits, then think about giving a tournament a whirl. I can personally recommend the $24+2 $4,000 Guarantees that run each night on Full Tilt and the $11 H.O.R.S.E. MTTs on Poker Stars as great places to start.