H.O.R.S.E. Poker Strategy: In the Mix -- Figuring Out Stud Hi/Lo
Seven-card stud hi/lo, like razz, is a game that tends to bewilder mixed-games players. At first glance, it seems simple enough — it's a hybrid of seven-card stud and razz, with the wrinkle that a low hand must be made with five cards ranked eight or lower (similar to Omaha hi/lo). What makes stud hi/lo such a profitable part of a mixed-game rotation is a combination of the fact that (1) stud hi/lo is rarely spread in a cash-game format, which means most players have little exposure to it (I've actually heard stud hi/lo players in a $1,500 tournament say, "How many more cards do I get? I call"; and (2) players incorrectly assume that they can play the game in a manner similar to Omaha hi/lo, looking for good two-way or high-only starting hands, and are not trying to play for only the low half of the pot.
It turns out that the path to cash-game success in stud hi/lo is almost the opposite of Omaha hi/lo. Players that play three low, connected, suited cards (preferably including an ace) have the best chance of scooping the whole pot — and scooping should always be a player's aim in a split-pot game. This is a counter-intuitive concept that I've touched on before, the key for players with a made low that freeroll the high-half of the pot. What it boils down to is simple. If a player's starting hand contains only one low card, then the last four cards that he is dealt must all be unique low cards in order to make a claim on the low half of the pot. If a player's starting hand contains no low cards, he cannot win the low half of the pot if anyone else makes a qualifying low.
The value of aces in split-pot games should be blindingly obvious. Aces serve as both the lowest possible card and the highest possible card. That's why, in the later stages of a H.O.R.S.E. or Stud hi/lo tournament, a player with an ace door card can often steal the blinds and the antes. Showing an ace is a huge edge for that player over the other players at the table, especially when limits are high and stacks are short relative to the size of the limits. But even in cash games, starting hands with aces in them have a markedly higher chance of scooping the pot than hands without aces. As with anything, it's possible to take this concept too far. Hands shouldn't be played merely because they contain an ace.
That brings us back to three connected, suited, low cards as the strongest scoopers in stud hi/lo. These are the hands that freeroll the high half of the pot against one or more opponents whose boards make it clear that they will not be able to show down a low hand; that can semi-bluff bet on fifth street and get mediocre high hands, like a single pair, to fold; and that, when they miss completely, save a bet on the river since they have absolutely no showdown value. However, when they hit, they're usually good for at least one bet on the river and if they hit the right card, can often be good for more than one bet.
Think about all of the ways that three low, connected, suited cards can improve. They can make a pair, they can make a flush draw, they can make a straight draw and they can make a low draw. Contrast that with a player who starts with a strong high hand like a pair of kings; they can improve on fourth street only by making two pair or trips. Often hands like single big pairs have not improved by fifth street, whereas hands with three low, connected and/or suited cards may have a hand as strong as a pair and a low draw, or a pair with a straight or flush draw and a low draw. The low hand is then the overwhelming favorite to scoop the pot, and even if he doesn't scoop he has a very strong chance of getting his money back.
That's why players should generally bet their low starting hands, rather then call with them, and should avoid check-calling on later streets. Since those hands will improve most often, players who open the action should bet their hands and check only if they intend to fold.
As in the discussion of razz last week, a hand usually needs to improve on fourth street to at least some degree to justify continuing on to fifth street. A total brick on fourth street is a death knell, especially against more than one player or one player who appears from his board to have improved his hand. That's generally the case in all stud variants, mainly due to stud's betting structure. Three big-bet streets make it very expensive to go past fourth street without a solid holding. Starting with three low, connected, suited cards (or some variant thereof) will give players the best chance of dragging a monster on the river.