Razz — the game that poker players love to hate. Razz is a game so universally reviled that once upon a time in some areas, H.O.R.S.E. mixed games were transformed into S.H.O.E. solely for the purpose of eliminating razz from the games in the rotation. Even the name of the game itself brings up negative images. Merriam-Webster defines razz to mean "to heckle or deride" when used as a verb and a "sound of contempt" when used as a noun. Neither definition is related to the game in anyway, but certainly many razz players have made sounds of contempt after starting with four good cards and then catching three bricks in a row.
The fact remains, however, that for players who enjoy playing mixed games (and especially for H.O.R.S.E. players), razz is a game that has to be learned. Almost every mixed game includes at least one lowball variant. Triple draw and badugi have become popular lowball games in recent years due to their action-generating ability, but razz remains the venerated old-timer, the guy who's the first one to show up to the party and the one who has to be told at 5 a.m. that it's time to leave. It's very rare that a game of only razz is ever going to break out in a poker room, but razz does make up twenty percent of the games played in H.O.R.S.E. Not knowing how to play razz takes away one-fifth of the hands played in a H.O.R.S.E. cash game or tournament.
What is razz? It's a variant of seven-card stud in which players try to make their worst poker hand — a "low" hand. Unlike in the split-pot games Omaha hi/lo and seven-card stud hi/lo, there is no qualifier required to make a low hand in razz. A player's low hand can be as bad as king-high or even a pair. Put simply, a razz hand is the five cards out of the seven on a player's board that comprise that player's lowest possible poker hand.
As a stud variant, razz shares certain features with stud. Each player receives two face-down cards and one face-up card to start the hand. Players that remain in the hand will receive an additional three face-up cards and one face-down card, one at a time, with a round of betting after each card. Each player has to ante before the hand begins, and similar to stud, one player is forced to make a bring-in bet after the deal has been completed. In stud, the bring-in bet is made by the player with the lowest card. In razz, it comes from the player with the highest card.
After the bring-in bet is made, play proceeds around the table with players choosing to fold, to call or to complete the bring-in. It's very possible that action will fold around to the last small card remaining in the hand, or even the last card remaining in the hand, who will complete the bring-in just as a matter of course. The question then becomes, "When should the bring-in player defend his bring-in?"
For players who are very new to razz, folding is never a bad option. While it's true that folding gives up any claim over the antes and the bring-in to a player who could well be stealing, it's a only small investment lost; less than one small bet has been committed to the pot by the bring-in player.
Many players choose to defend whenever they have ace-deuce in the hole, no matter how big their door card is. These players are easy to spot. They will bring it in with a king, for example, then despite heavy action from multiple opponents, will call all bets after having folded every bring-in for the previous two hours. They fall in love with their ace-deuce and refuse to let it go.
That's not a good spot for bring-in defense. Instead, look for four things: (1) your door card that you brought it in with is at least a jack or lower; (2) you have two babies (cards five or lower) in the hole; (3) most of your outs towards making your hand are still live (that is, they haven't been exposed in hands of anyone else at the table; and (4) your opponent could easily be stealing against you.
Situations in which all four of those factors line up will happen only rarely, but at a full eight-handed razz table it's only rarely that the bring-in player should be defending their bring-in. Consider this hand of razz that I played during Event #26 - $1,500 Razz at the 2008 World Series of Poker. I brought it in with a jack. Most of the other players were showing middle cards that they folded to the player on my immediate right, who completed with a seven. I squeezed A-3 in the hole. All of my cards were live, the player who completed could easily be stealing, and I had a jack (as opposed to a queen or king, which makes a big difference as far as betting on later streets is concerned). This was a perfect opportunity to defend the bring-in with a call.
Note that I couldn't raise my opponent back, even though I thought he could be stealing. Razz is a game of boards, and with that jack showing, I was calling from a position of weakness. If I caught a bad card on fourth street to my opponent's good card, I would have to fold.
That didn't happen. We both caught tens on fourth street, and with the better board, he bet again. This was a decision point for me. I had (A-3) / J-T, not exactly great, but I couldn't shake the feeling that he was stealing and had a brick underneath his (x-x) / 7-T. I still needed to catch good, but since he had caught a ten calling a small bet wasn't horrible. If things didn't change by fifth street, it was curtains for me.
On fifth street he did catch bad: he caught a jack to my seven. At that point we both had J-T-7 boards, but I had A-3 underneath. He bet, and now I raised since only an ace-deuce in the hole had my beat on fifth street and since I had the best draw. He stopped, considered, then called, making me believe that he actually didn't have a brick in the hole. Things went awry from there, as my opponent caught an ace on sixth street against another jack to me. When he bet, I had to consider that I was drawing to a ten and he already had a ten made. It was a marginal decision, the hallmark of razz. I eventually opted to call, leading both of us to check down the river. I caught a king; he finished with a ten-eight. Stupid, frustrating razz!
I had played the hand about as well as possible, picking a perfect spot to defend my bring-in bet, but the cards didn't break my way and as a result I lost the hand. That's one of the difficulties of razz. At some level it's a card-catching contest, and a player's EV for winning the hand can swing wildly from one street to the next. That's why it behooves a player to start with three small cards and go from there. Sometimes, though, defending the bring-in isn't a bad way of mixing up one's play, as long as it's done very selectively, using the guidelines stated above.