H.O.R.S.E. Poker Strategy: In the Mix -- What Hold'em Means to H.O.R.S.E.
As part of my writing duties this past week, I watched the final table of the $10,300 H.O.R.S.E. event run as part of the SCOOP tournament series on PokerStars. It was an event that drew 80 runners — an impressive tally for an online high buy-in poker tournament. The final table was a drawn-out affair, taking three hours to play.
The structure of the tournament called for the game to switch every fifteen minutes, with the limits increasing every other level. That effectively made levels thirty minutes long; two games were played per level. Most of the major swings happened in the hold'em, razz and stud rounds. Those games also accounted for almost all of the eliminations, barring two eliminations that occurred during a single round of stud hi/lo. Understanding the dynamics of why that's the case can be helpful for formulating a H.O.R.S.E. strategy.
Omaha hi/lo and stud hi/lo are not heavy-action games. They are both the type of game where, if your board hasn't developed something very strong by the flop or by fourth street, respectively, there's a high likelihood that your hand is going to hit the muck well before the river. If the hand hasn't hit the muck, it's because more than one player has a strong hand or draw, usually going in opposite directions. By the time showdown arrives, more pots are chopped than aren't. Chopped pots don't really do anything but take minutes off of the total time remaining in the level unless there has been significant multi-way action on more than the first two streets. It's also hard to eliminate an opponent in a split-pot game, since there are two different ways of winning at least half of the pot to stay alive.
Another factor that contributes to a lack of action in the split-pot games is speed of play. Split-pot games require different skills and more complex decisions than hold'em, razz and (to a lesser extent) stud. Play therefore tends to be more deliberate in those games, resulting in fewer hands dealt during the same length level as in the non-split-pot counterparts. Fewer hands per level means fewer opportunities to accumulate chips and knock out opponents.
Compare each of these attributes with hold'em, razz and stud. Chopped pots in each of those games are rare — there is usually a winner before showdown or one best hand at showdown that takes the whole pot. The decisions are usually much more straightforward, resulting in quicker play. That means a greater number of hands per level than in the split-pot games.
Hold'em plays especially fast. Most players already have a deep understanding of the subtleties of hold'em, and because the game is played in a fixed-limit style, truly difficult decisions that require long amounts of time to think through never really occur. In a game that players are more comfortable playing, and in which more hands per level are played than any other game in the rotation, it's no surprise that hold'em generates the most action out of all of the games in the H.O.R.S.E. rotation. It accounted for three of the seven eliminations in the SCOOP $10,300 H.O.R.S.E. event.
I've talked in the past about a basic mixed-game strategy being to pull back in games that you know are your weaker games and try to play more hands in the games that you know are your stronger games. A corollary to that idea, if you're more or less equally comfortable will all games in the rotation, is to open up your holdings in the games that generate less action than the others. The idea is that, as long as you don't play like a maniac, you give yourself the opportunity to pick up more small, orphaned pots by playing more hands without sacrificing too much in the way of losing bigger pots (since many of the pots will chop anyway).
As always, all other factors need to be taken into consideration as well. If the table is playing looser than a drunken $1-$2 no-limit hold'em cash game, opening your range up probably isn't going to accomplish very much except spew chips. Thankfully, those types of tables (which are heavily card-dependent, due to the call-all-the-way-to-showdown nature of the players) are rare in all but the smallest buy-in mixed-game tournaments. You certainly won't find any in a marquee, $10,000 buy-in event!
What you will find, from time to time, is players who are fundamentally weaker in some games than others. When those games are not split-pot games — one player at the $10,300 SCOOP H.O.R.S.E. final table seemed particularly weak at razz — there is an opportunity to exploit their bad habits for a big swing in a short amount of time. When you're aware of that fact, it obviously makes sense to try to play as many pots with those players as possible.
Sometimes, however, all other things being equal, fixed-limit poker games like razz, stud and stud hi/lo are all about which players draw better than other players. That may seem like an arbitrary way to determine a champion in a $10,300 event, but nobody ever said that fixed-limit poker didn't rely in part on an ability to catch cards. Choosing the pots in which you try to catch them is one of the tools at a mixed-games player's disposal to ensure that he or she is the one hoisting the trophy at the end of the day.