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Strategy Vault: Starting Hands and Dead Cards in Razz

Strategy Vault

Digging deep into the PokerNews strategy archives can lead to a buried treasure, so we'll be unearthing a few gems for your viewing pleasure. For this edition of the Strategy Vault series, we're sticking with H.O.R.S.E. and will focus on game people often dread the most in the rotation, razz.

Previously, I discussed the importance of looking for the proper conditions to defend the bring-in bet in razz and how, absent incredibly ideal conditions, the bring-in is usually better off folding most of the time. However, given a suitably random distribution of razz hands, a player is going to pick up the bring-in only one time per eight hands. The other seven times he will have to decide whether to play or fold. What makes a good starting hand in razz?

A good general rule for beginners is not to play any hand that's worse than a three-card eight. That is, if a hand doesn't consist of three unique cards ranked eight or lower, it should generally be folded. Especially at lower limits and in smaller buy-in tournaments, where it is rare that a hand worse than an eight-high wins the pot. A player should give himself the best chance to win by starting with three good cards. That said, ({3-}{8-}) / {2-} is a much more powerful hand than ({3-}{2-}) / {8-}. Although both hands have the same value altogether, a two showing rather than an eight looks much stronger. Razz is very much a game of strong boards. The stronger (lower) a player's exposed cards are, the more pressure he can apply to his opponent. A three-card eight with the eight exposed is much weaker than a three-card eight with the eight hidden. If the eight is exposed, opponents will know for a certainty on fifth street that the player can't have anything better than a made eight. This may encourage opponents to draw (to a seven, for example) when they might otherwise fold.

Three-card eights and sevens should generally complete the bring-in as first into the pot, subject to a few caveats to be discussed below. Three-card sixes and wheels can raise a player who has opened with a completion, hoping to get the pot heads-up going into fourth street.

Of course, if a player only played hands that were three-card eights or better, he would bleed quite a bit in antes and bring-ins (three-card eights aren't exactly plentiful) and would give his opponents an easy line on his play. That's where steals come into play.

Let's assume a player is dealt ({2-}{J-}) / {3-}. A king brings it in before a {2-}, a {Q-}, a {9-}, and a {10-} all fold. Behind the player are an ace and a nine. He might try to complete the bring-in here in the hope that everyone folds and he can steal the antes and the bring-in. In the typical structured razz game, the player is risking one small bet to win almost two small bets. There is the added luxury that if the ace calls, and the player who completed the bring-in catches a baby to the ace's brick on fourth street, the ace is almost certainly going to fold.

Again, this isn't an ironclad rule. If the players at the table are more likely to call than most with bricks in the hole, a player's stealing frequency should be turned down appropriately, for the simple reasons that he will almost always get action on his good hands. Otherwise, this can be an easy way to at least maintain pace with the blinds and antes until you pick up better hands that (hopefully) don't brick up and you can take to a showdown.

What if a player in late position has a three-card eight and someone in steal position has completed the bring-in ahead of him? This is typically a situation to raise. If the opponent is suspected of stealing, then the player with the three-card eight has the better hand and is getting the best of it on every additional dollar in the pot. Even if the initial completer has the best hand, the player with the three-card eight should want to discourage other marginal hands from seeing fourth street. Finally, if the player raises and then catches a baby card on fourth street to a brick for his opponent, he has a better chance of inducing a fold with a bet.

Remember that not all three-card eights are created equal. A ({7-}{6-}) / {8-} is a very marginal hand, especially if there are lots of low cards already out. Hands like this require prudence in how they are played. They do have potential if the player draws into a strong board, but it's limited potential.

This column has previously discussed the importance of card memory in stud games, and razz is a stud game. Exposed cards are incredibly useful in razz when making decisions to play or fold on third street. A hand like ({A-}{6-}) / {4-}, while generally a pretty strong starting hand in its own right, is made even stronger if other players are showing {K-}, {9-}, {A-}, {4-}, {4-}, {6-}, and {10-} as their door cards. In such a situation, it is less likely that this player will make a pair (hidden or exposed) and more likely that he will draw into cards that complete a solid five-card hand. If opponents are showing {K-}, {9-}, {2-}, {3-}, {3-}, {2-}, and {5-} as their door cards, the calculus is completely different. Half of the cards needed to make a six are already dead. This doesn't mean that the hand should be thrown away yet, but it does mean that the hand is considerably weaker than it appears at first blush.

New players should try to keep track of all the cards ranked eight or lower that have been exposed. There are times when knowing that nines, tens, and jacks are dead would be helpful, but those may be more "advanced" stages of razz. Since beginners are generally only going to play three-card eights or better, it's safe to ignore those high cards in the beginning. The point is, knowing which cards are dead, combined with the board of all opponents that stay in the hand past third street, combined with a player's own hand, will make certain decisions on later streets easier to make. Either a player's cards are live, or they're not. Also, memorizing the exposed cards is an easy skill to practice when not in the hand and provides a way to keep a player's focus on the table.

It can be pretty frustrating to keep folding hand after hand in razz, or to start with a good hand and catch a brick on fourth street. Discipline is key, though, because a bad starting hand is a bad starting hand — there's no sequence of later streets that will magically turn ({8-}{K-}) / {10-} into the nuts.

This article was originally published on Nov. 15, 2008.

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