Stud Poker Strategy – From the World Poker Open
I was lucky enough to get an invitation from the Gold Strike Casino in Tunica, Mississippi to cover the World Poker Open and to play in their media tournament. I eagerly took them up on their offer. I return now to Boston with some wonderful poker adventures to share with y'all (that's "all of you" for those of you who have never been to the South).
In addition to all of the tournament and side game hold 'em action, I was fortunate enough to actually find a 7-card stud game while I was there. This is no small feat these days, as fewer and fewer stud games are being spread outside of the east coast. True, it was a 1-5 spread limit game with a $.25 ante. Still, it was stud action. So I'm not complaining.
I found the stud poker game at the Horseshoe Casino – one of five casinos in Tunica that spread poker. The other four are the Gold Strike, where I stayed, Hollywood Casino, the Grand, and Sam's Town. The Horseshoe is normally the room with the biggest and best action, with the Gold Strike a close second. But this being the week of the Main Event at the World Poker Open, held at the Gold Strike, things were reversed – with the best action actually at the Gold Strike. Even so, I found myself playing a lot of poker at the Horseshoe.
The stud game was six handed when I arrived. I made seven. As is typically the case these days, the players were all senior citizens. I was the youngest at the table. I watched a few hands before I sat down.
I observed a very, very loose and passive game. Typically, the low card would bring it in for $1.00 and everyone or nearly everyone else would call. On fourth street the high card might bet $1.00 or check. Typically, everyone would follow suit – either checking around or calling. A player or two might fold – but that was the exception.
This would continue until sixth street or the river, when the top hand might bet the full $5.00, with one or two players calling until the showdown.
I sat down after watching a few hands. Everyone seemed pleased to see me – happy to have another player to help keep the game going. I learned later that this used to be a regular game – spread just about 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. But in the last few months the game hasn't been going off nearly as consistently. When I came by on four other occasions there was no game. So the players were appreciative of my participation…at least for a while.
The first hand I was dealt was (). A player three to my right brought it in. Two or three players called the $1.00. I raised immediately to $6.00. Let them think that I'm some crazy Wildman who always raises. They'd never guess that I was as loaded as I could be, I figured.
The first two players folded. But the bring-in, who seemed surprised and a bit put out by my early aggression, called me as did two other players. Four of us saw fourth street.
None of them seemed to improve with their second up card. Neither did I. The bring-in caught a King and checked, as did the two other players. I bet $5.00. The player with the King called me. The other two players folded.
I led the betting on the remaining streets, as my opponent didn't seem to improve. I caught a second pair on the river and bet on that last round after she checked. She called my last bet; I showed my Aces up and she folded without revealing her hand. I suspect that she had only a single pair – as I think she would have revealed two pair, to show that she had a "good hand" and wasn't calling with nothing.
It was a large pot for this game. I stacked it up with a smile. As I was doing so, someone asked me who I was. They didn't recognize me as a regular. I suspect that nearly all of the stud players there know each other well – since the game tends to include the same players – unlike hold 'em that attracts many new players. I mentioned my name. One of the players had heard of me. He asked if I was the poker author. I smiled and said that was me. He said that I looked older in the picture he saw of me. I thanked him for the compliment.
The very next hand I was dealt (). Holy Moses! A pair of Aces followed by a pair of Kings in my first two hands at the Horseshoe. I must be living right I thought.
The player who brought it in on the last hand brought it in again. Again, two players called. I raised again to $6.00. This time only one player, the bring-in again, called me. She muttered, "this is supposed to be a friendly game". I didn't respond, except to smile and nod. I bet fourth street and fifth street. She called on fourth but folded on fifth. She didn't seem to appreciate my aggression.
I played many hands in the forty or so minutes that I was there. The passive nature of the game allowed me to call on third with truly sub-premium hands that I would have folded in the $20/40 game I normally play in. I called two times with a low, gapped 3-straight (like ). I called a few times with just one or two premium cards. Once I hit my singleton Ace in the hole on fourth street and went on to win the pot. Most of the time I just folded on fourth or fifth, when the hand was eventually bet, and I hadn't improved.
I finished the session about forty minutes after I started – when two of the players left for dinner. By then I wasn't getting much action when I raised. I decided the game was barely profitable short-handed. Not much margin in stealing the $.25 antes and $1.00 forced bet. Still, I was up $39. Not too shabby under the circumstances. And I think I left a nice impression on the other players – aggressive though I tended to be.
The session, extremely brief though it was, demonstrated the need to change strategy when going from the typical $10/20 or $20/40 game that I normally play, to a loose and extremely passive $1-5 spread limit game. Early aggression is critical in these loose games. Had I played more passively, as they were playing, I would have had many players calling me down to the river – vastly reducing my chances of winning with a premium pair. Better for me to raise early to reduce the field to one or two opponents. Of course, if the game is tight and passive, as the no ante spread limit games tend to be elsewhere, then your strategy needs to adjust accordingly as well. But here, with at least one or two players willing to at least call an initial maximum raise, there's no reason to hold back – even with a pair of Aces.
Similarly, because my opposition was so passive early on, I could afford to play hands with a low probability of improvement – such as the singleton Ace or King hands I played. Though the likelihood of pairing that Ace on fourth street is very small (about 14:1 against you assuming no Aces are out elsewhere), since the bet I had to call to see fourth street was just 1/5th of a complete bet, it made sense to make the small investment.
In the long run, I'm not sure it would be profitable to play in this game – even with a nice edge over the regular players. First of all, they'd start to play more aggressively themselves. I saw evidence in just the forty minutes I was there – as they had already started to raised to $5.00 or $6.00 early on when they hit a good starting hand. Similarly, the players who really preferred a loose-passive game (in their parlance a "friendly game") might well decide not to play any longer – especially if their aggressive competitors starting winning a larger share of the money in the game.
But even more than that, the rake might make the game prohibitively expense to play. Though it was no larger than that in other places – at 10% with a $4.00 maximum – that's a large chunk of change. They also had a bad beat jackpot that the players funded with an additional $1.00 every hand. So if you were fortunate enough to start with Aces, as I was, and you bet it aggressively, and played heads up, and won a pot of $40.00 or so, you'd have to pay out $5.00. That's 12.5% of the pot and roughly 25% of your winnings – since nearly half of the money in the pot would be yours. Unless you were more than 25% better than your peers, you'd be losing money in the long run! That's a tough game to beat.
Even so, it was a very nice room, with nice patrons, free coffee, table side food service, and a free meal for anyone who played for a while. The staff were enormously friendly and helpful. I'd go back there in a minute if I lived nearby. And I'd have the comfort of knowing that at least every once in a while, if I got tired of playing hold 'em, I'd have a nice "friendly" game of stud to keep me happy.