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Talking HORSE with Lou Krieger, Vol. 2: An Unbalanced Game

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HORSE is played at fixed limits as a rotating sequence of five games, and is played eight-handed to minimize the chances of running out of cards during the stud games. While each orbit of play can be based on elapsed time, it’s more common to change games with the conclusion of each orbit (one complete lap of the table) of play.

The order of play follows the spelling. The “H” is Texas hold’em, the “O” is Omaha/8, the “R” is razz, the “S” is 7-card stud, and the “E” is 7-stud/8 (it’s a stretch, but the “E” stands for the “Eight or better” part of this game’s name).

You can combine games in other ways too, and occasionally you’ll find ROE, which is “razz,” “Omaha/8,” and “7-stud/8,” or HO, which is simply hold’em and Omaha/8, but usually it’s the full complement of five games that’s played as HORSE. Of course, if you fancy yourself an expert in more varieties of poker and you’re petitioning the floorperson in your local cardroom to spread a “mixed game” why not ask him to spread CHORSEL? That mix adds an orbit of crazy pineapple at the beginning and five-card California lowball at the end of each orbit.

If you’re thinking of playing HORSE seriously, the very first thing you should realize is that it is an unbalanced game. It’s unbalanced in the sense that the majority of HORSE players are Texas hold’em players first and foremost, who quite naturally think that’s where their edge resides. If you watch a few HORSE orbits, you’ll probably find more money wagered, won, and lost at hold’em than at any of the other games. I don’t have scientific data supporting this, but my subjective opinion is that Omaha/8 would be the second most heavily wagered game in the HORSE rotation, with 7-card stud and 7-stud/8 probably running neck-and-neck for third and fourth place, and razz bringing up the rear.

Check it out for yourself. You’ll find plenty of online HORSE players who are very active during the flop games (hold’em and Omaha/8) but virtually disappear from the scene during the board games (razz, 7-card stud, and 7-stud/8). But these players make a big mistake by playing only off their own strength. Poker is not a game that turns on how well you play; it turns on how well you play compared to your opponent. It’s a game of relative skill differentials, and while you might be better at hold’em than razz, if your opponent plays hold’em as well as you do but is absolutely pathetic, pitiful, and putrid at razz, or 7-stud/8, or 7-card stud, those are the games where you figure to make money.

HORSE is also unbalanced in the sense that Omaha/8 and 7-stud/8 are split pot games, while hold’em, razz, and 7-card stud are games in which the best hand — which in razz is actually the worst one, but why quibble — wins the pot. While split pots do occur in these games, they are not all that commonplace. Moreover, no one enters hold’em, razz, or 7-card stud hands anticipating they will split the pot, while you will find many Omaha/8 and 7-stud/8 players contesting all the action with hands that can win only half the pot.

If you’re thinking about becoming a serious HORSE player, it’s important to keep these two thoughts firmly in mind. They come up over and over again, and the strategic implications loom large over every HORSE game. They’re so important that I’ll summarize them again, right here:

HORSE is an unbalanced game. Here’s why:

• Most players are hold’em players first and foremost, and you’ll find more action, and more money wagered, won, and lost during the hold’em rotation than in any other component game in the HORSE rotation;

• Omaha/8 and 7-stud/8 are split pot games, while hold’em, razz, and 7-card stud are single winner games. While the goal of every split pot game should be to scoop the entire pot, lots of players will be drawing to hands that can win only half the pot, and many pots are split, thus cutting down the yield per hand won — as well as the loss per hand, if you can escape for half the pot.

In HORSE cash games it’s easy to duck flop games when you’re not in the blind, because there’s no cost to toss a hand away. Even though many hold’em players consider themselves adroit Omaha/8 players, they are still prone to toss away certain hands that seem confusing to them, as well as to play others they probably shouldn’t.

You’ll see lots of players ducking the razz rounds, and to a certain extent many players duck some 7-stud/8 hands too — although you can’t do this without penalty simply because these games have antes associated with them, and if you pass on too many hands because of a lack of familiarity with the game and find yourself occasionally lost in a hand, these small, seemingly negligible antes will take their inexorable toll on you over time.

It’s more exacerbated in a tournament, because hands are not played in a vacuum, and chips lost in the razz or 7-stud/8 rounds on hands that you might have played and won, are chips you won’t have available to bet during the hold’em rounds, when you reckon you have the best of it.

Another overriding precept of HORSE is that it’s played at fixed limits. For those readers who played poker prior to 2003 — when the impact of televised poker tournaments turned all the new players into nothing but no-limit hold’em players — that’s not an issue. You probably played fixed-limit poker almost exclusively — or at least you did in cash games — prior to 2003. For those of you with little or no background in fixed-limit poker, well, suffice to say, it’s very different than no-limit, because the cost of bets is fixed and you can’t simply make the same kinds of plays you can in a no-limit game. You know the play: When you push all your chips into the pot there’s a pretty good chance that your opponent will not call you unless you are very short stacked.

But fixed-limit poker doesn’t give you that same leverage, and you can’t manipulate the odds offered to your opponent simply because of the way you size your bets. Fixed-limit poker relies less on bluffing and less on implied odds than no-limit. In that sense it is a “hit to win” game, and the best hand takes the pot most of the time.

We’ll talk more about this again.

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Lou Krieger is the editor of Poker Player Newspaper. He’s the author of more than 400 articles on poker strategy and 11 books on poker. He can also be heard on the internet radio show, “Keep Flopping Aces” which airs Thursday night at 9 p.m. Eastern Time (6 p.m. Pacific) on

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