I love playing razz. Sometimes it’s my favorite game...but only sometimes, and I’ll tell you why in just a little while. Razz is a simple game to be sure, but therein lies its charm. Anyone can learn to play it well. In fact, if you’re a HORSE aficionado, you’re really doing yourself an injustice if you don’t take the time to build up a degree of proficiency that you can bring to the table during the razz round.
You’d think the ease of learning razz would make it one of the more popular orbits during a HORSE game, but that’s not the case at all. Some online players duck the razz orbit frequently. They’re either taking a lunch break, or find some satisfactory reason to avoid playing razz hands. In a way it’s funny. Some of these same players seem to play every hand they’re dealt during the Omaha/8 orbit, but when that round ends and razz begins, the guys who are willing, if not downright eager, to chase in hopes of catching two perfect low cards during Omaha/8 are nowhere to be found when the game turns to razz.
Why does this happen? My guess is that players have far less experience playing razz. Razz games are just not that easily found in brick-and-mortar casinos, and razz-specific online games seem to be populated by a core group of dedicated razz players who generally play the game quite well.
But in mixed games such as HORSE, you don’t find many razz experts lurking at the tables. Quite the contrary. Most HORSE players seem mystified by razz, and many take what is essentially a very basic, elemental, simplistic form of poker and make much more of it than it really is.
I think that stems from lack of playing experience, and a corresponding lack of confidence. After all, if you’re lucky enough to find a razz game it’s probably being offered as part of a tournament menu or as part of an online HORSE game. Although the World Series of Poker always features razz, it’s really not that well-attended, especially when compared to attendance for hold’em events.
A lot of players dismiss razz as a simple game that doesn’t require much strategy. And I suppose that’s true as far as it goes, although like most partial truths, it does not go far enough. Because razz is so straightforward, it’s a terrific learning resource for all forms of poker. Players can easily see many of poker’s theoretical concepts come into play in a way that’s not at all confounded by many of the complexities and subtleties of games like seven-card stud and hold’em.
In razz, you usually know where you stand relative to your opponent, because it’s easy to put him on a hand and be fairly certain of your assessment. In fact, you can always discern his best possible hand just from his exposed cards. That’s the essence of the game. Yet there are players who seem unable or unwilling to play their best game all the time.
These are the folks you want at a razz table, and it’s why razz is only sometimes my most-favored game. Here’s the appealing and terrible truth about razz: If you’re at a table with a gaggle of good razz players, it makes for an awful game because neither you nor any of your opponents will be able to find an edge. But if you have one weak player in the game — and two makes it very juicy — you should be able to book a win without the relatively high variance and risks that are found in hold’em and Omaha games, even when you have the best of it. In other words, if you’re the best razz player at the table, or if you’re the equal of all of your opponents except for a couple of fish, you can play with very little risk to your bankroll and book wins with almost no worries about being done in by bad luck.
An overly aggressive player who’s fond of raising or reraising with the second-best hand is all that’s needed to understand how rewarding razz can be. A player who is out of control, on tilt, takes the worst of it and keeps calling, is always a welcome guest.
Whenever you have poor players, or even good players who are momentarily out of control, razz will be their undoing in a way that hold’em, Omaha, or stud poker seldom is. After all, making an out-of-position raise, or trying to bully the game with weak holdings — a tactic that might buy you a pot or two at hold’em or stud, or even intimidate cautious, conservative players for an entire session — will never work in razz.
If you find that difficult to believe, consider this anecdote: I was playing razz a few years ago, during a brief, happy interlude when one of the local Los Angeles area casinos actually offered a $20/40 razz game on a regular basis, when a well-known, highly regarded tournament player decided to join us.
We found ourselves heads-up shortly thereafter. My board showed 9-7 while he had a K-10 in plain sight. I bet, fully expecting him to fold. But he raised. I reraised, and he grumbled as he called. The very best hand he could have been holding at that point was K-10-2-A. He was pretty far behind me, and I knew it. I suppose he would have realized it too, had he paused even once to assess his actions.
My next card was an eight. He paired his ten and folded when I bet, though he kept on grumbling as though I had picked his pocket. He played like that for the better part of two hours until he finally got up and walked away, three racks the worse for his efforts.
Why did my opponent, a well-known and successful tournament pro, play this poorly? You’ll find out in the next installment, as well as learn a few more razz pointers too.
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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 www.roundersradio.com.