Article History

Basic Strategy

You can learn how to play poker in 15 minutes. Learning how to play poker WELL can take a lifetime. Each week, poker.casino.com will add to its library of introductory and advanced poker strategy sections. One article will not teach you how to play poker or make you a good player: Literally hundreds of books have been written about poker, and most (though not all) add something useful to a poker player’s education. Return here each week, and each time you’ll add something new to your arsenal.

The basic strategy section is designed for those who are new to poker, have played very little poker, or who usually lose at poker. If you’ve been playing and winning for years, you will probably be more interested in our “advanced strategy” section. But don’t give up on our “basic” section just because one week’s article seems easy to you. Even professional athletes spend time reviewing fundamentals. Poker players would do well to follow the same course.

When discussing poker hands, I will frequently use abbreviations to discuss a hand. For example, I will call a hand containing an Ace, a Queen, a Jack, a Ten and a Four “A-Q-J-10-4.”

Poker Terminology

Like many games, poker has a language all its own. Although I will be explaining important concepts throughout all articles, it would slow down the reading too much for intermediate players to have every term defined every time it is used. So we will be providing links to our Poker Dictionary; anytime you see a a little book ( ), you can click on it, and see the definition and explanation of the word in front immediately, and then return to your article.

Rules of Play

If you count home poker games, there are almost as many variations of poker as there are poker players, so I am going to focus here on the games that are commonly played in casinos and legal card rooms: Texas Hold ’em, 7-Card Stud, and Omaha. I will also briefly discuss 5-Card Draw and 5-Card Stud, even though these games are almost completely dead in the poker world. They are present in so many movies and television shows that they’re worth a few words here.

There are other games played in casinos, including several variations where the WORST (lowest) hand wins the pot, but I’ll leave those for more advanced play articles.

I suggest you read all of the introductory articles, even if you want to learn only one game, because I define certain terms in each (most of the definitions come in the Hold ’em article, because it comes first), and don’t repeat myself.

In all cases I will discuss the games as they are dealt in casinos. You can make adjustments from there to your home game.

7-Card Stud

7-stud shares many characteristics with hold ’em. In each game, a player gets seven cards and must select the best five to make a high hand. The hand ranks are the same-a flush is still better than a straight, for example-and it is equally difficult to make a strong hand.

Anyone reading this section should first read the section on Texas Hold ’em, because many concepts relevant to stud are discussed there. I don’t want to repeat myself, and you don’t want to read the same information twice.

There are some very important differences in the two games, though. The most obvious and also most important is that there are no community cards in 7-stud. This makes it important to remember cards that players fold, and it makes it easier to “catch up” when trailing. In a moment, I’ll explain how each of these effects comes into play.

The Ante

The game begins with each player placing an “ante” in the pot. The ante is a small sum that serves a purpose similar to the blinds in hold ’em: it gives the players something to “fight over,” or contest, once the hand begins. Without the ante, there would be very little reason to enter the hand without the best possible cards. Some casinos do offer stud games without an ante, and these games tend to be dominated by players who play extremely conservatively.

After the antes are in the pot, the dealer deals three cards to each player. The first two are dealt face down, and the third is face up, for everyone to see.

The Forced Bet (or Bring-in)

After everyone has his three cards, there is a forced bet. The rules about who makes this bet vary. In most games, the player showing the LOWEST card must make this forced bet, which is called the “bring-in.” In some casinos, the rule is that the highest card must start the betting. After the first round, the highest hand always starts the action (by betting or checking).

As a result of this rule about the lowest or highest hand starting the betting action, the advantage of position can change quickly in stud. In hold ’em , the person holding the button knows he will have the advantage of acting last throughout a hand. In stud, the person sitting just behind the first actor for one round won’t necessarily be sitting behind the first actor on the other rounds. We’ll see an example of this in our mock hand, shortly.

The moment of deciding who starts the betting action is the ONLY time in poker where suits (spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs) matter. If two players tie for the lowest showing card (for example, if one shows the Two of hearts (2h) and another shows the Two of clubs (2c), the player with the 2c is considered to have the lower card and would start the betting. The “ranking” of suits for this purpose is:

1)            Spades

2)            Hearts

3)            Diamonds

4)            Clubs

This is the only time when suits matter. At the end of this same hand, if one player has the A-10-8-5-2 of hearts, and the other player has the A-10-8-5-2 of clubs, they are considered to hold identical hands and would split the pot.

The player who holds the low card has the option of making the minimum allowed bet (here, $1) or making a full $4 bet. Usually the player will make the minimum bet, even if he holds a strong hand, because it creates deception.

The other players then must call, raise, or fold, just as in hold ’em. We’ll go through a mock hand in a moment. First I want to finish discussing the differences between 7-stud and hold ’em.

Some Important Differences Between Stud and Hold ’em

The absence of community cards-or, put another way, the fact that each player holds cards that belong to him, and only him-means that it is easier to “catch up” in 7-stud. In hold ’em, the fourth card dealt belongs to everyone. So if an Ace comes, you and I each get an Ace. But in stud, if you are dealt an Ace, I’m going to be dealt a different card, almost certainly not as good as an Ace.

Of course, just because everyone gets the same card in hold ’em doesn’t mean that card helps everyone the same way. If my hold ’em hand is K-9, and yours is A-10, a Nine hitting the board helps me a LOT more than it helps you; I now have a pair, and you don’t. But there are also many hands where the card will be equally helpful or not helpful. For example, if I hold A-K, and you hold A-Q, a Nine hitting the board helps us both equally-that is, not at all. But because I had the lead to start with (A-K being better than A-Q), I still have the lead after the equally useless Nine.

The next big difference is that there are five betting rounds in 7-stud, instead of four in hold ’em. In stud, usually the first two rounds are at the lower level ($4 in the example we’re using), and the last three are at the higher $8 level. This extra round of betting means you can win more on a winning hand, and can lose more on a losing hand. So even though it is easier to catch up in stud, it can be more expensive to try.

It can be even more expensive to try to catch up if someone has a pair showing, because if that happens, the betting can go to the higher level immediately, if the bettor wants. So if someone’s first two visible cards are both nines, that person can start the betting by making either a $4 bet or a $8 bet.

Another big difference between hold ’em and stud is the moment in time when you get to see a lot of cards for a small price. In hold ’em, you get to see two cards before you ever have to make a bet, and then if you stay in, you get to see three cards all at once (the flop ). In stud, you get to see three cards immediately, but then you see only one card at a time the rest of the way.

Seeing a Lot of Cards for a Little Amount of Money

Although all decisions are important at all times in poker, those moments when you can see multiple cards for the least money are particularly important, because you can get out of a hand relatively inexpensively at these times. In stud, you see the “most cards for the least money” on your first three cards (three cards for one betting round). In hold ’em, you see the “most cards for the least money” after the flop (five cards for one betting round), although the moment when you see two cards for free (pre-flop) is extremely important also. If you make good decisions about calling, raising, or folding at these times, you will have a better than average chance of winning.

The last big difference between hold ’em and stud is that the final card in stud is dealt face down, instead of face-up. The game thus goes:

First round: two cards face down and one up. Second round: one card up. Third round: one card up. Fourth round: one card up. Fifth round: one card down.

With these preliminaries out of the way, let’s take a look at a mock hand. Each player’s face down cards (his “hole cards”) are grayed. So, for example,

means that this player has the Six of hearts and the Seven of hearts in the hole, and the Eight of spades face up.

The Players for a Hypothetical Hand

Our players are almost the same as we met in the hold ’em game, but Iggy won’t be playing. In hold ’em, it was easy to play with nine players (or even ten, or eleven, if the table is big enough), because even with eleven players, it only takes 27 cards to complete a hand (two cards each to the eleven players, and five for the board).

In stud, if everyone stays to the end, you run out of cards with eight players (52 cards in a deck, 7×8=56). Despite this, casinos are quite willing to start stud games with eight players, because it is extremely unusual for everyone to stay in all the way. If that situation occurred, the dealer would turn the final card face up, making it a community card, instead of dealing everyone their final card face down. Don’t spend much time worrying about this situation; you could play 7-stud in casinos for years without encountering it.

The Hypothetical Hands

So let’s begin with an eight-player game. Everyone has anted one dollar, and in our game, the low card on board will have to start the action with a one dollar bet:

Andy     Bob        Chuck

Dave      Ed           Frank

Greg      Hal

In a real game, of course, none of these players would know what cards his competitors have in the hole. So we’ll analyze the quality of the decisions made in this mock hand based on the information an actual player would possess.

Andy sees that he holds three cards to a straight, and also two to a flush. Having two cards to a flush adds slightly to the value of Andy’s hand, but not much-probably much less than most players think. Another problem for Andy is that his 3-straight is composed of three low cards. His hand would be much better if it were something like J-Q-K, which would still be a 3-straight, but which could also improve to a high pair. If Andy makes a pair, it will be a low pair. So the value of Andy’s hand comes mostly from his chances of making a straight. Fives and Nines are thus very important cards for Andy, and as he looks around the board, he sees only one of these cards out, the Nine in Bob’s hand. He doesn’t know that Frank has one of the Fives he needs.

Bob is very happy with his hand. A pair of Queens is a very good starting hand in 7-stud, and because both of them are hidden, no one has any idea of the strength of his hand. He looks around the board and sees no one else has a Queen or a Nine, a happy situation that improves his chances of getting one of those cards later. He has no way of knowing that Greg holds one of his Queens in the hole, of course, and will never know unless Greg remains in the hand until the end and then shows his cards.

Proper Folding Etiquette

When folding, the proper procedure is to turn the exposed card or cards face down, and slide or toss them all gently to the dealer. Sometimes angry players fling their cards face up. This is not only poor sportsmanship and poor etiquette, but can affect a hand’s outcome, by providing information to a player to which he should not have had access.

Chuck’s hand is similar to Andy’s, although his cards are even lower, and he doesn’t have the two-flush that Andy does. This is the sort of hand that a lot of 7-stud players play, because they look for an excuse to get involved in a hand. But it is the sort of hand that loses money over the long run.

Dave’s hand is very, very weak. He has no pair, no high cards, and no straight or flush possibilities. Nonetheless, if Dave is an optimist, he might think he has a good bluffing opportunity. Aside from the Aces, his Jack is the highest visible card, and because THREE Aces are visible, it becomes fairly unlikely that any one person has a pair of Aces, and will be impossible for anyone to hold three Aces. So if Dave is a bluffer and an optimist, he might try something fancy. People who bluff too much and who are too optimistic usually lose in poker

The Problem With Ed’s Hand

Ed’s hand looks attractive, at first. He has a hidden pair, and he also has an Ace. But Ed has a problem. Can you guess it? Take a moment to look at the information available to Ed:

Andy     Bob        Chuck

Dave      Ed Frank

Greg      Hal

Can you see the problem?

Ed’s difficulty is that most of the cards that can improve his hand are not available. He can see one Eight and two Aces in other players’ hands, which means there is only one Eight left and only one Ace left. A pair of Eights, by itself, is unlikely to win the hand, and Ed’s chances of improving are very poor. If Ed is the kind of player who looks only at his own cards, he might be very happy with his hand. If he is the kind of player who takes note of what his opponents hold (in other words, a good player), he will understand that his chances of winning are poor.

Frank’s hand is also not good. He has no good straight or flush possibilities; even though his three cards could all eventually form part of the same straight, the double gap between the Ace and the Four makes a straight unlikely. Even though Frank holds an Ace, there is only one possible Ace left to help him-and for all he knows, one of his opponents might already have it.

About the best thing Frank can say for his hand is that he doesn’t see any Fours or Fives on the board. But small pairs like Fours and Fives almost never win at low-limit 7-stud, by themselves. Even if Frank made a pair of each, he could very easily lose to a higher two pair.

Greg’s hand looks attractive. Although he is unlikely to catch an Ace to pair his up card, for the same reasons, he opponents aren’t likely to have a pair of Aces either. He sees no Queens or Kings on board and so quite reasonably assumes that he has a good chance to pair one or the other-he doesn’t know about Bob’s pair of Queens in the hole, of course.

Greg even has some small chance of a straight, because his three cards could all fit in a straight. It is only a small chance, because his straight draw is not “open-ended,” like Andy’s or Chuck’s. Their hands could make a straight in either direction (that is, Andy’s 6-7-8 could become a 6-7-8-9-10, or a 4-5-6-7-8, or even a 5-6-7-8-9; Chuck has the same three-way possibility), while Greg can only go one way: he specifically needs both a Jack and a Ten. Every extra possibility helps, but the value of Greg’s hand lies mainly in the three high cards.

Greg      Frank

Compare Greg’s hand to Frank’s. Each holds an Ace, and each has the same remote chance of making a straight. But because Greg’s cards are high, while Frank’s are low, Greg’s hand is playable. Frank’s is not.

Hal will be forced to open the betting, because his Two of clubs is the lowest possible card, and so he has the option of opening for $1 or $4. He will definitely want to open for the minimum. Even though he has a pair, it is the lowest possible pair, and he can see one of the Sixes that could help him is in Chuck’s hand.

Another problem for Hal is that his pair is “split.” By that I mean, half of the pair is in the hole, and half of the pair is visible. If Hal catches another Two, people will consider the possibility that he might have three Twos, and be cautious. By comparison, look at Bob’s hand. No one would worry much if Bob caught a Queen, but it would give Bob a very powerful hand. So Hal is in the unhappy position of holding a hand that isn’t very likely to improve, and even if it does improve, people will be cautious about calling his bets.

Playing Out Our Hypothetical Hand

With all that said, let’s see how this hypothetical hand might play out:

Andy     Bob        Chuck

Dave      Ed           Frank

Greg      Hal

Hal must bet first, and he bets $1. Andy looks at his three-straight and two flush, and thinks, “gee, it would be nice to be able to see another card for $1.” He knows that in his early position, there are still six more players left to act, and the chances of sneaking in for $1 aren’t good. But he calls $1 anyway.

Bob knows he has a good hand. Someone holding Queens is mostly afraid of someone else holding Kings or Aces, and the chances of someone holding Aces are greatly reduced, because three Aces are visible in three different hands. So Bob raises (actually, in this case, he is considered to “complete” the bet) to $4.

Chuck should know he is in trouble, but can’t resist seeing if he can turn his three-straight into a four-straight, so he calls $4. Dave had been thinking about bluffing with his Jack, but with three players already in, he decides this is not the best time to try a bluff. He folds.

Ed knows his hand will have a hard chance of improving, but can’t resist playing with a pair. He calls, even though he knows this is probably wrong.

Frank realizes his hand is practically worthless, and folds quickly. Greg grows a bit more encouraged by Frank’s fold; he now knows that the last Ace left wasn’t in Frank’s hand. He also reasons that because Ed didn’t raise, Ed probably doesn’t have another Ace either. Perhaps most importantly, Greg doesn’t see any Queens or Kings. Although this hand probably should be played with a call, Greg decides to be aggressive and raise. If this is a mistake, it’s a small one. Aggression is often rewarded in poker.

Hal now must decide if he wants to invest another $7 in this hand. His low pair, the visible six in Chuck’s hand, and the fact that so many other players seem to have good hands (or at least the belief that they have good hands), convince him to fold. Good decision, Hal!

Andy had been hoping to sneak in for $1, and would have called another $3 without much complaint, but Greg’s raise has made it more difficult for him to indulge his desire to play. He knows he should fold, but he decides to call anyway.

Like many poker players, Andy has made a bad decision a little bit at a time. If Andy had known at the outset that it would have cost $8 to see a fourth card, he might have folded immediately. But he tried to sneak in cheap, and then, when Bob completed the bet to $4, Andy had time to get used to the idea of putting $3 more in. By the time Greg raised, Andy had mentally committed to tossing another $3 in, so the decision to invest the final $4 wasn’t quite so hard. If Andy had taken an immediate realistic look at both his cards and his awkward early position, he could have gotten away from this hand very cheaply. We’ll soon see whether his gradual seduction winds up costing him.

Bob furrows his brow. Greg has raised with an Ace showing; he COULD have a pair of Aces; just because this is unlikely doesn’t mean it’s impossible. If Bob raises back, he will probably cause some players to drop out, and he will probably find out how strong Greg’s hand really is. On the other hand, if he just calls, he disguises the strength of his own hand. Greg likes being sneaky like that. He decides just to call. With more opponents, Greg’s Queens will have a greater chance of losing, but if they win, they’ll win a bigger pot.

Chuck knew his $4 call was a bad idea, but because he already has $4 “invested” in the pot, he goes ahead and calls the raise, forgetting the principle that once money goes into the pot, it no longer belongs to him. He now has $8 invested in a pot he shouldn’t have played. Chuck and Andy apparently learned from the same teacher.

Ed isn’t happy either, but with $4 invested, he calls the $4 raise. His decision is a bit better than Chuck’s, because he can be sure that this $4 is the most he’ll have to invest to see the fourth card. When Chuck called, there was some chance that Ed might have raised and then Greg could have raised again. Ed doesn’t face that risk. Greg was the raiser, and with Frank now out, Greg now follows Ed in the hand. Greg can’t raise his own raise.

This concludes the first round of betting. With $8 starting in the pot in antes, and Andy, Bob, Chuck, Ed, and Greg in for $8 more each, and Hal in for his $1 bring-in, there is $49 in the pot (less whatever this particular casino “cuts” from the pot as its share).

Evaluating our Hypothetical Hands on Fourth Street

The next round brings the following cards:

Andy     Bob        Chuck

Ed           Greg

Andy now has a three-flush to go with his three-straight, but the news isn’t very good. Bob also has two hearts showing, and he holds the Ace of hearts, too; in the unlikely event that they both make heart flushes, Bob’s will win. Ed also caught a heart this round, which means that hearts are in relatively short supply.

Worse still, one of the sevens that would have paired Andy is now gone, as well as one of the eights. In sum, Andy now has a hand he should throw away, unless everyone checks and gives Andy a card for free. Unfortunately, the optimist in Andy still sees the three-flush and three-straight, and ignores the visible cards whose unavailability will make it tough for Andy to improve.

Although the Ace of hearts didn’t really improve Bob’s hand, he was still happy to see it, because if Bob remembers that Frank folded an Ace on the first round, he now knows it’s impossible for Ed or Greg to have a pair of Aces. Remembering allows Bob to play more aggressively, because his pair of Queens now feels stronger. Bob might have to face a pair of Kings at some point, but he no longer has to worry about Aces.

Chuck shouldn’t have been in the hand to start with, but now he has caught a “lucky” Seven to give him an open-ended straight draw. What Chuck doesn’t and can’t know is that this ISN’T an open-ended straight draw, because all the Eights are in other players’ hands. Only a Three can help him, and there are only three of those available.

Ed now realizes he is sunk. There were only two cards that could have helped him, one Eight and one Ace, and they both fell into other players’ hands.

Greg isn’t too happy with the Eight. He was hoping to pair up, and didn’t, and now knows he can’t make a pair of Aces. The only consolation he can find is that no one else can make a pair of Aces.

Playing our Hypothetical Hands on Fourth Street

Let’s see what happens in the betting.

Andy     Bob        Chuck

Ed           Greg

Bob gets the option to bet first, because his A-9 is the highest hand showing. He thinks his hand is likely the best out there, and wants both to get more money into the pot, and to try to get some players to fold. His bet will accomplish one or both of these goals.

Chuck is happy with his “open-end” straight, but realizes all he has at the moment is potential, so he just calls.

Ed decides his virtually impossible-to-improve hand isn’t worth playing, and makes the smart decision to fold. He would have saved even more if he got out immediately, but at least he isn’t compounding his error by hoping for a miracle. About the best he could realistically hope for is to make two pair, Eights and Threes, and even if he manages to make this hand, the chances are it won’t win. If, looking at Ed’s hand, you decide that you would continue to play if you were in his seat, you are much, much too optimistic to have a chance to win at poker right now.

Greg knows Bob can’t have a pair of Aces, and decides to call also. Folding would probably have been a better choice. Greg can’t make aces, one of his Kings just went to Andy (who could hold a pair of Kings already), his flush possibility is very remote, and while he could make a straight, he would need to catch two perfect cards in three chances-not a very promising situation.

Andy should fold, but can’t resist his double long-shot possibilities, and calls. The additional $16 brings the pot to a total of $65.

Evaluating our Hypothetical Hand on Fifth Street

The next round brings:

Andy     Bob

Chuck    Greg

Somebody up there must not like Andy. He keeps catching cards that aren’t really very good but are just good enough to keep him interested. Bob has a powerful hand and no one has any reason to suspect it; for all they know, he was trying to make a heart flush, and the Queen of clubs brought no help. Chuck’s card offers no help, but he knows he still has two more chances to make his straight. Greg finds himself in a situation a bit like Andy. The Jack of Clubs has given him a chance to make a straight, but not a particularly good chance: he must catch a Ten. His hopes are bolstered because he hasn’t seen any Tens yet; it’s possible that all four remain in the deck. He also has a remote chance to make a club flush. Mostly, he has a bunch of high cards.

Playing our Hypothetical Hands on Fifth Street

Bob’s hand is high on board, and he bets. Chuck calls, still hoping to make his straight. Greg calls, hoping for a miracle Ten. Andy realizes his straight chances are just about gone, but looks at all the money in the pot, and figures another pair (especially if it is Kings) or a Seven might win, so he calls too. This $32 brings the pot to $97.

Evaluating and Playing our Hypothetical Hands on Sixth Street

The next round brings:

Andy     Bob

Chuck    Greg

Andy suddenly has a powerful hand, three Sevens, and he happily bets $8. Bob is pretty much positive his three Queens are still the best hand, and pauses. Should he raise, trying to drive out the drawing hands? Or should he call, and try to lure more players in? He decides to raise; in a game with seven cards, if enough players are out there drawing at straights and flushes, the chances become good that ONE of them will get there, even if the odds are against any one particular player doing so. The pot is already pretty big. Better to try to narrow the field, he decides; even if they all do call, he might win a big pot.

Bob would have preferred to “narrow the field” after the fifth card, because once players get to sixth street, they tend to stay until the end. The vagaries of position made it impossible to do this on fifth street, because Bob had to act first. On sixth street, Andy’s open pair of Sevens changed the betting order, and his bet gave Bob the chance to raise and try to narrow the field.

Chuck is now staring at having to call $16. The three he needed fell just in front of him! Life is not fair! Still, he thinks there are three other Threes he can catch (he has forgotten about the Three that Ed folded earlier), and two other Eights (he doesn’t know about the two Eights that Ed had in the hole). So Chuck calls, thinking there are five cards that can win for him, while actually there are only two.

Greg is a bit confused by Bob’s raise. Probably Bob has a pair of Queens; possibly two pair. Greg’s Kings might or might not be the best hand. But he can still catch another King, for trip Kings, or a Ten for a straight, or perhaps an Eight or a Jack, for two pair. He also calls.

Andy, whose eyes had lit up when he caught the third Seven, is now a bit confused. Not only was his bet called, but it was also raised and called! He is tempted to raise again, but wonders. Chuck could have a flush or a straight. Bob could have three Queens, or a flush draw. Greg could have three Kings or a straight. He decides that there are too many possible good hands out there against him, and just calls. He can always bet more if he makes a full house on the last card, he realizes. The $64 added to the pot brings it to a total of $161.

Evaluating and Playing our Hypothetical Hand on the End

The seventh and last card, dealt face down, brings:

Andy     Bob

Chuck    Greg

Andy still has three Sevens, a strong hand, but not so strong when facing three opponents who have all indicated strength. Bob has a well-hidden full house and is confident of victory. He’s not worried about losing, because with two Kings in sight, he knows no one can have a better full house like K-K-K-7-7, and he knows Andy can’t have four Sevens, because he sees one in Chuck’s hand.

Greg can’t have four Jacks because Dave folded one early in the hand, but you know what? Even if Dave’s Jack hadn’t been visible, even if it was theoretically possible for Greg to hold four Jacks, you can’t spend too much time worrying about extremely unlikely hands like three hidden Jacks and still play successful poker. In this situation, you bet Queens full of Nines for every possible bet.

If the other players drop out, and the hand becomes heads-up (Bob against Greg), the 3-raise rule goes away: once two players remain, most casinos employ a rule that allows unlimited raising and re-raising. So if in that situation, Greg kept re-raising Bob, at some point it would be right for Bob to consider that the unlikely had happened, and just to call. Playing four-handed, Bob will want to figure out the best way to extract the maximum from his opponents. Chuck never did make his straight, and hopefully he will realize that his pair of Tens can’t win.

Greg thinks he has gotten very lucky, but actually just the opposite has happened. By catching the Ten, Greg has made a straight, a strong hand that will win most of the time in 7-stud. But poker is not a game like hand grenades or horseshoes, where close counts; the worst possible hand in poker is a strong hand that finishes second.

Greg’s error is a common one; many beginning poker players focus entirely on their own hands, and try to decide how good their chances of improving to a hand like a straight or a flush might be. They never stop to think that they might lose even if they make their hand.

Andy’s pair of Sevens is still high on board. He decides to bet, because he has a good hand. He doesn’t stop to consider that if someone can call this bet, they can probably beat his hand. Betting is not a terrible play, but with all the strength shown on the previous betting round, Andy would have been smarter to check.

An Important Reason to Refrain From Betting

If everyone else was drawing at straights and flushes, and everyone else missed, Andy’s bet won’t be called; he’ll win the pot, but his bet won’t win him any more money. But if someone makes a straight or flush, they’ll probably raise. Once all the cards have been dealt out, holding a good hand isn’t, by itself, a good enough reason to bet. The bet has to have a chance to win if someone else calls.

This is a fairly advanced strategic concept that even experienced players frequently forget. If someone else bets, Andy can always call. By betting, he risks having to call several additional bets if someone raises. His bet isn’t terrible, because it is certainly possible (even likely) that someone would call with two pair, but given all the strength the other players have shown, a check would have been better.

Bob briefly considers calling, to suck the others in, but decides that since everyone called his raise last time, they might do it again. So he makes the correct decision to raise.

Chuck, although disgusted by his failure to make his straight, finally comes to his senses, and throws his hand away. There are players who would call with a pair of Tens in this spot, at least in low limit poker, and such players are the source of much of your potential profit. Chuck would have saved a lot of money if he hadn’t played a weak hand like 4-5-6 in the first place. At least he got a bit lucky. He didn’t make a straight on the end. If he had, he would have lost much more money.

Greg pauses briefly. Certainly he is going to call, but he considers raising. He’d been worried about Chuck having a flush, but Chuck has folded. He figures Andy has three Sevens, or maybe two pair. He can’t figure out Bob at all. His board looks weak: 9h Ah Qc 3s. Maybe Bob is just bluffing. He tries to remember if Bob bet aggressively early in the hand, but can’t. If he had remembered Bob’s early aggression, he might just call. Instead, he raises.

Andy starts to get a sinking feeling. One raise, maybe he could beat, but two raises, it seems almost certain that someone has made a big hand. But Andy can’t bring himself to throw away a good hand like three Sevens. He calls.

Bob decides that he is the greatest 7-stud player for miles around, and raises again. Greg realizes there is no more point in raising. His straight might be the best hand, or might not, but he certainly can’t raise again. He calls. (In most casinos, Greg would not have had to think about a fourth raise, because most casinos limit raises to three per round. But some do allow four.)

The Wisdom (or Foolishness) of Saving Bets on the End

Andy finally decides three Sevens can’t win. He saves the last bet by folding. He would have saved a lot more if he hadn’t let his optimism get the better of him during the early rounds, where each time his hand was fair, but just not quite fair enough. Just as we saw in the hold ’em mock hand, this “late clarity” of thinking is probably wrong. If Andy was going to fold at the end, he should have folded after Greg’s initial re-raise. Once Andy called that bet, he was pretty much committed to see the hand through to the end. When he finally folded, the pot contained $249. He was risking $8 to win $249, odds of better than 30-1.

Andy invested a lot of money in this pot while he had a bad hand. He finally made a pretty good one. Although it turned out that he was indeed beaten, it wasn’t impossible for his three Sevens to have won. Having run the first 1,450 meters of this 1,500-meter race, Andy probably should have stayed in for the last few steps. With the pot offering odds of better than 30-1, he doesn’t have to be right very often for this final $8 to be a good investment.

Bob turns over his full house, and Greg curses his bad luck. The best hand at the start has turned into the best hand at the finish-something that happens much more frequently than most poker players realize. The participants who played in an overly optimistic style lost a lot more than the players who realized their hands were inadequate, and who folded, knowing another hand would be dealt in a minute or two.

While this hypothetical hand isn’t typical-it’s unusual to see three strong hands like a full house, a straight, and three of a kind all at the same time-it certainly isn’t impossible, or even highly improbable. I’ve taken a bit of dramatic license to demonstrate how overly optimistic thinking can prove expensive. It can also be expensive to forget which cards have been folded, or who was the aggressor early in the hand.

That the final card is dealt face down demonstrates one more very significant difference between hold ’em and stud. In hold ’em, it’s fairly easy to figure out what kind of hands your opponent might have, because only two of his cards are face down. But in stud, with three cards face down, a player can have a visible board that looks very weak (like Bob’s), and yet he can have a powerhouse hand, even four of a kind.

If you play strong cards at the start, pay attention both to the cards in the other players’ hands and the way they bet them, and don’t let optimism get the best of you, you’ll be well on your way to playing a very solid game of 7-stud.

If that sounds like a lot, you’re right. That’s why poker, in the long run, is a game of skill, not luck. But take heart. Especially at the lower limits, most of your opponents won’t be performing all these important tasks very well either. Focus on making good decisions, be honest with yourself about how well or poorly you played, and try to keep improving, and the players who beat you today may find you too tough to handle a few months from now.

A Tale of Two Set-ies

Pocket pairs are often very desirable starting hands in hold’em, although just how desirable depends a great deal on position, which pocket pair you hold, how many other players are in the hand, and the kind of game (loose or tight) in which you’re playing.

Most beginning and intermediate players usually find themselves in games that are reasonably loose, with 4-6 players seeing many flops. When that’s the case, unless your pocket pair is AA, KK, or QQ, you are very often losing—perhaps badly—if you don’t flop a set (three of a kind).

That’s why playing small pocket pairs in early position isn’t often desirable in these games. You limp in, hoping to flop a set, but get raised or re-raised and suddenly have to play your 5-5 for three bets instead of one. You also don’t know, in early position, how many opponents you’re likely to have, and a hand like 5-5 plays best either against one opponent (where it has a chance to hold up by itself) or against many (where you get paid off well if you get lucky and flop the set, an 8-1 shot). As we’ll see in a moment, sometimes flopping a set leads to the best of times, and occasionally it leads to the worst of times.

Today I was playing in a different kind of game. It was reasonably tight, because it was the opening event of the Reno Hilton’s World Poker Challenge, and players had started with $1,000 in tournament chips. We had reached the third level of play ($50-100 blinds, playing $100-200), but very few players had been eliminated yet, which meant that almost every stack was quite short, relative to the size of the bets. Six-way hands were quite rare. On many hands, an opening raise took the pot, and if it didn’t, it was quite likely that the field would be narrowed to two or three players.

I saw one player flop sets twice at this level, and he went out of the tournament relatively soon thereafter, because he played them exactly backwards.

In the first hand, the player (let’s call him Backwards) held A-A, and after an under-the-gun player had limped in, Backwards raised to $200. The two blinds folded, and the limper called.

The flop came As-8d-3d, the limper checked, Backwards bet, and the limper folded. A rather disgusted Backwards showed his set of aces, and (I can only assume) vowed to himself that if he flopped another set, he was going to slow-play it.

A bit later that round, Backwards raised in an early position, got three-bet by the player to his left, and the big blind called, as did Backwards. The flop came Ad-Jd-4c. Everyone checked.

The Turn brought the Kd, a scary card that made both straights and flushes possible. The big blind checked, Backwards bet, and the initial three-bettor called. The river was some sort of blank, Backwards bet again and was called. Backwards flipped over his pocket fours, a set he’d flopped and slow-played, and the caller showed pocket kings, a set to which he’d been given a free chance to draw to by Backward’s check on the flop.

Now, it’s at least possible that had Backward’s bet out on the flop, his caller, seeing two opponents and an ace on the board, might have let his hand go. If that’s the case, Backward’s slow-play cost him the pot. It’s also possible that he might have called, especially given the amount of money already in the pot, but remember, this was a pretty tight game, and it’s hard to imagine what card KK could catch that would let him call another bet, other than a king.

More to the point, even though it’s very likely (though not a lock, as the three-bettor could have had AA or JJ) that Backward was leading on the flop, this was a scary board, with not only flush and straight draws, but also a very reasonable chance that someone had at least a pair of aces or jacks, and with two opponents, Backward’s flopped set was very vulnerable.

Contrast this to his set of aces. There, he faced only one opponent, and the only thing he needed to fear was a diamond draw; if someone with an eight caught another one, instead of the disaster it would have been if someone with K-J caught another jack on the set of fours, it would have been Backward’s dream card, because he’d now have aces full and his opponent trips that he would probably have a hard time getting away from. If you’re worried about someone who had 8-8 catching the fourth eight, you’re too nervous to play this game.

All sets, it’s pretty clear, are not created equal. Some are much more vulnerable than others, be it because of the number of opponents, or the number of reasonable draws that could beat the set. That’s a pretty important lesson all by itself. In second place, not too far behind, is the lesson I’m guessing at, that the lack of action on the first set caused Backwards to resolve to slow-play next time around. The trick is that in poker, the situation is rarely never the same the next time around. Don’t compound one mistake with another.

All Tournament Experiences Not Created Equal

In general, I’m a big fan of poker tournaments. On a personal level, I perform better in tournaments than I do in ring games (a fact that tells me I have some work to do on my patience in ring games). But as a writer and teacher, I’m also a fan of tournaments, because:

  1. You have a big upside with a relatively small downside.You get the chance to play with and learn from better players without risking huge sums.You get a chance to take home a trophy that will sit on your shelf longer than the cash you win will remain in your wallet.

These reasons don’t all always apply, though, as I found out today when I played in a tournament that employed a very different structure than I’m used to.

In today’s tournament, the game was limit Texas Hold ’em, and the buy-in was only $25. For that you got $200 in tournament chips, and there were unlimited $20 re-buys for the first hour. 100 players entered (fairly typical at this club), and the average number of rebuys per player is about two, so the players are usually looking at a prize pool of about $6,000, with about $2,000 of it going to the winner.

Sounds very attractive for a $25 entry fee. A shot at two grand for twenty five bucks, and lots of experience to boot. Unfortunately, the experience you gain in such an event is not particularly useful, except in other similarly structured rebuy tournaments. Let’s see why.

My table was populated by a group of what are usually called “maniacs” in poker. This doesn’t mean they are mentally unstable. It just means that they play very fast and very aggressively, in the hope of accumulating chips quickly. If they can’t, they either bust out in five minutes, or they rebuy, perhaps as many as a half dozen times.

In a situation like this-a very low entry fee tournament with cheap rebuys-you can pretty much expect to see the maniac style of play as the rule rather than the exception. Players who usually play at the 2-4 or 3-6 game have a chance to see what it feels like to raise someone $100 (even if it’s in tournament chips), and they get a little giddy.

So giddy, in fact, that just about every serious poker rule I’ve ever encountered was broken repeatedly in the first half-hour of play. Players were mis-calling their hands (e.g., announcing “full house” on the end when they had two pair or a straight or some other hand). Players who had already folded and who thus had no cards were announcing that they were raising. Players were folding out of turn, exposing cards that some players could see and some couldn’t.

When I asked the dealer to try to get things under some semblance of control (several times the out-of-turn folds affected my action), he shrugged, smiled weakly, and said “it’s pretty hard to stop ’em.” I’m not sure how he would have known this, because he never did try to “stop ’em.” Nor did any of the other three dealers who followed him. I never saw a single dealer attempt to “run the game” or do any of the things that more serious poker players expect dealers to do.

Although I was a bit ticked off at the time, I now realize it wasn’t a big deal. The club where I was playing runs bigger events very professionally. They were catering to a different kind of crowd today. My “big tournament attitude” was what was out of line, not the club’s management style.