Razz is a seven-card stud lowball game so when you show a paint as your upcard your hand is unplayable in virtually all situations. This is a major action killing aspect of the game because in most other stud variants you can still possibly have a strong holding regardless of how weak your up card appears to be. Since the really high cards are all but forced to fold this creates an interesting and aggressive dynamic amongst the low cards as they battle for all of the dead money in the pot. It’s important to not only grab your fair share of the loot but you must also learn how defend vigorously but appropriately while dealing with peculiar nuances of post size manipulation that are unique to this game.
By far the best resource on the game of Razz is in David Sklansky’s Sklansky on Poker. In particular there is a great discussion on 3rd street stealing, defending, and how important pot manipulation is in this game and this article will try and build on of that.
Let’s get started by examining a somewhat common scenario. In a full eight handed game with a medium to high ante, a K♥ brings in the forced bet and the action folds around to a 3♠ with only the 8♦ remaining in the hand besides for the king. For the sake of this example we will ignore all of the other up cards that were folded. How often should the 3♠complete the bet? How often should the 8♦ defend? And how often should the 8♦ defend by re-raising? It’s a complex question so let’s take it one piece at a time. The first major consideration is the structure and how many players were dealt into the hand.
Mathematics of Stealing
An eight handed $20/40 game with a $3 ante and a $5 forced bet has $29 in the pot on 3rd street. Completing the bet is risking $20 to win $29 so it only needs to succeed around 41% of the time not accounting for the chance that you are just called on 3rd and end up winning the pot later. This means that the remaining players need to defend at least 59% of the time to prevent that player from being able to profit immediately from raising any two hole cards.
In theory in this particular example it should be a highly profitable situation for the 3♠ because it has the superior upcard but the 8♦ should still actively defend especially if the three is the type of player to steal with any two cards in the hole. Since the three has the superior upcard it probably doesn’t have to be quite 59% but it should be somewhat high. And with a king as the forced bet, virtually all of the defending responsibility is borne by the eight.
As was pointed out by Sklansky, the fewer players that were dealt into the hand, the less money there is in the pot on 3rd, and thus the less often that you should steal and defend.
With only six players in the pot, the steal needs to work around 47% of the time and if only the three players were dealt into the pot then the steal needs to get through 59% of the time. This corresponds to default defending rates of 53% and 41% respectively. Played properly, shorthanded Razz should only have a fraction of the action seen in shorthanded limit hold’em.
Tournaments typically utilize a high ante structure. For example, six handed at the 1000/2000 level with a $200 ante and a $300 forced bet the remaining players need to defend at least 60%. Thus from the perspective of the 3♠, a steal only needs to work 40% of the time to breakeven. If the 8♦ defends at least some of the time by calling, then the steal needs to work even less often because there is a possibility of winning later in the hand.
Stealing Range of the 3♠
This is obviously a highly profitable situation so how wide should the stealing range be? In general Sklansky advocates randomizing your stealing range to only include the times when you have one other low card in the hole. If you raise close to 100% in steal situations, players will start calling you or worse start re-raising you more often. Also if you are called and things even up on 4th street you still have a reasonable chance to build a legitimate hand because you started with a two card low.
Assuming the three is completing with any two cards eight or lower he would be folding the following range: 33, 99+, 93-K3, T9-KQ. The three will have those cards in the hole around 20% of the time thus a steal of the antes will be attempted around 80% in this situation. In reality though, this spot is slightly more advantageous in that the eight is handcuffed with his upcard so many aggressive players will go after the antes more often this.
Defending with the 8♦
Whenever you have a three card eight the standard play is to almost always re-raise. Sklansky on Poker has a great discussion on this topic. The main reasons to raise are that you must punish your opponent for the times he is weak and it manipulates the size so that you can call on 4th street even if you catch bad. Had you not re-raised you would be giving your opponent two ways to win, because if you only call you must fold on 3rd if you catch a high card and your opponent catches good.
All of his examples showed the eight as one of his hole cards and not the up card, and
without question it would be much better if the eight was in the hole because your opponent will be able to re-raise a lot more when he knows he has the stronger hand. And as Sklansky points out by just calling you allow your opponent to possibly make a mistake on 4th street if he calls with a high card after you improve. So I can’t say for certain what he would advise in this particular situation.
However, weighing the pros and cons, it appears that the reasons to raise far outweigh those to call. Not many plyers make calling mistakes in small pots on 4th street and it’s important to deny your opponent his equity in the event that they have a terrible holding.
Mostly this equity is in the event that you catch bad on 4th street and must fold. And while getting re-raised is bad, it’s not horrific as you are not a tremendous underdog. For example (6♥ 2♠) 8♦ has around 41% equity versus (A♠ 2♥) 3♠.
Regardless you are always defending three to an eight one way or another; the main issue is that when you show an eight you only have two lower unpaired cards around 26% of the time. This is a problem because it is a very low percentage thus it seems clear that we should defend with a wider range. And when we defend should it be done by calling or re-raising? At this point I want to make clear that we are discussing defending against a probable steal range; not one that is mostly made up of value hands. If there were other low cards before you we should probably only defend with three to an eight.
As discussed this is a particularly advantageous situation for the three but folding 74% of the time appears to be out of the question. So let’s analyze this one step at a time and see if we can come up with a reasonable strategy. I’m not going to pretend that I have all of the definite answers; as always I look forward to any possible differing thoughts in the forums.
Anyhow given the cards that are out, both players will have roughly the following distributions:
|Eight or better
|Nine or better
|Ten or better
|Jack or better
|Queen or better
From the above it appears as if we should consider re-raising with any nine or better because when someone is completing the bet over 80% of the time we have the best hand more than half of the time. Even if your opponent never calls on 3rd street with a lesser hand it still could be the right play as it completely eliminates the possibility of losing to hands like (K8)3 or worse. Also you are not that far ahead of a three card jacks or queens that you don’t mind winning the pot immediately. For example (J7)3 and (Q7)3 have around 40.4% and 37.7% equity respectively against (94)8.
However, most players will typically continue on with lesser hands and if they don’t they can easily be exploited. Most players will respond to your re-raise in a straightforward fashion, they will re-raise if they can beat an eight or call otherwise. So while it isn’t pleasant to be re-raised at least you gained the information that you are up against a legitimate hand and can proceed appropriately.
With a ten or jack high (with the other lower than an eight), it appears optimal to defend by calling. The odds of having the best hand are reduced and it also keeps the size of the pot small. This means that even if your opponent started with a legitimately good hand you could still win the pot on 4th street if you catch good and your opponent catches a really high card. This is a matter of manipulating the size of the pot to try and entice your opponent to get him to do what you want. If you have a hand like (J2)84 you definitely want an opponent holding (76)3K to fold even though you currently have the best hand.
If you defend all good jacks (e.g J82, J84 etc) and better that is approximately 50% of the hands. That seems reasonable especially if you defend by re-raising with the nine lows.
The concern that your hand is face up when choose to just call as opposed to re-raising is valid but all of the alternatives appear to be worse. Whenever you have a three card eight you always want to take the value, punish your opponent, and prevent him from possibly beating you with (KK)3. Re-raising with tens and jacks doesn’t make sense because you are often behind, you will get punished often, and it will make the pot bigger which just entices your opponent to continue on in the hand even when 4th street is clearly advantageous to your holding. And certainly just folding 60% of the time or more on 3rd is not ideal.
And in Razz many hands do not go to showdown and it’s often hard to determine what cards someone started with versus what they received on the last card. In addition, Razz is mostly just played in mixed tournaments so in general balance and trying to hide how you handle every nuanced situation is not that much of a concern. If they see you call with an eight, they will likely just assume you are playing a weak three card eight carefully because your holding is obviously capped.
Razz, as with all stud games, begins as a battle for the antes thus it is extremely important to steal more than your fair and stop other players from attempting to do the same thing. Implementing a voracious and thoughtful defense will slow down the other players and allow more of the game to flow through you and when the games flows through you the money will soon follow.