Out of the Kitchen and Into the Spotlight: Razz
This is the seventh in a series of articles dedicated to games of the inaugural Dealer’s Choice event at the 2014 World Series of Poker (WSOP).
Have you ever experienced feelings of deep satisfaction and intense joy one moment, but utter disappointment and complete frustration the next? And yet, despite these feelings, you can’t help but subject yourself to the same bouts of emotional torture over and over again?
If you’ve answered yes, I’m guessing you’re probably a sports fan.
Admittedly, I’m not a huge sports enthusiast so I can’t say I truly understand what makes the die-hard fan tick. There certainly seem to be some very passionate people out there whose emotions can fluctuate from one extreme to the next, often within the span of a single hour or two.
It’s quite fascinating, really.
Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m unsympathetic. It’s just ... at least where I come from, a city boasting over six million people that hasn’t been close to seeing any of its major sports teams at the top of its game in decades, I’m surprised we have any fans left.
Case in point: it was a little less than a year ago. The Toronto Maple Leafs made the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. It was Game 7 and I was playing poker at the time. Everyone around me seemed excited. You see, the Leafs (so I was told) were about to make history. PokerNews Canada reader Richard L. (@pokercereal) helps explain:
The Leafs had been suffering through one of its longest postseason droughts since 1967. Fans were hot under the collar at the start of last season.
They finally made the playoffs for the first time in eight years. However, not much was expected of them since they were facing one of the top Cup contenders in the first round: the Boston Bruins. Boston took a 3-1 series lead by winning Game 4 in Toronto. Everyone thought the series was over but at least there was no longer a resounding sense of failure. The consensus was the Leafs were once again a promising team.
Then, a funny thing happened. The Leafs won the next two games to tie the series, and fans' hopes that Toronto could actually win a playoff series began to grow. When the Leafs scored twice at the start of the third period to take a 4-1 lead in Game 7, fans began celebrating.
Steve M. (@smurdoch63) from Toronto, another PokerNews Canada reader, also remembers the game well:
The last time the Leafs won the cup I was three years old. They came close in 1993 with a missed penalty (at least Leaf fans agree) that resulted in a Wayne Gretzky goal to tie the game. Wayne eventually added salt to the wound by scoring the winner in overtime that eliminated the Leafs from the conference final in game 7.
Looking back at the Leafs’ history, prior to 1967, they had never gone nine years without being in a Stanley Cup final, let alone the playoffs. Fast forward to 2013, the Leafs had finally ended the drought and were to face off against the mighty Bruins. Although Toronto hadn't won a home playoff game against Boston since 1959, and hadn't come back from a 3-games-to-1 deficit since 1942, here they were, in game 7. With 10 minutes left in the game, the Leafs were up 4-1. Surely they were going to make it to the next round.
I still recall the tension in the room – a volatile mix of anticipation and excitement. Being up three goals with only 10 minutes of play remaining, it really did seem as if a Leafs victory was not to be denied. People were already researching where the next few games would be played, juggling schedules, putting out invites to viewing parties, and so on.
Many of my friends label me a pessimist. I call myself a realist, and I’d be the last one you’d catch prematurely celebrating. But even I joined in the happy dance. Something crazy would need to happen for the Leafs to blow this one.
Goal Boston. 4-2 Leafs.
That’s too bad.
Goal Boston. 4-3 Leafs.
Wow, that really sucks. Thank goodness for the three-goal lead. Luckily, the game’s almost over though – only 90 seconds left. I’m sure if they just play smart, they’ll ...
Goal Boston. Tie game.
People around me were speechless – some furious, others sadly shaking their heads in disbelief and apparent surrender. While the Leafs wouldn’t be the first to blow such an incredible lead in an important game, this really was (to put it mildly) unexpected. Against all odds, even. Fortunately, they would still have a chance at redemption; it was overtime, and anything could ha...
Goal Boston. End game.
Not only did Boston score two goals in the final two minutes to force overtime, but they went on to win the game and eliminate Toronto. The Leafs had the game all but wrapped up and allowed one of the biggest comebacks in history. The agony of defeat was made that much worse by their coming so close to winning, at the exact moment fans began to believe it might be possible again. - @pokercereal
Heartbreak. Disappointment. Utter disbelief. You don’t even have to be a Leafs fan (or a hockey fan for that matter) to sympathize. How can one be soooo far ahead yet lose it all so quickly? Toronto fans: I feel for you. Truly, I do. But you’re gluttons for punishment, and I suspect you’ll be back for more next year.
Poker, too, can be immensely rewarding when you’re running well, yet equally exasperating when things just aren’t going your way. Nevertheless, those who love the game continue to come back for more.
In that regard, I have a special, ongoing, love/hate relationship with Razz. You can be sure that I’m not alone; there’s a reason why so many poker professionals affectionately label it the most frustrating poker game there is.
When things are going great, you see all the mistakes your opponents are making, you make strong hands and are handsomely paid off by weak ones, and you leave opponents shaking their heads, wishing they had drawn better cards; but when things are not, you find yourself being penalized and forced to act first on seemingly every deal, waiting hours for some semblance of a playable hand, or lured in with big hands promising big rewards only to see your hopes shattered by the time the last card is dealt.
“Oh what the hell,” sighs my opponent. “I’m feeling lucky today, so I call.”
I’m a bit annoyed by the dramatic commentary, but I really shouldn’t mind the call. As usual, he probably thinks I’m stealing, but I actually have a super-strong hand. Boy, is he going to be in for a rude awakening!
I bet and he calls with barely a hesitation. I just love this game. I look over at the game plate. “We are playing Razz aren’t we?” I say with a grin and a hint of sarcasm. The dealer nods affirmatively.
I ask because we’re supposed to be trying to make low hands in Razz. In fact, I’m but one trey away from a “wheel” – A-2-3-4-5 – the best possible low hand. And my obnoxious opponent just called me with a Queen and a Jack showing. I’m pretty sure I’m at least a 9-to-1 favourite here: it’s A-A vs A-K preflop, my Hold’em friends. Maybe he thinks we’re playing a different game.
Pairing cards are bad; they don’t help my hand at all. Fortunately, I still have two chances to improve to a monster hand, and I probably don’t even need a huge one to beat the hand my opponent seems on track to make. I bet with my very strong-looking board, but my opponent is undeterred and makes another loosey-goosey call.
Ugh. This is super frustrating. I’ve now made three of a kind, which would be great if I were playing a different game! Despite the great start, it’s a coin flip situation now. I wonder if my opponent paired.
Him: () ()
Me: () ()
(censored) How does something that begins so well manage to end so poorly? This is a tragedy!
“Well, you probably have me beat,” my opponent says sheepishly as he calls and shows 9-high.
I hate this game.
If you’ve played Razz before, you probably know what I mean.
But don’t let this discourage you. Once you get the hang of it, Razz is one of those games you’ll be happy to have learned, and you’ll be surprised at how poorly many people play it.
Trust me – you’ll learn to love (to hate) it too.
Razz differs from No-limit Hold’em in several key ways:
• The betting is fixed-limit, so for any given wager, the amount you can bet or raise is restricted.
• It’s a stud-type game, not a flop game: there is no board and, therefore, no shared cards; players are dealt their own individual sets of cards from which their hands must be constructed.
• It’s a lowball game, meaning you are trying for the lowest possible hand.
Object of the Game
In Razz, each player is initially dealt three cards (two cards face down, one card face up). On each of the next four rounds, each player will receive another card, for a total of seven cards (the next three cards are dealt face up, the last is dealt face down).
The object is to make the lowest five-card hand. The Ace plays as 1, and is the lowest-ranked card. Straights and flushes are ignored and do not count against hands. Therefore, the best hand in Razz is 5-4-3-2-A. This hand is made up of the five lowest-ranked cards.
: 5-high = the “nut” Razz hand
In Razz, you want to make lowest five-card hand from the seven cards you are dealt. Cards that do not contribute to the best five-card hand are ignored. Consider the following five-card hands (ordered from strongest to weakest):
: 5-high hand
: 6-high hand
: 7-high hand
: 9-high hand
: K-high hand
: pair of 3s
In lowball games, the highest-ranked cards determine a hand’s rank. Therefore, when determining the rank of a hand, order the cards from highest to lowest. For example, with the cards ordered from high to low, it is clear this is a 9-high hand (and not, for example, a trey-high hand).
Further, this 9-high hand will beat any higher-ranked 9-high hand, or any 10-high, J-high, Q-high, or K-high hand, as well as any five-card hand containing a pair; however, this 9-high hand will lose to a better 9-high hand, or any 5-high, 6-high, 7-high, or 8-high hand.
A five-card hand that contains a pair will be beat by any five-card that does not, but the vast majority of five-card hands that will play at showdown will not contain a pair, since you get to choose the best five cards from the seven you are dealt when constructing a hand.
When comparing two or more five-card hands with the highest cards of the same rank, the ranks of the next highest card(s) are used to break the tie, where possible. Suits are never used to break ties. For example:
will lose to
will lose to
Play of the Hand
Razz is a type of stud game. Other stud games include Seven-Card Stud and Stud Hi/Lo (which will be covered in upcoming articles). The play of the hand proceeds generally in the same manner for all games of this type.
There are five betting rounds; this means there is one extra betting round compared to games such as Hold’em or any of the previously discussed draw games that employ a fixed-limit betting structure. More specifically, there is a low-limit bet associated with the first two betting rounds, and a high-limit bet associated with the last three. For example, in a game with limits identified as “100/200”, the low-limit bet is 100 and the high-limit bet is 200.
There are no blinds in Razz. Instead, the forced bets driving the action in this game are in the form of antes (a small bet contributed to the pot by each player prior to the dealing of cards), and a bring-in bet. The bring-in is similar to a blind, in that the player who is forced to post it must do so – it is not optional. In Razz, the player dealt the worst upcard (i.e. the highest-ranked upcard, with ties broken by suit) must post the bring-in. It is possible for the same player to be forced to post the bring-in multiple times in succession.
Once the player showing the worst upcard posts the bring-in, play on the first betting round proceeds clockwise. Anyone who wishes to stay in the hand can either call the bring-in or “complete” to a full bet; on the first betting round, the full bet is the low-limit bet. After someone has completed, subsequent players who wish to remain in the pot may call, or raise in increments of the low-limit bet.
When the first betting round is over, each player is dealt an additional card. On this and all future betting rounds, the betting begins with the player showing the “best hand” rather than the worst, based only on each player’s upcards. For example, between a first player showing () and a second player showing () , the first player will act first despite the second player holding an Ace. Since a 6-high hand is lower (and thus better), the player holding the 6 will act first.
Once betting action finishes on the second betting round, a further card is dealt to each remaining player, and the betting actions described above are repeated. This continues until each player is dealt seven cards, and the final betting round is ended.
The term “street” is typically used to denote a round of betting in a stud-type game, and an appropriate label is given depending on the number of cards each player holds at the start of the round (e.g. “third street” denotes the round when each player hold three cards, “fourth street” denotes the round where each player holds four cards, etc.).
Here is an example of a Razz deal:
- Antes are posted: For example, in a game where the limits are identified as “100/200,” the ante to be posted by each player may be 25.
- Deal: Each player is dealt three cards (one up and two down).
In this example, you are dealt () .
- First Betting Round (“Third street”): The player with the worst hand showing must post the bring-in. Say one player shows the , which is the highest-ranked card; this player will bring in for 25. In theory, this player could complete immediately to a full bet of 100, but given the person bringing in will likely be showing a card that is high-ranked (which is undesirable for a lowball game such as Razz), there will usually be little reason to post more than the minimum amount. When the action gets to you, should you choose to play you can call the 25, or complete to 100, assuming no one else has completed before you. Once a player has completed, any subsequent raises must be in increments of 100 – the low-limit bet.
- Second Betting Round (“Fourth street”): You are dealt the face up, giving you () . Action will now start with the best hand showing, based on each player’s upcards. Bets and raises will be at the low-limit bet –100 – on this round.
- Third Betting Round (“Fifth street”): You are dealt the face up, giving you () (for a completed 10-high hand). Action again starts with the best hand showing. All bets and raises must now be at the high-limit bet –200 – on this round.
- Fourth Betting Round (“Sixth street”): You are dealt the face up, giving you () (this is still a 10-high hand, as the duplicate deuce does not improve your hand). Action again starts with the best hand showing. Bets and raises are also at the high-limit bet –200 – on this round.
- Final Betting Round (“Seventh street”): You are dealt the face down, leaving you with () (). The lowest five-card hand you can make from your seven cards is 8-7-5-2-A, an 8-high hand. Action will start with the best hand showing. Bets and raises are again at the high-limit bet –200 – on this final round.
- Showdown: Once betting on the final round is complete, the best five-card hands of each remaining player are compared to determine a winner. In this example, your 8-high hand will beat the hand of any opponent who can only construct a higher-ranking hand, including worse 8-high hands, any 9-high to K-high hand, and any five-card hand containing a pair. However, your 8-high hand will lose to any lower-ranked hand, including stronger 8-high hands, or any 5-high, 6-high, or 7-high hand.
Basic Strategy Tips
Here are some recommended starting hands:
- Three different cards ranked 6 or lower
Being dealt one of these hands is extremely rare. In general, the best of these hands would be A-2-3, since these are the three lowest-ranked cards. However, any three different-ranked “wheel” cards (i.e. cards ranked from Ace through five) will still provide you with an excellent headstart toward a very strong low hand. Sixes cannot be used to make the highest-ranking five-card hand, but are still valuable, as a 6 is an essential component of many top Razz hands.
- Three different cards headed by a seven or an eight
Being dealt one of these hands from the start is also quite rare. Obviously, a hand headed by a 7 will generally be stronger than a hand headed by an 8. The stronger hands of this group will not have the highest-ranked card (i.e. the 7 or the 8) exposed as an upcard; when a low-ranked upcard is showing and the highest-ranked card is hidden within your hole cards, it will be more difficult for opponents to accurately judge the strength of your hand on future streets.
Given the short list of starting hands shown above, it would seem the general rule for selecting appropriate starting hands for Razz is pretty straightforward: start with hands consisting of three low cards. Indeed, for novice players, this would be a reliable rule of thumb. In general, you want to start with cards ranked as low as possible to give yourself the best chance to ultimately make as low a hand as possible.
High cards and pairs handicap your hand severely; holding a face card or a paired card means you will have little room for error, as you will effectively need to make a strong, low five-card hand from only six cards. You then could not afford to be dealt more than one bad card (“brick”) over the remaining draws, otherwise you would end up with only four low cards and, typically, an unplayable hand.
You should also be paying close attention to the exposed cards of your opponents who decide to fold. These folded cards – known as “dead cards” – can significantly affect the winning potential of your own hand. In particular, if many of the cards you need for your hand to improve to a strong low hand are dead and can thus no longer be drawn, this will adversely affect the value of your starting hand. Conversely, if many cards that pair cards in your own hand have already been folded, this will make your hand much more desirable, since your chances of drawing a pair (which is bad for Razz hands) will be substantially decreased.
To get a better sense of the range of hands that can be made in Razz, it is instructive to construct and review a chart of the top low hands:
In absolute terms, 5-high and 6-high hands are extremely strong, since there are so few combinations of these hands that can be made. 7-high hands are typically excellent hands, and 8-high hands are considered somewhat average; note there are about twice as many 8-high, five-card hand combinations than potential 7-high, five-card hand combinations. Therefore, in multi-way pots, aiming to make a 7-high hand or better at the outset is not an unreasonable goal.
That said, in practical terms, of primary importance in Razz is the relative strength of hands.
For example, suppose you can build a 7-high hand such as 7-6-5-4-3 from your cards on sixth street. In absolute terms, this might be considered a very decent hand. However, should your opponent be showing 5-4-3-2 as upcards, your hand would be highly unlikely to win if your opponent holds an Ace, 6, or 7 as a hole card.
On the other hand, suppose you are dealt () and everyone has folded to you on third street. The only player who remains is the one who posted the bring-in and who shows the . In this case, even though you “only” have a 10-high, three-card starting hand (which is not even on the list of recommended starting hands), you should still complete to the amount of the full bet and try to get your opponent to fold. You clearly hold the better hand at this point, since your opponent can only hold a high-ranking Q-high hand at best.
Similarly, if you hold a hand such as () on fourth street, although drawing the did not significantly improve your hand, if all your opponents drew face cards as their fourth cards, you should still bet, as you are guaranteed to hold the lowest – and thus the best hand – so far.
These preceding examples highlight an extremely important skill in Razz: board reading. It is important not to focus solely on the ranks of your own cards when making decisions of whether or not to proceed on each betting round. At each point in the hand, you must look at the exposed cards of each of your opponents’ hands, and assess the following:
• What is the best possible low hand your opponent might hold?
• How good is your hand compared to the hand of your opponent?
You should also look at your own exposed cards, and answer the following question objectively:
• What is the best possible hand your opponents will think you hold?
In general, whenever your opponent is likely to hold a much stronger five-card hand or a stronger draw to one than you, then you should usually fold, since it may be very difficult to catch up to your opponent and overtake his or her hand. But if you hold the hand that is likely to be strongest among all of your remaining opponents, then you should bet.
For example, if your opponent is showing () and you hold () on fourth street and your opponent bets, you should seriously consider folding, especially when you have little reason to believe your opponent is bluffing. Even though neither of you has yet to complete making a five-card hand, your opponent appears to be drawing to a very strong hand, potentially a 6-high hand or a wheel. Even if your opponent were drawing to a 7-high or 8-high hand, you would need to draw two low cards (of only three remaining cards) just to make an 8-high hand, which still might not be strong enough to ultimately beat your opponent.
Conversely, if your opponent is showing () and you hold () , there is no doubt you currently hold the best hand. You should bet to make your opponent pay to continue drawing. You do not mind winning the pot immediately; in this example, your draw is not that strong and you are not guaranteed to complete a good five-card hand, in any event.
In terms of the hand your opponents might think you hold, the perceived strength of your hand based on your upcards can also dictate how you should proceed, especially when your opponents have drawn poorly. For example, if your opponent is showing () and you hold () , you will probably not be holding the best hand, having drawn a useless pairing card. Nevertheless, you should strongly consider betting (as a bluff), solely based on the threat that your dangerous-looking board poses to your opponents. They may fold in fear of the premium low draw you are representing.
In view of the above observations, and as a general guide, consider the following basic approaches for each street:
Third street: Stick with starting hands consisting of three low cards and complete to the full bet when you are the first player to voluntarily enter the pot. If you do not hold three low cards, generally fold. You can make an exception whenever you show a low upcard and everyone else is showing high upcards; in that case, you should complete to force your opponents to fold, even as a bluff (e.g. you hold hidden pairing cards or face cards), since your opponents can be expected to fold often.
Fourth street: Assess how well your hand has improved and how well the hands of your opponents appear to have improved. If an opponent has drawn well (i.e. someone shows two very low, non-pairing upcards) while you have drawn a brick, you should not be afraid to fold, especially if you started with a mediocre hand. Occasionally, if you started with an extremely strong three-card hand, you could call for one low-limit bet on this street despite having bricked; you are looking to improve significantly on the next card while hoping your opponent draws poorly. However, be careful not to overdo this; mistakes arising from calling too loosely on third and fourth streets can easily compound on future streets.
Fifth street: This is a very important point in the deal, since the bets are now doubled and all remaining players will now hold a complete five-card hand. If you have what looks to be the best hand at this point, you should generally bet to make opponents pay to continue, especially if you also have a strong, underlying four-card holding, which may improve to an even better five-card hand on subsequent streets. If you do not have a strong hand, but can represent one when all your opponents appear to have drawn poorly, you can also bet in an attempt to steal the pot. Otherwise, if your opponent’s hand appears very strong, and your own hand or draw is significantly weaker, you should preserve your chips and fold. You will typically need at least a strong four-card drawing hand that has a reasonable chance of improving to beat what appears to be the best hand to continue on to further streets. It can be painful to fold after starting with a premium three-card hand, only to subsequently draw two bricks. However, it is important to realize it is now considerably more expensive to see additional cards, and you certainly do not want to be stuck needing to draw two perfect cards, back-to-back, to overtake what is currently the best hand.
Sixth street: Bets on this round remain at the high limit. Once again, you will need to assess the best hand your opponent is likely to have and how your own hand fares against it. With four upcards now exposed in each player’s hand, it will become quite apparent how strong each player’s hand might be. In general, with the best hand, you will be betting to try to induce your opponents to fold. You can also call to see one more card if you hold a very strong draw, especially when the pot is of a decent size, but be realistic about your chances of ending up with a winning hand. For example, if you hold a wheel draw and your opponent appears to have made an 8-high or 9-high hand, a call will be more defensible than if you hold a draw to a 7-high hand but your opponent might have already made a 6-high hand or a wheel. You certainly want to avoid calling bets at the high limit in situations where you could be pursuing a draw that could be made on the final card, yet there is a good chance you will still end up with a losing hand.
Seventh street: On the final betting round, you will generally be betting with your strong hands, checking or calling with your weaker hands, and folding when you have missed your draws. If you find yourself folding often on this street after having missed a draw, or successfully completing your draws only to be beat frequently by better hands at showdown, you should consider whether your approach to starting hand selection at third street might be too loose. You will also want to consider whether you might be continuing past fifth street too frequently with low-percentage draws that you really ought to be folding.
Next week: Seven-Card Stud
Ken Lo is the author of A Poker Player’s Guide to Mixed Games: Core Strategies for HORSE, Eight-Game, Ten-Game, and Twelve-Game Mixes, which is scheduled for public release in late Spring 2014. He currently resides in Toronto, Canada.