Out of the Kitchen and Into the Spotlight: Seven-Card Stud

This is the eighth in a series of articles dedicated to games of the inaugural Dealer’s Choice event at the 2014 World Series of Poker (WSOP).

I admit it has been a bit difficult this week to motivate myself to write this article. Why? Because, I’m sitting at the side of a pool, in the bright sun, sipping sparkling water, and watching light blue waves silently crawl across the Mediterranean. This sure beats the weather back home.

Don’t be jealous. It’s been a while since I’ve been away from home on any trip, let alone a European vacation.

This is no ordinary break though. Whenever I have the opportunity to do some travelling, I usually try to fit in some poker where possible. One thing that makes this game so great is the fact it’s played largely the same way everywhere; wherever you might be, you can sit down at a poker table, blend in with locals, and enjoy a fun night of cards while soaking in the scenery.

Every place that I’ve been has had a slightly different feel. I do love variety and seeking out new and interesting places to visit. Atmosphere and the overall experience that a venue provides are more important factors to me than the size of a bad beat jackpot, the number of allowable re-entries in a tournament, or the amount of a prize pool guarantee. These other things might have been more important to me at one time, but they’ve become less so over the years.

For this trip, I decided to splurge a little and treat myself to a poker vacation ... in Monaco. I’m attending the last European Poker Tour stop of Season 10 – the EPT Grand Final. I’ve met up with a few of my favourite poker people here and will be playing a few side events for fun. While it certainly would be nice to run well, win or lose I’m sure this trip will be memorable. It’s already been fun to brag to friends and co-workers who’ve asked where I’m travelling to: I’m going to play poker in Monte Carlo. You don’t hear that every day.

Here’s a picture of the view from just outside the tournament room. What a beautiful sight. Wish you were here.

Out of the Kitchen and Into the Spotlight: Seven-Card Stud 101
Balcony views in beautiful Monte Carlo during EPT Grand Final.

So ... as I sit here watching the sunset, I’m reminiscing about the past. Since it’s been hard to focus on much, I thought I’d share with you, just for fun, my personal top 10 list of most memorable poker destinations. Perhaps you’ve been to some of these places too (or if you haven’t yet, maybe this will give you some ideas):

10. Aladdin Casino (Las Vegas) – They say you always remember your first time. It was over 20 years ago that I experienced my first live cash game in Vegas. Back then, the game of choice was Seven Card Stud (which happens to be the topic of today’s article), and I still remember being nervous at the start. It turned out to be a great trip, having won a bit of spending money (winning is always a plus), and getting comped at the buffet (for playing low stakes poker!). You didn’t even have to be a high roller to get special treatment. The hotel is no longer in existence – it’s now the home of Planet Hollywood – but I’ll always remember it.

9. Grosvenor Casino (London) – I visited one of the London casinos on my last European vacation many years ago. I remember sitting down to play some No-limit Hold’em – I wasn’t prepared for the fact that all players were expected to deal the hands themselves. Self-dealing ... like a glorified home game! It was so strange. It certainly didn’t feel like a true casino experience. Needless to say, I left there feeling quite disappointed.

8. Bicycle Casino (Los Angeles) – This was certainly a memorable trip, but not in a good way. Perhaps I’m a bit of a snob for wanting to stay and play in more luxurious places; I’m too old now for the backpacking and hostelling way of life. Anyway, I had planned to attend a World Poker Tour event being held at the Bike. I was unfamiliar with the area, so I thought it would be a good idea to book a hotel across from the casino. Big mistake. I won’t get into the details, but let’s just say that the “hotel” turned out to be one of those places you wouldn’t want to sleep in with your mouth open or with any part of your skin exposed. And this trip was right in the middle of a bedbug scare. Gross.

7. Holland Casino (Amsterdam) – I was visiting the Dutch city on holiday and stumbled across this casino and its poker room while sightseeing. I could see that it was a tourist trap, but since I had a Saturday night to kill, I thought I’d play a few hours just to see what it was like. The poker room was welcoming enough ... as it should be, given the rake on pots was somewhere on the order of 10-15% with no cap! In terms of dollar amounts, this meant that you can forget about the $4 maximum rake you’ve been accustomed to when playing low-limit games in Vegas – this casino was taking in an average of $20-$30 per hand. Crazy! I chatted up a local pro at my table and he admitted that even with all the “easy” tourist dollars, the exorbitant rake made the game practically impossible to beat. Now that’s certainly a hard way to grind out a living.

6. Aviation Club (Paris) – It’s hard for North Americans not to feel out of place here. There’s just something about this private club that screams sophistication. Many guests were in formal dress; it seemed like a fancy place for the French to enjoy a night out. The dining room and lounges were spacious and beautiful, but the poker area was intimate and cramped. Nevertheless, this stylish hangout definitely had its own unique character that certainly left a lasting impression.

5. Grand Lisboa (Macau) – Poker has not caught on in Asia as quickly as it has in Europe and North America, but its popularity in the East continues to grow. I didn’t spend too much time here as I was only visiting for a day, but this poker room certainly had a different feel from others I’ve been to, with its Asian-styled decor. No, I didn’t get to see the infamous “big game” when I was in Macau, and while the poker room in this particular casino has since closed, I wouldn’t be surprised if China might ultimately be home to the next big poker boom.

4. Bellagio (Las Vegas) – Before poker became really popular, I remember walking into this hotel thinking it would be nice to play there. It was one of the grandest on the Las Vegas Strip back then, and to a certain extent, it still is, despite competition from all the newer big name hotels. However, I simply couldn’t get myself to sit down and play blackjack for $25 a hand. Fast forward to the days after the poker boom – a competent low-limit player could now sit down in the Bellagio poker room with only a few hundred dollars and spend a day there, enjoying all the fruity drinks with umbrellas or the hot chocolates with whipped cream you could stomach. I remember being so excited about playing there the first time and soaking up the atmosphere, which was marked by views of massive pictures of poker champions on the walls, and dealers with equally sizeable attitudes. Loved it.

3. Monte-Carlo Bay Resort (Monaco) – This hotel is host to PokerStars’ European Poker Tour Grand Final and it’s easy to see how this grand venue would rank near the top of anyone’s list. Monte Carlo is like the Vegas of Europe ... I take that back; that description is not even close to doing this place justice, and many who’ve been here might even say such a comparison is insulting. The scenery in this city is beautiful, the casinos are grand, and ... where else can you walk around and see Ferraris, Porsches, and other luxury sports cars in every direction, and yachts the size of cruise ships lined up on the waterfront. It’s like being immersed in one of those commercials for Lotto 6/49 ... which I will probably need to win if I’m to afford this hotel’s $75 club sandwiches.

2. Rio All Suite Hotel and Casino (Las Vegas) – If you’ve never made the trek to Las Vegas during the World Series of Poker, it’s something that I must insist you try. Cross it off your bucket list – it’s an experience you’ll never forget. Walk into any of the rooms and see tables upon tables of poker players, covering an area the size of several football fields. The sounds of the incessant chip shuffling can be deafening, but the scene is awe-inspiring. As I mentioned in my previous article, you’ll get to see your favourite players from all around the world hovering around. There are also many side events with affordable buy-ins; you can play one of these if you aren’t yet ready to chase a coveted WSOP bracelet. Or just come out to watch. In my most memorable WSOP moment, I had the fortune of following one of my home game poker buddies all the way to a Main Event final table to become one of the first November Nines. Even as a spectator it was an extremely inspiring experience, one I’ll never forget.

1. Atlantis Resort (Bahamas) – Atlantis has been the long-standing home to the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. I must say these guys really put on a good show. This event is especially welcoming for the recreational player, and if you’ve ever been lucky enough to participate, I’m sure you’ll agree. There are always a variety of events that add to the poker experience: contests, free giveaways, seminars with poker celebrities, and an inviting player’s lounge. The staff and all the PokerStars pros are always super-friendly and welcoming here. And when you feel the need to take a break from poker, you can head on over to the hotel’s waterpark and enjoy a day in the sun. With the festival being held at the beginning of every January, I find it’s a great excuse to extend that Christmas vacation and escape the cold of the Canadian winter! Last year’s trip was especially memorable – a large group from my local bar league made the trek, and we cheered on three friends who made it to the final tables of various side events, each netting five figures. What made the experience even more exciting, however, is that we got to watch one of these big winners earn a second-place finish in his first ever live tournament. What a dream, what a trip!

Hopefully, I’ve inspired you to add some poker to your next vacation. Where will your travels take you? Have an experience of your own to share? Let me know!

Seven Card Stud

You may recall from last week’s article that Razz is a stud-type game. This means 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. Not surprisingly, this also applies to Seven-Card Stud. Furthermore, the betting in a Seven-Card Stud deal is also fixed-limit, so for any given wager, the amount you can bet or raise is restricted.

The main difference between Seven-Card Stud and Razz lies in the hand-ranking system used for each: rather than trying for the lowest possible hand as you would in Razz, in Seven-Card Stud you are trying to make the highest possible hand, with standard hand rankings used.

Object of the Game

In Seven-Card Stud (or simply Stud for short), 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 (three more cards are dealt face up, the last is dealt face down).

The object of Stud is to make the strongest possible five-card hand. Since standard hand rankings are used, a royal flush is the highest-ranked hand, followed by a straight flush, four of a kind, full house, three of a kind, two pair, one pair, and high card.

Play of the Hand

There are five betting rounds in Stud; 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 Stud. Instead, the forced bets driving the action 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 Stud, the player dealt the worst upcard (i.e. the lowest-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 ({x-}{x-}) {k-Spades}{3-Hearts} and a second player showing ({x-}{x-}) {7-Spades}{a-Hearts}, the second player will act first with the Ace-high hand, which ranks higher than the King-high hand.

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.

There is an exception that is unique to Stud and worthy of note. Although bets and raises on the second betting round are normally made in increments of the low-limit, an exception may be made if at least one player is showing a pair; in that case, players have the option to bet or raise in increments of the high-limit instead, should they wish to do so. This exception where this “double bet” is permitted only applies on the betting round after each player has been dealt two upcards (i.e. on fourth street), and at least one player’s board contains a pair.

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 where each player holds three cards, “fourth street” denotes the round where each player holds four cards, etc.).

Here is an example of a Stud deal:

  1. 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.
  2. Deal: Each player is dealt three cards (two down and one up).
    In this example, you are dealt ({7-Clubs}{k-Diamonds}) {k-Clubs}.
  3. First Betting Round (“Third street”): The player with the worst hand showing must post the bring-in. Say one player shows the {2-Clubs}, which is the lowest-ranked card; this player will bring in for 25 (in theory, this player could complete immediately to a full bet of 100). 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.
  4. Second Betting Round (“Fourth street”): You are dealt the {8-Clubs} face up, giving you ({7-Clubs}{k-Diamonds}) {k-Clubs}{8-Clubs}. Action will now start with the best hand showing based on each player’s upcards. Bets and raises will be at the low limit –100 – on this round.
  5. Third Betting Round (“Fifth street”): You are dealt the {10-Clubs} face up, giving you ({7-Clubs}{k-Diamonds}) {k-Clubs}{8-Clubs}{10-Clubs} (for a complete five-card hand consisting of a pair of Kings). Action again starts with the best hand showing. All bets and raises must now be at the high limit –200 – on this round.
  6. Fourth Betting Round (“Sixth street”): You are dealt the {2-Hearts} face up, giving you ({7-Clubs}{k-Diamonds}) {k-Clubs}{8-Clubs}{10-Clubs}{2-Hearts}. Action again starts with the best hand showing. Bets and raises are also at the high limit –200 – on this round.
  7. Final Betting Round (“Seventh street”): You are dealt the {2-Spades} face down, leaving you with ({7-Clubs}{k-Diamonds}) {k-Clubs}{8-Clubs}{10-Clubs}{2-Hearts} ({2-Spades}) for two pair, Kings and deuces with a 10 kicker. Action will start with the best hand showing. Bets and raises are again at the high limit –200 – on this final round.
  8. 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 two pair will beat the hand of any opponent with a lower-ranked two pair, and any hands containing merely a pair or no pairs (assuming no straight or flush). However, your two pair will lose to stronger two pair hands, and any higher-ranked hand such as a three of a kind, straight, flush, or full house, as examples.

Basic Strategy Tips

Here is a list of recommended starting hands:

  1. Three of a kind (“rolled up”)
    When dealt one of these monster hands, expect to win often. It is rare to be dealt any of these from the start, and often they will win pots after improving to a full house or quads, and even after failing to further improve. Unless an opponent’s board is particularly scary (e.g. when it is highly probable that you are facing a made straight or flush), even if your hand did not further improve you can expect a bet on the final betting round to be called routinely by players with strong, two-pair hands that you beat.
  2. Hands with a big pair (Aces, Kings, Queens)
    In Stud, big two pair hands will win a fair share of pots, and many players will be enticed into calling on the final betting round with dominated two pair hands. Therefore, aiming to make a big two pair hand is a reasonable goal – a hand consisting of a premium pair such as Aces or Kings will provide an excellent headstart. Exercise caution if you hold a pair of Kings (and especially when holding Queens) when an opponent is showing an Ace (or a King when you hold Queens), since it is more likely the opponent will hold or be drawing to a higher-ranked pair, on the way to potentially making a dominating two pair hand.
  3. Hands with small or medium pairs
    These hands are trickier to play as they often evolve into dominated two-pair hands, and improvement to three of a kind will be difficult. In general, you should be inclined to fold most of them from early position or when facing a completion bet and subsequent raise; however, the strength of hands in this category can vary widely. One of the most important factors affecting the inherent value of such hands is the rank of the third card that accompanies the pair; if the third card is ranked higher than the upcards of your opponents (i.e. you hold a supporting “overcard”), this will significantly add value to your hand. This is because if an opponent holds a dominating pair to start and then improves to two pair, your third card might ultimately pair and be ranked high enough to allow you to make a stronger two pair. Another important factor is whether the pair is hidden within your hole cards or one card of the pair is exposed (i.e. your pair is “split”). Holding a split pair decreases the value of the hand, since opponents will easily know you might have improved to three of a kind when your board pairs, and they may fold, thus limiting your potential profit; on the other hand, if your pair is hidden and you subsequently improve to three of a kind, your strong hand will be well-disguised and your bets will be more likely to be called.
  4. Three cards to a straight and/or a flush
    The strength of the hands in this group will also vary widely, and a number of factors can make the difference between the hand being premium or merely speculative. For example, a hand consisting of three consecutively-ranked cards all of the same suit is considered a strong hand given its flexibility: it can improve to a flush or a straight, both of which are above-average hands. Three cards to a royal flush also represents a premium hand, offering similar flexibility along with chances to make big pairs. A draw to either a straight or flush, but not both, will be much less valuable unless it contains one or more overcards that may pair – the more overcards the better. However, one of the most important factors affecting the value of these hands is the number of helpful cards that can no longer be drawn because they are in the hands of opponents or have already been folded – the more cards needed for a hand to improve that are “dead,” the less valuable the hand. For example, a hand consisting of three cards of the same suit will be much less playable for its flush potential when three or more cards in that suit are already out or have been folded, since the chances of ultimately completing a flush becomes much less likely.

Stud is one of the most difficult poker variations to master, despite being one that utilizes a familiar hand ranking system. Many factors can affect the winning prospects of a starting hand and, more generally, of any hand as it evolves during a deal. Accurately assessing the strength of any given hand relative to the hands of your opponents will require you to remember all cards that have been exposed – especially those that have been folded – and to apply this knowledge to decisions on whether or not a hand should be devalued at any point before showdown. While memorizing these “dead cards” is an essential skill to master in order to achieve consistent success in Stud, many players are unable or unwilling to develop this skill, which puts them at a disadvantage.

For example, it is common for players to ignore the fact that multiple outs needed to complete a straight or flush, or outs that will allow their hands to improve to a strong two pair or three of a kind, have already been exhausted and can no longer be drawn. In fact, the unavailability of even two or three outs can mean that a hand that might appear to be a favourite to win might actually be an underdog.

It is especially important for novice players to be extremely critical when it comes to starting hand selection. In general, you want to start with hands with strong pairs or that can make strong pairs. “Strong” means better than the pairs that your opponent might hold; you certainly want to avoid starting from a position where you hold a pair that is dominated by an opponent’s pair. Starting out with a dominated pair will frequently be a losing proposition since you will generally need to improve while all your opponents fail to do the same – this can be a difficult task. You also will need to develop good reads on your opponents to get a sense of what types of starting hands they will play and how aggressively or passively they play different hands; whether you are more likely to be facing a stronger pair or an inferior holding consisting of three uncoordinated cards when an opponent enters the pot will have a direct effect on the relative strength of your starting hand.

Draws that lack the ability to make strong pairs are speculative in nature. While they can justifiably be played for a bet or two in certain situations, it is very important that the cards you would need to complete your draw remain very live. You are looking to improve to a four-card drawing hand as quickly as possible, and no later than fifth street where the bets are doubled and only two cards remain to be drawn.

Being disciplined in your starting hand selection cannot be overemphasized. With three out of seven cards already dealt to you at the outset, it is difficult for a mediocre hand to improve to a strong one. Hands such as A-9-4 rainbow are extremely marginal despite the presence of a high-card Ace; although you can occasionally attempt a steal by completing if your Ace is showing, no one else has entered the pot, and the opponents who have not yet acted play relatively tight (you are representing a pair of Aces), in general, do not be afraid to fold these uncoordinated hands early and often. With any marginal hand, whenever your opponents are unlikely to fold, you will usually have to endure multiple rounds of betting (some of these require you to call bets at the high-limit) before getting a sense of whether it might have sufficiently improved to a hand that has a reasonable chance of winning a showdown.

In absolute terms, big two-pair hands will win a fair share of pots, while small two-pair hands are common trap hands that frequently find themselves at the losing end of a showdown in multi-way pots. That said, these small two-pair hands, and even hands consisting of an unimproved single pair, are more likely to be sufficient to win in heads-up contests, especially if your single opponent has loose starting hand standards or was likely to be attempting a steal with a poor hand.

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 that have the ability to improve to strong two-pair hands quickly, or strong draws (preferably with overcards) where the cards needed to complete the draw are very live. You can make an exception whenever you show a high-ranked upcard and only a few players showing lower-ranked upcards remain; in that case, you can consider completing and hope all opponents fold.

Fourth street: Assess how well your hand has improved and how well the hands of your opponents appear to have improved. If you have drawn poorly, you should not be afraid to fold, especially if you started with a mediocre hand. If you started with a strong three-card hand, you will usually continue to take the lead in the betting; even if you failed to improve, you will usually be justified in calling to see fifth street should your opponent now bet out, assuming you do not face a very threatening board. In this regard, you should be especially careful if your opponent shows a pair on fourth street; if the opponent has improved to three of a kind, there will be very few hands that you could hold that would not be a significant underdog. Thus, you should generally err on the side of caution and fold whenever your opponent shows a pair and you do not hold a very strong hand yourself; on the flipside, when you show a pair on fourth street, consider being aggressive with your hand by making the double bet, if doing so may get all opponents to fold.

Fifth street: This is a very important point in the deal, since the bets are now doubled. If you have what rates to be the best hand at this point, you should generally bet to induce opponents to fold. In particular, if you already hold two pair (or better) at this point, and the boards of your opponents do not look too threatening, you will often have the best hand going into the final two streets. A big pair with a strong, underlying four-card backup draw (e.g. {a-Spades}{a-Clubs}{k-Spades}{j-Spades}{3-Spades}) will also frequently be in the lead, and even a strong drawing hand with multiple ways to improve (e.g. a straight-flush draw, potentially with overcards to an opponent’s likely pair) usually can also be played aggressively despite not being a made hand. Conversely, if your opponent’s hand appears very strong, and your own hand or draw is significantly weaker, you should preserve your chips and fold. Since there will typically be only one winner in a Stud hand, if you decide to continue past fifth street, given the size of the growing pot you will typically be committed to calling bets all the way to seventh street when there is some chance you can outdraw your opponent. This can potentially make mistakes on fifth street – typically by making calls too loosely – very costly.

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 for value, and to force your opponents to pay to draw. If you are still drawing, given the odds the pot is likely to be offering, you will usually be committed to calling a bet to see seventh street unless your opponent’s board looks so ominous that it is obvious you cannot win.

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 frequently showing second-best hands at showdown, you should consider whether your approach to starting hand selection at third street might be too loose, and in particular, whether you are habitually playing hands where the cards needed for improvement are not very live. It has often been said that the majority of Stud hands are won or lost on third street; it should thus be no surprise that hoping to make winning hands when starting with marginal holdings will, time and again, prove to be a fruitless and expensive exercise.

Next week: Stud Hi/Lo Split (Eight-or-Better)

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.

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