Love That Razz! -- Starting Hands and Dead Cards
[I][This is the first in an occassional series of razz strategy posts. Anybody who actually deigns to read the drivel that follows the disclaimer should know that my knowledge of razz is limited to several readings of the razz chapter in Sklansky on Poker and my own deductions based on playing razz on Full Tilt. All posts will assume that readers understand the basic rules of the game.
I read somewhere once that if holdem is a game of patience, razz is a game of hibernation. I don't think that's necessarily true, but it is a game that takes buckets more of emotional discipline -- and a game that, right now, is infinitely more captivating for me. In an effort to bring razz to more people, I've decided to start a series of posts sharing my (limited) razz knowledge. Today, I want to talk about starting hand requirements and dead cards.
Your first major decision in razz comes as soon as your hand has been dealt. Assuming you're not the bring-in, you have a decision to fold, call or complete/raise. Generally speaking, you don't want to be playing anything worse than a three-card eight. That is, if your hand doesn't consist of three unique cards ranked eight or lower, you should generally fold. It is rare that a hand worse than an eight-high wins the pot, so generally you want to give yourself the best chance to win by starting with three good cards. That said,
3-8 / 2
is a much more powerful hand than
3-2 / 8
and it should be pretty obvious why. Razz is very much a game of strong boards. The stronger (lower) your board is, the more pressure you can apply to your opponent. A three-card eight with the eight exposed is much weaker than a three-card eight with the eight hidden, because if the eight is exposed, your opponent will know for a certainty on fifth street that you can't have anything better than a made eight. This may encourage him to draw against you (to a seven, for example) when he might otherwise fold.
Obviously, if you only played three-card eights, you'd be bleeding quite a bit in antes and bring-ins and would give your opponents a pretty easy line on your play. Sklansky suggests an easy way to mix up your play is to attempt to steal the antes with a two-card eight or better. For example, let's say you have
2-J / 3
A king brings it in before a deuce, a queen, a nine and a ten all fold to you. Behind you are an ace and a nine. You might try to complete the bring-in here in the hope that everyone folds and you can steal the antes. In the typical structured razz game, you are risking 1 small bet to win 1.85 small bets, with the added luxury that if the ace calls you, and you catch a baby to his bad one on fourth street, he is almost certainly going to fold. If you're at a table where players are more likely to call you, you shouldn't steal as frequently, for the simple reasons that you know you will almost always get action on your good hands. Otherwise, this can be an easy way to at least maintain pace with the blinds and antes until you pick up better hands that (hopefully) don't brick up and you can take to a showdown.
What if you have a three-card eight and someone has completed the bring-in? Generally speaking, you should raise, and there are a few reasons for this. 1) If you suspect they are stealing, then you have the better hand and are getting good pot equity on every additional dollar in the pot. 2) Even if you don't have the better hand, you want to discourage other marginal hands from seeing fourth street. 3) If you catch a baby on fourth street to their bad one, you will probably induce a fold.
Once again, I want to stress that not all three-card eights are created equal. A
7-8 / 6
is generally a pretty marginal hand, especially if there are lots of low cards already out. Be careful how you play hands like this. They do have potential if you draw into a strong board, but it's limited potential.
If razz is a game of strong boards, it's also a game of dead cards. Unlike holdem, where you will only ever know, at most, six cards when forced to make a decision, in razz you might have seen 13 cards by fifth street, and retaining memory of these cards is critical in the decision-making process as whether to bet, raise, call or fold. It even comes into play as early as third street. A hand like
A-4 / 6
while generally a pretty strong starting hand in its own right, is made even stronger if other players are showing K, 9, A, 4, 4, 6 and T as their doorcards. In such a situation, it is less likely that you will make a pair (hidden or exposed) and more likely that you will draw into cards that complete your hand. Consider instead, the same example
A-4 / 6
where your opponents are showing K, 9, 2, 3, 3, 2 and 5 as their doorcards. Half your cards to a six are already dead. This doesn't mean that you should throw away your hand just yet, but you should understand it's not nearly as strong as it appears at first blush.
"But asphnxma," you say, "how on earth can I remember all these dead cards?"
In the beginning, I think it's easiest to focus on cards that almost always factor into the decision-making process: cards ranked 8 or below. As soon as the hand is dealt, note everyone's door card. If it's a 9 or higher, don't worry about it. Otherwise, try to note the cards in order, and repeat them to yourself in your head. For example, let's say the door cards go like this: J, 8, 4, J, T, 4, A, 3. I would look around the table, ignore the ten and the two jacks, and formulate the dead cards like this: A 3 4 4 8 and would repeat that to myself once or twice. Ordering the information this way makes it easier for your brain to process it and hopefully retain it. After third street, if you're still in the hand, it's much easier to keep track of dead cards, because if the hand is not heads up, it will be pretty soon. Rare is the hand of razz that is played three-handed past fourth street, unless you're playing with total donkeys (quite common at the lower limit tables on Full Tilt, by the way).
There are times when knowing that the ten, jack and jack are dead would be helpful, but I think that those may be more "advanced" stages of razz. Since beginners are generally only going to play three-card eights or better, it's safe to ignore those high cards in the beginning. The point is, knowing which cards are dead, combined with the board of your opponents, combined with your own hand, will make certain decisions on later streets easier to make. Either your cards are live, or they're not.
It can be pretty frustrating to keep folding hand after hand in razz, or to start with a good hand and catch a brick on fourth street (a topic to be covered in my next razz post). Discipline is key, though, because a bad starting hand is a bad starting hand -- there's no flop that will magically turn 8-K / T into the nuts. Combine discipline with attention to dead cards and the chips will eventually start sliding your way.