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How to win a H.O.R.S.E tournament
Greg Raymer pops in with a look at the mixed games you should be fixing your poker radar on.
Mixed poker games have become very popular in recent years and the 8-Game Mix on PokerStars is a big hit with Team PokerStars Pros. The secret to winning a Mixed Game tournament is the same as any other tournament. You need to be very good at the game, and you need to not get unlucky for the duration of the event. I can’t help you with the second part, but I can definitely provide some advice for the first.
The reason the Mixed Game tournaments are so soft right now is that since the current poker boom that started in about 2003, almost the only game anybody learns is no-limit Hold’em. To a lesser extent, players have also learnt limit Hold’em, the version played in H.O.R.S.E, one of the most popular Mixed Game formats, and to an even lesser extent players learn Omaha Hi-Lo. But there have not been a lot of players learning the Stud games since the boom started, and as a result, there aren’t a lot of players out there who are highly skilled, or even marginally skilled, at those games. It is not uncommon when playing a Mixed Game tournament at the WSOP to find yourself at the table with a well-known pro, and learn that they are quite lacking in skill at several of the games in the event. So don’t assume they are excellent at any of the games until they show you, just like the unknown players at your table.
Of course, there are tournament considerations when playing Mixed Games, just as in any other tournament. You need to pay close attention to stack sizes, money bubbles, and other typical tournament factors. I won’t go over these in any detail, since the focus of this article will be on the individual games and things unique to each game.
But having said that, there is nothing unique to Mixed Games per se. Essentially, it is sort of the same thing as playing several individual tournaments simultaneously. So, the key to being a great Mixed Game tournament player is simply being a great tournament player in general, and being a great player of each of the five games. So, let’s discuss each game one at a time.
WHAT IS H.O.R.S.E.?
H is for limit Hold’em, admittedly my least favourite game. When playing against tough opponents, I believe there is more variance in limit Hold’em than possibly any other form of poker. Also, because there are fewer factors to consider during the hand (you only get to see the board plus your two cards), Hold’em tends to play much faster than the other games, so when a Mixed Game tournament is changing games on a clock, you tend to play many more hands of Hold’em than any of the other games. For these reasons, the Hold’em hands tend to dominate the results. However, you still play many more non-Hold’em hands than you do Hold’em, so it is not likely that you can win a Mixed Game tournament while only being skilled at Hold’em.
O is for Omaha Hi-Lo, which I will simply refer to as Omaha from here on. There are several key points in this game. The first simple advice is: ‘never leave home without an ace!’ Now, like any advice in poker, this is not 100% true. There are definitely hands you can correctly play that do not include an ace in them. However, the large majority of hands that are correct to play will include one. As the name of the game says, this is a split-pot game, half going to the best high hand and half to the best low hand (if there is one), plus the ace is both the highest and lowest card! It is simply huge, so huge that any hand without an ace in it is so much weaker than any similar hand that does include one. Just take a playable hand like K-Q-J-T and change it slightly to A-Q-J-T. The difference is more than minor; it is tremendous, even more so when you make the ace-high flush instead of the king-high flush.
Another simplistic but mostly true piece of advice for Omaha is to stick to hands that either are the current nuts, or where you are drawing to the nuts. With four cards in everybody’s hand, it is much easier for somebody to make the nuts in Omaha than it is in Hold’em. When I make the king-high flush in Hold’em, I don’t worry too much about running into the nut flush. If I do, so be it, I’m going to lose a big pot. But in Omaha, when you make anything less than the nut flush, you are often simply making a crying call when an opponent bets. Similarly, when the flop comes with two low cards, you want to be drawing to the nut low, not the 2nd or 3rd nut low. It is always at least somewhat likely, and often very likely, that somebody else has the nut low draw. It is bad enough that you will put chips into the pot and sometimes not even make a low at all. It is even worse to get there and still lose.
R is for Razz, that most frustrating of games. However, this is a game where you can learn quickly how to be a reasonably competent player. The trick is quite simple - stick to hands where it is obvious, or at least likely, that you currently have the best hand. You want to have three unpaired cards that are 7 or lower to start, OR you want to have the lowest likely cards to start.
So, if it folds to you on the first round, and you have 2-9 in the hole, with a 6 up, and there is only one low card behind you left to act, you likely have the lowest hand at the moment, and you should raise. Contrarily, if you have the same 6 up, but a 9 and a J down, with one or more low cards behind you yet to act, throw it away. Similarly, on later betting rounds, as long as you are showing the lowest cards, then you probably should continue betting and raising. If you catch a high card while your opponent(s) catches good cards, then you stop betting, and only call if you’re getting the right price to get lucky and catch good on the next round.
S is for Stud Hi only. For years until the poker boom this was by far the most popular form of poker on the East Coast of the United States, and also in many home games. Some old-timers call Stud the chasing game, as you often must continue in a hand even when you are fairly certain you are behind. In contrast, in Hold’em if you were highly certain your opponent had two aces and you had two kings, you should fold. In Stud, with the same information, you probably would be wrong to fold.
The key to Stud is LIVE cards. If you start off with three cards to a flush, your hand is probably playable (though whether you should be calling or raising is beyond the scope of this article). However, if several cards in your suit are showing in other players’ hands, then your hand is probably correct to fold. Similarly, if you start with two nines, and you see another nine out, then your hand becomes a fold rather than a hand to (usually) play. So, if you stick to hands where the cards you need to improve are still live and available for you to catch, then you will greatly improve your chances to win at Stud.
E is for Stud Eight-or-better, or Stud Hi-Lo Split. Like Omaha above, this is a game where the best high hand wins half the pot and the best low hand the other half. Also like Omaha, the best low hand must consist of five unpaired cards 8 or lower in order to qualify and win half the pot. Just like Stud Hi, it is important to have a live hand in this game, one where the cards you need to improve are fully available. It is also important to not overplay a high-only hand once one or more of your opponents appear to have made their low. If you have three kings and I have 2-3-5-7-8, I am a huge favourite. While there is only a small chance that I can make a hand that will defeat your high hand at the river, there is ZERO chance that you will make a hand that will defeat my low. As such, I am free-rolling you for the remainder of this pot, and have some chance to scoop you and win it all, whereas all you can do from this point forward is get your own money back.
Another key concept in this game is similar to that in Omaha. You need to figure out when you want to promote multi-way action, and when you want to try to remove opponents from the hand. Even if your hand is almost certain to win one half of the pot or the other, you might not want to bet and raise aggressively if doing so will drive out opponents. If you have a lock on the low half, and two opponents remaining, you might need to keep them both in to maximize your profit on the hand, as the losing player of those two opponents is the person whose money you and the other winner will split.