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Five-Card Stud Poker

Five-card stud poker depends on mathematics and self-discipline. The average winning hand is the lowest among all games of poker—a pair of kings or a pair of aces. Overhead is almost non-existent; there is almost never an ante, and you do not have to bet unless you have the high card showing on the first round. As a result you can sit in the game for literally hours and hardly spend a penny, waiting for a good hand to come along. The winnings almost always go to the players who are conservative at the start and bold when they think they have the best hands.

Stud poker offers some classic questions, which are easy enough to answer.

1.    The idea that you should not play unless you can beat the board—unless you have a better hand than any hand showing, at the stage at which you make the bet. I regret to say that this precept is almost entirely true. It is devastatingly boring, but it is true. You are unlikely to win in a stud game unless you bet only when you can beat anything showing. In all other cases, you should get out of the pot.

2.    The question of which is better, an ace in the hole (assuming no other ace showing) or a low pair, say up to fives or sixes. The low pair is much better. If the ace itself is not paired, you have the better hand at the start. You are even more likely to improve the pair than the holder of the ace is to pair the ace.

But much depends on how you play a low pair after the first round or two. Probably the best method is to raise on the second round and see how many stay in. From the number who stay in, you can judge the possibility that you are up against other low pairs or high hole cards. From the next round of cards, you can judge the possibility that any of the high hole cards has paired.

Stud poker players are often prejudiced against low pairs back to back because they have lost so much on them. They have not lost by sticking around in the first place—that is when they get their killings if they improve—but by sticking around after it is apparent that some other player in the game has paired and has a higher pair. For example, a pair of fives unimproved is a bad fourth-round play against a strong player who showed an eight on the first round and has drawn an ace or king later and who bets strongly. He probably has you beaten at this point, and if he has you beaten at this point you are going to lose in the long run by bucking him.

3. The one invariable rule of stud poker is not to stay against a pair showing unless you already have a higher pair. The num¬ber of "over" cards is of no consequence whatsoever. If he has you beaten at that point, he figures to have you beaten at the end and he also has an advantage that you cannot possibly have —he can have a cinch hand and you cannot. If there is an open pair showing, be very wary of staying even when you have a higher pair. Stop first to consider the possibility that he was paired back to back at the start. This will depend upon your appraisal of the player and his habits, and also on the number of aces that have shown (or of cards higher than the high showing card at the start, as for example when the high showing card at the start was a queen and no kings have shown). A stud poker player must have the courage to get out on the highest showing hand when all the indications are that some concealed hand is better at this point than his hand is.
Don't stay on straight or flush possibilities, unless by pure accident you find yourself with a possible straight or flush with one card yet to come and the pot offers you better than 5 to 1 odds for staying in.

One of the standard precepts of the game is, "Never bet into a possible cinch hand." If you observed this rule you would sacrifice much of your potential winnings. Stud poker is more a game of figuring than any other kind of poker. The opponent may show a possible cinch, such as a possible straight or flush, but you must consider the hole cards on which he might have stayed in so long. You must form your judgment on the hole card he may have, rather than on the entire number of possible hole cards there are for him. You then think about whether any of his possible hole cards will cause him to call a bet on a losing hand. When you think you probably can win and also that he may call on a losing hand, you must bet. For example, you have queens up and he probably has tens up but he may have three sixes, as in this case:

Five-card stud. You raised on the second round and took the lead on the third round. At the final round only one opponent has stayed with you.

You have: Q down; 9, Q, 5, 5.


Opponent has: ? down; 10, 6, 8, 6.

 
If opponent has a six in the hole he knows he has a cinch hand.

Opponent is high and checks. You must bet your queens up, despite his possible cinch. It is too unlikely that he played at the start with a six in the hole and a ten up. His most likely hands are tens up or merely the sixes he shows, perhaps with an ace or other high hole card. But with either of these hands he can beat your showing fives and with tens up he can beat the nines up that you are likely to have. He will probably call a bet and you will lose much of your potential winnings if you do not give him an opportunity to do so.

Occasionally you must bluff in such cases (when you have represented a hand that is probably two pair, but do not actually have them); and occasionally the opponent will reraise as a bluff and you must trust your judgment of his style to decide whether or not to call. All that is part of the game.

In stud poker you must look at every card dealt and every card folded and must remember them. They affect the chances that any particular opponent has a particular hole card. For example, two aces have shown and folded. You are against one opponent who catches an ace as his last card. You have two kings. You must ask yourself whether he would have continued to stay with an ace when the other two aces had already shown. If he is a very good player, figure him for an early pair and not aces paired on the last card. If he is a poor player, you might worry. But you cannot have any idea if you did not see and take note of those aces that folded. Incidentally, this is an oversimplified case; your success is going to depend on how many of the sixes and nines and queens you see, as well as the aces. Everybody notices aces.

When to play on the first round. The average winning hand is two kings or two aces. Many pots are won on less (such as ace high) and many pots require more, as the upcards will reveal; but it is a basic principle to stay only when the odds against making two kings or better are less than the odds offered by the pot. The following are minimum plays on the first round.

1.    Any pair.

2.    Ace in the hole; but if another ace is showing, the upcard should be a nine or higher.

3.    King in the hole, when no ace is showing. If an ace or an other king is showing, the upcard must be jack or queen and no more than one other player can show a queen or jack (as the case may be).

The great fallacy is in staying on a hole card such as jack simply because it is high—that is, in the occasional deals when all the original upcards are low. For example, the first upcards in an eight-handed game are 2, 8, 7, 10, 8, 5, 10, 6. You have the seven up and a jack in the hole. You can "beat the board" but it is a bad play. The odds are 13 to 1 that another player has you beaten.

Raising in five-card stud. There are two arguments against raising early in a stud game. Once you have raised, you will be expected to take the lead from that time on, and you will get only minimum calls from the other players—unless one of them knows he has you beaten and raises back, in which case you are stuck with the odds against you and much of your money in the pot. The second of the two arguments against an early raise is that in most stud games the limit is higher on the last card, and if you can only raise once you might as well wait until your raise will win you the most money.

Now, despite these arguments, one must frequently raise early in a stud game. Following are some of the reasons for an early raise:

1.    Assuming that you will soon be spotted as a tight player, the other players will figure you for an ace or a pair anyway. You might as well make them pay to stay around with you, and furthermore a policy of raising will open the way to a number of bluffs that will steal small pots at the beginning. Furthermore, since you are known to play conservatively, an early raise on a pair will put you in a very good position later if you happen to catch a showing ace. A higher pair than yours may very well fold.

2.    If you are in good position (last man from the high hand) you may sometimes raise on the third card (the second upcard) to give yourself a free ride on the fourth card (the third upcard). After your early raise, everyone may check to you the next time and you can see your last card free. No doubt you would have had to call at least the minimum bet anyway, to see that last card, and you might have been confronted with one or more raises.

3.    Occasionally when you have the second-best hand you may raise to drive the best hand out. This is a first-round raise. An ace that is forced high will not infrequently drop. If a couple of hands with small cards showing have stayed in against the ace, your raise on such a combination as K-Q may drive the ace out and leave you with a better chance to make a higher pair than either of the other players.

In all these cases a primary object is to vary your game. There are two basic ways to keep the opponents guessing in poker. One is to play different kinds of hands in the same way; the other is to play the same kind of hand in different ways. If you are going to play only good hands in stud poker, then you have to play them in different ways so that you cannot be too easily figured.

There is one general exception to the principle of early raising. If the game is wide open, in which the other players bet and raise very freely, there is seldom an occasion for you to raise early. On every round, someone else is pretty sure to bet. The pot will be built up without your help. You might just as well wait until the end and make pretty sure you are going to win before you start putting unnecessary chips into the pot.

The play of an open pair. When you have the only open pair, every other player in the game is at a great disadvantage. You may have a cinch high at the moment and if so it is pretty sure to stand up. Therefore the policy among most stud players is always to bet the maximum on an open pair and make the opponents pay through the nose if they want to try to draw out on it.

In most fairly good stud games, no one is going to stay against an open pair unless he has a higher pair or unless (on the next-to-last card) he has a straight or flush possibility. Even the straight or flush possibility is a pretty bad gamble unless the pot is already big; the pot should offer 5 to 1 odds unless at least three cards in the possible straight or flush are over the showing pair, and even then the pot should offer at least 4 to 1 odds.
In general, I subscribe to the idea of betting the maximum on the open pair, because only such a policy can maintain your chance of making a real killing when you actually do have three of a kind or two pair at the time your open pair shows. Never¬theless, discretion is sometimes the better part of valor. If you know there are likely to be a couple of higher pairs out (and sometimes you can tell this from the previous action) and if you know you aren't going to scare anybody out, you are simply betting a losing hand. If the other players are of the kind who

will freely bet or raise on their higher pairs against your open pair, you are risking the loss of a considerable amount of money. In such cases it is no disgrace even to check the open pair; it is stubbornness never to do so. And, of course, you can still mix up your game by checking occasionally when the open pair has actually given you a cinch hand.

In any event, you are under no obligation to bet the open pair on the last round. That is usually the time when you bet only when you do have the winning hand and when you figure the other players to be too smart to bet into you.

As for playing against an open pair: You know, of course, that it is always dangerous. I am speaking only of the times when you have a higher pair, concealed of course. Only a losing player bets because he has a number of "over" cards which if paired will beat the showing pair. Except as a bluff, such hands should be dropped. In most cases, the higher pair must not be dropped, but it is losing play to raise on it. The only time you raise is when you are alone with the open pair, you have a lower limit before the last card, and you want to coax the open pair into checking to you on the last card. A bet by the only pair on the last round puts every other player on a terrible spot. There are few more effective bluffs against good players, because everyone knows that when a tight player gets a pair showing there is a very good chance that he has two pair or better.

Watching other cards. It takes a pretty good stud player to watch all the cards and draw the proper conclusions from them. Every player, however, can watch for the cards that most affect his hand. Sometimes simple observation leads you to some valuable conclusions. Suppose you have neither the temparament nor the aptitude for concentration to watch and remember every card, but you have observed the cards in general and have noticed that a lot of spades have shown. If you have a doubtful play on a spade four-flush for the last card, this observation will cause you to drop fast. If you have noticed an absence of showing spades, the fact might persuade you to stay in on the four-flush when otherwise you might have dropped it.

Much more important is to watch every card that pairs one of your cards. The appearance of those cards has a tremendous effect on your chances. For example, if you have an ace in the hole and no other ace has shown, the odds are 4 to 1 against your pairing it eventually; if one ace has shown, the odds go up to more than 6 to 1 against you. If two other aces have shown, for all practical purposes your ace is valueless except as a high card.
 
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