Become a stud … player that is

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By Scott Long

“You’re good, Kid, but as long as I’m around, you’re second best.”

With that defining quote from Edward G. Robinson, I immediately knew three things:
1. The Cincinnati Kid was my favorite poker movie.
2. All poker players will find themselves in Steve McQueen’s shoes sometime.
3. Stud was a game I couldn’t wait to play.

Of course, the game played in the 1965 classic movie was five-card stud, a variation that’s nearly impossible to find these days (though it may someday be a subject of this column). But the ideas translate well to its bigger, more popular cousin, seven-card stud, and that’s what we’re going to talk about this month.

For my money, stud is the most complicated of popular poker games out there, and for that reason, if you’re able to tame it, you’re well on your way to becoming a solid poker player.

Why is it so complicated?

Because unlike in hold’em, where all players share five community cards, stud players have their own “boards” if you will. And if players fold before showdown, those exposed cards are mucked, and you must remember what they were, because no one is going to remind you. And finally, while the game is mostly played in a limit structure, you occasionally will find it dealt “spread limit,” in which you not only need to decide whether you want to bet or raise, but also how much you want to bet or raise. Heady stuff, indeed.
But stud is the most beautiful poker game, in my opinion. With four cards exposed, and three concealed, your Sherlock Holmes skills are put to the test every hand.

So how do you play?

Stud begins with antes, often a fraction of the smallest unit, instead of blinds. Each player is then dealt two down cards, and one up (known as the door card). The player with the lowest up card is forced to begin the action with a “bring-in,” which usually also is a fraction of the smallest unit (though the bring-in is allowed to bet the full bet amount if the player chooses).

Play then proceeds clockwise from the bring-in. Players can call the bring-in bet or elect to “complete” the full bet amount. If the bet is completed the remaining players will need to call that amount to remain in the hand. The next three rounds (fourth, fifth and sixth streets) give each player another up card, and the final round (seventh street) is dealt face down. In structured play, the bet doubles on these streets.

As in hold’em, the best five-card hand wins.

So how do you win? With lots and lots of practice. Luck is not nearly the lady in stud as she is in hold’em. But to get you started, here are some tips:

Extra! Extra! Extra! Stud has one more round of betting than hold’em, and if you’re in a structured game, that extra round comes at the higher bet limit. So that means chasing is a lot more expensive than in hold’em. Don’t do it.

Slow, slow, slow … no, no, no: Most poker players finally are realizing slow-playing isn’t often the optimal way to play in any game, but it’s definitely true in stud. When you have a strong hand, bet it with rare exception. Make those chasers pay for their foolishness.

Switch, switch, switch: Position is everything, poker pros will tell you. And you should heed that advice. In hold’em, your position is anchored throughout the hand. But in stud, it can change with every street. The best up hand is the one that begins the betting each round. So if you have a deceptively hidden hand, you’re in great shape because you’ll often get to follow someone else’s action. Use that to your advantage. Conversely, be careful of betting too strongly with a weak hand just because your up cards look good.

Watch, watch, watch: This is what separates winning stud players from losing ones. You absolutely must keep track of every card that’s dealt. Doing so will let you know the odds of improving your hand and, more important, the odds of your opponents improving theirs. It isn’t easy, that’s for sure. That’s why I suggest easing into stud by playing razz, the lowball version where straights and flushes don’t count. But if you’re playing stud, start by tracking cards that help your hand. Once you get good at that, then track flush cards. And then keep an eye on 10s and 5s, which are necessary for straights.

If you can keep track of all of that, you’re well on your way to becoming a poker stud.