Thursday, March 02, 2006

Stud Theories (Part II: Psychology)

If you have not read part one of this series, please feel free to go back and read it first.

Those of you who were here when I posted the first in this series know that my "theories" aren't regarding the actual play of Stud, but why Stud has died out over the past decade.

In this segment, I'll explore the psychology of Stud, and why it is a totally different beast from the psychology of a flop game or a draw game.

When one is playing a flop game, like Hold'em, Omaha or Pineapple, there is a type of information that can be inferred and is 100% correct. With five community cards, we absolutely KNOW what the best hand could be at any given moment. We can be quizzed one thousand times on board reading and be correct one thousand times. There is no "better hand" possible.

Given that knowledge, we can bluff an opponent off of a hand.

A draw game, like Five Card Draw, Lowball or TDL is a game lacking community cards, thus there is less information available for individual players. Players must depend on their position, memorization of how many cards each player drew, and generalizations about their opponents. But Draw games died out long before Stud games, so making a psychology theory about Draw games is virtually a moot point. There just aren't played often enough in typical cardrooms to make the effort.

Stud games are different than flop games because each player has a hand that is ~57% exposed. This gives a lot of information to observant players. But it also holds back important information:

  1. What is the nut hand?
  2. Can my hand beat his best possible hand?

Those things cannot be answered without the whole hand being exposed. And for the whole hand to be exposed, the river bet must be called.

Getting to the river, however, takes a lot more than a simple call.

And the psychology of Stud games is both easier, and harder than any other type of game.

First, we have more information about the hand than in a flop game. So in this manner, we cannot bluff someone off of his hand so easily. In a game like Texas Hold'em, for example, the bluff is relatively easy to pull off in a HU situation on a scary board. TPTK doesn't look so great anymore when the board shows three to a straight and three to a flush.

In Stud games, the situation just doesn't come up enough to do that as regularly. Sure, occasionally your board will develop so well that only the most astute player, who has deducted what you likely started with (due to your previous play in the hand), or the biggest fish, will call you. But like I said, this just doesn't happen enough in Stud to go for big bluffs and get other players to make big laydowns (especially on the river).

So psychologically we are somewhat helped and somewhat crippled by Stud games. What an interesting paradox.

The best Stud players are extremely adaptable to their always changing circumstances. Being able to switch gears is more important in Stud games than in any other type of poker game. In the excellent poker book, Seven Card Stud for Advanced Players, the text makes mention of this time and again. While in Hold'em, hands remain relatively fixed in strength, in Stud they vary wildly. A player who cannot adjust quickly and who pays less attention to everything around him, will eventually lose his bankroll.

As an example, let's say you are playing in a typical Stud game (fixed limits, ante proportionate). You are lucky enough to be in late or last position with an ace showing. If it is passed to you, you must attempt a steal. Regardless of whether or not you have anything to go with your bare ace, you must almost always try to buy the pot immediately. One of the reasons you would almost always complete the bet is because you know that position is not fixed in Stud. Because you have an ace showing, you will almost surely be in first position on fourth. It is better to win a small pot now than have the worst position throughout the hand and be forced to act first.

If you do not buy the antes on third, the likelihood of fourth street helping you is low. Barring pairing the ace, there aren't many cards that you would like to see. If the bring-in calls, he is probably going to have an advantage. If he pairs his doorcard, you cannot usually call on fourth. What if he catches a straight flush card? You are constantly put to the test with your high board. If he catches an ace, and he is now high, yes, he is the first to act, but it makes your hand look even worse! You are playing defense here, and playing virtually blind. He may know what you have, or may not know at all, but he has an advantage over you nevertheless, and will likely be able to outplay you for the duration of the hand. Unless you truly do have a monster underneath, you want to go ahead and buy that small pot right on third. Thinking to yourself, "But I have such a good hand, I want to string along as many players as possible" is a losing thought process. If it's bad in Hold'em, it's infinitely worse in Stud. Only the very best players can get themselves out of bad situations like this. It's usually better to play a shorthanded Stud pot than a multiway pot.

Remember, also, each player has his own, separate Stud hand, so if you are drawing to a flush in Hold'em, you are drawing to the only flush possible. You will pretty much know if your hand is good, and likely it is. But in Stud, there may be other players drawing to a flush! There may be a player with trips drawing to full house. You may even be sharing the same suited flush draw with another player! In loose games, you will eventually see two players show down flushes of the same suit. Not knowing where you are in a hand, getting lost, will cripple you more than the many fish who are trying to take your stack. So you really must try to play shorthanded pots rather than multiway pots, in most situations.

Most people do not have the mental fortitude to play Stud. Only those with strong personality types are meant for a game with this much variance, fluctuation, standard deviation, and bankroll devastation (similar concepts, but repeated for emphasis). A person who steams or tilts is not made for Stud games.

The majority of us were not alive when this happened, but the story is still known widely in poker circles. I'm not taking it verbatim from my book, but simply trying to provide an example.

When Johnny Moss was playing Nick the Greek during their freezeout at Binions, a key hand happened while the two were playing Five Card Stud. Johnny started with a pair. (Remember, only one card is hidden from view in FCS, so you will always know the best possible hand your opponent can have.)

Johnny made big bets the whole way, Nick calling along with a hand that could not possibly beat Johnny's. Although the pot eventually contained several hundred thousand dollars, Nick kept coming. On the river, Nick paired his holecard, the jack, which beat Johnny's unimproved pair.

Over 99% of players would have had some kind of negative psychological reaction to losing such a huge pot, on the river. I can only think of one player whose play would not have deteriorated after having lost this hand these days, in fact.

But Johnny had a different reaction. Inside he smiled. He said something to the affect of, "That is when I knew I was going to take every penny he had. That is when I knew I would eventually win." Rather than tilting or steaming, Johnny was extremely happy to take the beat. Losing a 500k pot early in the freezeout taught him everything he needed to know about his opponent. A 500k lesson which would enable him to win millions later.

These are the types of beats you will take in any Stud game. How you react psychologically to them will either force you to quit Stud games in disgust, claiming that "Stud sucks" and is "for beginners and fish," or will enable you to become an expert.

So in addition to everything else needed to be a winning Stud player, now we have the psychological aspect of it beating us down. Not many players are able to overcome all of the criteria needed to be a great, winning Stud player. Most fail.

These demanding prerequisites for playing Stud have virtually wiped out the game. In addition, our society has become one which doesn't want to work hard for rewards. They will almost always take the "easy way out." They certainly don't want to "work" so hard while on vacation, trying to relax and wind down, so recreational players usually don't seek out Stud games.

Stud games are very demanding games. They hit hard on our memory, concentration, and psychological strength. I remember a saying that goes something like, "If you don't have a splitting headache after playing a long Stud session, you aren't a winning player."

In the past decade Stud games have become almost dinosaurs of the poker world. Most cardrooms all over the globe have given up Seven Card Stud, Stud 8, Stud High/Low, Razz and Five Card Stud altogether. I believe the complex psychology of Stud games is just one more piece of the puzzle which has brought about it's demise.

It's an interesting paradox, as I said earlier. A catch-22 no matter what way we look at it. What makes Stud games the best, toughest games in the world, are also the very things that have brought about it's virtual death.

Felicia :)