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Poker Games: Adding Some ‘Action’ To Razz

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Razz has never been known as an action game and I wonder if the reason why it didn’t go extinct a long time ago was due to its cool sounding name and conveniently being the “R game” in H.O.R.S.E. rotations.

It’s still a worthwhile variant in that it’s deceptively simple, yet there is much skill involved and interesting situations occasionally arise. However, Razz does have its major flaws, most notably having a high card showing mostly renders a holding unplayable and there are just way too many hands that don’t make it past third or fourth street.

Over the years there have been attempts to spice up Razz by playing it Deuce to Seven (2-7) where aces are high and straights and flushes count against you. It does make for a slightly improved game. There are some players that despise traditional Razz but think the 2-7 variant is the best thing since sliced bread, something which I never quite understood.

While 2-7 Razz has a little more play to it and our opponents may not make the proper adjustments, ultimately many of the main problems of traditional Ace to Five (A-5) Razz have not been solved. Regardless if you are playing A-5 or 2-7 Razz, it’s impossible to have a good hand whenever you have a high card up and only having a few players able to contest a pot restricts the action.

However, Action Razz may be the answer as we can actually have quite a good hand with jack, queen, or even a king showing and thus more starting hands are playable.

Rules Of The Game

Action Razz is structured the same as traditional Razz where the highest up card on third street brings in the action and the best Ace to Five low wins. There is one major difference in the rules of the game, however, and that is that before comparing hands at showdown we first have to see which players have made qualifying hands by having at least one face card, a jack, queen, or king.

Any qualifying hand beats any holding lacking a paint card. In an extreme example, quad kings would take the pot over a wheel that does not contain a high card. If no player at showdown has a qualifying hand, then the traditional lowest A-5 Razz holding takes the pot.

Calculating Equities

In a matchup between A-2-3 and A-2-J, what hand would be the favorite?

If we were playing A-5 Razz, A-2-3 would be a 71% favorite, but this starting hand will only qualify 68% of the time in Action Razz. This means that 32% of the time A-2-3 will fail to qualify and will lose to A-2-J no matter how the boards run out.

The average equity that A-2-3 has against A-2-J assuming it qualifies along the way is calculated below: (We have to give less weight to A-2-3-J given that a jack is already out in A-2-J)

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Therefore, when A-2-3 ends up picking up a paint card, it has an approximate 58.3% chance of winning assuming both hands go to showdown. The final equity would then be calculated as follows:

Equity A-2-3 = (32%) + (68%)(58.3%) = 40%

This means that A-2-J is an approximate 60% or 3 to 2 favorite over the best possible traditional but currently non qualifying A-5 Razz hand. Of course, “hot/cold” equity never tells the entire story as A-2-J won’t always realize its equity and may have some reverse implied odds. Still, a strong argument can be made that it probably has to call down in many situations when our opponent may not have qualified.

For example, suppose the following hands are out on fifth street:

(A-2) J-10-9
(X-X) 3-4-7

If there was one bet on every street, we are usually getting around 4 to 1 to continue on fifth street and the worst possible situation we could be in is if our opponent has specifically A-J in the hole:

(A-2) J-10-9 – 21% equity
(A-J) 3-4-7 – 79% equity

So even in the worst-case scenario, we essentially have the correct odds to continue. If instead our opponent has the best possible current non-qualifying hand the equities are as follows:

(A-2) J-10-9 – 54% equity
(A-2) 3-4-7 – 46% equity

Since A-2-3-4-7 has a lock hand if it qualifies, its 46% equity is exactly equal to the probability of it qualifying with two cards to go.

The (X-X) 3-4-7 has to act first and leading out the entirety of its range against a qualifying but overall weak board is the best play as it may get some folds, would usually only be a small underdog, and shouldn’t get raised.

Although when (X-X) 3-4-7 has paired, the (A-2) J-10-9 is quite a big favorite:

(A-2) J-10-9 – 75% equity
(A-4) 3-4-7 – 25% equity

Ironically enough, in traditional Razz (A-4) 3-4-7 would actually be a 75% favorite with that board; therefore, in this particular Action Razz scenario the equities have been completely reversed.

Strategic Thoughts

Qualifying is obviously paramount, so any two wheel cards accompanied by a jack is a pretty big holding. The hand is even stronger if the jack is in the hole because you will get people calling with very bad hands in the hope that you haven’t qualified. And by very bad hands we could even be talking about hands as bad as trip kings or full houses. After all, quad kings beat any non-qualifying hand and also helps block your opponent from qualifying.

While a jack is better than a queen or a king, the difference is not that great because in Razz the highest card you have doesn’t often come into play. For example, a king will only play in your best five card hand in the event you make two pair or better.

The probability of being dealt two cards eight or lower accompanied with a paint card is approximately 24%, therefore we shouldn’t have to worry about qualifying with most of the hands we decide to play. However, it should be clear that there is a big difference in strength between a (A-J) 2 and (7-8) K and the latter hand should avoid participating in multi-way pots.

We can also play premium Razz holdings such as A-2-6 and 2-3-4 especially if the cards exposed on board are advantageous to us. The biggest leak in Action Razz would probably be getting involved with weak currently non-qualifying hands such as 4-6-7 and 2-6-8, particularly in multi-way pots. You definitely don’t want to be holding 4-7-8 and get stuck in the middle between A-4-J and A-2-5.

Whenever a new game arrives on the scene your first order of business should always be to avoid the biggest leak, and in Action Razz that is probably getting involved with mediocre traditional A-5 hands that lack a paint card. If you avoid the sucker plays you should be able to hold your own as you learn the nuances and hone your skill in this very unique variant. ♠

screenshot.14Kevin Haney is a former actuary of MetLife but left the corporate job to focus on his passions for poker and fitness. He is co-owner of Elite Fitness Club in Oceanport, NJ and is a certified personal trainer. With regards to poker he got his start way back in 2003 and particularly enjoys taking new players interested in mixed games under his wing and quickly making them proficient in all variants. If interested in learning more, playing mixed games online, or just saying hello he can be reached at haneyk612@gmail.com.

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