I was excited to get to the poker posts in my series of “what is gambling” posts. I’m doubly excited to get to the “what is stud poker” post, because I probably enjoy 7-card stud more than any other poker game.
If you haven’t read any of the other posts in this series, my goal with writing them is to provide introductions to various gambling activities that explain the essence of what these activities are.
If you’ve heard of stud poker but don’t know how to play, this post will explain that for you.
I’m trying to go further than, that, though—I’m also trying to cover some strategy advice that will help you play well.
Here’s my explanation of what stud poker is, how to play, and how to win more often at the game than the average player does.
How to Play Stud Poker
In draw poker, you get all your cards face-down, and you get to discard a number of cards and replace them. That discarding and replacing action is the “draw” that gives the game its name.
In holdem poker, you get some cards face-down, and you get other cards face-up that you share with your opponents. These are called community cards, and they’re what makes “holdem” poker what it is.
In stud poker, by contrast, you get some cards face-down and some cards face-up, but they’re all your cards. You don’t have any community cards, and you don’t get to discard and replace cards, either.
The 2 things that make poker what it is are betting activity and the cards with their poker hand rankings. Understanding how both these aspects work in stud poker is essential to understanding what stud poker is and how to play.
5-card stud and 7-card stud are similar enough that I can explain the game-play for both of them with ease. I’ll just point out the differences as I go along.
Betting in Stud Poker
Like all other poker games, stud is played in betting rounds. The first betting round happens before the first card is dealt, and it’s called “the ante.”
As I’ve explained in my other poker posts, to drive action and make sure that people play, all poker games have some kind of forced bet. These forced bets take the form of antes or blinds, depending on which variation of poker you’re playing.
In holdem games, the forced bets are called blinds, and they rotate around the table along with the dealer position. You’re only forced to make blind bets when it’s your turn.
In stud poker, you’ll be playing with certain specific betting limits. These are the sizes of the bets during the various phases of the game.
Usually, during the rounds of the first half of the game, you’ll be betting the lower amount, and during the rounds of the second half of the game, you’ll be betting the higher amount. The ante is usually 20% to 25% of the size of the smaller bet.
Here’s an example:
You’re playing 7-card stud, and the limits are $4/$8. The ante for such a game would usually be $1.
You would need to put $1 in the pot just to get a hand. All other bets would be in increments of $4 during the first few betting rounds, and $8 during the next few betting rounds.
The same logic would apply in a 5-card stud game.
The buy-in for such games is usually 20 to 25 times the size of the big bet. So you’d want to buy in to the $4/$8 game above for $150 to $200.
The Dealing Action and More about the Betting Rounds in Stud Poker
In a 5-card stud game, you get 1 card face-down and another card face-up.
In a 7-card stud game, you get 2 cards face-down and another card face-up.
At this point, there’s a round of betting. Who goes first is the tricky part.
In draw poker and holdem poker, the first player to bet is the player to the left of the dealer (or to the left of the big blind).
But in 7-card stud, the bring in is the first person to act, and there are specific rules for who that person is based on which cards are showing.
The bring in is the player with the lowest value card showing face up. Aces are considered high cards for bring in purposes, and if there’s a tie, the tie is broken by suit.
The suits, in order from low to high, are:
Perceptive readers will notice that those suits are in alphabetical order. You don’t have to remember the order of suits for bring purposes when there’s a tie—just remember that they’re in alphabetical order from lowest to highest.
The player with the bring in has 2 options:
- She can bet. If she chooses to bet, she must place a bet the same size as the ante.
- She can raise. If she choose to raise, she must place a bet large enough to make the bet the same size as the small bet.
In the $4/$8 example with the $1 ante we’ve been using, the bring in would have the option to put up $1—making the total bet to call $2, or, she’d have the option to put up $3 more, making the total bet to call $4.
Betting proceeds to the left of the bring in, and the players have the same options they have in other types of poker:
To call a bet is just to put the same amount of money in the pot.
To raise a bet is to put that amount in the pot along with an additional amount. The minimum size for a raise is the same as the limits.
In the $4/$8 example we looked at earlier, if the bet is $4, and you want to raise, you must raise the bet to $8, not $5.
Also, if the bring in brought in for the minimum, the size of your raise would be enough to complete the bet to the limit.
So if the stakes are $4/$8, and the bring in just brought in, it’s $2 to call. If you raise in this situation, you would raise to $4.
Once this first betting round is over, everyone still in the hand gets another face-up card, and there’s another round of betting. The bets during this 2nd betting round are still for the smaller amount. ($4 in the example I’ve been using.)
Who bets first is again determined by the face-up cards.
But on this round and later rounds, the player with the highest hand showing must bet first.
And at this point, bettors have the following options:
Of course, you can only check if no one before you has bet. If you want to stay in the pot, you must at least call the earlier bettor’s bet. (To check is to stay in the hand without betting.)
Play continues like this on subsequent betting rounds. You get a card face-up, there’s a round of betting, another card, and so on. The last card is always dealt face-down, though.
So in 7-card stud, you have the following rounds:
- 3rd street
- 4th street
- 5th street
- 6th street
- 7th street
On 3rd street and 4th street, you make the smaller bets, and on 5th, 6th, and 7th street, you make the larger bets.
In 5-card stud, you have the following rounds:
- 2nd street
- 3rd street
- 4th street
- 5th street
After the betting action on the final street, the pot is awarded to the player who has the best 5-card hand at the showdown—assuming they haven’t folded already.
In many pots, the pot is won by a player who has bet or raised when everyone else folds.
You’re not required to show your cards if you win the pot this way.
Stud 8 or Better
7-card stud is also often played in high-low format, 8 or better. If you’ve read my post about Omaha, you already know what that means.
But if you haven’t, it simply means this:
The winning hand in a stud 8 or better game splits the pot 50/50 with the player who has the lowest qualifying hand.
For purposes of low, all 5 cards must be 8 or lower in rank. Flushes and straights don’t count against you, but pairs do.
Most of what you need to know about 8 or better and strategy for it is covered in my post about Omaha, so you should go read that if you’re interested in 7-card stud hi lo.
Fundamentals of Stud Poker Strategy
I’m going to start this section with a quick discussion of a concept I’ve mentioned in my other poker posts—tight aggressive play.
You can measure a poker player’s tendencies on 2 continuums. The first is how tight or loose a player is.
This just measures how often a player actually plays in a hand versus folding. A tight player folds a lot; a loose player doesn’t fold much.
But that’s just one continuum.
The other continuum is how aggressive or passive a player is. Aggressive players bet and raise a lot. Passive players, on the other hand, check and call a lot.
Aggressive players make more money at the poker table, usually. They pick up pots by forcing their opponents to make tough decisions. Many times they win pots when their opponents fold.
Passive players tend to lose a lot of money at the poker table. They seldom pick up pots when their opponents fold, because no one folds in the face of a check or a call.
This means that you have 4 possible combinations:
- Tight aggressive
- Loose aggressive
- Tight passive
- Loose passive
Tight aggressive is the best possible style. You only play good cards, and when you do have those good cards, you bet and raise with them.
Loose aggressive can be a winning style in some games. You get involved in a lot of pots, but when you do, you’re betting and raising with them.
Tight passive players are called rocks. They don’t make much money, but you don’t make much money playing against them, either. They’re always folding, so you can’t win money they don’t put in the pot.
Loose aggressive players are called calling stations. They play a lot of hands, but they never put pressure on their opponents.
You can make a lot of money playing against calling stations. Whatever you do, don’t BE a calling station.
These observations apply to poker players of all kinds in all kinds of game, including stud poker.
Starting Hands in Stud Poker
The first place where you get to play tight is during the first betting round. This is where you get to decide whether to get into the hand at all.
If you want to be a tight player, you need to have starting hand requirements. This means you only play hands where you have strong cards.
In a 7-card stud poker game, good starting hands include 3 of a kind—this means you have 3 cards of the same rank from the get-go. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s time to bet and raise aggressively.
Pairs are also good starting hands, and the higher the pair, the better. If your face-up card isn’t part of the pair, that’s even better, because you have the value of deception.
A pair of aces or a pair of kings is almost always playable in the early stages of 7-card stud.
If all 3 cards in your hand are suited and/or connected, you have possibilities on later streets, too. You’re obviously hoping to hit a high flush or straight in these cases.
What you’re looking for from your starting hands in 7-card stud are playability:
- Cards of the same ranking—pairs or 3 of a kind.
- Cards of the same suit—giving you flush potential.
- Cards of adjacent rankings—giving you straight potential.
- High ranking cards—giving you a better chance of winning a tie.
You want cards that work well together.
The same guidelines apply in 5-card stud, too, although you have fewer opportunities to draw to a flush or a straight. If you miss one card on a later street, it’s not happening.
Paying Attention to and Remembering Which Cards Have Been Dealt
If you’re willing to pay attention and can remember which cards you’ve seen, stud can be an easier game than other poker games. You have more information available to you because of all the face-up cards.
Think about it this way:
You’re playing 7-card stud with 6 friends. On 4th street, assuming everyone is still in the hand, you’ve seen 12 of the cards that have been dealt. You’ve seen your 2 hole cards, and you’ve seen 2 cards that each of your opponents has.
By the end of the game, assuming no one has folded, you’ve seen 22 cards out of 52. This should give you a reasonably good idea of where you stand.
One of the reasons this is tricky is because once someone has folded, their cards go in the muck. You can’t see them anymore.
That’s information you need to make good decisions.
The Importance of Live Cards and Live Hands versus Dead Hands
A hand is live when you can still draw cards to improve it. It’s dead when the cards aren’t out there anymore.
Here’s an example:
You have 4 cards to a flush on 4th street. This means there are 9 cards left in the deck which might complete your flush.
If 3 cards of that suit were in other players’ hands, your probability of getting that hand drops dramatically.
Let’s say you have 4 opponents on 4th street, and you haven’t seen any cards of the suit you need in anyone else’s hand.
This means that the probability of filling your flush on the next card is 9/42, which is close to 25%. With 3 more cards to come, you have a pretty good shot at hitting your hand.
But if 3 of those cards are already out there, your probability drops to 6/42, which is about 15%. That’s a dramatic difference.
The amount of money in the pot compared to what it costs to get in the pot is called “pot odds,” and it’s an important concept in stud poker.
For example, if you have $20 in the pot, and it costs $4 to call a bet, you’re getting 5 to 1 odds on your money. If you have a 4 to 1 probability of winning that hand, it’s a good, profitable call to make.
On the other hand, if you have a 6 to 1 probability of winning that hand, it’s bad, losing call to make.
You can’t do that if you don’t understand pot odds and the odds of making your hand.
And in stud poker, you have no chance of estimating your odds of making a hand if you don’t remember which cards you’ve seen.
In some ways, stud poker is a purer and harder game of poker. In draw poker, and in holdem poker, you’re not required to make the same feats of memory to play well that you are in stud poker.
If you can pay attention and remember what you’ve seen, though, you can make a lot of money playing stud poker.
Do you ever play stud poker? Do you think you might try it after reading this post? Why or why not?