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A Seven-Card Stud Essay: The Antes and Forced Bet in Relation to Betting Structures

By Nolan Dalla

(All Rights Reserved)

Introduction: In seven-card stud, the size of the antes and forced bet in relation to the betting structure is one of the most important considerations of the game. This essay is intended to explore the common betting structures used in most cardrooms and how you should adapt your game to take advantage of the differences.

No variation of poker gives more weight to the game's basic structure than seven-card stud. Unlike flop games such as Texas holdem and Omaha, which have blinds in conjunction with the betting limit, every level of seven-card stud level is different. In stud, the antes and forced bet change significantly in relation to the betting structure. Therefore, a player should be ready to make certain strategic adjustments. These adjustments are influenced primarily by the amount of the first raise in proportion to the size of the pot.

For this and other reasons, third-street decisions are critical in seven- card stud. In fact, among advanced players in highly-competitive games, a winning session may depend on your ability to exploit opponents' mistakes on third street (prompting an improper call or fold); so much so, that this may be the single biggest factor in determining your results, in some games.

First, is a fixed playing strategy advisable based solely on the betting structure? While it's probably unwise to make general assumptions about any game based on something so elementary as the betting limits, one must nevertheless make definite adjustments that take into account the size of the ante, the forced bet, and the size of the initial bet and raise. My comments will be based upon a typical stud game that includes a regular mix of tight and loose players of varying skills. Obviously, if the game is composed of many players of one extreme or another -- different strategies would be advisable.

What structures call for tight play? What structures call for looser play -- and therefore are conducive to entering multi-way pots with drawing hands? What structures call for more ante steal attempts? These are just a few of the questions we will seek to answer.

Some betting structures make it necessary to play aggressively on third street, frequently trying to steal the pot with the first raise. This occurs specifically in structures where the first raise is relatively low in proportion to the size of the pot (the sum total of antes and the forced bet). These are usually higher-limit games. By playing aggressively early in the hand, the initial raiser wins more money when his ante steal succeeds. He also wins more when his raise is called and his hand improves, or he catches scare cards that may win the pot later. The downside is that monetary fluctuations are more severe in these games.

On the other hand, some structures call for a much more straightforward approach. Patience works best in these games. When the ante is relatively small in proportion to the betting limit, solid players can pretty much play it "by the book." Patience is rewarded with a steady profit - often with much smaller bankroll swings.

Why? Because in these games, the low ante gives a skilled player an opportunity to see more hands for less money. This is a tremendous advantage for players who are disciplined enough to practice good starting-hand selection. Many successful stud players that I know tend to prefer playing in precisely these types of games, because they subject themselves to minimal bankroll risk (lower standard deviation) combined with an expectation of steady (although modest) winnings. In other words, they prefer structures with positive expectation, but with less financial risk.

However, the very best stud players are able to adjust their play in accordance with any structure. They adapt different styles suited to all types of games. They shift gears in some instances from tight, relatively uncreative play -- to a more wide-open aggressive style which takes advantage their understanding, and their opponents lack thereof, about how and why structure influences proper strategy.

Let's define what is meant by the ante and forced bet (also called the "bring-in") in relation to the initial raise. The following chart shows the betting structure commonly used in Atlantic City poker rooms. I decided to examine the Atlantic City model for a few reasons.

First, I am more intimately familiar with these game conditions since I have put in thousands of hours in Atlantic City's cardrooms since 1993 (when poker was first legalized in New Jersey's casinos). Second, there is a higher concentration of stud action in Atlantic City than elsewhere (certainly more than in Las Vegas or California). And finally, the common betting structures used in Atlantic City make my general observations later in this column more reliable (Note: In this chart, we are assuming a full-table of eight players):

Atlantic City Seven-Card Stud Betting Structures

Limit: Ante/Forced Bet: Pot Size (P): Initial Raise (IR): Ratio of P to IR:
$1-5 0 / 1 $1 $5 0.20
$5-10 0.5 / 2 $6 $5 1.20
$10-20 1 / 3 $11 $10 1.10
$15-30 2 / 5 $21 $15 1.38
$20-40 3 / 5 $29 $20 1.45
$25-50 3 / 5 $29 $25 1.16
$30-60 5 / 10 $50 $30 1.66
$40-80 5 / 10 $50 $40 1.25

* Ballys Park Place has a 5/5/10/15/20 game with a .50 ante, $2 bring-in, and the first raise to $7.

* * The Sands has a 5/5/10/15/15 game with a .50 ante, $2 bring-in, and the first raise to $5.

If we examine the chart above, look at the last column (Ratio of P to IR). As the limits escalate, we see that the size of the antes and forced bet in relation to the first bet increases -- except at $10-20, $25-50, and $40-80. This is not just by accident. There is a very justifiable reason; namely, that this helps to perpetuate the game by serving as an "equalizer" of skills to some degree. Let me explain.

Poker games are optimally designed to allow an equitable mix of skill and luck --- which will be mutually satisfactory to the majority of players. In other words:

  1. Good players must believe that superior skill will be rewarded with profit, while:
  2. Novice players must believe that on any given day, they have an opportunity to win.
Less-skilled players may come to the poker table believing today is their lucky day. Maybe it will be. Perhaps the novice will win, and the pro will lose. So, with just the right mix of skill and luck, everyone is inadvertently satisfied with the general structure, and the game flourishes. But a disproportional amount of either too much skill or too much luck (except at the lowest limits, perhaps -- which are more recreational in nature) can destroy a game and its popularity.

This is one reason why there are relatively few no-limit hold'em games spread anymore. The good players win all the money and the game dies out. This has created similar problems for Atlantic City's $40-80 stud game, where the ante is "too low" to sustain the game (Note: With the escalation in stakes, the ante at $40-80 should probably be about $7-8; however, this would require different chip denominations and would slow up the game significantly).

Proper structure guarantees two things -- continuance and continuity. The ideal structure encourages roughly an equal balance of skill and luck -- which allows a random course of events to occur, giving all players the opportunity to win. The true secret is what should be obvious: Skilled players will still get the money. But along the way, less-skilled players will have enough wins to sustain themselves, including an occasional "big score" that allows and even encourages the losing player to continue playing.

For example, a recreational player might be willing to accept losing $5,000 a year and is prepared to play indefinitely, so long as he is not destroyed financially. But if that same player loses a more substantial amount in a single year, let's say $25,000 -- he might get discouraged and quit playing altogether. So, designing a proper structure with this in mind for all playing levels is the ideal objective.

Now, let's examine how betting structures influence game conditions and strategy. What follows are some general observations about each betting structure, with my thoughts tailored toward how the structure influences strategy and general circumstances. Once again, I'm using Atlantic City's seven-card stud games as the basis of my comments:

$1-5 (and similar low limit games, including $1-3 and $1-4) -- Stealing the ante/forced bet is meaningless here, and clearly inadvisable, since the initial raise up to $5 wins only a single dollar (the forced bet). There is no incentive to risk five times the pot on a steal. Therefore, this low-limit structure encourages early multi-way action and lots of chasing. Betting a moderate amount on third-street (perhaps $2-3) with the best hand and hoping to get called is generally advisable in all but the loosest games. Thereafter, one must rely on the ability to outplay opponents on later streets to win at this level. Even that may no be possible in the long run, since the rake is prohibitive.

$5-10 -- The first raise, if successful, returns 120 percent on the investment (risking $5 to win $6). This makes stealing and occasional semi-bluffing strategically correct. However, one should note that once a player has limped-in for $2, he is all the more likely to call a raise for "only" another $3. Play at this level is obviously more tricky than at the previous limit. Since there is now an opportunity to "mix it up" somewhat on third street, knowing your opponents and other fundamental stud strategies (recommended by authors Roy West, George Percy, and so forth) are essential.

$10-20 -- There are usually a large number of $10-20 stud games going throughout Atlantic City. Some observers believe $10-20 poker games (which applies to hold-em, also) are popular because the $10-20 limit is a financial crossroads for so many players. Poker players moving up to higher limits play at this level. So too, do players that may be struggling and are stepping down. For this reason, you see many different skill levels at this structure. This is the first of three structures where the P to IR ratio actually decreases from the previous limit.

Therefore, at $10-20 tight play is generally advisable. Ante steals must be successful more often, since the size of the pot is only 110 percent of the initial raise -- compared with $15-30, where an ante steal returns 140 percent to the raiser. However, tight play is not always advisable. A marginal hand where all the cards are live can usually be played for only $3 (if the pot has not been raised), since the implied odds of larger bets on later streets promises value for a hand that has a reasonable chance to improve.

$15-30 -- Note that the escalation in structure makes this a very different game. The antes double (from $1 to $2) although the stakes increase only 50 percent. At this limit, we begin to see a game of multi-level thinking. When pots are contested, there is often heads-up play. At 15-30 and higher, re-raising the initial raiser (and sometimes betting on the come) is often correct, just to gain information. This is something one can almost never do successfully in most low-limit games (since you will inevitably be called just about every time). $20-40 -- again, as the ratio of P to IR increases, more aggressive play is generally advised.

However, at this limit it is probably a good idea to point out that when so many players seem to be playing aggressively -- which tends to occur in so many $20-40 games -- it is sometimes best to play in a more conservative style, taking a "contrarian" approach (that is, if most players are playing tight you can loosen up -- and if most players are playing loose you should play tighter). One successful $20-40 stud player I know points out that since so many players are aware of the power of aggressive play -- and less-skilled players are enticed into calling so frequently, by what seem to be huge pots -- he often shifts gears in these games towards tighter play.

Structure influences strategy in at least one other important way: $20-40 games use multiple red $5 chips. This makes some pots appear very large, having the effect of making some players susceptible to making some very loose calls. Indeed, if the game is very loose, in some cases it may be proper to continue with long-shot draws that would otherwise be thrown away at most other levels.

$25-50 -- This is the second instance where the Ratio or P to IR decreases from the previous limit. I call special attention to this game because the structure here calls for significant discussion. First, this structure is a relatively new phenomenon in Atlantic City (this game was spread during 1998 but is no longer common). I initially noticed this game because of the tremendous level of interest it created among dedicated middle-limit stud players.

For example, the waiting list for the $20-40 games would often be modest; yet, the waiting list for the $25-50 sometimes went on for hours. Why was this so? I believe the reason lies primarily in the lure of the game's basic structure. Skilled stud players who are patient have a tremendous advantage here, more so than at comparable limits. Since the ante is only $3, skilled players have an opportunity to see more hands for less money.

Keep in mind that the ante and forced bet in $25-50 is the same as $20-40, but the stakes are higher. Since the antes are relatively low, tight players will not be penalized in accordance with the general escalation of stakes for their tight play. This usually means the game will not last. It remains to be seen how long this game will continue, since skilled players have such a tremendous advantage (as predicted, this game fizzled out in late 1998 and has not been seen since).

$30-60 -- Since the initial pot is relatively large ($50), it is proper to limp-in (call $10) with some very marginal hands, particularly when there is potential to improve (A-K in the hole, for example -- when all cards are live). However, because of the generous overlay for the initial raiser ($30 to win $50, or 166 percent) raised pots are fairly common. There is simply too much of an incentive to steal. By consequence, this makes the initial raiser more suspect. Oddly enough, this sometimes creates more action since the initial raise is often not respected. Again, we see the same dynamics here as in the $15-30 game, where there is frequent heads-up play between two aggressive players.

$40-80 -- This is one of the more interesting games about which to comment. However, sadly enough -- in Atlantic City, this game has all but died out (see comments about the $25-50 which apply). Again, note that this is the third game where the Ratio of P to IR actually decreases. Atlantic City's structure differs so remarkably from Las Vegas that these $40-80 games are quite simply not the same game. In Las Vegas, the ante is a whopping $10, which makes pots initially much larger ($40 more than in Atlantic City, where the ante is only $5).

Therefore, $40-80 games in Las Vegas tend to be looser (some might say "wilder") because calling an initial $40 (with a realistic chance of improving, or catching a scare card on fourth street) to win a much larger pot is sometimes justified. Raising to $40 with the high card up -- to win a pot nearly double the size -- is a powerful strategy. However, many other players also know this -- which makes early re-raising and huge pots much more common in Las Vegas.

Yet, in Atlantic City, very tight, solid, by-the-book play usually works best. Although the stakes are the same, the ante alone makes it one extreme versus the other. There are some exceptions, of course, but generally playing these two games couldn't be more different (Note: I am not familiar with the $40-80 structure in California -- but I presume it mirrors that of Las Vegas).

CONCLUSION: When discussing strategy, there will inevitably be some issues which cannot be resolved. But we can probably agree that mastering seven-card stud requires a substantial degree of knowledge and experience. The truly great stud players make strategic adjustments depending upon game conditions. They can also maximize their advantage by first understanding, and then adjusting to the game's basic structure.

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