Stud: Bluffing the Board

Phil Ivey
Phil Ivey at the seventh-street showdown.

Perhaps more than in any other poker variation, bluffing is the keystone of successful Stud play.

To bluff effectively you need to understand how to read the boards. And above all, avoid the dark-tunnel bluff - a bluff made without rhyme or reason.

Typically these bluffs are made on a whim after some arbitrary decision or read. Often players make dark-tunnel bluffs simply because they want to feel like they're actively playing poker rather than two-card roulette.

To make a true bluff, you as a player have to understand the current state of mind of your opponents and their table images, the texture of the board, the betting patterns and the odds (both implied and pot).

Is your opponent a math player on a draw? Are they on steaming-mad gorilla tilt? Are they trapping you? Until you know the answer to these plus 101 more questions, you can't make a true bluff.

The Board: Hold'em Vs. Stud

Reading a Stud board is a very different skill than reading the board in a game such as Hold'em. Hold'em is a complex game due mostly to the simplicity of its design. With a five-card community board, the total combination of possible hands, excluding your two cards, is small and obvious.

Here's a quick example of what I'm talking about:

Hold'em: what beats you?

Board:         

Your Hand:    

Obviously, the only thing you lose to here is a set. At any point during this hand, flop, turn or river, the story was the same. You had the nuts, second only to a set (which you had a huge redraw against on the turn).

Stud: what beats you?

Hand 1:              

Hand 2:              

Your Hand:              

You have a strong hand - aces-up. So are you good? What can beat you?

Player one shows three to a straight; should you be afraid?

Note the cards he needs to complete a straight:

  • sevens and jacks are most important
  • sixes and queens are needed to complete
Howard Lederer
Howard Lederer playing Stud during the WSOPE H.O.R.S.E event.

Accounted-for cards include two jacks, two queens and one seven. Not to mention all the folded show cards, but being new to the game, you don't remember what any of those are.

Player two is showing a pair of jacks. The only way this player can beat you is to have trips. A jack in the hole or on the river beats you. Again, knowing if any jacks were folded would be very helpful here.

As you can see, reading a board in Stud is a much more intensive, demanding feat than in Hold'em. There's more going on, with each player having their own board. The chances of a misread or of missing what should be a strong read are greatly increased.

Some Numbers

The first thing to know about making a strong bluff in Stud is the odds of players actually having strong hands.

Here are some charts of calculations from MCU. All the following odds calculations are from the brain and pen of Mike Caro.

The Probability of Being Dealt Seven-Stud Starting Hands
(First three cards)
 

The probability that you will be dealt this on the first three cards... Expressed in % is... The odds against it are... Number of possible combos
3-aces
3-jacks through 3-kings
3-sixes through 3-tens
3-twos through 3-fives

0.02
0.05
0.09
0.07

5,524-1
1,841-1
1,104-1
1,380-1

4
12
20
16

2-aces
2-jacks through 2-kings
2-sixes through 2-tens
2-twos through 2-fives

1.30
3.91
6.52
5.21

75.7-1
24.6-1
14.3-1
18.2-1

288
864
1,440
1,152

Three parts of a straight flush
Three parts of other flush
Three parts of other straight
ANY three of a kind
ANY Pair

1.16
4.02
17.38
0.24
16.94

85.3-1
23.9-1
4.76-1
424-1
4.90-1

256
888
3,840
52
3,744

The odds against a player having rolled up anything (meaning trips off the deal) are 424-1.

One thing I'd like to point out is that this table can be deceiving to math newbies. You have the exact same odds of being dealt rolled-up fours as you do rolled-up aces. The odds are only 5,524-1 on being dealt any one specific rank.

For the purpose of this article the only worthwhile numbers in this table are the final five. Get a very firm handle on these numbers, as it's important to know how weak the average Stud starting hand typically is.

Some More Numbers

Chance of Improvement for Various Seven-Stud Hands Long Range:
(You hold three cards.)
 

If you have A A A:
Probability that the final strength of your hand after seven cards will be ... Expressed as a % is ... Odds against it are ...
Straight flush

0.00*

35,312-1

Four of a kind

8.17

11.2-1

Full house

32.02

2.12-1

Flush

0.70

142-1

Straight

0.24

418-1

Three of a kind

--

--

Two pair

--

--

* Actually 0.0028%


If you have A A 9:
Probability that the final strength of your hand after seven cards will be ... Expressed as a % is ... Odds against it are ...
Straight flush

0.00**

23,541-1

Four of a kind

0.54

185-1

Full house

7.57

12.2-1

Flush

0.70

143-1

Straight

0.84

118-1

Three of a kind

9.89

9.11-1

Two pair

42.05

1.38-1

** Actually 0.0042%


If you have T J Q:
Probability that the final strength of your hand after seven cards will be ... Expressed as a % is ... Odds against it are ...
Straight flush

1.49

66.2-1

Four of a kind

0.07

1,431-1

Full house

1.50

65.9-1

Flush

16.56

5.04-1

Straight

14.91

5.71-1

Three of a kind

3.19

30.3-1

Two pair

17.33

4.77-1


As you can see from these numbers, the chances of improving are very slim. Once you take into account your cards and other show cards taking away outs, these numbers go down. If you're holding wired nines against the A A 9, they're now down to catching a running pair, or the case nine, to make two pair. This will impact the percentage of improvement greatly.

Chris Ferguson
Chris "Jesus" Ferguson never forgets a single folded upcard in any pot he's in.

Finally, the Bluffing

What all of this information means to you is that Stud is far more suited to a strong small-ball game than Hold'em. With hands failing to improve past one pair far more often than not in the first four or five streets, players are usually left holding no more than rags and weak draws.

When you do get called, often you're up against a strong draw or combo draw, allowing you to win if they miss. Aggression in the opportune moments is crucial to long-term profit at the game.

The key with Stud bluffing is to truly play the other players, and the other players' hands. You're looking to play off plausibility. If your show cards make it very probable that your hand has theirs beat, it's hard for them to call.

Here are a couple of examples.

Fourth Street

Their Hand:          

Your Hand:        

In this situation your opponent is, more often than not, sitting on a pair of jacks or less. Assume you completed off the deal, or raised, after your opponent obviously bricking fourth street, it's almost a sure thing that they'll fold to a bet here. Even though you literally have nothing, the fact that you're betting show cards makes it seem probable that you're sitting on a pair of aces at the least.

Sixth Street

Their Hand:            

Your Hand:            

In this situation you have nothing but a combo draw. Your opponent is showing a pair of kings. There is a very strong chance this player is on a strong two pair, or even trips. You don't believe they have a house (through your knowledge of odds, the cards you've seen folded and your reads in the hand), which means this is the perfect place for a semi-bluff.

Your opponent has no choice but to give you credit for a flush now, or a straight at the least. Almost all players will fold a two pair here, not wanting to draw to four or fewer odds against a made hand. If you do get called, you have a large number of outs to actually hit the hand.

Any Ace

People live in fear of the ace. Hold'em players have come to learn that the majority of players are known to play any ace they're dealt under any circumstances. When a Hold'em-trained player sees an ace as a show card, they almost automatically assume the player is sitting on a pair of aces.

The fear of aces will make players fold anything but a strong draw. A player holding kings will often believe that they have to catch a third king or a second pair to win the hand. Bricks on their board or strong hands (or ones that look strong to you) can almost certainly win you the hand with some aggression.

The same way the flop in Hold'em can make or break any two cards, the show cards in Stud are always more important than the strength of your true hand. Play off the only information your opponents get to see. If you give them a reason to believe they're beat, more often than not they're going to act on it.

If you want to start playing Stud online for free, low or even high stakes, many of the top online poker rooms offer Stud as an option.

More beginner strategy articles:

View Best Rooms to Play: 7 Card Stud

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