Poker: Rough ride down the river

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DURING the American Civil War, poker moved fast. Soldiers had time on their hands to gamble at cards. Draw was followed by Five Card Stud (one card concealed and four face-up), which gave poker a new kind of excitement.

It led in due course to Seven Card Stud - also known as 'Down The River' because of its progressive uncertainty and danger. Neatly combining the virtues of draw and stud, Seven Card Stud remains one of the most popular games.

(x-x) x bet, x bet, x bet, x bet, (x) bet.

Players are dealt two cards face-down in the hole with an up card, followed by three more cards face-up, and a final card face-down. There are five betting intervals. The fascination of the game lies in the way the possibilities shift from round to round, in making a five-card hand.

You may start with cards that look likely to be best, but there is no guarantee you will end up best. Obviously (A-A) A is the best starting hand, but that only happens once in 5,525 deals. Any pair, especially concealed in the hole, or three flush or three straight cards are useful starters. But there are no certainties.

Broadly speaking, however, all decisions about betting at poker need to be taken in relation to the odds offered by the money in the pot. Playing draw poker, if you have four hearts to a flush, you need at least 4-1 odds from the pot to justify paying for the draw. Seven Card Stud is much more complicated. Suppose you are dealt:

(9s-10s) Jh 8d

The odds of catching a seven or a queen to make your straight on the next card depend on the cards seen in your opponents' up cards. If a couple of 7s and queens have shown already, the odds may be too long, even with three cards still to come to make your hand. And if someone is showing a high pair or three cards to a flush, those hands may be beating yours, even if you do hit the straight.

Here we must leave the maths and enter the realm of psychology. Are the other players tight or loose in their play? How likely is it someone is bluffing to represent a strong hand, or perhaps 'slow playing' to conceal a strong hand? How much money do you risk or gain by seeing it through?

All this is carried out in players' minds at an intuitive level, based on experience. It takes time to learn. But then no one ever claimed Seven Card Stud was an easy ride.