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H.O.R.S.E Tournaments

HORSE Tournament Strategy

"It was easy then to tell... selling out from compromise"
-- Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil

After a few years of one-trick pony fascination with No Limit Holdem, many poker players have begun to experiment with more difficult mixed-game tournament structures. The most common of these is HORSE.

HORSE stands for Holdem-Omaha8-Razz-Stud-Eight or Better Stud, and is played with limit betting. HORSE events are considerably more complex if only because you need to know how to play five different games. But beyond that, the necessity of shifting gears in multiple ways, and the inclusion of the higher short-term skill games makes HORSE a challenging tournament to master.

Omaha and Stud8 rounds are played High Low. Razz is lowball seven card stud. The Holdem and Stud rounds are high-only poker. Not only are those different things you have to master, HORSE offers players a lot of ways to play badly!

There are two basic structures to HORSE events: either you play each game for a certain amount of time, or you play each game for a specific number of hands. When playing a set number of hands much of what is written below does not come into play, as you don't play more hands (and take more blinds) in the faster games, but in tournaments with equal amounts of time devoted to each game these concepts are crucial.

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The "E" aspect of the tournament, HiLo Stud Eight or Better is in itself probably the most "gear shifting" type of tournament game. But when included in the mix with the other HORSE games, Stud8 is transformed even more than normal. Since it is the fifth game played, no matter what you are well into the tournament before you even get to the first Stud8 round. In normal Stud8 tournaments you should be looking to hit home runs by playing connecting or suited low hands and those with an Ace when you have a lot of chips relative to the ante and third street bet (like the first round of a tournament), but when you have few chips in later rounds you should be more happy to focus on playing straightforward top pair stud poker.

HORSE tends to put a lot of players in an uncomfortable middle position. You are in the fifth round of the tournament, but you may not have accumulated enough chips to really see a lot of third streets, and you may face a lot of opponents who are immediately in desperate position, for example only have enough chips to bet up to fifth street, so therefore forced to play mediocre hands like JJ4. You can't hit homeruns against such hands, but they can take a decent chunk from your stack, while not offering you that much of a gain if you win. Going from 4000 to 5000 is a lot less helpful than going from 4000 to 3000 in chips is harmful.

An added dimension to the Stud8 rounds is they represent the last round to "get a hand". If you have a short stack, the smallish ante likely allows you to pick a hand with either three decent low cards or a pair -- something reasonable to risk your last chips on, or even your moderate stack on.

HORSE Poker TournamentsThis is because after the "E" comes the "H". Holdem is the oddball game in the mix. Four games of high basic skill, relatively slow pace and low cost are combined with a lightning fast game with huge blinds and tons of random luck. Players commonly go broke in Holdem in the big blind because they didn't get a reasonable hand to put their chips in with before then. In all the other games, including Omaha, players are far more likely to go broke playing a hand they choose to play. The antes of the three (slower) stud games are puny in comparison to the big blind whipping around the table in Holdem. In the other games players look to play strong hands. In Holdem, players look to avoid being blinded into oblivion.

While poor players tend to think HORSE events are all about the multi-card non-Holdem games, experienced players know their fate in a HORSE tournaments will normally be determined by the final Holdem round they play. The blinds in the Holdem rounds are the key to every HORSE tournament, even when your opponents are completely clueless about how to play the non-Holdem games.

This is especially true in online HORSE tournaments. You can easily play three times as many Holdem hands in the same time span as one of the other games. You must either accumulate chips in the Holdem rounds, or if your opponents are weaker at the other games (as is common) fight to break even in the Holdem just so you earn the privilege of playing against them in the other games.

The title of this article is a bit deceptive, because HORSE strategy is all about the Hold'em rounds in timed tournaments. If you are a sensible player, the four slower skill games can take care of themselves. In the other four games you'll play hands you want to play, based upon your chip stack. In the other four games you'll likely build your stack, or get eliminated, playing a hand you wanted to play.

The structure of the initial PokerStars World Championship of Online Poker went from players anteing 20,000 each hand, to a player having to put in 150,000 and 75,000 in consecutive hands to simply pay the big and small Texas Hold'em blinds. If you are sitting there with a 450,000 stack, you have a lot of play just anteing 20,000 a hand, but if you have to put in half your stack in due the blinds, and hands are taking about twenty seconds, holy cow, we better start hoping we get a "monster" like KT or A5.

Timed HORSE tournaments primarily boil down to the transition from Stud8 to Holdem. Even in the play-eight-hands-then-switch structure, going from tiny antes to the huge blinds in Holdem fundamentally alters the movement of chips. The other three games are a lot like simple ring game poker... play good hands, make good moves, don't be an idiot. The last half of the Stud8 round if you have short or middling chips, and the Holdem rounds for everybody, are the two strategic aspects of the tournament that really matter. No matter what game you are playing, a part of your brain should always be thinking "I have to get enough chips to be able to really play that next Holdem round" (as opposed to just desperately making steal attempts or going all in because the blinds are so huge).

You may happen to be eliminated, or even build a big stack, in the other games, but if you are going to win, HORSE tournaments are always about the Texas Holdem.

Also see Tournament Poker Strategy and Making Money Playing Tournament Poker Poker