Seven Card Stud: Starting Hand Selection


In Seven Card Stud, just as in Texas Hold'em, it is imperative to select your starting hands rationally if you want to play winning poker. Not only the hands you play are important, but also how you play them in the course of the game. Good starting hand selection is the most important part of any strategic approach to Seven Card Stud and even a relatively inexperienced newcomer to this poker variant can beat an average game quite early on if he selects his starting hands with the necessary discipline. First of all let's look at a table showing the probabilities of making certain poker hands when starting with three random cards.

  • Table 1: Probability of a poker hand on seventh street
Royal flush  1:30,939  ~0.003 %
 Straight flush  1:3,590  ~0.028 %
 Four of a kind / Quads  1:594  ~0.168 %
 Full house  1:37.5  ~2.60 %
 Flush  1:32.1  ~3.03 %
 Straight  1:20.6  ~4.62 %
 Three of a kind / Trips  1:19.7  ~4.83 %
 Two pair  1:3.26  ~23.5 %
 One pair  1:1.28  ~43.8 %
 High card  1:4.74  ~17.4 %

It is noteworthy that a player who starts with three completely random cards will in the end hold at least a pair in around 82.6 % of cases, or in other words, four out of five times, and that in two out of three hands he will have one or two pair at the showdown. Hence the reason why Seven Card Stud is called a buying game.

The probabilities of holding a made hand naturally improve drastically if you enter the game with a starting hand that has already been pre-selected. As one can easily see, the best starting hand in Seven Card Stud is three of a kind, also known as "rolled-up". If you start with three of a kind, in around 41% of all cases you will improve your hand to four of a kind or a full house by seventh street. For the sake of completeness it must be mentioned that this 41% also includes "untypical" improvements to a flush or a straight.
If you start with a pair, in 62% of all cases you will improve your hand and hold at least two pair on seventh street.
If you start with three cards of the same suit, in more than 22% of all cases you will make a flush in the end.

But it takes endless patience to wait for very good starting hands and if you only want to enter a hand rolled up, the continual antes are going to eat up your stack very quickly.

  • Table 2: Probability for a selected starting hand 
 Trip aces 1:5,524 0.018 %
 Any three of a kind
1:424  0.238 %
 Three cards to a straight flush 1:85 1.176 %
 Pair of aces 1:76  1.315 %
 J-J or Q-Q or K-K 1:25 4.0 %
 Any pair  1:4.9 20.4 %
 Three cards of the same suit 1:24 4.17 %
 Three cards to a straight 1:4.8 20.83 %

Due to the fact that in Seven Card Stud three cards are dealt before the first round of betting, it's logical that there are more good starting hands than in Texas Hold'em, and of course this influences the action at the table. As a rule, more players will enter a hand. In this chapter we look at how to play trips, pairs and high cards before we go on to explain how to play draws in a later chapter. Flush draws or straight draws are far more complicated to play in Seven Card Stud than in any other poker variant and so they will be dealt with separately. 

In Seven Card Stud, just as in other poker variants, playing a starting hand is heavily dependent from your position at the table. Just a moment, some readers will object, in Stud there's no button and therefore no position. But that's not correct.
Because position is determined by the lowest upcard: the player holding this card is in a sense the small blind in this round of betting. This makes the player on his right the virtual button. However, on fourth street the position can change again when the next upcards are dealt, because then the highest card combination has to act first and you never know in advance who this will be. So, positions are only fixed for each round of betting.

Trips as starting hand

The best starting hand in Seven Card Stud is without a doubt trips (three of a kind), thus when you start the hand rolled-up. Of course you would never fold a starting hand like this in the first round of betting, regardless of your position and the number of raises. But despite the great intrinsic strength, playing trips slow, i.e. just calling the other players' bets, is not always recommended. On the one hand you should of course attempt to get as much money as possible in the pot when you have a good starting hand. On the other hand not too many of the opponents should get a cheap look at fourth street, especially when we're holding low trips. In 59% of all cases three of a kind do not improve in the course of the game, and then sometimes lose against straights or flushes that the opponents have put together. Low trips up to 8-8-8 should always be raised, regardless of your position. Higher trips should be open raised when in early position if any of the players behind us have at least two upcards of a higher value.

  • Example 1
In early position I find . The player to my right has to post the forced bet, called bring in, of $2 with upcard . On my left I see the following high upcards , and . I make what is known as a complete to $10. If one of the subsequent players raises, at this point I will just call. In this case I don't want to reveal the real strength of my hand and so I'll only become more aggressive in the later rounds of betting.
  • Example 2
I have in late position. The bring in has to be posted by the player holding the and the player with the highest upcard, , makes a complete. I raise him in order not to invite too many players to call the complete with a bad draw. In Stud games you will notice that it is very common for the highest upcard to complete, regardless of the real quality of the hand. What I am representing with my direct raise is more likely a pair and it looks as though I am asking the next players whether they can beat a pair of fives. If one of the other players reraises I will just call, with the same intention of still disguising the real strength of my hand.

A high pair as starting hand

In Seven Card Stud there are two ways of holding a pair as starting hand. One possibility is pairing the upcard with a hidden card. That happens on average once every nine hands; the probability is approximately 11.2%. Or your hidden cards can form a pair with an approximate probability of 5.9% - in other words, it happens only about half as often. A high hidden pair is a relatively good hand because your opponents don't have any information about the strength of your hand, and it won't arouse much suspicion if an upcard dealt in the course of the game improves the hidden pair to three of a kind. All this detail makes it clear that there are different ways of playing the same pair, depending on whether it consists of upcards or hidden cards.

Just as in Texas Hold'em, a pair of aces is a very good starting hand. You should always play this hand, regardless of your position, even if you see that the other two aces have already been dealt to opponents as upcards - in other words, even if you know that you can't make trips. However, you should be as aggressive as possible in order to try and go heads-up against a single opponent. In a heads-up situation in Seven Card Stud is roughly a 2:1 favourite against all smaller pairs. The more opponents there are, the more relative this advantage becomes.
If you start with to you should play more carefully. In this situation it is essential whether there are upcards that are of the same rank as the pair, how good the kicker is, and how much of the previous action came from the players with high cards.

  • Example 3
In late position I'm holding , the is the upcard of an opponent who folds. A player with an open completes and an calls. I fold. Here it is at least probable that one of these two opponents has a high pair. One of my two chances of making three of a kind is already dead and my kicker is so bad that it would hardly beat a hidden pair if I get dealt another .
If you decide to play one of these two pairs as a starting hand, you should do so as aggressively as possible. Particularly in the first round of betting I want, firstly, to force as many draws as possible to fold, and secondly, I want to find out whether a high upcard is paired.
  • Example 4
I have in middle position. I have the second-highest upcard, but the completes after the forced bet. The upcards include neither another nor a . I raise the open king because even at this point I want to go heads-up with him, and I also want to find out early whether he has a pair of kings (if he does he will usually reraise). If he reraises I'll just call. My decision on how to continue in later rounds will depend on the new upcards and the potential improvement of my own hand.

Middle and small pairs as starting hands

First of all you must be clear on one thing: a small or middle pair in Seven Card Stud is generally a weaker starting hand than in Texas Hold'em. As you can see in table 1, a player finishes a hand with at least a pair in 82.6% of all cases. Of course, in 62% of cases the small pair will also develop into a better hand by seventh street, but in order to create the most favourable conditions possible, you should use a kind of checklist to get an overview of the initial situation.

  • Are there any upcards that are of the same rank as the pair?
  • How good is the kicker in relation to the rest of the upcards?
  • How many upcards of higher rank then the pair are there?
  • Has there already been action from one or more high upcards?

Middle and small pairs are not good starting hands in Seven Card Stud and you should fold them

  • if one of the other two cards of the same rank as your pair or one of those two cards and two cards of the same rank as your kicker have already been dealt as upcards, or
  • if you are in an early position and there are three upcards on your left that are of higher rank than your pair and your kicker, or
  • if the action comes to you in the form of a complete and a raise from at least two high upcards.

If you decide to play a small pair it's fundamentally better to play it aggressively in the first round by betting rather than just calling. Especially in the first round of betting it's important to reduce the number of opponents. Passive play with a small or middle pair is one of the most common mistakes seen in Stud. The pot odds practically invite bad draws to call and so your own chances of winning the hand drop considerably. Under certain circumstances in Seven Card Stud it can make sense to reraise a pair (a big pair if possible) in the first round of betting. You should consider reraising if

  • the highest upcard that has made the complete is not an ace, or
  • the complete came from a loose aggressive player who always raises the highest upcard on principle, or
  • you hold in addition to your pair a very good kicker (preferably an ace) that beats the upcard of the player who has made the complete.

As you can see, Seven Card Stud is a relatively technical and complex game, right from the point where you select your starting hand. More spice comes from the large number of draws that are made possible by the three-card starting hand. Which draws you should play in which circumstances is the subject of the next article.