Book Review:High-Low Split Poker for Advanced Players

Zee High Low Split

Ray Zee’s book is rightly called, “For Advanced Players.” Players new to Stud/8 or O/8 will need to find another resource, as Zee largely glosses over basic material in favor of advanced thinking and plays. Though occasionally scattershot and disorganized, his book contains a wealth of information for those who play in tough split-pot games.

Though it would be helpful if he came out and said this, Zee’s guiding principle in Stud/8 is that you need to know where you stand. Tough players are aggressive, and pots will often be capped on big bet streets. He advises to play hands that can give action like this and to get out of the way early if you won’t know what to do if your opponents start raising. Thus, rather than pushing small edges on early streets, “It is sometimes good not to play so fast so you can determine where the strength lies.”

In terms of showdown equity, Stud/8 hands often run close in value, particularly on early streets. Thus, how well a hand will play on future streets becomes the true test of its worth. Good players find their edge by recognizing the many conditions that affect whether and how a hand should be played. Will the pot be heads up or multiway? Which cards are live? Is there an opportunity to misrepresent your hand?

Much of Zee’s Stud/8 material is devoted to a street-by-street analysis of how to play. For third street, he offers a comprehensive analysis of the possible starting hands, when to play them, and how they ought to be played. This is one of the highlights of the book. Players make third street decisions on every hand they play, so it’s important to be airtight on the fundamentals, and this text can advance exactly that goal.

The discussions of future streets are good but much less thorough. They read more like a laundry list of possible plays than a full consideration of the situations in which a player may find himself. To be fair, this is not entirely Zee’s fault. Stud/8 is a complex game with a lot of variables, and it would be difficult to write a comprehensive guide to play on later streets. For advanced players who already know how to handle common situations, Zee’s thoughts on tricky spots and expert plays are a treasure trove.

Unsurprisingly, the text becomes even more disorganized in its second-half, where a hodge-podge of ideas is collected as “Miscellaneous Topics”. These include thoughts on slow-playing, bluffing, and random plays that didn’t fit elsewhere in the text. Again, it’s valuable information, but the presentation is a little lacking.

Zee’s sections on types of Stud/8 games (ie tight, loose, short-handed), psychology, and hand-reading fall short of the standard set by the earlier material. They are valuable enough, but rather generic (the Psychology and Hand-Reading sections of both the Stud/8 and O/8 manuals are literally identical, borrowed from Sklansky’s Theory of Poker, save for a few details). Much the same can be said for the Questions and Answers: I suppose there’s no harm in including them, but they introduce no new material and offer little advantage over re-reading the text.

Although the first section of the O/8 text is devoted to “Basic Play”, it is still not ideal for beginners. Zee does articulate the basic goal of O/8, particularly in weak low-limit games: “your primary edge comes from the fact that you won’t be drawing to less than the nuts.” Unlike the very helpful review of third-street hands in Stud/8, however, this section does not categorize the various types playable O/8 holdings or discuss when and how to play them. Instead, Zee presumes this knowledge on the part of the reader and dives straight into special cases of what not to play and which weak-looking hands could actually be played for a profit.

After this brief discussion of starting hands, the “Basic Play” section consists of a list of disjointed “Concepts” numbered and strung together. They are valuable tidbits, but the lack of any organizing structure prevents the reader from getting a holistic sense of the game and its flow.

Zee devotes the bulk of the O/8 manual to “Advanced Strategy” for higher-limit games. Here, just playing tight and drawing to the nuts will not suffice. Instead, “this is a game of trying to get in cheaply before the flop…. The big decision is to analyze the flop and understand how it relates to your hand and whether you should play on.”

Profitable players in these games make good decisions about how well flops connect with their holdings and how to play for maximum profit against opponent’s likely holdings. The key is “to have the nuts with draws to better hands.” In other words, in a game where most players are tight and only putting in money with the nut low, having counterfeit protection to the second nut low is essential. Outside shots to a gutshot straight or a backdoor flush also contribute important equity. Holding the nuts without any of these is rarely sufficient to withstand heavy action.

Of course, these ideal situations do not arise all that often. In the meantime, Zee explains how to steal pots, how to exercise restraint even with strong hands when there are a lot of draws out, and how to handle tough spots with marginal holdings.

Despite its catch-all name, the “Additional Advanced Concepts” section is actually organized more logically than most of the book. It consists primarily of advice on how to adapt your play to game conditions (i.e. tight, loose, or short-handed). As with the Stud/8 material, the Psychology, Hand Reading, and Questions & Answers sections are largely repetitive and generic.

Ray Zee’s High-Low Split Poker is not, nor does it purport to be, a comprehensive guide to playing Stud/8 and O/8. It reads more like an off-the-cuff brainstorming of all the little things that separate the players in these games from the merely good. But Zee is one such great player, and his musings, however disjointed, are worth many times their cover price.

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