NLHE 6-max: The River (1)

On the river we either want to get paid off on our good hands or force opponents that are holding a better hand out of the pot in order to prevent a showdown that we can't win. Sometimes, however, we also have to fold a good hand if the river card is an unfavourable one and an opponent suddenly becomes active with a big bet.

We have divided this topic into two separate articles. We distinguish, as usual, between different situations, always according to whether we're in position or out of position. The first part of this article deals with various different techniques and ways of playing the river in position: value betting and thin value betting, checking behind and bluffing.

In position

At this point our article is directly related to the previous action on the turn. If we have bet a made hand both on the flop and on the turn, then on the river we must decide whether we …

…make a value bet:

Are we convinced that we're holding the best hand, and would hands that we beat call (another) bet? River cards that could typically prohibit making a value bet are flush cards that appear when there has already been a flush draw on the board since the flop. The same applies to obvious straight draws that have arrived. A scenario of this type could be as follows. We're holding , which has been top pair/top kicker since the flop . Our opponent called us on the flop and on the turn.
The river is the and now we really must carefully weigh up the chances of this specific opponent holding a draw or, which is more often the case, a weaker or stronger ace. A check on the river is usually advisable because all too often, weaker aces won't call any more big bets (unless we're up against a very loose, bad opponent here).

Reads and notes about this opponent from previous games are especially important here if we want to continue getting maximum value for our hands in the long term. It's certainly not a mistake to check behind because by making a small bet we could make ourselves vulnerable to a bluff, and a big bet will be called too seldom. Our opponent often shows us or two pair.
We have to base our decision completely on what we know about our opponent, and it is quite possible that certain opponents pay bets of up to half the size of the pot with a weak ace. The most important aspect of good river play is finding the balance between increasing the value of our own hand and decreasing the value of any draw that may have hit, or of the opponent's possibly stronger hand.

… Check behind:

If we bet the river after one or more draws have arrived and it was checked to us, then we must after all give satisfactory implied odds to the drawing hands that we made pay since the flop. In this concrete case, this would in retrospect justify those calls on the flop and on the turn. By paying them off we are making their way of playing the right one. And that is something we want to avoid if at all possible.

  • Example 1

We're on the button and raise with , both blinds call. We make a pot size bet on the relatively draw-heavy flop and are called by one opponent. Possible hands that would call us are flush draws and straight draws. Hands such as two pair or even a set would normally have raised because they would have been worried about other draws, and thus there would have been more action. The turn gives us insurance against the two-pair hands because we have now beaten with aces up. None of the draws has arrived, so we bet again, this time two-thirds of the pot. Our opponent's call is followed by the worst-possible river card, which completes both the flush and the straight draw. We therefore decide to check behind. The only one that calls here is a weak player with top pair and even he doesn't always call. Our decision is rewarded: the opponent hits his straight on the river, while it was probably the possible flush that stopped him from betting himself.

In principle the following applies: if we come to the conclusion, after considering what type of opponent we are up against, that a bet on the river would be called only by stronger hands we should check behind.

The following hand against a really tight player serves to underline this principle:

  • Example 2

We raise to 4.5 BBs after he has limped, he calls and we hit our top pair/medium kicker on the flop, which also gives us a flush draw. We bet, in the first instance for value, but also for protection against the possible flush draw. The opponent calls. Since we know that he's really tight and often doesn't raise pre-flop even with premium hands, we can put him on one of two possible hands here: a strong draw (e.g. pair + flush draw) or a really strong ace, perhaps even a set.

The turn is the and we bet again because we want to make him pay with his good draw and we do have little value even against some of the aces. Another option here against this opponent would be to check behind, but we think that he is a very passive player which means that we wouldn't get much more money in the pot if we are still holding the best hand on the river. He calls again. Although the river doesn't complete any of the possible flush draws we now no longer beat any of the good aces ( to ) and we split the pot in case he also has . We can't justify a bet for value any more because we're either so far ahead that no weaker hand would pay us off, or so far behind that every stronger hand would call us. All that's left would be to try a bluff, which would be called by almost every hand except perhaps - but would he have limped with that hand?

If after a while we can read our opponent very well and above all, can reduce his hand range on given boards to a minimum, then the ability to make thin value bets becomes more and more important:

Thin value bets:

If we're sure that an opponent in a specific position on specific boards is probably holding specific weak hands, and that he wants to go to showdown with them, then we should make a thin value bet on the river.

  • Example 3

We're holding and are in position against a very loose limper who is normally relatively aggressive pre-flop. We raise. We also know that our opponent likes taking his top pair hands to the showdown. With our top pair/top kicker we bet on the flop and are called.

On this board we can already reduce his hand range: an ace presumably with a weak kicker, i.e. a :9 or similar. He probably doesn't have a set. Thus, in most cases, we're way ahead. So we also bet the turn, and he calls. This enables us to reduce his range still further: he is most probably holding an ace. The river brings a card that doesn't make our hand look all that strong any more, because now we beat only all those aces with kicker or and lower.

Since our opponent has relatively often raised pre-flop with good aces and stronger hands, on a board like this he is mostly holding a weaker ace, and we therefore make a thin value bet. Based on the action up to now, the probability that we are ahead against this opponent on this board is very high, and we know that he loves going to the showdown. For all these reasons we bet, and we get maximum value for our top pair/top kicker.

If our opponent here had been the player in Example 2 above, who is tight and careful and whose hand range is of a higher quality than that of the loose player, then we would seldom be able to generate value by making a thin value bet. This is because when the tight player stays in the hand up to the river against two bets and on a board that offers few to no draws, the probability that he has the better hand is considerably greater. Moreover, with a weaker hand he wouldn't call another big bet.

The thin value bet is, as the name suggests, thin, and aimed only at specific hands where we can put our opponent precisely on the hand he is holding. Making thin value bets like this on the right river cards and against the right opponents requires a lot of experience in determining the strength of our own hand on certain boards, but above all, it takes attentiveness and reads. Fortunately, at the lower limits up to NL100 we will often have opponents who want to take mediocre to weak hands to the showdown, come what may, so that value betting plays an even more important role.

A topic that should be dealt with in this context but which is not particularly suitable for starting out with 6-max games is the

… Triple barrel bluff:

A well-timed bluff must be well-prepared, it must harmonise with the board and it must be able to sell the opponent a specific hand credibly. When we bluff, in most instances our own hand won't have any showdown value, which means that we can win ONLY by betting. Similarly to when we make a thin value bet, when we bluff we must be able to put our opponent on a hand within a very narrow range, right down to his exact hand, if we want to force him to fold it.

In Example 2 there is only a very small chance that we would be able to force the tight player to fold on the river. We would have to sell him our hand as two pair or a set, but because these don't occur very often when someone else is holding top pair/top kicker like he is, he would almost always call a bet. If we make a bet that is too small he will definitely call, and if we choose one that is too big, he may for this precise reason suspect a bluff.
We therefore have to choose an amount that actually could cause our opponent to fold top pair/top kicker. In addition, our hand still has the potential to win the showdown with top pair/medium kicker. And on top of all this, our opponent underestimated the strength of his hand in the course of Example 2: we do know with a high degree of certainty that we're playing against an ace, but after his pre-flop call we certainly don't reckon with . As we can see, it will be very difficult to carry out a bluff effectively and with any chance of success here.

Bluffing on the river is largely dependent on the situation and above all, on the type of opponent. The following is an example illustrating the consistency that a bluff needs to have:

  • Example 4

We're holding and raise routinely. We're called by a very loose player in the blinds, a player who is known to us as one who is keen to chase draws. However, he seldom goes to the showdown because he very often folds against big turn and river bets, as soon as there's a lot of money at stake and he doesn't have a very strong hand. The flop contains several possible draws (flush/straight), whereas we only have a gutshot straight draw and overcards. We make a continuation bet and are called.

Possible hands are the draws already mentioned, or hands containing a or . The turn card is a very good one for us; we can now fire a second barrel to try and force many of the or hands that called us on the flop to fold , especially because we, as the pre-flop aggressor, could easily be holding an ace. We are thus representing a hand that appears plausible. The fact that we are making continuation bets on all sorts of flops makes us appear even more credible. Our opponent calls again on the turn, which means that he's not buying our ace right away and probably has a pair or better, or is still on a draw.

The river only helps unlikely hands such as , and , which we don't put our opponent on. Here we decide to continue representing the ace on the river, which is credible and consistent due to the course of the hand so far. We would have some showdown value with king high, but as a rule we would lose because our opponent could also have hit a pair with the last card or be holding similar middle pairs. In most cases we can therefore only win by betting. A bet should force any or hand that didn't believe that we have an ace on the turn to fold after all, and the same thing should apply to draws.

Newcomers to 6-max games are advised not to make big bluffs and similar moves, especially on tables up to and including NL100, without experience and good notes and reads on their opponents. Most players at these tables can simply not be forced to fold many of their hands and we would be risking a lot of chips unnecessarily often, just to lose the showdown against middle pair or something similar. At these limits, value betting is far more important than anything else. Up to NL100 we often have opponents who still greatly overvalue their top-pair hands and we should exploit this for our value bets with strong hands such as top pair/top kicker. For this reason we are now going to look at decisions on the river, whether we should bet a hand when we're in position in order to maximise value, or whether we should rather check behind.