NLHE 6-max: The River (2)

In part 1 we dealt with playing in position. Now we are going to analyse the more difficult variant of river play, which is when we are out of position. Many concepts from the game in position are of course adopted, for example, thin value betting. But another concept also becomes important, namely the

Bluff induce

A lot of players are willing to call pot size bets on the flop and turn just to look at a huge pot on the river with a busted draw. In such a case the only two options left are either to give up and check or to decide to bluff, in order to avoid giving up the investment without a struggle.

Many aggressive players already play their draws aggressively on earlier streets, so that they can put pressure on their opponents right from the start. A simple river bet will usually not be able to do that when a tight opponent has bet both the flop and the turn. For example, he will fold an overpair less often if the river card is not a real scare card, i.e. a card that completes an obvious draw or radically improves his own hand. But it's far more often the case that opponents interpret and want to exploit a check on the river as being what it usually represents: weakness and fear.

We want to take advantage of our opponents' aggression on the river by checking the river against most of the players who called both the flop and the turn on a draw-heavy board. Often enough, players who missed their draws will try to bluff a blank river so that we even get money from hands that wouldn't have paid another bet on the river. As mentioned before, the river check appears weak to a lot of players and our opponents will probably not let the apparent opportunity for making a profit slip. We induce a bluff, even from players who believe that they had been beaten the whole time and now have to bluff the river. An example of this would be top pair with a weak to mediocre kicker on a dry flop.

Let's look at a specific example of inducing a bluff.

  • Example 1:

We are UTG and raise with , and the button calls. The flop brings a possible heart flush draw and a couple of less likely straight draws. We make our standard continuation bet on the flop, three-quarters of the pot and are called. At this point the player can be holding a broad range of hands, from the draws already mentioned to a to a (higher or lower) pocket pair or even a set. He could also simply be trying to float.

A brief digression: The term floating was mentioned in an earlier article, but let us remind ourselves briefly what is meant by that. Floating is an attempt to bluff which could ironically be described as a "bluff-call" (Sklansky/Miller: No-Limit Hold'em), and functions as follows. We call a player's bet knowing that we don't always have the best hand, but with the intention of bluffing the opponent out of a pot on a later street by betting or raising (if for example the opponent shows weakness). Floating is particularly effective because a call in no-limit hold'em often looks stronger than a raise. The call indicates that we're prepared to take the hand to the next round of betting although the bets will be much bigger. We can bluff much more effectively after a float than after a raise on the flop especially when the turn or river card is a scare card for a lot of hands, for example when the flush or straight arrives, or an ace appears. Most hands see themselves as still being ahead on the flop, even if there is a raise, so that players are often prepared to put money into the middle against a raise here. But if a scare card appears on the turn or river they become noticeably less prepared to do so.

Back to our example 1: After the flop we're not yet able to precisely determine the opponent's hand range. The turn card isn't particularly dangerous. However, it is a scare card for our opponent. If our opponent is very aggressive and has often started float attempts against us on the flop, check-raise all-in (C/RAI) would be an option. In this regard, please refer to the article on playing the turn out of position. In our example, however, we don't make this assumption but continue betting since we don't want to give the various possible draws a free card. He calls again. In most cases, a weak will now fold on the turn, so we reduce his range of hands to what is most likely a good draw (straight/flush draw or a combination of pair + draw/straight + flush draw), and least likely a hand that beats us (two pair, set). And so we go on to the river, which doesn't complete the flush draw. Only the two unlikely straight draws with and would now have been completed. Despite this we don't bet the river because too often, big bets will be called only by better hands, while a bet that is too small would leave us vulnerable to a bluff by our opponent. We prefer to use the opportunity of inducing a bluff from flush draws and weaker hands that see themselves as beaten.
Our opponent does in fact make a big river bet. The pot odds are $82.5:$20, which is a little better than 4:1. This means that we make a profitable call if our opponent bets a missed flush draw, or a hand weaker than a , another pocket pair or even a in just 25% of all cases. We call and in this case even get extra chips from a hand that would have folded against a river bet. If our opponent had made a bigger bet, we would still have been able to make the call, but due to the worse pot odds we would have had to rely on our reads and our experience with this particular opponent to justify it. In principle it's not worthwhile betting the river ourselves here. In the end we have successfully induced a bluff from a hand that had a lot of outs but didn't hit on the river. The board and the course of the hand led us to presume exactly that.

Bet on the river 

In principle, the same approaches apply as when we're in position. In the example above we would have been able to justify a bet on the river in a very special case, namely when we're playing against an opponent who is noticeably passive and only bets when he really has a strong hand.

In general, and especially at the lower limits, betting for value should have priority on all streets. In a heads-up situation we can't always put the player on a single specific draw or a range of draws. It's far more likely that we'll often be playing against middle pair or a weak top pair, especially when we are up against passive opponents. The majority of our opponents at the lower limits hold onto hands such as top pair (with any kicker), middle pair etc. so that it is precisely here that value betting out of position (and also in position, of course), pays off. These players seldom bet hands like these, even on the river. For this reason, river plays like bluff inducing are ineffective and even unprofitable against passive opponents.

But when we often go heads-up against aggressive players there will be many situations, like the one described above, where it is more profitable to use that aggression to our advantage. The following example shows a hand against a very passive opponent whom we have seen taking his mediocre hands without exception to the showdown:

  • Example 2:

We raise UTG and are called by the cutoff. The flop leaves us with an overpair. Just like the previous examples it contains a flush draw in hearts and some straight draws against which we want to protect our pair. We make our standard continuation bet, three-quarters of the pot size, and are called. We consider the possible hand range of our opponent and determine that he is most likely holding a pair (a or a smaller pocket pair) or one of the possible draws.
The turn is a blank: neither the flush draw nor the obvious straight draw for has arrived. We bet and our opponent calls again. The river card is a good one for us: none of the draws has arrived and in addition, we now also beat all possible two-pair hands, even the unlikely ones. It is therefore more likely that our opponent really has a pair or a missed draw. Here we have to decide whether it's better to make a value bet or check against this passive opponent. In addition to the player's passiveness we now evaluate the board: with a rag board like this it is quite possible that he didn't put us on a strong hand on the flop and the turn, and he may well have thought we were continuing a bluff with overcards. If he's holding a he may thinks he's ahead, the same apllies to a middle pair like . But because of his passiveness and the uncertainty of the situation he wouldn't bet a hand like this on the river. This means that we should make a value bet here. If we check, we'll get chips only if our opponent tries to bluff, which is very unlikely given the size of his remaining stack, his playing style, and his weak hand. So we have to bet and hope that he doesn't believe us and calls with a smaller pair. And that is what he does. He was actually holding a pocket pair of sevens, and if we had checked he would probably have checked behind.

Again we see that the decision on whether to bet or to check on the river is a tight-rope walk. In order to make this decision we have to take three factors into account: a concrete analysis of the board, the previous actions, and above all, the type of opponent. Good decisions in various situations against various opponents always lead to good payouts.

Check-raise

We should use this move sparingly when we're out of position on the river in low-limit games. In principle, check-raising the river only makes sense when we know that:

1. our opponent will bet on the river,
2. our opponent will call a check-raise after a river bet, and
3. we really have the best hand on the river.

On the river the pot is usually so big after the flop and turn bets that a check-raise amounts to an all-in, i.e. C/RAI like the corresponding move on the turn. This is an extreme form of value play, because we want to force our opponent into the mistake of playing a hand for his entire stack. The scenario below is an example in which there is also an easy read:

  • Example 3:

We're in middle position and raise with and are called by the button. The flop gives us middle set and possibly gives our opponent top pair, middle pair, an open-ended straight draw with or a flush draw.
We have already noticed that our opponent has an extreme tendency to call every bet down to the river when he is holding a draw. A small pocket pair, to or even higher is also possible. We bet three-quarters of the pot and are called. On the turn we already have the second-best full house, so we're safe against all the draws that may arrive on the river. We're behind only against , and at this point, both these combinations are pretty unlikely. We can safely assume that we have the best hand.
Another bet is called and we can reduce the range of the player's hand to the possible draws. A small pair or a are also in his range. But the river card is one that could be dangerous for the lower end of his range, i.e. a middle pair or a . Not only have the flush and a possible straight draw arrived, but the is a further overcard. If we now bet he will probably fold most hands containing a or a middle pair. Conversely, if he's holding one of the aforementioned draws he'll definitely want to bet it. In particular, he would want to bet the straight that has just arrived rather than call a bet, because he also has to worry about whether we're holding a flush or a full house. If we make a big bet we even run the risk that he could fold not only a straight with but also a small flush. We have demonstrated strength right from the start, and with these two hands he only beats a bluff.
In this concrete situation it's much cleverer to let him do the betting and play check-raise all-in. This improves the chances that he will interpret this "move" as a bluff and think that his hand is still the best. We can thus allow him to make a very big mistake by inducing a situation in which he has to make a decision for his whole stack, with a hand that is probably not the best. If we bet, the mistake he could make would be much smaller: holding a flush or straight he could only call and so lose at most half of his stack. Because we have played our hand so strongly up to now, a bet on the river could still be interpreted by our opponent as strong, despite the scare card. We would force him onto the defensive and couldn't provoke too many raises, or at best, with small bets. A check, however, signals to our opponent that we respect the card that has been dealt and that it has thwarted us. If he has now made his hand we could at least reckon with a bet that would tell us how much more he is willing to invest in the hand at this point. Moreover, we also give hands that have already been beaten for quite a while the chance of starting bluffs. We can therefore increase the value of various hands by check-raising.

Bluffs 

The third barrel, i.e. a bluff bet on the river, was already mentioned in Part 1. A check-raise all-in (C/RAI) can be played as a bluff in exactly the same way as it can be played for value, if the board and the opponent make the success of this move probable.

But: a well-played bluff, especially out of position, with three barrels (i.e. bets) should only be considered at the lower limits when we have extremely good reads and we know how our opponent plays. In principle, moves at these limits are useless and are more likely to backfire and hit us than they are to force an opponent to fold, because most of our opponents simply play their cards and don't interpret strategic plays as such. It cannot be said enough that betting for value is by far the most important concept in climbing the ladder from the lower limits. Every other concept discussed so far can and should be tried out, tested and adapted when moving up in limits.

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