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Take Me To The River
Barry Carter takes on the troublesome river with top tips on playing 5th street.
The river is a source for despair for most poker players. Some see it as their unlucky street (or their Ďriggedí street) and others regularly find themselves stuck with a really difficult decision to make. But actually I would argue that the river is the easiest street of all in Holdíem.
Unlike every other street, there is no gambling from this point on. You no longer have a draw, you no longer have outs, and you canít get badbeat or dish one out to another person. The river is the most scientific of all streets; it is a matter of who has the best hand and how to get the most money possible - nothing else.
Letís look at the river in a vacuum. You essentially have three scenarios at the final street in Holdíem. You are either: Pretty sure you donít have the best hand; pretty sure you do have the best hand; holding a good hand, but donít know if itís the best.
Of course, all of the above depends on a lot of criteria and your ability to hand-read, but I am assuming you have a decent handle on this, so on to your options:
1. Youíre pretty sure you donít have the best hand
Your draw didnít make it, you have been bluffing several streets with rags or maybe a bunch of scare cards have come out that have shrunk the value of your hand - you are pretty certain you are second best. This is probably the simplest of problems because you know that the only way you will win is by bluffing, unless you have consigned yourself to giving up on the pot.
WHAT TO DO: FOLD
There is no shame on giving up on the pot here. When you are unable to that is a major leak. Unless you have a really good read on your opponents it is probably best not to go firing a bluff out on an all-action broadway-suited-paired board. If your opponent is a bit of a calling station or a rock who more than often has the goods, or if they donít have much money left behind in a big pot, then check and fold this one most of the time.
Position makes a difference of course and when someone out of position checks to you on the river, you have more reason to bet because at face value itís a signal they have also given up on the pot. If your opponent has plenty left, isnít pot-committed and has shown a tendency for being bullied out of a pot, maybe you should be bluffing at the pot. Itís all opponent- and board texture-specific when weighing up if you should take a stab at the pot, which should also inform how much you bet. Ideally when you are bluffing you want to take a balance of saving money (betting small) but betting believably (betting big).
2. Youíre pretty sure you do have the best hand
The much nicer and simpler scenario to find yourself in is that you are holding the nuts, or at least a hand you are very happy to go bust with. Perhaps itís the nut flush, or top set on a dry board etc. The simple question here is Ďhow do you extract the most value from your hand?í and this is all about putting your opponent on a likely range of hands and playing accordingly.
WHAT TO DO: BET
Iím sure you knew that solution already. If you are holding a ridiculously strong hand like quads or the nut flush, the problem you have is that your opponent will be scared rigid that you have exactly that and betting big might let them off the hook because there is a very narrow range of hands that will stack off against you. Betting a smaller but meaningful amount (say, half the pot) might be the maximum you can charge and get called with by a decent one-pair type hand (as well as giving something for someone with nothing to shove over the top of you by giving them the illusion of fold equity).
If you are against a fish or someone you believe has a very strong hand (or it is an all-action flop), then donít be scared to over-bet your hand. If the pot is $100 and you think your opponent will call a big bet, then why not make it $150 to go instead of sticking to a 2/3 pot type of bet? A lot of players donít like doing this with a monster because they donít want to scare off action with a big hand, but the times you make someone fold a big hand are outweighed by the size of the pot youíll win when they do call and as a result you will show a bigger profit long-term. I heard a great quote on this recently: ďIf you want to double your earn rate, double your bet size on the river,Ē and itís true.
Finally, if you are against an aggressive opponent or at least someone you donít think has a big hand, then regrettably your best option (when out of position) might be to check with the intention of check-raising. This way you get the maximum value out of someone who has complete air and would never call you and might be lucky enough to get an even bigger pot from someone who is genuinely value betting their hand.
3. You have a good hand, but donít know if itís the best
This is where players have a big problem with the river and get themselves into a lot of trouble. You have top set on a three-flush board, or top two pair on a Broadway board. You have a hand you certainly donít want to just open-fold, but you are concerned that your opponent has better. Common mistakes will be just checking a hand down and getting no value from it or betting with it and going broke when you get re-raised. What you need to ask yourself here is: ďIf I bet, will worse hands call me?Ē Itís as simple as that.
So letís say you have Q-T on a T-8-8-6-6 board. If you bet, there isnít much out there that will call you as you are only really likely going to get looked up by any 8, any 6, 7-9, an over-pair or K-T/A-T. J-T or 9-9 are maybe the only hands that will call you, but even then itís unlikely.
WHAT TO DO: CHECK-CALL
In this situation check-calling is your best option. Check-calling allows all the hands you are beating to bluff you (smaller pairs, over-cards, missed draws). You lose less when you are beat and get money from people who would never have called if you bet.
The other situation is where you have a big hand where worse hands will call you. Letís say this time you have 7-9 for the straight on that T-8-8-6-6 board. You have a very strong hand but any 8, any 6 or pocket tens crush you, but there are plenty of hands that you beat that could call you. 9-9, 9-T, J-T, J-J, Q-T, Q-Q, K-T, K-K, A-T and A-A are all very likely hands that would call a bet (and occasionally someone with just ace-high who thinks you are bluffing with a counterfeited pair).
WHAT TO DO: BET-FOLD
In this scenario, bet-folding is the most profitable line. It may seem counterintuitive that betting with the plan to fold to any raise is profitable, but you will make more money long-term than check-calling. This is because there are more combinations of hands that would call you than would raise you, so the times you get value from them on the river outweighs the times you will have to fold your hand. Also, bear in mind that none of the hands that will call your bet are likely to value-bet themselves because they fall into the category where they will only get called by better hands like our Q-T example, so you will never catch a bluff from these hands by check-calling. Obviously you lose the value from all the complete bluff hands in the earlier example, but with a hand like a straight you really want to be value-betting because it is still a monster that crushes your opponentís range.
Carterís Top Tips
1. Remember, the river is much simpler than you think it is. You either think you have the best hand, think you have the worst hand or are somewhere inbetween Ė there is a plan of action for all these situations.
2. Before you act in any way, do not check or bet until you are clear in your mind what you will do if you are raised by your opponent. Make that decision before you bet or check, as it takes the pressure off when somebody does come over the top.
3. People tend to act very straightforward on the river, more often than on any other street. A check-raise or a re-raise tend to be exactly what they look like Ė a very strong hand.
4. Likewise if someone checks to you on the river, you can usually take that to mean they have given up on the pot or want to see a cheap showdown. With practice you can take the opportunity to bluff or make a thin value bet.
5. If you have a good hand, like a decent pair, but are a long way from the nuts, you will probably only get called if you are beat, so check-call the river to allow bluffers to stay in the pot.
6. If you have a closer-to-the-nuts hand like two pair or better, bet-folding is usually preferable to inducing a bluff because there are lots of combinations of made hands that would call a bet but not raise/bluff.