3 Mistakes on the River
By Guy Downs
Despite the fact that the river is often the easiest street to play well, there are a few key mistakes that intermediate players often make here. In this essay we'll explore three of these mistakes, and explain why they are so costly,
MISTAKE 1) The bet from nowhere
The bet from nowhere is a term I use to reference a bet that seems to arise completely out of the ether; it's totally unexpected by your opponent, and seems to have no legitimacy behind it. Understand that in most limit hold 'em games-and low limit games in particular- your opponents are predisposed towards calling you, even when they don't have much of a hand themselves. While it's hard to explain the thinking behind this phenomenon, I believe it's tied in which our tendency to remember the exceptions to a rule, as opposed to the events that established the rule in the first place. Therefore, while most people may 'know' that calling on the river with an unimproved pair of pocket 3's on a Ks Qh 9s 7s 5c board is a bad idea, they remember the time six months ago when they folded in this spot and their opponent showed them a bluff. What they conveniently forget, of course, are the myriad occasions since then that their opponent in this spot has shown them top two pair.
So- your opponents are, typically, will grope for a reason to call you down- especially on the river. This means you need to be very careful when you decide to stage a bluff. As a rule, I only bluff on the river when I've done something earlier in the hand to 'set up' the bluff. It may have been a lead-bet on the turn, or a check raise semi bluff on the flop- but it's something which will make the river bet look less suspicious.
Although a 'bet from nowhere' can take many forms, let's look at an example:
You have the 5c 6c in the small blind. An early position player calls, two middle position players call, and the button calls. You call, and the big blind checks. The flop comes Ac 9s 3c. You check, the early position player bets, another player calls and you call. The turn is the Jh. Again you check, the early position player checks, and next player folds. You call. The river is the 2s.
A bluff bet here would qualify as a bet from nowhere. At no point in the hand have you shown any aggression, and it's very hard for the early position player to see how the 2s might have helped you. Although the pot may be big enough to make a bluff here appear profitable, notice that your bet looks extremely suspicious; in fact, what it looks like is precisely what it is; a total bluff by a busted draw. True, your opponent may be on a draw as well, in which case he'll likely fold (although the fact that he bet into five players on an ace high flop would at least suggest that he has a pair of aces). But the problem is that there are scores of goofy hands that your typical opponent will gladly call with here. I've seen people make this bluff bet hundreds of times, and you wouldn't believe the hands that I've seen their opponents call with; unimproved pocket 5's, queen high-the list goes on and on. When you're going to bluff on the river, do it in a spot where your opponent expects-or at least isn't shocked-by your bet. When you suddenly start firing chips after a blank hits the board your opponent is going to be confused. And confused players, particularly in limit hold 'em, will generally call with a very wide variety of hands. In order for a bluff here to be profitable you'd have to have a reasonable chance of convincing your opponent to lay down at least a few hands that beat you. But in a case such as this your chances of such are virtually nil.
MISTAKE 2) Raising with good but not great hands in a multiway pot
Another big mistake. What we're talking about here is raising a bettor you think you probably have beat with a hand that has a fair chance of being beaten by a player left to act. Here's an example:
You have Qd Jd in middle position. One player in front of you calls, you call, and two more players in middle-late position call as well. The button calls and both blinds call. The flop is Ks Th 7s. The small blind bets and the next two players fold. You call, as do the two late-middle position players. The button raises, and all call. The turn is the 4c. The small blind leads out again, you call, and now the three players behind you, including the button, just call. The river is the 9s. The small blind bets.
You should just call here. The reasons for this are as follows.
a) There's a real possibility that someone behind you-or the small blind-has a flush.
b) By just calling, you may persuade someone behind you who has a slightly worse hand than yours to call, while a raise may persuade them to fold.
c) By raising you have put yourself in a very nasty spot if someone three bets. Either you fold in a big pot for one more bet on the river (something you don't want to get in the habit of doing), or you call with what is almost certainly a losing hand. Both of these options are lousy.
When you just call here you've put yourself in a nice spot. For argument's sake, let's say one player behind you calls the small binds river bet and the other two players fold. Now you only have to have a winner 33% of the time to have made this call profitable, and your hand is probably going to be good more often than that. However, if your raise drives out hands worse than yours that would have called the one bet, which means your hand now has to be good 50% of the time for your raise to be profitable. You're getting 2:1 on your money by just calling (assuming of course that you pick up another caller behind you), but only 1:1 on a raise (again, assuming that someone with a slightly worse hand behind you folds). Now let's say that someone behind you raises. You clearly don't like that raise, but at least now you only have to put in a total of two bets on the river to show down your hand. If you raised the river, and someone behind you re-raised, you would now have to put three bets in to show your hand down. Also, the three bet might force the small blind to fold a hand worse than yours, while if you had just called his bet he might have called the raise from the late position player. All said, by raising the river here you're putting yourself in a spot where only hands that are better than yours will likely call. This is clearly not to your advantage. Conversely, just calling gives you the opportunity to pick up an extra bet (or two) from hands that are worse than yours.
MISTAKE 3) Failing to bet a good but not great hand on the river in a heads up pot.
You usually see this mistake when a player in early position has a quality hand, like an overpair to the board or top pair with a big kicker, and a scare card hits the river. Here's an example:
You have As Qd in middle position. One player calls in front of you, and you raise. The button calls, the blinds fold, and the original caller calls. The flop comes Qs 9s 6h. The original caller checks, you bet, the button calls and the early position player folds. The turn is the 6c. Again you bet, and again the button calls. The river is the 7s.
You should just about always bet here. Yes, your opponent might have made a flush or a straight (or even two pair) on the river. But so what? When you bet here, you have the opportunity to make money every time your opponent has a worse hand than yours. If you check, your opponent will probably check any hand that you have beat, but will bet any hand that beats you. Thus, by checking you make nothing those times that you have your opponent beaten. Now it's true that you might be raised here. If that happens, you'll be forced to a decision. But decisions are what poker is all about. If you try and play in such a way that enables you to avoid tough decisions you aren't doing what it takes to become a long term winner. When you reach the river in a hand like this, your opponent will hold a hand that he will call with-but not bet with-far more often then he'll hold a hand that he'll raise with.*
Astute readers will notice that this hand ties in with the hand we discussed in the 'bet from nowhere' section. Remember, most of your opponents will want to call. It's in their blood. So give them a chance to do so! Although there are many nuances to river play, the rule of thumb is this: bet your hand if your opponent will call with more hands than he himself would bet with, and check if your opponent will bet with more hands than he would call with. If you keep this rule near to your heart, you'll be getting your opponent's money into the middle when he has the worst hand a high percentage of the time.
* This isn't true if your opponent is a maniac or a habitual bluffer. When you're up against someone like that it may be better to just check and try to induce a bluff. Notice that your objective is the same: namely, to get a few of your opponent's chips into the middle when you have the best hand. It's just the tactic that you're using to accomplish this that has changed. Maniacs and bluffers will bet with more hands than they'll call with (that's why they're called bluffers), so give them a chance to bluff.