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Winning Poker Play - Playing the River in No Limit Hold em
by Jonathan Gelling
There are four betting rounds in Texas Hold em. If there's no limit betting, that's four opportunities to earn an opponent's entire stack. The fact that there are so many opportunities for high-stakes betting is why Doyle Brunson called no limit hold em the "Cadillac of poker" in his original Super System. With so many opportunities to extract value from your hand,
a talented poker player can make a lot of money playing this game vs. traditional draw poker with only two betting rounds (one before and one after drawing).
To be a winning poker player you need to have a unique strategy for each of the betting rounds: pre-flop, on the flop, on the turn, and finally on the river. Your bets should tell a consistent story: either representing strength or weakness as the cards continue to fall. Sometimes you'll want to represent a strong hand as weak, or a weak hand as being strong. But either way,
by the time the river rolls around you need to have a clear goal in mind for your hand. You need to judge the strength of your hand, the likely strength of your opponent's hand, and the size of the pot, and then determine how you want to play the river.
After the river card has fallen, you and your opponent will have one of three types of hands. Playing the river in no limit hold em effectively is a matter of categorizing your own hand strength and matching it up to that of your opponent:
- A weak hand, like a busted draw - If you've missed your draw and have nothing (except possibly ace-high), it's bluff or check-fold time. You can't bluff by calling, and you probably can't win a showdown unless your opponent has also missed some type of draw.
You now need to judge how likely a bluff is to work on the river, and whether it's worth taking a chance. This is where most inexperienced players make their biggest mistake: novice players bluff too much on the river when their opponent has shown clear interest in the pot.
The river is not a good time for a last-minute bluff, especially if you've shown strength earlier in the hand. An opponent that has invested in three prior rounds of betting is looking for a showdown. He likes his cards and isn't going to fold to a random, last-minute show of strength.
This is especially true if he called a healthy bet on the turn. Most players are not chasing a draw after a healthy bet on the turn, since they aren't getting the express pot odds to continue drawing. Tricky (or incompetent) players may be hoping the implied odds of catching a miracle card on the river
will more than make up for overpaying on the turn, but this is usually unlikely.
Summary: If you have a weak hand and your opponent also has a weak hand, you should bluff. But note that your opponent is only likely to be weak if he's shown no interest in the pot (i.e. he hasn't bet or called on earlier rounds of betting). You should also avoid bluffing
unless the river card could have plausibly given you some kind of hand. A big bluff on the river after passively checking earlier streets isn't very believable if a card like the deuce of diamonds comes on the river.
If you have a weak hand on the river and your opponent has a medium-strength hand (one-pair, perhaps not even top pair), you should bluff only if the board is very frightening and a scare card has come on the river. Scary boards include boards with likely straights, flushes, or if a card like
an ace falls on the river. If you're going to bluff on a scary board hoping your opponent can lay his hand down, make sure you bluff a healthy amount: 2/3 of the pot or more. The stronger your opponent is, the more you'll need to bet to force a laydown. You also need to make sure you're up against
a tight player that can actually lay a hand down: you should never try to bluff loose, calling stations.
If you have a weak hand and your opponent has a strong hand, you check-fold. You were probably chasing with some kind of draw, and your opponent has been consistently aggressive throughout the hand. You cut your losses and fold, even if your opponent doesn't have the nuts. It's too risky to bluff if
your opponent is likely to have a hand like two-pair or better.
- A medium-strength hand, like a pair - One of the key rules to playing the river in no limit hold em is this: don't bet a medium-strength hand on the river. If you have a hand that could win a showdown, but there are a lot of hands that could beat you, you don't want to invest any
more money in the pot than you have to. Your objective with a hand like one pair (even if it's top pair, depending on how threatening the board is) is to see a showdown as cheaply as possible. Now, if you're out of position against a loose, aggressive player, it might be cheaper to lead out with a bet, trying to
cut off a larger bet from your opponent (which could be a bluff). So you might bet a medium-strength hand on the river defensively, to head off a larger bet. But the goal remains the same: you want to see if your hand is any good by going to the showdown. You don't want to risk a big raise on the river that
will keep you from seeing the showdown if you can help it.
Summary: If you have a medium-strength hand on the river it doesn't matter what your opponent holds. Playing the river with a medium-strength hand means limiting the size of the pot and seeing the showdown as cheaply as possible. Usually this means checking and calling any reasonable bet from your opponent if you're out of position, or checking behind
your opponent in position. If your opponent puts you to the test with a very large bet, you're faced with one of the toughest decisions in no limit hold em. You have to have some sort of read on your opponent to know how to play in this spot.
- A strong hand, two-pair or better - If you have a strong hand relative to the board (not necessarily the nuts, but cards that are probably better than any hand your opponent is likely to hold), you want to extract maximum value from your hand. A lot of novice players think that winning poker play is
mainly a matter of bluffing. The truth is that winning poker play is more a matter of effective value betting than aggressive bluffing. One or two extra value bets over the course of a session -- especially on the river where the bets are largest -- can make the difference between a winning and a losing session.
So if you find yourself with a strong hand on the river, you need to try to get an extra value bet in.
Summary: If you have a strong hand on the river and your opponent has a weak hand, you should check to your opponent to allow him to bluff. Very few players will try a huge check-raise bluff on the river (it's simply too expensive and unlikely to work), so if you bet into your opponent and he's weak, he'll fold
without paying you off. If you have a strong hand on the river and your opponent has any kind of hand, you should bet right into him for value, perhaps even hoping for a raise. The risk is simply too great that your opponent will check-behind you with a medium-strength hand, fearing exactly the type of strong hand that you have.
This article extracted from Poker Tips that Pay: Expert Strategy Guide for Winning No Limit Texas Hold em (author Jonathan Gelling, Play to Pay Publishing).
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Hold em Poker Strategy, Tips & Advice Section