One of the rules I put forward in Poker Tips that Pay, and that’s conventional wisdom in no limit hold em play, is that you don’t bet a medium-strength hand on the river. If you’re betting the river, it’s for one of two reasons: (1) you have a strong hand and believe your opponent has a good, second-best hand you can extract value from; or (2) you have a weak hand and believe your opponent has a hand he may lay down to the right bet. If you have a medium-strength hand, it doesn’t matter what your opponent has: if he’s strong you’re probably going to call him down, and if he’s weak you check to him and let him bluff. But you don’t bet and risk getting raised off your medium-strength hand.


With that in mind I was surprised to read one of the hand examples from an otherwise excellent book, Winning Poker Tournaments One Hand at a Time: Vol. I, by Eric Lynch (a top Internet pro who goes by the screen name “Rizen”). In Hand 89, he details a situation where it’s folded around to him on the button. At blinds of 300/600 (75 antes) on the bubble of a $150 online tournament, he makes a standard raise to $1800 with KQ offsuit. He’s called by the loose, aggressive big blind who “has been defending his blinds very aggressively” and “making big check-raise and multistreet bluffs.” After the pre-flop raise, the pot contains $4,575, Lynch has $37,140 behind and the big blind has $14,570.


The flop comes 532 rainbow and the big blind checks. Rizen prudently decides to check behind, as this is not an ideal flop for a continuation bet. If he leads out at this board he’d be representing at best an ace with a gutshot straight draw. If he bets here he might get check-raised by an aggressive opponent holding any two cards.


The turn brings a Q, giving Rizen top pair, king-kicker. The big blind again checks, and given that it’s extremely likely he has the best hand right here, Lynch fires $3,000 into the pot. The big blind quickly calls. Now the pot is $10,575 and the river brings a 6, completing an open-ended straight draw. The big blind has $11,570 behind him and Lynch has $34,140 remaining in his stack. The big blind checks.


What do you do in this spot? You’re on the bubble of a big online tournament and you hold top-pair, second-kicker on a board of 532Q6. If you’re Lynch, this is still a great opportunity for a value bet. He fires $4,000, and is quickly check-raised all-in for an additional $7,570. He calls, and his opponent turns over Q6. He made two pair on the river and decided to extract maximum value from his hand, doubling up in this pot.


Now, why wasn’t the big blind afraid to get all his money in on the river with Q6 and a four card straight on board? The answer is simple: any half-way aggressive opponent would’ve bet that flop with an open-ended straight draw or a set. But Rizen checked the flop, indicating he missed completely. When he bet the turn after being checked to twice, he either had a queen somewhere in the range of QT-AQ or complete air, so the big blind decided to prudently stick around with top pair and an inside straight draw. And the big blind checked the river to induce a bluff, believing it was more likely than not that Rizen couldn’t call a bet, but would probably fire another bullet if checked to. The big blind’s play was perfect from beginning to end, minus the questionable decision to call pre-flop at all with a mediocre holding like Q6 suited.


But Lynch defends his decision to value bet the river with top-pair, second-kicker and complains that it was just unlucky that the big blind ended up hitting two pair on the river. True, it was an unfortunate river card. But in my mind there’s absolutely no reason to put another $11,570 in a $10,570 pot on the river after his hand became quite vulnerable. Notice how expensive the river became: more money was put in on the river than on all the other streets combined! In effect, Lynch was betting MORE on the river that he had the best hand than he had in the whole hand up to that point, despite the arrival of a four-card straight on a coordinated board.


I also hate the decision to call the all-in check-raise for another $7,570 after making the poor decision to try to value bet the river. A relatively small, all-in check-raise on the river is almost never a bluff, especially at stakes like this. Even at that point in the hand, Rizen could have folded and maintained his stack of over $30,000 in chips. Is it really very likely that his opponent expected him to fold for $7,570 in an $18,575 pot? How many opponents are going to fold getting around around 2.5:1 on a call with a stack as large as Rizen’s? By calling that check-raise, he was reduced to a middling stack of $23,000. If he’d played the river prudently and checked behind with his medium-strength hand, he’d have over $34,000 and would still be among the chip leaders at the table.


What do you think? Would you have been afraid of the fast call by your opponent on the turn? Would you have bet top-pair, second-kicker on this board and this action? Would you have called an all-in check-raise on the river? Remember, one of the main reasons we love playing position in poker is so we can control the size of the pot. And no street is more important to pot control than the most expensive one: the river. Being in position means you can always check behind and minimize your investment in the hand.


So how would you have played the river here?

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