Posts Tagged playing the river

Playing the River in No Limit Hold em (With Eric Lynch “Rizen”)

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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Winning Poker Play – Playing the River in No Limit Hold em

Hold em Poker Strategy, Tips & Advice Section

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).

Love poker, but want to earn some money from the game? Visit and preview a sample chapter from Poker Tips that Pay: Expert Strategy Guide for Winning No Limit Texas Hold em, by poker author Jonathan Gelling.

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