Beat cash games 4

The best cash game players make the wallet-busting money on later streets when the action hots up

If a player makes a massive bet on the river, very often they have a strong hand

Having steered past the halfway point on our cash game journey, this month I’m going to look at playing hands through the turn and river. This is where the pots get big, the excitement mounts and, when you win, a large pile of money is pushed in your direction rather than useless play tournament chips. In short, this is where it counts. If our journey was Apocalypse Now this would be the bit where the puppy is killed and Marlon Brando is leering at us out of the darkness. Brace yourself…

First, I need to reiterate a very important point – that poker is a situational game, especially in the no-limit format. By the turn and river there are so many factors involved in your decisions that it’s impossible to give you rules to learn by rote. I’m going to give you some advice on recurring situations and some tools you can use to make your decisions, but bear in mind there will be situations against certain players where it’s right to do something entirely different. Remember, playing the player is everything in this game – so much so that I’ll be devoting the entirety of next month’s article to it.

In it to win it

So let’s start with the good stuff – winning the big pots and making lots of money! Most players know that you make money by minimising losses and maximising wins. But I believe most players and writers spend too much time on the former and not enough time on the latter. In cash games your big hands come along very rarely so it’s vital to get paid on them.

The biggest mistake inexperienced cash game players make is making small bets with their big hands because they’re terrified of not getting paid and want to ‘sucker’ their opponents in rather than scare them off. This is usually wrong. Bear in mind that on the flop the pot is usually relatively small compared to the stacks in play. When you have a big hand you want to get all your opponents’ chips in the middle and you should be working out how to do that.

Often this will be by leading out or checkraising on the flop, then following that up by making decent size (three quarters of the pot or more) bets on the turn and/or river. Don’t be afraid to experiment with the size of your bets or the betting pattern you use when you have a big hand and want to get paid – find out what works best in your game against your opponents.

One very important concept to grasp is not to be afraid of betting big on the river, as it may be your most profitable play. Generally speaking, players don’t move in on the river enough, but you should embrace the idea of maximising your expectation (see River Raid, right).


Reading players’ hands is a vital skill in nolimit Hold’em. A frightening amount of players make betting decisions based on their own hands plus – at best – a hunch about what they’re up against. Don’t be one of these players. From the first action in the hand you should be working hard to narrow down the range of hands your opponent is likely to be holding based on their actions. Try to start thinking in this way now. You’ll find it hard at first, but with practise you’ll be rewarded when you see a hand turned up that you put someone on. Now log what happened – the betting and body language – in your memory, and try to repeat next time you play. It’s worth remembering, though, that a certain percentage of the time opponents may be bluffing, so try not to get wedded to one idea about opponents’ hands.

Bets are what count in no-limit Hold’em – they’re the best guide you have. If a player makes a massive bet on the river, very often they have a strong hand. So if your opponent makes a big bet and the only hand you’re scared of is 8-6 for a straight, which they would have had to make on the river, you need to stop and seriously consider that they may well turn over 8-6 when you call.

Drawn-out affair

Playing draws in no-limit games is a lot like dating – it’s often expensive and hard to know when it’s going to be worth it. It’s probably true to say that good players make a lot of profit from bad players chasing their draws against the good player’s made hand. It’s also true that bad players often under-bet their made hands and give good players the correct odds to draw.

It’s vital that you know the basic odds of drawing hands on the flop and on the turn. If this is something you’ve skirted around in the past don’t continue – it’s really not complicated and it’s vital for your profit. You must understand that the visibility of your draws is extremely important when considering whether to play on or not. If you’re not going to get any additional money if your flush hits you need the right pot odds to make a call. By contrast if you’re drawing to a straight that isn’t obvious (say you hold J-8 on a 2-9-10 flop) you can bank on some implied odds. Also, don’t ignore the value of gutshot draws. Obviously you don’t want to be putting a lot of money into the pot with them, but it’s often so difficult for your opponents to put you on these hands that when they hit you can win a big pot.

The price you’re being charged on the bet may not be the end of the story. If there are players behind you be particularly wary, as the action may not be over; also, if you miss you’ll probably face a bigger bet on the next street. The bottom line is that players play draws too often and for too much money in no-limit ring games. So if you’re going to draw, do it against weak players who will charge you too little and then pay you off when you hit.

Pot noddle

Controlling the size of the pot is a skill all the top no-limit players have, but its importance is often lost on amateurs. Start thinking about it and using it in your play now and it will serve you well for years. As I’ve said before you should be playing big pots with big hands and small pots with small hands. Be careful in no-limit Hold’em – top pair is rarely a big enough hand to play a big pot with. Keep pots small when you have a marginal hand.

This means that sometimes you’ll need to check and give your opponents a free card. The risk that you’ll be outdrawn exists but it’s preferable to making big bets when you could be beaten.

Realise that if you hold a hand and you’re not sure whether it’s good or not you often need to make a decision about it on the turn because you will face the same decision for more money on the river. If a player is willing to bet their hand or raise you on the turn you’re likely to face a bigger bet on the river. If your hand has little chance of improving (for example, top pair with an average kicker) you should often throw it away.

A special note if you’re playing in low stakes games: action on the turn is something you should usually take very seriously. Many players play their good hands the same way – slowly on the flop then strongly on the turn.

Make pot odds your friend in cash games. For example, let’s say you need to make a marginal decision on the river, which is a call for a significant amount of money. Your first question should be – what price am I getting on this call? Your decision should flow from there. For example, let’s say you face a bet on the river and there’s some chance your hand may be good. Your first action is to compare the size of the bet to the pot. So if there’s $50 in the pot and your opponent bets $25 you’re getting odds of 3/1 on your call. So you need to establish if there’s a 3/1 (or 25% if you prefer) chance of your hand being good.

Now a huge number of factors go into this decision – the cards on the board, the previous action in the hand, your opponent’s tendencies, your holding and so on. Again, experience will help you make this kind of assessment but the sooner you start thinking in this way the better it’ll be for your game.

Building blocks

Whether you’re a beginner or a world champion playing out of position just plain sucks (that’s a technical no-limit term), and no more so than when you’re first to act with a marginal hand on the river. One technique you should begin to experiment with is using blocking bets on the river. These are useful when you have a hand that may or may not be good, as it can allow you to control the size of a pot and counter a potential bluff from your opponent.

For instance, say you hold A-K, the board is 4-J-K-9-2, and you’re first to act in a heads-up pot. The problem here is that if you lead out and are beaten you may be raised and end up in a big pot with just one pair. Alternatively, if you check you may face a big bet and a tough decision as to where you are in the hand. Instead it’s worth trying a bet of 15-20% of the pot. Now if you’re raised you’re normally beaten and it’s time to fold. However, keep in mind that blocking bets are not as effective against good players who may see it as weak and raise you.

Adding these ideas to your cash play will improve your results. Don’t be afraid to experiment in your play and find a style that works best for you against the opponents you’re trying to beat. Next month I’ll focus on how to adjust your play based on the other players you face. Until then, let’s get the money together.

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