Getting it on the river – Bart Hanson shows you how to maximise your value

Live cash game pro, Bart Hanson, explains how you can maximise value on the river by exploiting the common mistakes that live players make

If you want to become an expert NLHE player you should really work on depolarising your river betting range. Most players have a polarised range on the river – they only bet bluffs or very strong hands. This is partly because they don’t want to face a raise. They have subconsciously countered this flaw in their game (not being able to bet-fold for value) by simply not betting.

I call this type of player a ‘showdown monkey’. He loses tons of value so that he can get to showdown for free. The funny thing is that when you get raised on the river, whether in or out of position, your opponent is bluffing so infrequently that you are almost never getting the correct pot odds to call. So he is scared of a bluff that basically never happens.

As good players we know how important it is to make thin value bets in order to achieve a top winrate. When we bet hands that are not strong or weak on the river we are depolarising our range. If we can effectively make this adjustment we become very difficult to play against, and it is hard to catch us when we’re bluffing.

Example 1: Knowing when to bet

Let’s take a look at an example. In a $5/$5 game with effective stacks of $800, UTG raises to $25 and there are three callers including us, in position on the button. We hold K-J. The flop comes out Q-2-3. The UTG player bets $80 into the pot. The two players fold in between and we call. The chances are that UTG is pretty strong as he has bet close to pot on somewhat of a wet board into three other players. His hand is most likely at least a Queen or an overpair. The turn is the 9 and he bets large again, this time $200.

We have picked up additional outs to a Queen or an overpair as a Ten brings us a straight. We call again. The river is the K and now our opponent checks. The pot is $660 and he has $500 left. Should we bet?

To answer this question we have to do some simple hand reading. It is obvious that our opponent has shown a good amount of strength by raising under the gun and betting close to pot on the flop and turn. He could have A-A, K-K, A-Q, K-Q or maybe Q-J. Which of these hands check the river when a King falls? It is very unlikely that he checks K-Q or K-K. A-A is close because again our opponents are showdown monkeys and do not want to be raised off the best hand. So it is possible that he has A-A but I think that A-Q or Q-J is more likely. If we bet will he call? In this situation our hand looks so much like a flush draw I think he will definitely try and catch our bluff.

What happens if we check behind? We lose the value bet amount that he would call with A-Q and Q-J, and we also start to have a polarised river betting range, which is something we want to move away from.

If we only have K-Q or a busted flush draw he can profitably check-call a decent sized bet, especially since he has a Queen blocker to K-Q. If we are good enough to bet any single paired King here (running into the river with a flush draw) then he cannot profitably bluff catch us because we have other, medium strength hands in our range that he loses to – we are not only very strong or weak.

Not only do we make extra money making these thin value bets, but we make it much harder for our opponents to play against us, and it opens the door for us to bluff more against people who are paying attention.

Example 2: Bet/folding

Bet-folding is a critical no-limit concept that refers to betting with a hand that you think is best and then folding to a raise. 

Let’s take a look at an example. We raise in early position with A-A to $10 in a $1/$2 no-limit game with $300 effective stacks and the button calls. The board comes out K-5-2. We bet out $20 and our opponent calls. The turn is the T. We bet $50 and are called again. The river is the 7 completing the flush. Most players at the $1/$2 level would check-call here. However, if we look at the combinations of hands that would call both our big flop and turn bets, we see that there is more chance our opponent has top pair. If our opponent does have a hand like K-Q or K-J he will merely check back the river and we will win. However, if we make a small value bet, especially at this level, we are likely to get called. If our opponent was on a flush draw he will most likely raise the river and we can fold.

You really should be bet-folding most rivers when you have what appears to be the best hand, unless the board runs out in a way where it is difficult to get called by worse.

When to check-call on the river

There are two reasons to check-call the river. The first and most common is to induce a bluff. The best time to do this is when your hand is only medium strength and it is tough for you to get called by worse if you bet again. Let’s use the same example from above but change our hand from A-A to K-J and change the river to a 7.

We again bet both the flop and turn, but on the river our hand basically loses to any other King that would call a preflop raise. There is not a lot of value in betting again because the flush draws will fold. You may want to consider check-calling if you think your opponent is capable of bluffing a flush draw. You would never want to make this play with a hand like A-A or A-K because you will lose all the value from those weaker Kings on the river.

The second reason to check-call the river usually only applies in bigger, tougher games, or against good players. Basically you check to get your opponents to ‘value-own’ themselves – betting a hand they think is best and getting called by better. Sometimes it’s best to allow your opponents to value-own themselves because if you bet the river they might fold.

Here is an example. Let’s say a 70-year-old tight guy raises to $50 from up front in a $5/$10 no-limit game with A-Q and $1,500 effective stacks. A young, skilled professional covers him and calls in position with K-Q. The board comes out Q-5-2. The 70-year-old bets out $75 and the professional calls. The turn is the 9. The old guy bets $100 and the professional calls once again. The river is the 3 and the old guy checks. The professional, wanting to make it look like he missed a flush draw, bets big – $300 for value. The old guy calls and scoops the pot.

If the old guy had bet $300 on the river there is a good chance that the professional would have folded his hand. Three bets from a tight upfront player is usually going to mean that K-Q is no good. However, since the old guy checked, he actually gets the professional to value-own himself, making even more money as a result.

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