Every poker session is an opportunity to learn. I observed the following hand at a Caesar’s Palace $1/2 game and since I was not directly involved in the action, the lesson had the added benefit of being completely free.

An early position player limps, a middle position player makes it $12, and the big blind and the limper both call. Relevant stacks are around $300 effective. The flop comes


and it is checked to the preflop raiser who bets and gets called by the big blind. The turn is the


and the action goes check-bet-call.

The river is the


and there is $180 in the pot.

When I’m not involved in a hand I try, and sometimes succeed, to follow the action and figure out what the combatants are holding. As the big blind shoved a $100 stack of red into the pot out of flow, I felt my brow furrowing. “I guess he has an 8,” I said to myself and studied the bettor in a (futile) attempt to pick up a tell in case I got into a pot with him later.

The preflop raiser went into the tank. This player is a friend of mine who doesn’t stall needlessly. He was clearly reviewing the action and had a close decision. Eventually he tossed a single chip forward.

“You got it,” said the big blind and flipped over A♥T♥. Our hero tabled 9c9s and pulled in the pot. “Nice call,” I murmured.

At the first opportunity I pulled my friend aside to quiz him on the hand.

“Skill number two…” I spluttered, “…chicken hawk declaration,” referring to principles articulated by Miller and Hull, respectively, dictating that the river spot was a fold.

“If Old Man Coffee makes that lead I fold like a cheap suit,’ replied my friend, “but you’ve been watching this guy. He’s in a lot of pots and can mix it up.”



“All fabric folds easily. Cheap suitcases are made of cardboard. I still don’t see how you make that call? I figured villain had an 8.”

Have another look at the action above and ask yourself if you make this call? I think it’s useful to distinguish here between the initial instinctive reaction, whether your decision changes if you contemplate this for a minute or so, and ultimately what conclusion we reach by slinging the hand on Equilab and doing a full analysis.

The first lesson I learned from this hand is a simple but important one. I’m almost certain that confronted by the $100 river bet I would have folded fairly quickly. My reasoning (if one can elevate the thought process to the level of reason) would be that I am beaten by any stray 8 or 6 and there are a lot of hands containing one of those key cards. But however one breaks down this hand, it soon becomes apparent that folding quickly is a mistake.

I made a note in my phone to spend more time on river decisions when facing a big bet. Mistakes in these spots are expensive.

So how did my friend find this call in real time? Let’s start with the sort of rough approximation that one can reasonably make while sitting at the table, then dig deeper to see how well we did with the shallow approach.

The first step is to assign villain a preflop calling range. Given what I’d seen of this player and the effective stacks, small-to-medium pairs, broadways, suited connectors, and suited aces all seem plausible. $1/2 players will frequently flat rather than 3-bet TT and JJ, so let’s provisionally leave those hands in but assume QQ+ would be 3-bet.

Do the overpairs that beat us make sense here? Not really. Villain’s river bet is fairly large and probably polarizing. With TT/JJ I would expect a smaller river blocking bet or a check with the possible intention of calling.

What about the straights? The only really plausible one is the T9, but our hand double-blocks this leaving only two combos of T9s. I’d also expect that hand to check-raise the turn fairly frequently, thereby further reducing the likelihood of this holding.

Flopped quads and boats? Probably consistent with the action, although many players might throw in a small turn raise in an attempt to get all the money in. More to the point, perhaps, these hands have a small number of combos.

All we’re left we are singleton 6s and 8s that I instinctively assigned villain. This is where a bit more thought is required, but in retrospect it’s quite clear to me that you can do far better in real time than I typically achieve.

First note that given the board and our holding, there are no available combos of 98s! 76s combos are also limited by the board. So without doing any detailed work we can conclude that villain must be flatting pre with suited gappers in order to have many 8s and 6s. Then ask if a 6 ever plays this way? Like the straight possibility, I would expect a check-raise somewhere earlier in the hand. I think my initial reaction at the table had some merit in that the betting action is mostly consistent with an 8, but it’s very difficult to find many 8s that villain can actually hold here.

I mentioned above the out-of-flow nature and size of the villain’s river lead is polarizing. We’ve now established that there are few hands that actually beat us, but to complete the story can we find sufficient bluffs? The question is obviously answered once we’ve seen the showdown, but I think in real time it is perfectly reasonable to conclude villain takes this line with far more missed flush draws than hands that beat us. Indeed this was precisely the reasoning of my friend who found the call. He also noted that since he held no heart blockers this made the call easier.

Something that has traditionally frustrated me is the difficulty I have in translating off-the-table hand-reading exercises into better decisions at the table. There are many videos and other resources here at RCP on this topic, but despite diligently working on this area of my game I know, as already stated, that I wouldn’t have found the call with this hand in real time.

And then I had a light-bulb moment. It’s hands like these, whether observed or played, that are ideal for off-the-table analysis! In other words, rather than (or at least in addition to) working through constructed hands that have never actually happened to you, work on ones that you’ve played or observed where you made a mistake.

I’m also convinced that it is much better to do such exercises than be spoon-fed the results, so I am not going to present here a detailed analysis of this hand. However, there are a couple of general results that I found very interesting that I’ll leave here as further incentive for you undertake your own analysis.

The starting point for any hand-reading analysis is assigning our opponent a preflop range. As I discussed in “Know Thine Enemy”, I’ve been actively working on this by tracking VPIP/PFR of regular opponents, with the pleasing result that even with new players I’m getting much better at quickly getting some idea of the range of hands they are playing.

Implicit in the “real time” analysis summarized above is that this particular villain would defend with many suited connectors and suited aces. This is not true of all opponents, particularly when they are out of position, but it fits the observed profile of this one. Whether such a player would flat suited one-gappers in this spot is less clear. So in my detailed analysis I varied the preflop range and went through the usual process of pruning hands given the action on each street.

I suspect part of my motivation for really digging into this hand was feeling piqued at the knowledge I would have incorrectly folded the 99 on the river. I was trying different ranges in the hope I’d find the decision was close. But I couldn’t. One amusing thing about this hand, which I suspect has broader applicability, is that changing the range does not have a significant affect on the ratio of bluffs to value hands that villain leads on the end.

Specifically, if we open up villain’s range to include hands as weak as 64s, for example, thereby populating his value hands with more 6s, this inevitably adds in more hands that flop flush draws. In fact the only reasonably self-consistent way I could find of pushing down the number of villain’s river bluffs was to make the arbitrary assumption that he check-raised the majority of his flush draws on the flop. With the benefit of hindsight we obviously know this is unlikely, but the take-away is that for a “range of ranges” it’s simply very difficult to find a high enough value-to-bluff ratio that our decision on the end is anything but a call.

The other result that really smacked me in the face was the importance of hero’s blockers. In addition to limiting villain’s straights, this completely eliminates 98s from villain’s hands as discussed above. It is obvious if you think about it clearly, but I’m embarrassed to say I only noticed this when using Equilab.

These types of analyses can never be perfect even when we have the benefit of unlimited time and poker software. If you do choose to analyze this situation and reach conclusions contrary to mine I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

  • persuadeo

    There are several things that help the call, including the nines blocking nut hands. A better strategy would check the river in order to introduce a check raise, assuming there is room for it. Even so, laying about 3:1 means even if villain does all a number of eights, he has all hearts and pair plus combo draws that are now worthless, such as the 75hh. If we give him no unsuited 98, but still two combos of A8s, two 87s maybe two combos of 77, quads, and one crazy overpair, it’s still a call give he can have any number of heart and combos that can lead when all we need is 25% to break even.

    Villain’s real error, when having all these missed combos, is utilizing the merged pricing construction on the end, wagering ownership of the the board at a modest price and disregarding that he should polarized because of the strength and rarity of what is being repped. If he must lead and can’t check raise because of stacks, the sizing is simply too small to be right, and realizes on players simply playing their hand rather than the game.