Facing tough river decisions and big bets while holding non-nut hands… it’s what no limit hold ’em is all about! Even though this will happen comparitively rarely in your session, these decisions have an outsized effect on shaping your win rate. It’s critical you get these spots right. This week, three coaches review three tough river spots and break down each street to detail their strategic thinking.

Featuring: Adam Jones, Doug Hull, James 'SplitSuit' Sweeney

Speaker 1: So the action goes like this. Hero is in the cutoff with king jack off-suit. The suits don’t matter too much for the purposes of this hand. Hero open raises for 2.5 big blinds, which is a very standard cutoff open and the big blind decides to three bet.

So let’s start with the pre-flop situation. What should we be calling here? In most cases, we could just fold this hand pre-flop. Though it is worth noting that the big blind is somewhat aggro. Apparently he has an 11% three bet from the big blind although we only have 552 tracked hands, so it’s very difficult to know whether that’s really accurate for positional three bets. That’s probably not, but there’s a reasonable chance he’s quite aggressive.

Should we defend king jack off-suit? Well it won’t be a terrible defend. It might just be defendable but it won’t be very profitable and there are going to be some difficult post-flop decisions involved. So I much prefer folding pre-flop, maybe even bet folding as a bluff, but mostly just folding in this case. I don’t think we need to really get involved in this scenario.

Here it is called. The flop comes king, three, two, two tone. We don’t have any spades so we have no backdoor flush draws in this case. We basically have top pair, weakest kicker when you consider that it’s a three bet pot. In a single raised pot maybe a jack is a pretty good kicker, but in a three bet pot, a jack is not going to be a great kicker. Because we think about the type of king X hands the big blind is three betting. He’s likely to have things like king queen and ace king. But not so likely to have things like king 10, king 9. Although of course he may have some bluff ranges involving some weaker kings but for the most part, we have to think of a jack kicker as not being super strong in this spot.

However, we do still have top pair, so when the big blind decides to bet half pot on the flop, there’s no way that we can really ever go anywhere. We have to call because although it’s possible that big blind has a better king, there are also other hands that he can have that maybe he used to bluff with pre-flop or even value bet pre-flop and then missed. He can have things like ace queen, ace jack, ace 10, maybe with a back door flush draw. You beat all of these hands. Maybe he was bluffing with something like king six pre-flop now we actually have the best kicker. Maybe he has something like a spade draw as well. We don’t know exactly what his pre-flop pre-betting range was, but there’s definitely a chance he was bluffing this flop with some frequency. You can’t just go around folding top pair with a decent kicker. So it’s a pretty straightforward flop call.

The turn, it gets a little bit closer, but generally speaking, we’re not going to fold top pairs to a second barrel unless there’s something else going on with the board texture. Maybe a whole bunch of draws complete on the turn. Maybe it’s four to a flush, four to a straight. But unless something extreme is happening with the board texture or we have some kind of sick read on our opponent where we know he just never double barrel bluffs in a three bet pot, then we’re generally going to be calling two streets with a top pair type hand.

Another extreme thing that might happen is maybe our opponent has some kind of bet sizing tell. Maybe he bets pot size on flop and turn, then maybe we can fall to a second barrel. When he just bets two regular sized bets, half pot on the flop, two thirds on the turn, we’re not going to be folding top pair in this scenario.

The river comes, the six of clubs. Now the first interesting thing to note here is that the four card straight does actually complete. All of the backdoor flush draws brick, but if our opponent has a five, he now has a straight. Now at first that may seem like it makes it an easy call, but then some of us are wondering how exactly does this guy have a five? It’s not that likely, although there are a few five X hands you could have, maybe he was bluffing pre-flop with ace five suited or something. But generally speaking, we’re not going to imagine that he has a five X that frequently in this pot.

Which then leads us to the next question: if he does have a value hand like a king X or a set and he sees that the four to a straight has got there, why is he still shoving all in. So now we start to level ourselves and we start to think well this guy, he’s not repping a king X. Okay, he’s trying to rep a five but he doesn’t have any fives, so now we start to believe that maybe our king jack’s a good bluff catcher because this guy is now apparently repping a very narrow range but there are a number of problems with this.

Firstly, maybe this guy doesn’t even know the four to a straight got there. Which means he could be value betting stuff like aces, pocket kings. Maybe he’s even value betting stuff like ace king in this spot because maybe he doesn’t realize that six should change a few things on the river. So that’s the first issue.

Secondly, players just don’t bluff in this scenario at all. This is one of the population tendencies that we have to get familiar with if we want to get good at lower limit games. It’s very very straightforward. Players do not triple barrel bluff with anywhere near close to the frequency with which they’re supposed to triple barrel.

So basically, we’d need to be good, maybe somewhere in the region about 30% of the time to make the call here. Now this means our opponent’s bluffing frequency would have to be around about that frequency, around about 30%. Why do we say this? Because he’s probably not value betting any worse hands. In other words, our king jack of diamonds is a bluff catcher here. I don’t expect him to be value betting king 10 ever. So basically, we only win here on the river if our opponent is bluffing, and based on the pot odds being offered, I haven’t actually done any calculation, presumably we need to be good around 30% of the time in order to make the call in this scenario.

So because we only win when our opponent’s bluffing, that means he must be bluffing or needs to be bluffing at that frequency, just above 30%, in order for us to have a profitable call. In fact, if this player was trying to follow a game theory approach to poker, then those are the frequencies he should be using. He should be bluffing just over 30% of the time. He should be value betting the remaining 68% or so, whatever the exact numbers are. But the truth is, the average micro-stakes play is nowhere near those frequencies. Perhaps they’re supposed to bluff 30% but in reality they’re probably bluffing about 10% or 15% here on the river.

So how can we exploit that information to make good river decisions when facing a triple barrel? The basic idea here is that given that our opponent is never bluffing with a high enough frequency for us to have a profitable call with any bluff catcher, it’s mandatory that we also beat part of their value range. So here’s a simple thought process we can follow. Question number one, what is the weakest hand our opponent is triple barreling for value? And in this scenario, let’s give him credit for not really understanding the board right now. Let’s say he has ace king in this spot. That means we have to at least be able to beat ace king in order to make a call. Because anything weaker than ace king is just a bluff catcher and our opponent’s bluffing frequency is not going to be high enough for us to have a profitable call.

So if his weakest value hand is ace king, then the absolute weakest hand we can think about calling in this case is going to be something like pocket aces. Maybe we think his value range is actually tighter than that. Maybe we think he is intelligent and he can’t even value bet aces here because he doesn’t expect us to pay him off with a king. So let’s say his weakest value hand is now going to be something like a set. Well we’re going to need at least a set ourselves or we’re going to need something like a five X to make the call here. That may actually be a more accurate representation of how a reasonable reg would play at these limits. When we say reasonable reg, we’re assuming that many of the regulars at the micro stakes games also have this issue where they don’t really understand when to triple barrel bluff, but maybe they do but they’re too scared to pull the trigger.

So just in general, lower limit games, when we face a three barrel bluff, if we put our opponent on his weakest value hand, we have to at least be able to beat that hand to even think about making the call. So in this example, we have king jack, it’s a pure bluff catcher, we shouldn’t assume our opponent’s bluffing frequency is high enough for a profitable call. This is a really really straightforward fold at the lower limit games.

Speaker 2: 17 minutes and 13 folds later, I have ace queen off suit in the big blind. There’s a raise to $20 from $4 off the button. I call in the big blind. The flop comes 10, seven, deuce with two hearts, so I’ve got the ace of hearts. Kind of important. I check, he bets $30 and I call. So this is kind of the standard way I’m going to play this hand. Again, I’m calling here basically because of the 30th percentile rule. He can have king high type hands and the board is connected but it’s not crazy connected. It’s got the two hearts, but it’s got a deuce and stuff. Ace queen off suit is not one of my worst hands that I have here. I don’t want to just check and fold and to boot, I’ve got the ace of hearts, which pretty much locks me into calling from my perspective. I’m definitely not going to fold this hand, so.

It’s actually possible to check raise here. I’d say because of that ace of hearts I would rarely check raise here without the ace of hearts. I think the ace of hearts, because it allows me to make the nuts, gives me that little bit of chance to make the nuts here. Makes me want to check raise sometimes. So I think that’s an okay play, but I just check called here.

An ace comes on the turn. I check. He bets $65 so I call. Hopefully that’s kind of obvious why I’m calling there. The river’s the king of hearts. I check and he bets $165. So now this is definitely a tough spot and normally in $2/$5 I’m totally going to default to folding this spot. Here, I chose to call and the reason I chose to call was I was in the big blind, I called from the big blind, I check called, and I check called again. And the river comes the king of hearts. He could definitely think maybe I’ve got a 10 and he’s going to just bet me off my 10. And the other thing is I’ve got the ace of hearts, so that makes it a little bit less likely that he’s going to have a flush.

A lot of people are not going to value bet really very thinly in this spot, and I think they’re going to over-bluff in this spot because they’re not going to value bet, they might not value bet a hand like 10 seven, maybe, that they flopped. Or something like that because the flush came on the river and the stacks are a little bit deep, and there’s an ace on board. So I just think there’s a lot of hands that he’s maybe going to check back, or if he value bets, he’s going to value bet smaller, like $90. So I think he’s kind of polarized when he bets $165. And I have the ace of hearts which rips out a bunch of the value hands that he could be betting here. It means really he barreled the turn with a flush draw, if he’s got a flush, which a lot of people won’t do, they’ll take the free card.

So all that together, I just kind of said well he’s kind of polarized on the river based on his bet size and he’s repping a flush, and I’ve got the nut flush blocker card, and you know, the entire scenario requires him to have taken a betting line that a lot of these $2/$5 players don’t take. So I called and he did have the flush and he actually flopped the gut shot straight flush draw which explains his flush bet.

So anyway, that’s just kind of my thinking there. Again, I typically am going to fold to that $165 bet. I actually would have folded without the ace of hearts, even though I have the pair of aces but that ace of hearts combined with everything else kind of swayed me to a call.

Speaker 3: Okay, in this next hand I have kings and raised from under the gun to $10 and usually I’m just going to choose kind of the table standard when it comes to the open raise size here, which was $10 in this situation. If I’m at a fishy table or a loose passive table, I’ll usually consider going a little bit larger, but this was not one of those tables and thus I just went with the standard table open. End up getting called by a tag in middle position, by an unknown on the button, and by a nit in the big blind going four ways to a flop.

The flop comes queen of hearts, six of diamonds, 10 of diamonds. He checks, I continue the bet for roughly 70%. So in this situation, I am really not thinking this is going to be a home run situation against the nit or the tag, if either of them really wants to try to hit that home run against me, I’m not going to be super excited. I’m either going to think they have a sick chunk of equity or they’re going to have a hand that absolutely dominates me and neither of those things really excite me when it comes to an all-in confrontation. So if either of them get really active or excited I’m not going to be as happy.

But again, someone who’s an unknown like the button in this situation, I’m definitely quite excited. I’m thinking that there’s plenty of second best hands that can and will continue and that’s not to say the nit or the tag won’t call me with something like queen X, like ace queen or whatever, but I don’t think they’re going to want to create an all-in pot unless they have a hand that beats my kings or has, like I said, sick equity against me.

So I’m just going to continuation bet here. I definitely think it’s for value and I’m just going to react to things as they come up. I end up getting one call from the button. We go to the turnand it fills the flush draw, and I continue betting for $70. In this situation, a lot of people will panic because the flush draw filled. A lot of people inexplicably panic just really when any draw fills, but flush draws especially. Now my general thought process is I’m not going to panic just because a draw fills. I’m going to panic if a draw fills and my opponent gets excited. That’s usually when I’m not super thrilled with my holdings, when the draw does in fact complete.

So in this situation, I do decide to bet for $70, and I do that because I still think there are second best hands that can and will continue. There’s queen X, there’s draws, there’s pair and draws, like maybe 10 X with a diamond in it, or queen X with a diamond in it, or just the queen of diamonds. There’s draws that could have a diamond in it because we do not have the king of diamonds in our hand, so he could have king jack with the king of diamonds. Obviously I think that an unknown player could easily make that mistake and draw again, incorrectly given the price.

Because of that, I’m definitely just kind of in a value bet mode, thinking that there’s still second best hands that can and will continue. Sure, I don’t think he’s ever going to fold queen 10 or a flush or anything like that, but I don’t think that those hands dominate his range by any stretch, and I think he can and will continue calling with enough second best pairs and enough second best hands in general. So I’m definitely going to be value betting. 70% pot is okay. If he’s really fishy, you could consider going larger because fish love to draw incorrectly, so you could certainly give him an even worse price. He’s still going to be inelastic with his draw and you can go from there. Otherwise, something in like the 2/3 pot, 70% ballpark is going to be totally, totally fine.

So he calls and unfortunately the river sucks and the river is the four of diamonds. So in this situation, I just kind of ask myself how am I going to make money and what am I going to do here? So sometimes I’ll turn my hand into a bluff and just try to get him to fold things, but against an unknown, I’m not going to have that kind of information. I’m not going to know if I can get him to fold a baby diamond or that kind of thing. I definitely don’t think it’s really going to be a value shove. I don’t think I can shove here or even bet here and get looked up by naked queen X. I just don’t see that happening as a default. I mean, even the worst player in the world can see when there’s four to a suit on the board, so it’s not like I expect even an unknown to make that kind of mistake and make him not read the board correctly.

So it’s one of those situations where I’m probably not going to run the bluff line. I don’t think I can value bet because I don’t think anything second best is really going to continue. And thus this is one of those situations where I’m probably just going to check and hate life if this kind of things happens where I face a bet and there’s really just not enough room to go for any creative type check raise. It’d only be $62 more for him to call and I don’t think he’s going to fold at that point and because of that, I can’t bet the river, can’t shove the river, can’t check shove the river, and my only option left is kind of just to hate life and fold.

Again, against an unknown, you’re just not going to have the information that you can call here with a single pair, like he would turn queen X or naked 10 X into a bluff. We just don’t know that he would do that and because of that, yeah, we’re getting more than three to one, but I don’t think we’re going to be good here enough of the time to justify this kind of call. Nor to justify the check raise. So because of that, I’m just going to fold and get out of this situation, really just not much you could do in a situation like that.