Sunday, August 3, 2008

Metagame: Betting the river in no-limit hold 'em

All streets in hold 'em have properties that make them different from the others. Preflop is a matter of setting up a range that you can profitably play versus your opponents and to start setting up the size of the pot you want to play. The flop will define 70% of your final hand and draws are still strong hands. The turn is where the bets get big. And the river is where it's all settled and semibluffs are no more; now it's only a matter of either betting for value or bluffing the other guy out.

Before I get to the meat of this post, I want to make an initial statement: Those of you who know me know that I'm not happy about settling for catch phrases or "conventional wisdom" as guidelines for how to play, and while I've had to concede many of the conventional-wisdom points that I may at one point or another have argued against, I also do occasionally run into a little golden nugget where I find myself able to go against the crowd and inch out a few extra nickles here and there. Being that I'm not exactly a genius, I often find, after doing the work, that some of these strategies and plays that I come up with are employed by very strong players already. Today, I want to bring up one of these plays that, used correctly, might boost your win-rate just a tad.

Betting mediocre hands in position on the river.

I'm not talking about situations where you have QJ and the board reads Q-T-6-2-2 and the pot is small. If you have no reason to believe your opponent is strong (and if the pot is small, there clearly has not been a lot of betting going on) you should of course bet in this situation. No, I'm talking about making a value bet in a big pot, where most people would advice you to check behind to see a showdown. Let me first explain how that works:

$100NL, 100BB stacks. It's folded to you in the cut-off and you raise to $4 with JJ. A solid regular calls in the small blind and the big blind folds. The flop comes T-9-4, twotone. Your opponent leads out with $6. His range is pretty wide here, ranging from small unimproved pocket pairs to various draws, and of course two pair and sets. Calling is an option, but there are quite a few cards that would make the turn very difficult to play (overs and cards that complete the draws) so making a "cheap" raise to, say $15, is not a bad idea, hoping to either end the hand now or at least make him define his hand a bit better. He calls.

The turn is an offsuit queen, which is a bad card for you. If he has KQ, QJ, KJ or J8 (the latter being a fairly unlikely holding for him to coldcall preflop) he just drew out. He checks, and now it may be a good idea to check yourself. Another bet will push you over the commitment threshold and you'd hate it if he checkraised you all-in since folding means that your forfeiting a lot of equity with your second pair and open-ended straight draw. So you check.

The river bricks off with a deuce. Your opponent thinks for awhile and then checks. Here is where many would check behind to get a showdown, with the thinking that he's not very likely to call with a worse hand and he's also definitely not folding a better hand. That's what conventional wisdom tells you.

Now, I often - mostly - check behind here. But there's a case to be made for occasionally betting your jacks here, and that's the case I'm making today:

If the only hands you bet on the river are very strong hands or complete bluffs, then your range is polarized. Your opponent can look at his own hand, decide if it can beat a bluff and then look at the pot odds to determine if he should call. When people have polarized ranges, playing the river is actually fairly simple. If a monster is unlikely, then by power of deduction, a bluff must be likely, and I can make a bluff-catching call on the river. Let's look at that board again, and see how many different monsters I can have:


I can have KJ. I can have 22, 44, 99, TT and QQ. I could also have KK and AA. Together, these hands (combinatorically) make up 27 hands. My opening range in the cut-off is about 25% of my hands, and it's not difficult to come up with more than 27 combinations of those hands that I might try to take it down with on this river, like 87, J8, 55-88, K7s, etc. If my opponents can fold a hand like JT to a bet, then I'm in good shape to bluff. However, a strong player will know if my range is polarized, and is actually quite likely to snap my bluff off with a hand like JT.

This is why occasionally betting with JJ (and QJ and KQ) and similar hands in this spot is good, because it makes your hand much, much harder to read. And when you're harder to read, they will more often make mistakes. Sure, sometimes they will call you with QJ and you will feel like you flushed that final bet down the drain. But this is also a meta-game strategy, meaning that if you can get away with a few more bluffs because they're no longer super-excited to snap off a river bet with fourth pair, then this will more than make up for it. Even if your hand is only 40% to win the times that your opponent calls, there's still a fairly good shot that you can make up for that in future hands if your range is wider and he's more liable to make mistakes.

Remember, your target audience for this play consists of solid regulars. These are players who take notes and who you will presumably play against often. Don't do this versus weak players (although in many of those cases you should bet entirely for value, but that's another story).

An argument against betting is that an aggressive opponent, which solid regulars tend to be, may check/raise bluff you. While this is true, there are some factors in this setting that lessens the likelyhood of that. Specifically, if he thinks your range is polarized then he must not think there are many perks to raising. You can have a monster, in which case he just got trapped, or you can have a complete bluff, which he will often beat even by just calling. Furthermore, since the pot is already big, it's protected. You and I know that it isn't (and that you will almost certainly fold if he check/raise shoves) but he doesn't know that we feel that way.

Another consideration is that when he calls and it goes to showdown, he will often note that you're value betting thin on the river. A really strong player will use this information to make check/raise bluffs a more prominent river weapon against you. This is why you should not do this often; most of the time when you bet on the river, it should be a bluff or a monster. Just occasionally, throw in a half-pot-sized bet with a hand that has showdown value but can still be considered thin.

All things in moderation.

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