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Articles - Ashley Adams
Betting on the River
by Ashley Adams
I engage regularly in Internet discussions about poker at rec.gambling.poker. It's part of the wonderful world of Usenet. RGP, as rec.gambling.poker is familiarly known, provides me with an excellent opportunity to peer into the thinking of many thoughtful poker players. It's an interesting scene — with players frequently expressing their opinions about how they would play a hand in various situations that typically arise in a poker game.
Most of the discussions focus on hold'em, but every so often a thread revolves around a stud hand. The people who post often disagree about what to do in different situations. Interesting debates develop. Less frequently, a consensus develops — reflecting the group's collective wisdom about how to play a hand.
What's interesting for me is to notice what conventional wisdom seems to be about how stud hands should be played in certain situations — and then to consider whether in fact it is correct, in my opinion. Two recent threads developed that had me thinking extensively about this. Both involved play on the river in seven-card stud. Let me share these thoughts with you.
The first thread questioned whether a player should call or fold on the river when faced with a final bet from someone who seemed to have the winning hand. The player pondering whether to call or fold had been betting, since third street, his pair of kings. His opponent had been calling with what appeared to be a flush draw. On the river, the guy with the kings, who didn't improve, checked. His opponent, showing a pair of eights and a three-flush, bet. The question that was discussed was whether the guy with the pair of kings should call this final bet.
We all concluded that he should surely call the bet. It seemed obvious because of the pot odds he would be getting for his call. The pot held about nine big bets. Although the guy with the kings thought his opponent probably either made a flush or had two low pair, he wasn't certain enough to warrant folding when he was getting 9-to-1 odds on a call. The possibility that his opponent, who showed a pair of eights, was bluffing with no more than his exposed pair was enough to warrant a call. Conventional wisdom, which dictates a call nearly all the time when your opponent bets on the river in stud, seemed to ring true.
I had to disagree with conventional wisdom in another instance, however. One stud player asked whether it made sense to bet with aces up into an obvious flush draw on the river if he was first to act with the highest board. He received 20 or so responses from players all over the world. They were unanimous in recommending that he check the river. The "group think" was that there was little if any advantage to betting into a drawing hand, since the opponent wouldn't call unless he could win. The initial bettor would face either a fold if his opponent were beaten or a raise if he were beaten. Everyone concluded, what would be the point in betting? He could only end up losing money.
Theoretically, this may make sense. Betting with no expectation of gain but the possibility of loss surely is an error. In fact, however, there often is an expectation of gain when betting into a drawing hand. Contrary to conventional wisdom and the consensus of this poker discussion group, I thought it surely made sense to bet into the drawing hand in this instance — and in any similar instances.
Let's look at this specific hand more closely and see why this is so. Let's say you are dealt a pair of aces and get called by a couple of opponents when you raise the bring-in bet. On fourth street, you don't improve. One opponent catches a suited card; the other doesn't. You bet and your suited opponent calls. The other opponent folds. So, it's heads up going to fifth street.
On fifth and sixth streets, you don't get a second pair and your opponent catches unsuited cards. You believe that he is on a flush draw. You bet on each street, correctly attempting to induce him to fold or at least make him pay to draw his flush card. He calls you to the river.
Now, it's the river, and you improve to aces up. You haven't picked up any tells, so you don't know whether your opponent made his flush or not. All you know about him is that he seems to be a typical player — neither extraordinarily tight nor particularly loose.
We've seen that conventional wisdom says you should check. And I can tell you from a lot of experience at the tables that this is what many good players do all the time in this situation. They reason that their bet has no value, since the opponent will fold if he doesn't hit his flush and raise if he does hit — forcing them to call a raise or risk getting bluffed out of a large pot. So, they check and call if their opponent bets.
It's usually true that if your opponent made his flush, he will raise. And, unless you really know his play very, very well and are dead certain that he would never make this raise as a bluff, you'd have to call and spend two bets instead of the one you would have spent if you checked and called with your aces up.
But — and this is a very large but — far more often, your opponent will call your river bet even if he doesn't make his hand! That's because he may well have some kind of hand to go with his busted flush draw. He may have made a pair on the river. He may have had a flush draw and a pair to go with it and made two pair. He may in fact have only looked like he was on a flush draw, but may really have been drawing to a pair or two pair. In any of those instances, although he would have missed making a flush, he would have made some kind of hand and probably would have called your final bet on the river.
Think about it. If you were playing against someone who had bet every street with what appeared to be a pair of aces and were faced with a bet on the river, what hands would you call with? Remember the initial discussion I alluded to at the beginning of this column — in which everyone concluded that it was usually wrong to fold any but the absolute weakest hands to a bet on the river. You'd call with just about any pair and certainly with any two pair, wouldn't you? You'd conclude that although you were probably beat, you were getting sufficient odds to call with a likely (but not certain) losing hand like one pair or two pair.
You must assume that your normal opponent would play his hand in a similar fashion. He's not going to fold unless he's absolutely certain he's beat. In other words, with just about any hand at all, he's going to call you down — just as you would call him — because the pot is so large relative to the size of the final bet.
The people who argue that you should check into a drawing hand will point out that you risk nothing by just checking and calling. But in so doing, they miss the essence of correct play. While they are correct that someone who checks and calls isn't overtly risking chips by checking, he is losing out on the opportunity to earn an additional bet. That missed opportunity is the same as lost money. You need to earn it, not pass it up when it is available. The successful poker player must be able to take advantage of potentially profitable situations, not just avoid risks. By failing to exploit the profitable potential of a river bet into a drawing hand, you are losing money in the long run.
OK, maybe I've convinced you to bet your aces up. But perhaps you're wondering if I'd extend that to a pair of aces that doesn't improve to aces up on the river. What if you have only the same naked pair you started with?
Much of the time, although not automatically, I would still bet the hand on the end. Against at least fairly good players who understand pot odds, you will get calls from just about any pair. While it's true that your unimproved aces might get called by a better hand, like two pair, that would have checked the river, these occurrences are, I submit, more than outweighed by the losing calls you'll get and, significantly, by two intangibles: image and confusion.
Think about this a bit more. In general, you want opponents to have an excuse to call you on the river when they have weak hands. You, after all, generally play only high-quality starting hands. Most of the time when you play, you have a strong hand on the river. You want your opponents to have at least some doubt about the true strength of your hand when you bet — so they will continue to call you when you're strong. If you habitually check into drawing hands on the river, betting only when you are loaded, you'll get little or no action unless your observant opponents are also very strong. Creating an image of a player who may be betting with a less-than-powerful hand will induce calls in the future when you have strong hands. And that's what you want.
There is a final collateral advantage to betting on the river into a
drawing hand. Consider the suggestion of those who caution a check. A
little more than four times out of five, your drawing opponent will not
make his hand. When you check, he'll check, and you'll both show down
your hands. But if you bet and he folds, while you won't be earning any
extra bets, you'll be depriving your opponent of the knowledge of what
you had. Although it gives you no immediate economic advantage, this bet
is still good for you. Although your opponent may have guessed correctly
that he was beat, he won't be certain about it. Uncertainty on the part
of your opponent can only help contribute to your bottom line. So, bet
into a drawing hand on the river and keep them guessing.
Special thanks to cardplayer.com for sharing this article