The River: Strategy
In our final installment to Tournament No Limit Texas Hold 'Em we discuss some general strategy on playing the River Card and finishing out a hand. Since you're a beginner to poker, or more specifically, to Texas Hold 'Em, let us first look at something that every player in every card room in the world has in common: The Bad Beat.
It's important to address the concept of a Bad Beat before we go any further because it can, and will happen to you sooner or later, it's inevitable no matter how well you play your hand. It's a part of poker that is unavoidable. More importantly, if you're on the receiving end of a Bad Beat, it can have an extremely negative effect on how you play the rest of your session if you let it bother you. It's been said that if you've never had a bad beat, then you haven't been playing poker for very long. In your short career, chances are you've already dished a few out.
So just what exactly is a bad beat? Simply put, a bad beat is when a strong hand is beaten by a lucky, or longshot hand. For a quick example, let's say we're Heads-Up (one on one) with an opponent and we've just flopped an ace high flush. You both have an equal amount of chips and things are looking good. To make things even better you're opponent is betting into to you. Judging from the cards showing on the board, you know there's no chance your opponent has you beat with a flopped Full House or Straight Flush. So, it's safe to assume that this is going to be a winning hand and you raise your opponent's initial bet only to have him re-raise you All-In. What is he thinking? You have the best possible hand right now, so they must be trying to bluff or have a lower Flush. You couldn't be happier to know this information and quickly call their all in bet. Clearly upset that you called, your opponent displays his cards revealing a lowly pair of two's. You proudly show your flush and wait to see the remaining two cards.
A two comes on the Turn making you a little nervous that he might get lucky and end up drawing to a full house on the river, but you know you are still the odds on favorite to win the hand so you don't sweat it. The river card comes out and, oh my goodness it's another Two! Your Ace high flush was just demolished by 4 of a Kind; a classic bad Beat story.
While your opponent continues on, you're stuck broke and out of the tournament. It's not a good feeling but guess what? It happens to EVERYONE. It's not easy, but when somebody draws you out on the River Card, you must let it go and not let it affect your play in the future. You're not the one who made the mistake, your opponent did. Don't call him names, don't tell him how lucky he was, and don't get angry. Players making bad calls are where you make your profits. If 99% of the time you're a favorite to win a hand, why get upset the 1% you're at the wrong end of a Bad Beat? Great players, even Pros are susceptible to letting these things affect their play. It's called going on "Tilt", and that's not a place where you want to be. If you're on Tilt you'll be forcing bets, making bad calls, making wrong decisions, and losing lots of money. You can avoid being on tilt if you simply remember that tough losses are unavoidable. Take a deep breath, walk around outside, or just shake your head laugh it off. Do whatever you need to do just don't let these things affect your play by dwelling on them.
Now that you know that no matter how well you play, you're still going to have to suffer through some upsetting defeats from time to time, let's take a look at some different ways we can play our hands on the River Card.
Since the stakes are so high, a good majority of the pots in No limit Texas Hold 'Em are won without a showdown, meaning, nobody shows their cards at the end of a hand because all of the other players have folded their hands. "Chips talk," as they say. Let's take a look at using stack size to your advantage on the river.
Stack Size and Bluffing
Poker legend, Doyle Brunson said the key to winning No Limit Texas Hold 'Em is to force a man to make a decision for all his chips. Sometimes when we have a considerable chip lead over an opponent we can use it to our advantage by forcing them to make a decision for all their chips. Now before we even consider playing this way we have a few things to consider.
First, how much has your opponent invested into the pot? If they have already pushed 20K worth of chips into the pot and only have 1K left in front of them, it is very likely that this person will call to the bitter end. For them, it's just not worth it to fold when they have so much invested in the pot. It's what's called being Pot committed and they'll call because it's the right play for them in that situation.
Now on the other hand, if your short-stacked opponent has shown weakness by checking the flop and turn cards a big bet on the river may make them fold. Be very selective when choosing a time to make moves like this because a smart opponent might be setting you up for a check raise in hopes of doubling their money.
What about bluffing when we are "Short-stacked?" Can we use this as any sort of advantage? The answer is yes, but not without severe consequences. Don't bluff while you're short stacked unless you know for certain that your opponent will fold. Why put yourself out of a game by making a guess about an opponent? It's just not worth it most of the time.
Getting It in There
When a hand has gone as far as the river and you have good information leading you to believe that your hand is probably the favorite for the pot, get your money out there. This isn't the time to be crafty by check raising or calling; it's time to maximize profits. There is an art to this however. How much do you think your opponent will call? If you bet too much, it might not be worth it for them to call. On the other hand, if you bet too little your opponent might think you are "under betting" your hand and may be inclined to think that you're just betting small to get a few extra chips into a pot that you're going to win.
If that's what they think, they will fold. To combat this you find a lot of world-class players that will always bet the same amount so it becomes difficult for their opponents to gauge the quality of their hands. This is a very good idea. Some players always bet the size of the pot, some will always bet half the pot, and then there are others who will always keep their bets around the size of the blinds. Find out what your most comfortable with. Being comfortable and confident is what this game is all about.
Betting for value
Sometimes on the river you'll hear people say they "had to bet for value." What does this mean, and is it a good idea? Well, lets find out exactly what they mean. Lets say you're in a hand that has gone all the way to the river with very little betting action because there were three aces revealed on the flop. All of the players were scared to bet their hands because they were afraid that their hand was no good. Do you blame them? So now we're to the river and one of the players made a flush, quite often he'll "bet for value." Meaning, even though he might be holding the second or third best hand, a flush is a valuable hand, and worth a bet. Betting for value is one of those plays that can go under the "questionable" category. Whenever possible you want to avoid playing the second best hands on the river. In the example above betting his flush may or may not be a good idea. The other players in the hand might fold if they think the bettor is holding the 4th Ace or a big full house, but then again they might "Call for Value" if they also have a strong hand. So you can begin to see the contradiction of betting for value.
Checking and Showdown.
There's an old saying that goes "If you can't raise, don't bet." This is such simple genius; it goes right over the head of a lot of players. Quite often on the river you'll have a hand that really isn't worth a bet. A lot of players will bet in this situation so they don't show weakness, or to see where they stand. This is just not a good idea. When on the river and your hand isn't worth a bet, simply check. It sounds like common sense but you'll come across a lot of players who's ego or personality type get in the way of this simple logic. Let someone else bet and then make your decision weather or not it's in your best interest to call, raise or fold if you're bet into. After all, it's the river card and you don't have to worry about looking weak for the next betting round if you check and then call.
Be patient, stay alert, and play smart and confident and we'll see you at the cashier's cage one of these days collecting your winnings.