Sometimes you can have the best hand almost always on the river but the right play is still to check-fold vs non bluffing non thin value betting competition.
I host a live radio show on my training site CrushLivePoker.com at 4:45PM PT on Sundays. It’s free to listen to live and many people call in about hand histories that they recently played. Even though poker is not a game in a vacuum I try to give them the best advice about situations that they bring up based upon my ten years of playing no limit cash games professionally.
One of the more common questions that come up has to do with proper play on the river. I’ve talked about how much I dislike check calling on the river in this column before with two exceptions. The first and most obvious is checking to induce a bluff at the end. If you think your opponent has been on a draw and it has missed it is usually correct to let him try and buy the pot especially on a scare card. The second and rarer time to check call is to allow your opponent to “value own” themselves, that is bet a weaker hand for value than your holding when they would have otherwise folded to your value bet. Checking to have someone value own themselves is rarely the best play at the mid to low stakes levels because in general people do not value bet thinly enough.
But what happens when you have a very strong hand at the end like an overpair but because you have shown such immense strength you do not think you can get called by a worse hand? You also do not think your opponent will be bluffing nor will he be value betting a worse hand. What is the play?
Well if a worse hand cannot call you then betting cannot possibly be correct and we already said that check calling would be a mistake. So what combination of action does that leave? The answer can be confusing and sometimes quite perplexing—it is to check and fold.
But how can we check fold at the end with such a strong hand? Looking deeper if our opponent is not bluffing and he will not call or make a bet with a worse hand then if he bets he must have us beat. The crazy part of this concept is that you can have a hand that you might think is best say 95% of the time and the proper play is still to check fold. But remember you are still going to win the pot 95% of the time if you are correct in your range analysis as the pot will simply go check check at the end.
An important part of hands that happen in this matter have to do with the amount of strength that you show as the aggressor before you get to the river and it usually involves multiple players in the pot. Let us take look at a hand that I played from a few months ago at a live $5-10 game at the Bicycle Casino in Los Angeles. I had a good, winning image and I was up several thousand dollars for the session. People were definitely trying to stay out of my way especially some of the medium skilled regulars. One weaker player limped in under the gun and I raised to $45 with K♠ K♣ to his immediately left. The player to my left with $3000 effective called, the button called, the big blind called and the limper called. The flop came out 9♥ 3♠ 2♣. It got checked to me and I bet out $125 into the $225 pot. The villain to my left who was one of the medium strength regs called and the big blind also called. The turn brought in the 6♣ and once again it was checked to me. Even though 45 came in and I did not beat a set I felt like this was a classic bet-fold spot against non-bluffing predictable opponents so I fired $375. The villain to my left thought for a long time and finally called. The big blind got out of the way. At this point I was a little torn as to what the villain in the hand had. He could have been slowplaying something like 45 or a set but a lot of the time players will raise those hands for protection on the turn as the pot gets bigger and bigger. He also could have been stubbornly sticking around with a hand like 99-JJ. The other holding that I thought he would call two streets with was a hand that picked up backdoor clubs on the turn like an 8♣ X♣, A♣ 4♣ or A♣ 5♣.
With that range in mind I was not really happy when the 9♣ fell on the river. Now, I continued to lose to a slow played monster, was behind a set of nines and a backdoor flush. I also and most importantly thought that it was going to be very hard to get called by TT or JJ betting into a pot that was already over $1200 because I had looked so strong by betting multiple streets into multiway action. There was also no way in the world that my opponent would bet for value with a worse hand than mine. So with those thoughts I decided that the proper play was to check with the intention of folding to a river bet.
After I checked my opponent took a very long time with it almost to the point where someone called the clock on his decision and he finally checked the river back. At this point I thought I had the best hand nearly all of the time and tabled my kings. I was in utter shock when I saw that my opponent then tabled A♥ A♦!!
Even though I never would have thought that the player to my left could ever have that specific hand due to the preflop, flop and turn action, his check back on the river really fits into my analysis of the typical mid stakes player. If he’s not bluffing on the river AND he is not betting a hand as strong as AA then when he does bet there would be no way that KK could be good.
Sometimes because you do not want to give out free cards and lose value on the turn you can get into a situation where you cannot be called by medium strength hands on the river. Another common example of this happens when a card comes out at the end that hits your range hard as the preflop raiser, decreasing your opponents bluffing and calling frequency. This commonly occurs when we raise with a hand like QQ and the board comes out T23r. We make a standard continuation bet and get called. The turn comes a 9, we bet and get called again. The river runs out an ace. We do not think that our opponent will call us with a pocket pair or T now and he very easily could have made aces up or completed the straight draw with 45. So we go with the plan of checking to fold to a bet.