I should mention that this article is mostly for cash game players, but it can apply in tournaments as well.
You’re on the river, heads-up, and last to act. Furthermore, you’ve got a strong hand; a hand that beats many decent value hands. Maybe, even, an extremely powerful hand—the nuts or close to it.
Your opponent checks. Obviously, you’re going to bet, but how much?
Here’s the problem—while it’s gratifying to bet with the best hand and get called, betting a small amount to improve your chances of being called is rarely the best practice.
Let me explain.
Suppose the pot is 100, you bet 50 with the best hand, and get called. Great. But wouldn’t it have been better if you’d bet 100 and gotten called? Well, yes, twice as good actually. How often would your 100 bet have to be called to be equivalent to betting 50? Only half as often as the bet of 50 is called.
And that’s the rub; your bet of 100 is likely to be called substantially more than half as frequently as the bet of 50. There are three reasons for this:
ONLY THE CALLS MATTER
The first thing we do is throw out all the times that the villain folds if you put out any bet at all. His draw missed or he decided that queen-high was no good. The only question we’re asking is, how often he calls when he has any calling value at all.
Sometimes when you have a big hand on the river, your opponent can’t call; that’s the nature of poker. It can be tempting, when they fold, to think, “Aw, man. If I’d bet less, he’d have called.” Not necessarily; he might have folded if you looked cross-eyed at him.
PEOPLE GET “INELASTIC” ABOUT THEIR RIVER CALLS
In theory, when we call a bet on the river, our calling frequency should rise linearly with the pot odds we’re being offered. That is, you should call twice as frequently being offered 4:1 odds as you would being offered 2:1 odds.
But nobody does that. At least, most of us don’t.
Most people, when they get to the river with a value hand, have made an almost binary decision—this hand deserves a call or it doesn’t. They don’t think carefully about the size of the bet they’re facing, and they certainly don’t linearly scale down their calling range as pot odds get worse.
Which means that if they’ve decided they have a “calling” hand, they won’t make a proper scaling decision between a half-pot bet and a full-pot bet. That’s where you get extra value by betting the full pot.
As an aside, I’m guilty of this non-linear thinking on occasion too. I have learned to fight it within myself by drawing a line in the sand before it’s my turn to act. Let’s say I’m first to act on the river and have a hand that can call some bets. I will say—even out loud, if circumstances permit—“I will call a bet of 40% of the pot, but not more.” Then I check. That way, the words are echoing in my ears and the decision is already made; if the bet is 40% of the pot or less, I call. Otherwise I fold.
Punish those without that discipline. Bet bigger to penalize them for their inelasticity about river bet sizes.
IT MESSES WITH THEIR HEAD
Big river bets are known as “polarizing.” When you bet big on the river, generally you should have a very big hand—one that’s likely to beat pretty much anything—or a pure bluff. Betting big with a medium-strength hand (think top pair, mediocre kicker) has the problem that only better hands call. Therefore, a big bet—again, in theory—should be a hand that wants value from just about anything else, or has no value at all and needs even the weakest value hands to fold.
Many players know this, and the moment you bet big, the villain thinks, “That’s the nuts or a bluff.” Well, as soon as they get the word “bluff” into their head, they can’t make it go away. They start inventing scenarios where you have a missed draw. Why would you bet so big if you were trying to get value? And in fact, the tendency of most players to not bet big enough for value helps you here. You’re not doing the normal thing and now your opponent gets confused. Confused poker players tend to call.
WRAPPING IT ALL UP
Because the pot has been building for three streets, river bets are big. When someone with a worse hand calls your pot-sized bet on the river, that can be a session-making score.
If your hand value justifies it, think about swinging for fences on the river.
Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.