Calling on the River

No Limit Hold'em Ring Games

by Oliver Butterick


Calling in Texas Holdem on the RiverIn addition to writing (which doesnít quite pay the bills yet), Iím also a professional poker player. Although I usually refer to myself as a semi-pro or a bush leaguer, I am officially renouncing my amateur status and going pro (thus disqualifying myself for Olympic competition). Iíve been unemployed for the past year and Iíve been playing more and more poker, and Iím close to getting to the point where I can stop living off my savings and rely on my winnings to pay the bills. Since all "famous" professional poker players got that way by writing about the topic (or maybe itís the other way around--no matter), I figure that I should start writing about poker myself. Most of my articles will be about No-Limit Texas Holdem poker strategy, since that is my game of choice. I will mostly be writing on strategy for cash or "ring" games, as opposed to tournament play, since I play mostly cash games. Lately, Iíve been playing mostly the $200 buy-in No Limit Texas Holdem game at the Bicycle Casino. On to the lesson...

I was at the Bicycle Casino today and the $200 No Limit Texas Hold'em game got shorthanded, with some strong players at the table. I remembered the old poker saying, ďIf you canít find the fish at the table, itís probably you,Ē and I decided to switch to one of the $100 buy-in tables. I got in trouble early and had to re-buy, this time for $150. After playing awhile, I won a big pot with pocket 7ís when the flop came 7-7-8 and my opponent had pocket 8ís. One more 8 would have given me over $20K of the bad-beat jackpot, but it didnít come and I was happy enough to double up. But this is still superfluous; let me get to the hand of the night.

I limped in with KQ off-suit in early-middle position and five players saw the flop, which was Q-4-4. It was checked to me, and I bet $10 at a $11 pot. I was called by two players behind me, and checked the turn when a 6 came. The person after me bet $20 and the next person called. I called. The river came a 9 and I checked again, with the same person moving all-in for $65. The other player folded and the action came to me, and I sat for a second and thought about whether or not I should call. I said, out loud so everyone at the table could hear, ďWhen am I going to learn this lesson? You played the hand like you had a 4. When am I going to learn not to call a bet on the river when I think that Iím beat?Ē I then proceeded to call the bet and he turned over a 4-9.

A few minutes later, I decided to take a break to clear my head. I went outside and I started smiling. I realized that the time that I learn that lesson was NOW. I realized that I had just spent my last $65 on a mistake that has been a huge drain on my game. I decided at that moment that I was going to stop that leak in my Texas Holdem game. When I returned to the game, I didnít have the sullen scowl of a dejected player who was upset because I had made a mistake. I was still smiling, happy and thankful that I had finally learned my lesson.

Letís take a look at what went wrong in this hand. First off, before the flop, I only called the blind instead of raising. This play is debatable, but I stand by my play here. In fact, earlier today, I was discussing whether or not to raise with a hand like KQ in early position with Shirley, [at the time] one of the props at the Bike. She thinks that itís good to raise so that you can protect your hand (especially in Limit Texas Holdem), but I still like to call in that situation. That way I can decide whether or not to play if someone else raises and Iíve only committed a minimal amount of chips to the pot.

However, not raising in this situation leaves open the possibility that someone might play any two cards, since itís inexpensive to play the hand. So, when I saw the flop of Q-4-4, I immediately should have been aware that someone might have flopped trips. I made a pot-sized bet, and was called twice. I like this play as well. I was basically testing the waters to see if someone had a better hand than I did. Here is where my play broke down. Once I saw that two people called my bet on the flop, I should have completely shut down and realized that I no longer had a made hand. I now had a drawing hand--I was looking for one of the remaining two Queens to come on the turn. When that didnít happen, I should not have put another chip in the pot. My call on the turn was bad, and my call on the river was horrible.

Calling on the river is a very weak play, and itís one that has cost me a lot of money. Granted, I have won some pots when I had a decent hand on the river and I faced a bet from an opponent with a weaker holding or who was bluffing. Overall, however, I have lost money from calling on the river. Thatís not to say that calling on the river is always the wrong play, but itís like salt--it should be used sparingly.

When you are faced with a bet on the river, the first thing that you should do is put your opponent on a range of hands that are reasonable given the way the betting has happened on all previous rounds of betting. In this case, I did that. I recognized that someone with a 4 could have easily limped in before the flop. Then, on the flop, when two people called my pot-sized bet, I realized that one of them probably did have a 4, because in No-Limit Texas Hold'em play, it is very common to flat-call when you flop trips (three-of a kind when two of them are on the board). Two people flat-called, and so I shut down and did not bet on the turn. Now, facing a bet and a call, I should have laid the hand down. But, letís say that for some reason I should have called the bet on the turn (in cases where I had a flush draw, for example). On the river, my hand was completely realized. I had two pairs, with one pair on the board, and I knew that anyone with a 4 beat me and I had already decided that I thought that one of them had a 4. There was a bet and a fold, and I was the only thing keeping this hand going. Although I put my opponent on the correct hand, I did not act on my read of the situation. Again, this was a costly mistake.

Letís say that I decided that the range of reasonable hands that this person could have (based on their betting pattern), were either a 4 or a Queen with an 8 kicker or better. So, basically, there were 3 hands that I had beat (QJ, QT, and Q8), one that I tied (KQ), and a bunch that beat me. The next thing I had to do was determine how often I thought my opponent might bluff in that situation. With the numbers Iíve provided, my opponent would need to bluff over 9% of the time for my call to be correct, which is a bit more than one would expect in this low buy-in game--I would say something in the 5%-6% range is more likely. That being the case, it was a bad call for me to make, costing me around $8 in the long run. Not the end of the world, but not something I want to keep doing either.

However, as an experienced poker player, I was able to narrow down the hands that I thought my opponent had. In fact, I couldnít imagine him reasonably having a single hand worse than mine. The worst reasonable hand I expected him to have was the same as mine: KQ. This makes my call significantly worse. In order for me to profit from calling, I have to assume that my opponent will bluff nearly 30% of the time, or three times out of every ten opportunities in this situation. Although I believe that there are a few players who might come somewhat close to that number, those players have well-publicized reputations for bluffing. This opponent was not one of those people. And even if he were, it would be only a marginally profitable play at best. Therefore, in general, it is not wise (or profitable) to call a bet on the river in situations like this.

There are, however, times when it is correct to call a bet on the river:
1. When you have a strong hand, for example pocket Aces, two pair, or a set (three of a kind when you have a pocket pair), but the board makes your hand vulnerable, for example, when there are flush or straight possibilities. In these cases, if the opponent has been betting on each round, representing top pair or an over-pair, and makes a small bet (in relation to the size of the pot), then I believe that it is correct to call. Again, it is important to put your opponent on a range of hands and determine if it is an appropriate call, given the size of the bet and the size of the pot. Another example would be when you make a small flush, and your opponent has been betting to represent a hand other than a flush draw.

2. When you have a hand that is strong enough to re-raise, but your opponent has already made an all-in bet. An example of how this could happen is if you flop top pair and the nut flush-draw. You bet your top pair the whole way, and when the river brings the flush, your opponent moves all-in, either because he made a smaller flush or because he thinks you will be scared that he made a flush. In this case, you know you've made the best hand but you only call because you no longer have the option to raise.

3. When you have been slow-playing a hand in an attempt to trap your opponent. Although I did not slow-play my Quad 7ís (mentioned above) on the river, had I chosen to do so, I would have called an all-in bet on the river. As in the last example, a call would be correct only because a raise is not possible (as is the case when an all-in bet is made).

The scenarios Iíve reviewed here specifically pertain to heads-up play on the river (when only two people remain in the hand). Adding a third or fourth opponent further complicates the situation. I may get to that topic in the distant future, but I did mention a few other concepts that I will try to write about soon. Those include slow-playing (also called ďtrappingĒ) and the concept of marginally profitable hands.

One last note... Looking from my opponentís view in the hand Iíve discussed here, if he were deciding whether or not to bluff in this situation, he would have had to predict that I would fold my hand about 70% of the time for his bluff to be profitable. Now that Iíve decided to stop calling in situations like this, my opponents might be able to pull a few more moves on me, but that will only mean that Iíll be able to make a lot more money when Iím slow-playing a hand. But, Iíll have to save that topic for another article.


Strategy articles by Oliver Butterick:
Poker Jedi Mind Tricks
Poker Commandments
Poker Tournament Survival
Calling on the River



(c) Shirley Rosario

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