Poker river betting in cash games

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Cory | Poker Articles, Poker Cash Games

Submitted by Cory, this article belongs to the Poker Cash Games series.

Nearly every poker book has a wealth of information regarding solid pre-flop strategy.  They have starting hand charts showing which hands to play and which to fold from each position and whole chapters on how to play each of these, when to call, raise, reraise etcetera.  However, these same books often devote just a paragraph or two to how to bet the river.  The problem is, in a hundred big blind cash game, the river bet is much more important.  If I’m betting in proportion to the size of the pot, most times, the biggest bet I can expect to make in a hand will be when the pot is the largest, which will be on the river.

The big problem with teaching river betting strategy is that you need to already bring a pretty strong skill set to the table before you have a shot at playing the river anything close to properly.  First let’s think of when you should bet the river and when you shouldn’t.

I have two primary reasons for betting on fifth street.  First I have the best hand and I want a worse hand to call, or second, I know I have the worst hand, but I might be able to get a better hand to fold.  However, even when asked the most basic question, when should I bet, I already have to have strong hand reading skills.  How can I decide if I have the best or worst hand if I’m not paying attention to my opponents and correctly reading their strength?

This is one of the major reasons why novice players have such a difficult time with top pair type hands.  Often times a hand stronger than top pair isn’t folding to a final bet, but many times a hand weaker than top pair can’t justify calling that same bet.  This leads the beginning player to much frustration as it seems like they’re never getting paid off when they spike an Ace with that Ace King, or they’re losing the maximum with it.

First let’s talk about value betting.  A value bet is the amount of money I think my opponent can call with a worse hand.  Here’s where it gets tricky.  If I put my opponent on a set when I have a straight, I can make a larger bet because my opponent figures his hand to be best a large percentage of the time.  However if I have that same straight, but I correctly put my opponent on second pair, I’m going to have to bet significantly less in order to induce a call.

Not only do I need to have a consistently accurate read on my opponent’s hand strength to properly bet the river, I also need to have an idea of their tendencies.  Do they over value top pair?  Are they able to fold sets when a flush card gets there?  With this information I can deduce what percentage of the pot my opponent thinks he can call profitably.  If I think he has a weak hand, but thinks I’m capable of bluffing so he might be good 30% of the time, I can bet about 1/3 of the pot and get a call enough times to make it very profitable for me.  If my opponent is very strong and thinks he’ll show up with the best hand 80% of the time, I can bet ¾ of the pot up to the size of the pot and get him to call enough times to make even more money.

The flip side is when I’m sure I have the worst hand I need to gage how strong my opponent’s hand is compared to the texture of the board and assess if my opponent is capable of folding reasonably strong hands on scary boards.  If I’ve seen this player fold big hands before, I’m much more likely to bet a scare card on the river with nothing.  If I’ve seen another player call a river bet with top pair weak kicker when the straight and flush card hits, I’m going to be much less likely to try and bet the river with the worst hand as this type of player is not folding near enough to make this bluff profitable.

The bottom line is to really be a winning poker player, you need to play the river properly, but the only way to do this is master hand reading skills and opponent reading skills that will help you choose when to bet, when to check and how much to bet.  Too many people think that just betting half pot or 1/3 pot on the river when they think they have the best of it is value betting.  Betting half pot in to a hand that can only call 1/3 pot is a huge mistake and betting 1/3 pot in to a hand that would have gladly called a pot sized bet is an even bigger mistake.

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