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Value Flows Downstream
Everything proceeds backwards from the river. In pot limit and no limit hold 'em, pot size, and thus bet size, grow exponentially on each street. This means that mistakes made on the river are more costly than those made on other streets, so much so that the risk of making a mistake on the river may dictate a fold earlier in the hand. Conversely, the possibility of bluffing and/or value-betting certain river cards may turn a marginal fold into a call. Despite the importance of river play, many tournament players neglect it. This was particularly evident to me during the World Series of Poker, where I saw numerous players opt to check the river rather than make a thin value bet. Compounding the intrinsic error of passing up a +EV bet is the fact that overly passive river play makes it easier for your opponents to play marginal hands against you on earlier streets. In this article, I examine two hands I played during the WSOP where assumptions about an opponent's river betting range influenced the action. I conclude each sample hand with a brief discussion of what I consider the broader implications of the situation in which I found myself on the river. Hand 1 This hand occurred in the last hour of day 2 of the main event. I had recently been moved to a new table and had a well-above-average stack of 330,000 chips the largest at my table. From the moment I sat down, I had been very aggressive, open raising several times from late position and re-raising the player on my immediate right the first time he open raised. Blinds were 1200-2400 with a 300 ante, and I was in the BB. Action folded around to the SB, who completed. I raised 5000 more with a pair of 4's, and he called. The flop was 9d 6d 2s, my opponent checked, I bet 8000, and he called. We both checked a Qc on the turn, and then he bet 18,000 when another 2 came on the river.
With three overcards and an underpair on the board, my small pair was not looking so hot. Then again, there were a lot of draws on the flop that all missed on the river, so it was possible that my opponent was bluffing after failing to make his hand. It also occurred to me that, given how aggressive I had been, my opponent could reasonably put me on almost any two cards when I raised his completion pre-flop, made a standard continuation bet on the flop, and then seemingly gave up on the turn. What ultimately swayed my decision was my observation that so few players at the WSOP had shown the ability to make a river value bet that was at all thin. Consequently, I expected my opponent's range to be polarized. That is, I thought he would have either a very strong hand, such as trip deuces, or a hand with very little showdown value, such as 87 for a busted straight draw. My fours could only beat a bluff, so my opponent needed to be bluffing 28% of the time to make a call correct. If I determine that he is either bluffing or value betting trips, then as long as he does not trips or better 72% of the time, a call is correct.
Based on this reasoning, I called, and my opponent showed T9 to win the pot. He had bet middle pair for value. Does this mean my assumptions about the value betting range of an unknown WSOP player were mistaken? Not necessarily, because, as I later learned, my opponent in this hand was none other than professional poker Robert Mizrachi.
Had I realized that this river bet was coming from a professional, I would have folded. I expect a better player to be capable of making a thin river value bet, which means that I can no longer expect my opponent's betting range to be polarized as either very strong or very weak. Though he may still bluff his busted draws on the river, Mizrachi is clearly capable of betting a pair of nines and possibly even worse hands for value on the river, especially when he knows that that I may call light based on all of the draws that missed. The presence of so many one pair hands in his betting range means that he is bluffing much less often and that a fold is correct.