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Stop Paying Them Off

by Ed Miller |  Published: Nov 28, 2012

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Ed MillerWhen I talk to players who are struggling to win, I find one specific bad habit common to nearly everyone — paying off way too much on the river. If you have this habit and fix it, your winrate will improve considerably.

A student recently brought me this hand. It was a $1-$2 hand played with $300 stacks.
The hero has AHeart Suit JSpade Suit and raises one limper to $10. The player on the button calls, as does the limper. There’s $33 in the pot with $290 behind.

The flop comes JHeart Suit 8Heart Suit 3Heart Suit, giving our hero top pair with the nut-flush draw. The first player checks, our hero bets $24, the button calls, and the limper folds. There’s $81 in the pot.

The turn is the 4Club Suit. Our hero bets $60 and is called. There’s $201 in the pot with $206 behind.

The river is the 10Spade Suit. Our hero checks, and his opponent bets $110.

After a long think, our hero calls and is shown a small flush.

While it’s tempting to get to showdown, making river calls like this one will prove to be an enormous loser over the long term.

Here’s how I would break down the river decision:

After you check the river, what sort of hands is an average player likely to bet in this scenario? Typically, most players will bet hands they are fairly sure are best, they will bet some bluffs, and they will check down any hand they aren’t sure about.

For example, if the button in this hand held QClub Suit JClub Suit, after calling twice with top pair I would expect the vast majority of players to simply check down the river. Most players would be relieved not to face a river bet and hopeful that top pair is good. With any made hand weaker than about two pair, J-8, few players would think to bet the river.

Since your opponent is betting few if any hands worse than two-pair on the river, your only hope to win with top pair is if he’s bluffing.

It’s $110 to call, and the pot is $311. That puts the breakeven point at 26 percent. If your opponent is bluffing more than 26 percent of the time, the call is profitable. If not, it’s not.

It might sound like a low bar to clear, but the average $1-$2 player will be bluffing in this scenario less than 10 percent of the time.

First, small stakes players in general don’t bluff much, especially not for relatively large bets like $110 in a $1-$2 game. If you were to catalog every $100-plus bet made in a $1-$2 game for a week and compare the ratio of bluffs to value bets, you’d find that far fewer than 26 percent of the big bets are bluffs. So just going off the general bluffing frequency at $1-$2, it’s a bad call.

But in this hand, the situation is even worse. When do people bluff? It’s usually when they have little to no hope of winning without betting. In other words, they need a busted hand to bluff. It’s hard to think of what busted hand the button player could hold.

When someone calls a flop like JHeart Suit 8Heart Suit 3Heart Suit, they typically have either a made hand or a draw. But our hero holds the best possible draw, the AHeart Suit, so the button can’t have that. He could have something like 10Heart Suit 9Spade Suit or QHeart Suit 10Spade Suit, perhaps. But after a brick on the turn, he might fold these hands to a $60 turn bet. Furthermore, every flopped straight draw makes at least a pair of tens on the river. These are no longer busted hands.

If you think about it, there are almost no draws on this board that the button can hold that are strong enough to call flop and turn, yet busted enough to try to bluff the river.

When you combine this logic with the general knowledge that small stakes players don’t bluff much, there’s simply no way A-J will win more than 26 percent of the time. If you’re a regular small stakes player, folding to this river bet should be an automatic play for you.

Why Do So Many Players Pay Off?

It should be an automatic fold, but it clearly isn’t for the vast majority of players. Watch any game for a while, and you’ll see plenty of players call the river in similarly hopeless situations.

The thing is, most players making these calls know they shouldn’t. They’ll often say it out loud, “Man, I know you have it. I know it. Still, I gotta see it.”

This is where our emotions betray us. In the example hand, my student flopped JHeart Suit 8Heart Suit 3Heart Suit holding AHeart Suit JSpade Suit. In a vacuum, it’s an excellent flop for the hand. It’s hard to see that flop and not get excited about winning. The turn and river, while not good cards, appear perhaps not so bad. Up through the check on the river, my student is thinking about winning a nice pot.

The button’s river bet, however, should dash these hopes completely. But for my student, and for most players, it doesn’t. We know the bet is an ominous sign, but we start to think, “Hey, top pair might still be good, right?”

It’s hard for poker players to accept that their hands have gone from probable winners to almost certain losers in the blink of an eye. So instead of making folds that should be automatic, they tank and call.

Stop Paying Off!

If you pay off on the river, you must stop immediately. You will not win at no-limit hold’em if you habitually throw money away. When your opponent makes a big bet or raise on the river, ask three questions:

Would he make this bet with a hand worse than mine?

Can he have a busted hand with which to bluff?

If he did have a busted hand, would he wimp out and check it down or would he bluff?
Usually the answer to the first question is no. If you’re on the fence about whether to call, your opponent probably would be too timid to bet a worse hand so strongly. If the answer is an unlikely yes, however, then it’s frequently good to call. But, again, question one is usually a no.

The answer to the second question depends on the runout of the board. On some boards, like the one above, it’s hard for your opponent to have a busted hand. On these boards, do not call. On other boards, ones where several draws may have busted, you have to ask the third question.

Would he pull the trigger? Try to make your most honest guess. If he would do it, and there are lots of busted hands available, go ahead and call.

But most of the time, against most players, on most rivers, you should fold. Fold, fold, fold. Just do it. Don’t think twice. Fold. It’s the percentage play, and poker is a percentage game. Learn to fold and forget, and your results will improve. ♠

Ed’s newest book, Playing The Player: Moving Beyond ABC Poker To Dominate Your Opponents, is on sale at notedpokerauthority.com. Find Ed on Facebook at facebook.com/edmillerauthor and on Twitter @EdMillerPoker.