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Backing Up

by Lou Krieger |  Published: May 17, 2005


Sometimes, big revelations come from small insights and occur so quickly that you don't even notice them until they spring, fully blossomed, like an oak tree from an acorn. "I'm losing on the river most of the time when I call," I was told by someone.

"Most of the time when I call a bet on the river, I lose," he said, adding, "I know I'm stubborn, but I just don't like to let go of a hand when I go that far with it. Besides, if my opponent bets and he's bluffing, I'll lose the entire pot when I fold, but it costs me only one additional bet to call that last bet."

That might have been a revelation to him, but nothing's new to my ears in all of this; I've heard it a thousand times before. So, I mentally dissected his statements in order to analyze them.

It's true that if you must make an error on the river, calling should be the error of choice, since the price of a call is only one additional bet, while the cost of releasing the winning hand in the face of an opponent's wager can be 10 bets or more, depending on the size of the pot. Because of the potential cost associated with folding what would have been the wining hand, it's a huge error instead of a small, incremental one. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean that a bet on the river should always be called. There are some occasions when it pays to toss your hand away when confronted with one last bet.

But that's not what this discussion was all about, was it? To me, it seemed like there was a lot more beneath the surface than deciding to call or fold when confronted with a bet on the river. I realized then that I win most of the time when I call on the river, and that there are relatively few occasions over the course of a session when I call on the river and lose. Something else was at play here, and that's when I had an epiphany of sorts.

I realized that all of us aren't going to the river with equal hands, and the circumstances in which we find ourselves confronting a bet on the river are very different. Our hero, who seems to be the caller more often than not, and losing much of the time when he calls a bet on the river, isn't making a mistake just on the river; he's probably making a mistake on the turn, too.

My mind flashed back to my last session. In six-plus hours of play, I recalled calling twice on the river with hands that lost. The rest of the time, I was the bettor on the river and won without a call or won when I was called by an opponent, or the hands were checked down at the end. I also threw my hand away when on a draw that never materialized and couldn't even beat a decent bluff, or wasn't contesting the river at all.

The river plays itself much of the time; at least it does for me. Either I've made two pair or a set or better, completed my flush or straight draw, think my top pair with big kicker is good enough to win if I bet and am called, or have a hand that's a candidate for checking down at the end. While there are some occasions when I'll try to bluff an opponent who is prone to releasing marginal holdings when faced with a bet on the river, they are exceptions.

Much of the time, decisions on the river are not all that tough. Your hand has either realized its potential or failed to do so. In any event, it no longer has any potential and you can neither bet nor call because you hope your hand will improve on some future betting round. At this point, you've either made the hand you were hoping to make or you didn't – and if you made it, you ought to bet. After all, if you're building a hand but are unwilling to bet if you complete it, why are you attempting to make that hand in the first place? There's no payoff for sticking around in hope of building the second- or third-best hands. You want to draw to hands that will win the pot, not lose it.

The river isn't the key to any of this. Whenever a mistake is made on the river, there's a good chance that it's merely compounding a mistake made on an earlier betting round. Maybe it's the turn, and if he looks back at the hands he's played, he'll probably see that he shouldn't have played them on the turn, either.

And if he made an error on the turn, perhaps he shouldn't have called a bet on the flop. And, yes, he probably had a hand that didn't warrant a play before the flop, either. The answers can be as varied as the player and his cards, but if you're finding yourself calling and losing too often on the river, you need to examine the way your hand played out and decide if you should have been involved with it on the turn. But don't stop there. Go back to the flop, and even the start of the hand.

My guess is that you're making mistakes on one or more of these betting rounds, and these errors are leading you down the wrong road. Then you find yourself at the river, confronted by an opponent's wager, and you decide to call in order to avoid the catastrophic dilemma of calling with a hand you almost certainly know will be the loser, or you toss it away and never really know if you folded a winner. But the river is not your problem. It seems like the problem only because it is where the results are revealed, and there's nowhere to go from there but on to the next hand. But the truth of the matter is that the river is only the last visible symptom of an issue that developed much earlier.

It's like a 40-year smoker dying from emphysema. Dealing with emphysema doesn't leave you a lot of options. But if you could go back in time and stop smoking, you'd probably never get emphysema in the first place.

Look at the hands with which you're losing, and look backward with an eye to deciding where you should have gotten off the train. You might have been better off exiting at the turn, or quite possibly a whole lot earlier than that.

In poker, the best starting hand becomes the winning hand more often than not, and calling with hands that build second or third pair, or long-shot holdings like small gapped connectors, frequently puts you on the road to ruin. When you do win with them, no one will suspect you have such beauties in your hand, but in limit hold'em, they don't win enough money to provide a long-term positive expected value. Save those hands for no-limit hold'em games, where you can see the flop for one bet with lots of opponents in the pot before you, and you're getting nearly infinite implied odds. If you can manage your impulses so that you can release these hands whenever they don't flop an absolutely miraculous hand for you – which will be the vast majority of the time -you can play them.

But if you're losing too frequently on the river, just try backing up and you'll probably find that your real error occurred a lot earlier in the hand. ♠