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Head Games: Tough River Decisions and Common Mistakes in No-Limit Hold’em and Pot-Limit Omaha Cash Games

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Apr 01, 2013


The Pros: Aaron Jones, Tim Matthews, and Jeff Williams

Craig Tapscott: What are some tough spots that put an opponent to the test at the river and why?

Aaron Jones: The best way to put an opponent in a tough spot on the river is when their range is weak and the board runs out better for my range than theirs. The most common example is when my opponent is playing passively and the board runs out with scary overcards (say the flop comes with all low cards and the turn and river are non-pairing face cards). The person playing passively in this case (my opponent) is likely to have a one pair type hand that is trying to get to showdown (unless he’s slow playing, but there are fewer combinations of slow plays) while my range is incredibly wide and includes a lot of hands with high cards and/or draws (and, less frequently, better made hands) that could possibly have made a better hand than his on a favorable runout. Another spot I would put an opponent in a tough river spot is if his range is capped preflop. The best example there is if I always expect them to put in another raise preflop with Q-Q plus, but they just call, reasonably excluding those hands from their range. If that’s the case and the board comes very low, say 3-2-2, it’s very hard for them to have a strong hand — chances are I will put a lot of pressure on them with a wide range on various runouts. If the flop comes with an A-K-X on it and I think my opponent would reraise with A-K, A-A, and K-K, I can take three of the strongest hands possible on that board out of their range and be more likely to apply pressure.

Tim Matthews: One way to put your opponent to the test on the river is to overbet the pot when your opponent has very few strong hands in his river range. For example, the button raises preflop and I call from the big blind with 7Diamond Suit 7Club Suit. The flop comes ADiamond Suit 3Diamond Suit 4Club Suit and I check/call a bet. The turn is the 5Diamond Suit and it checks through. The river is the 2Club Suit, putting the wheel straight on the board. This is a great spot to make an overbet bluff. It is very unlikely that he gets to the river with a flush or a six-high straight. He would often value bet or semibluff those hands on the turn, while my flop calling range contains a number of combinations of both. I am going to want to bluff him off a chop quite often on this river. Overbetting this river will put a lot of pressure on him and help make him more indifferent between calling or folding. Another strong river line that can give your opponent a headache is to bet the flop, bet the turn and check/call the river. This is often a good line to take if your opponent likes to float the flop and the turn with draws and weak pairs and then bluff the river. This line is particularly effective if you have showdown value but your hand isn’t strong enough to value bet.

Jeff Williams: Putting pressure on your opponents in Omaha is different than it is in no-limit. In no-limit, we can overbet the pot when we perceive our opponent as having a mediocre strength hand, in pot-limit Omaha, we can only bet the size of the pot. This forces a player to decide in the earlier streets whether he wants the pot to be large or small going into the river, so he can bet accordingly. For example, we raise the button with Q-9-8-7 and receive a call out of the big blind. The flop falls K-5-6 rainbow, and he checks to us. We are going to want to start building a pot here with an eye toward our river play. Why? There are a couple of reasons. We can bet our hand on the flop and turn and by the river, our big draw has bricked out and all we have is queen-high. But we have inflated the size of the pot with our flop and turn betting, and can now fire a sizable river bet at our opponent, who may have been drawing as well, or perhaps holds a one pair or weak two-pair hand that can’t stand a big river bet. On the other hand, if we’ve made our straight, we of course want the size of our river bet to be big as well, to extract max value.

Craig Tapscott: What kinds of plays do you see from opponents that are costly mistakes on the river?

Aaron Jones: The biggest mistake opponents make on the river is not identifying the strength of their hand in relation to the rest of their range. On some runouts people I play against have a zero calling range on the river. That means whenever they take that line up to the river they are virtually never check/calling, making a bet from me instantly profitable. In these spots what my opponents’ should do is simply identify what the strongest hands in their range are and make sure to call some percentage of the time. It’s hard to find a good example here, but there are a lot of them where I feel like my opponent is not cognizant of what kind of line he’d take with a made hand so I’m able to put him on some kind of draw and perhaps float lighter with a draw, confident he’ll be check/folding a lot of rivers. Identifying this will be much easier with the aid of position so he has to act first on all streets (and people frequently have too wide of a range out of position and are forced to take more transparent lines).

Tim Matthews: One of the biggest mistakes I tend to see players make on the river, even at the mid to high stakes, is giving off bet-sizing tells. Some players have a tendency to size their thin value bets very small on the river and to size their bluffs much bigger. If your opponent is observant enough to pick up on your river bet-sizing tells then they will be able to exploit your unbalanced play. The river also tends to be the street that players give off the most timing tells. In my experience online, the most common river timing tell tends to be the very fast all-in bet. When an opponent instantly jams all-in on the river you can assume that a thin value bet is less likely, since they would usually take some time to consider alternative bet sizes and the impact of the river card.

Jeff Williams: Omaha players make a few mistakes that I have seen that cost them over and over. One would be stubborn calls on the river. Let’s say you have flopped the nut flush in position and bet out twice, receiving calls from your tight/passive opponent both times. On the river, the top card pairs the board, and he bets out full pot. As a good hand reader, you know that on the flop and the turn, your opponent either had an inferior flush, top two-pair or set. Once the river hits, he would not turn his flush into a bluff by betting out, so we can easily conclude that the river made him a full house, and we can make an easy fold. Another mistake I see is players not inducing river bluffs. An example of this would be if we’re playing a guy who loves to float our bets, and take the pot away from us on the river. When we flop a nut-type hand out of position, we should be betting it on the flop and turn, and then checking a lot of river cards, to balance our river checking range, and give him a chance to bluff some chips off to us.♠

Aaron Jones is a renowned high stakes cash game specialist. He is the owner and lead video producer at LeggoPoker, a lead poker training site specializing in no-limit hold’em cash games and tournaments.

Tim Matthews has over three years experience as a full-time professional poker player and millions of hands played at mid to high stakes cash games. Follow Tim’s instructional videos and blog at

Jeff Williams is a professional poker player and investor living in Atlanta, GA. Follow him on twitter @yellowsub86.