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Calling With A Marginal Hand On The River

by Jonathan Little |  Published: Apr 13, 2016

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Jonathan LittleI recently traveled to California for the Global Poker League draft (I was drafted to the Las Vegas Moneymakers!) and the Los Angeles Poker Classic $10,000 buy-in World Poker Tour event. Things were going well for me early in day 1. I was up to 50,000 from a 30,000-chip starting stack mostly from stealing pots that didn’t belong to me. My table was filled with generally aggressive players. Only one player (a very skilled WPT champion) seemed to be incredibly out of line. He was two to my left, meaning I was forced to play a bit tighter than normal because I expected him to apply significant pressure to me at some point in the future. When you expect someone to apply pressure, you either need to play stronger than average hands or be willing to apply even more pressure. My default strategy is not to run giant bluffs early in poker tournaments.

I picked up 8Club Suit 8Spade Suit in first position at 150-300 ante 25 blinds and raised to 800. The overly aggressive WPT champ, who also had 50,000, called in third position. The hijack, button, small blind, and big blind all called as well. I assumed most players would reraise their best hands, so I thought they all had fairly wide non-nut ranges.

The flop came 9Club Suit 9Heart Suit 7Heart Suit. The blinds checked to me, and I also decided to check. I thought that if I bet and got called, I would be against a range of decently-strong made hands and draws. Since I am in marginal shape against any reasonable calling range, checking seemed to have a lot of merit. Notice that if I check then someone bets and someone else calls or raises, I can easily fold. If one player bets and everyone folds around to me, I can somewhat confidently call and see what develops on the turn. Although the flop will occasionally check through and I will get outdrawn by a hand that would have folded to a flop bet, I think this is a situation, especially at a table full of aggressive players, where checking leads to the best situations for me while also keeping variance low. This time, everyone checked through.

The turn was the 3Club Suit. The blinds checked to me again. I assumed most players would bet the flop with trips or an overpair, which led me to believe I had the best hand at the moment. I decided to bet 2,100 into the 5,250-chip pot. This bet size was designed to make all hands with a marginal amount of equity, such as A-J and K-Q, fold, while keeping in marginal made hands that I beat, such as 8-7 and 5-5. Of course, both flush draws will stick around no matter how much I bet. The WPT champ in third position called and everyone else folded. I thought this specific player’s range was much wider than only marginal made hands as he is known to splash around a bit. I thought he could easily have strong overcards or a gutshot straight draw in addition to marginal made hands and strong draws.

The river was the KClub Suit. I checked and the WPT champ bet 7,000 into the 9,450-chip pot. This presented an interesting situation that occasionally comes up in live poker. Although my opponent’s bet put me in a difficult situation with my bluff catcher, in live poker, you can often make a read on your opponent based on his bet size or his demeanor that sways your decision one way or the other. I thought my opponent would correctly put me on either a marginal made hand or Ace-high and I thought he was capable of trying to bluff me off those hands. I thought his 7,000-chip bet was a bit too large to expect me to call with those junky made hands. Since I thought he would likely bet smaller for thin value, this led me to believe that he had a polarized range, meaning he either has a nut hand (a flush or trips) or nothing. While the backdoor flush should make up a decent portion of his range, I thought he would turn most hands worse than mine into bluffs on this scary river. Since I thought my opponent’s bluffing range was quite wide, I decided to call. My opponent quickly mucked his hand and awarded me the pot.

While this call may be somewhat standard, given my opponent’s tendencies and the way my range likely appeared to him, it is important to realize that when you acquire additional information about your opponent based on your reads, you should be willing to get a bit out of line and adjust your decision accordingly. If instead of being a loose, aggressive WPT champion, my opponent was a tight, passive player who never got out of line, I would almost certainly fold the river. If you are not constantly assessing each specific player’s tendencies and adjusting your strategy accordingly, you are almost certainly leaving money on the table. ♠

Jonathan Little is a two-time WPT champion with more than $6 million in tournament winnings. Each week, he posts an educational blog and podcast at JonathanLittlePoker.com, where you can get a FREE poker training video that details five things you must master if you want to win at tournament poker.