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Resolving Ambiguity

by Ed Miller |  Published: Aug 03, 2016

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Ed MillerTurn and river play is what sets live cash game winners apart. On one hand, it’s fairly obvious that this is so, since these streets are when the bets are biggest. If you play the best for the big bets, you’re going to win.

On the other hand, many players hate playing the turn and river—especially the river. “I’d win every time if they never dealt a river card,” you’ve no doubt heard someone say before.

Of course this idea is silly, not only because they aren’t going to stop dealing river cards anytime soon, but also because if they did remove the river card, they’d be shifting the skill-to-luck balance of the game more toward luck, not toward skill. The game would be more about who got dealt pocket aces the most, and less about who can read hands, run plays, and so forth.

So if we can’t (and shouldn’t want to) get rid of river cards, how do we approach river play to give us the biggest advantage over our opponents?

Part of the equation is to use the information your opponents give you about their hands. I’ve written about this idea a lot recently. Your opponents frequently betray information in the form of bet-sizing tells, other physical tells, and unbalanced hand ranges. They might make an extra big bet, tipping you off that they have a strong hand they’re never folding. They might say something like “Be careful,” before they check to you. Or they might just plain not bluff often enough, allowing you to fold marginal hands to their river bets.

Gathering this information and acting on it is a big part of the game. But this sort of information is unavailable in some hands. In particular, when you—rather than your opponent—are the one driving the betting, typically less information will be available.

For example, if you’ve bet the turn, and your opponent calls, then there is no bet-sizing tell for you to act upon.

But this doesn’t mean that no information is available if you are driving the betting. Furthermore, when you drive the betting, you do have one critical advantage that your opponent doesn’t—you can use your own bet sizing to help resolve ambiguity.

Here’s what I mean. Let’s look at a hand played at $2-$5 with $1,000 stacks.

A player open-raises to $20 from four off the button. The next player calls, and you call on the button with 10Heart Suit 9Heart Suit. The blinds fold. There’s $67 in the pot and three players.

The flop is JClub Suit 7Diamond Suit 5Club Suit. The preflop raiser bets $30, and the next player folds. You call with your gutshot.

The turn is the 3Club Suit. Your opponent checks. There’s $127 in the pot and over $900 behind.

It’s almost certainly a good idea to bet here. The main reason to call the flop with the gutshot is that you get to pick up pots like these when your opponent gives up. Obviously if you want to pick up the pot, you have to bet.

But there are two streets (and a lot of money) left to bet. Your goal should be to pick up as many pots as possible where your opponent doesn’t have a legitimately strong hand, while limiting your losses those times your opponent does have a strong hand.

The problem is that we have ambiguity. Your opponent checked. Is that because he has a hand like ADiamond Suit KDiamond Suit that missed the flop and just plans to give up? Or is it because he has a hand like KDiamond Suit KSpade Suit, but he’s afraid of the flush and all the money behind? Or is it because he has something like JHeart Suit 9Heart Suit that might have checked the turn even if the flush hadn’t hit?

There are enough hands like ADiamond Suit KDiamond Suit in the mix that you definitely want to take at least one swing at the pot. But there are also enough hands like KDiamond Suit KSpade Suit in the mix (that your opponent will probably call down with absent a fourth club) that you want to be a little careful about how you proceed.

Furthermore, there will be hands like AClub Suit QSpade Suit in the mix, that your opponent will almost certainly call with on the turn, but that he will probably fold on the river without improvement.

This turn situation presents ambiguity. The idea is to proceed in a way that can help resolve the ambiguity. The main point of ambiguity we’d like to resolve is, if we bet the turn and get called, should we also bluff the river?

Say you make a nice big turn bet. There’s $127 in the pot. Say you bet $120. If your opponent folds, great. But what if he calls? Should you bluff the river?

Two kinds of hands will tend to make it through your big turn bet. First are the strong hands like A-J and K-K that are trying to pot control. But there are also hands the hands like AClub Suit QSpade Suit, that will beat you if you give them a free showdown, but that would almost certainly fold the river unimproved. Also, there’s some chance your opponent would call the turn with a hand like JDiamond Suit 10Diamond Suit or 8Club Suit 8Spade Suit. These are also hands that might fold if you bet the river.

But it’s hard to know how often your opponent would call the turn with hands like these last two, or fold with them. And if you don’t know that, then it’s hard to know how profitable it would be to bluff the river (or how big a bluff to make). You could find yourself making a $120 river bluff (to get A-Q to fold), only to get snapped off by pocket eights or a bad jack. Or you could find yourself making a $300 river bluff, only to get snapped off by K-K or A-J.

This is not a disaster, but you can often improve this situation with a smaller turn bet.
Say instead of betting $120 on the turn, you bet $50. That’s a $50 bet into $127. This small bet will tend to entice most players to call with all these marginal hands. So when you were unsure of how your opponents would react to the $120 bet, you can be fairly sure that they will call your $50 bet with hands like J-10 and 8-8.

While it may seem counterintuitive to induce your opponent to call when you’re trying to bluff, it works to your benefit. Because now the ambiguity is mostly gone for the river bluff. Since your opponent has plenty of marginal hands left, you can go ahead and bet $300 on the river and expect to get plenty enough folds to make the bluff worthwhile.

So by manipulating the bet size on the turn, you’ve taken what would otherwise be an ambiguous situation and made it less so. You’ve given yourself a clear, profitable (on average) river play.

Resolving ambiguity like this will help you make better decisions through the end of hands. ♠

Ed’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site redchippoker.com.