I have a rule on the river that I follow religiously, which I appropriately call "The River Rule": Never try to make a good laydown on the river in limit hold'em.
Given this rule, it isn't easy to get opponents to fold on the river, due to the size of the pot; however, there are situations here and there that arise that will give you an opportunity to try to steal the pot. The most common example is when you are on a draw and you continue to bet the river, hoping that your opponent will fold a busted draw or weak pair.
Occasionally, you can use a scare card on the river to attempt a bluff. For example, a suited card falls, or the board pairs and you represent trips, or an ace comes and you represent the ace. However, these kinds of plays generally work only against players who don't follow the river rule and are capable of laying down a hand on the river. There aren't many of these players, so you should try these plays only in specific situations.
Realize that bluffs do not have to be highly successful in order to be profitable. If there are five or six big bets in the pot, you have to be successful only a small percentage of the time for the bluff to show a profit.
Bluff-raises on the river are even more difficult to pull off profitably, as it is difficult to get an opponent who has already bet on the river to fold, and you have reduced pot odds on your raise. The best time to attempt a bluff-raise is when you think your opponent is also on a bluff and your hand can't beat even a bluff.
Let's look at some examples to test your skills:
1. $20-$40: You hold the 10 8 in the small blind. An early-position player limps in and you call. Three players see the flop of 9 6 6. You bet, the big blind raises, and you decide to call. The turn is the 2. You check, and the big blind checks. The river is the 9. There is $140 in the pot. What should you do?
Answer: Your opponent's check on the turn indicates weakness. He may have a pair of nines and was worried about trips, but he also might be holding a draw or a small pocket pair. The pot odds are sufficient for you to represent a full house and bluff. Bet.
2. $15-$30: You hold the A K in the small blind. An early-position player raises and a middle-position player calls. You just call, and the big blind calls. Four players see the flop of 9 5 2. The big blind bets and everyone calls. The turn is the 3. The big blind bets and everyone calls. The river is the 5. The big blind checks, the early-position player bets, and the middle-position player calls. There is $360 in the pot. What should you do?
Answer: Bluff-raises on the river rarely are successful. However, sometimes you can spot opportunities, such as in this example. The early-position player has limped along the entire hand after the flop, and now decides to bet when a 5 comes on the river. It is possible that he has a hand like A-5, but doubtful, since he raised preflop. The middle-position player obviously has a weak hand or he would have raised on one of the earlier betting rounds. Raising in this situation will represent trip fives and make it very difficult for one of your opponents to call. Your bluff has to work only once every seven times to break even. Raise.
In the actual hand, the player folded. The early-position player showed the Q 10, and the middle-position player the A 2.
3. $30-$60: You hold the 3 3 in the cutoff in a sixhanded game and raise first in. The big blind calls, and you and he see the flop of A 10 8. Your opponent checks, you bet, and he calls. The turn is the 10 and you both check. The river is the A. Your opponent suddenly bets out. There is $255 in the pot. What should you do?
Answer: Just about the only hand a reasonable player could bet here is an ace, or possibly a 10. If he had an ace, you would expect a check-raise on the flop, or a bet on the turn to protect against a flush draw. When an opponent suddenly changes his betting pattern from one of weakness to one of strength, you must be suspicious. Unfortunately, you can't even beat the board, so your only option is to raise if you want to win the pot. It will cost you $120 to win $255, so you need to be correct only one in three times for the bluff to be profitable. Raise.
4. $20-$40: You hold the Q Q in middle position. An early-position player calls, you raise, and the button calls. The big blind reraises and the early-position player calls. You cap it, and everyone calls. There is $330 in the pot. Four players see the flop of 6 5 3. It is checked to you, you bet, and everyone calls. The turn card is the 9. It is checked to you, you bet, the button calls, and the big blind raises. Everybody calls and the button is all in at this point. There is $730 in the pot. The river is the ugly J. The big blind checks and the early-position player suddenly wakes up and bets. There is $770 in the pot. What should you do?
Answer: It appears that the player in early position has made a flush. However, the correct play for him would have been to check-raise the flop with a flush draw. A set of jacks doesn't make sense, either. His river bet is a little suspicious, giving you reason to at least call.
Unfortunately, you have the player in the big blind to worry about, also. He check-raised the turn in a multiway pot, indicating strength. He very well could have a set or two pair. However, if you raise, it would be very difficult for the big blind to call with even a set. Not only must he call two big bets, he faces the risk that the player behind him will reraise (although he could probably fold at that point).
You are going to at least call the $40 given the size of the pot, so a raise costs you only $40 more to win $810 (we're including your $40 river call in the size of the pot). If your raise wins you the pot once every 21 times, you show a profit. You won't be successful very often, but you don't need to be to show a profit. It's a risky advanced play, but has a decent chance for success. Raise.
In the actual hand, the player just called. The big blind showed A-A and the early-position player A-7.
Some of these hand examples were taken from my book Internet Texas Hold'em.
This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
Matthew is the owner of Dimat Enterprises, “Publishing Today’s Best Poker Books”. The Math of Hold’em by Collin Moshman and Douglas Zare is available now at pokerbooks.InternetTexasHoldem.com.