When one tries to read an opponent’s hand on the river, it is of paramount importance to consider his play throughout the entire hand. I often see players misinterpret their opponent’s river action when in fact, if they were to reconstruct the hand from the beginning, the correct play would be relatively simple. The following hand illustrates this principle. I successfully raised my opponent’s river bet and made him lay down the best hand. If you were to look at the river action in isolation, my bluff would appear to be somewhat reckless and at best, lucky to have worked. However, if you consider my opponent’s river bet as part of his play on all streets, my bluff could almost be considered obvious.
The game was 6-max no-limit hold ‘em with blinds of $25-$50. It folded to me in the cutoff and I raised to $150 with pocket threes. My opponent called from the small blind, and everyone else folded. The flop came down Q-Q-6 of three different suits. My opponent checked to me, and I bet out $275 into the pot of $350. My opponent called.
At this point, I could put my opponent on any pocket pair from JJ-22 (this player almost certainly would have reraised me before the flop with AA-QQ), a hand like 6-7 or 6-5 suited, or a monster like any queen or 66. Note that the board was completely dry, so it was not possible to put him on any draw. And this opponent was not the type who would ever float a flop with nothing, especially out of position.
The turn card was an ace, completing the rainbow. My opponent checked to me again. Almost certainly holding the worst hand here, I would sometimes bet here to represent an ace that had made a continuation bet on a missed flop but had now hit the turn. However, my opponent was a strong player, and he was aware that I might use the ace to bluff. Moreover, he also knew that if I really did have an ace, I would likely check back on the turn to play for pot control since he had called my flop bet on the paired board. I could always then call a river bet or bet if checked to on the river. Therefore, I did not think it was likely that I could move him off his hand with a bet, so I just checked back.
The river card was what appeared at first to be an awful card. It was another ace, making a final board of A-A-Q-Q-6. This totally invalidated my hand, and I was now in fact, playing the board. At this point, my opponent led into me for $700 into the pot of $900. Now here is where the reconstruction of the hand is so important (and indeed won me this pot).
I tried to put my opponent on a hand that could have played this way. He could not realistically have a queen here. If he had a queen, he knows that no worse hand would call his river bet and no better hands would fold – so he would undoubtedly check the river and either call or fold if I bet. Betting with a queen has no value, and this opponent was strong enough to know it. The same logic can be applied to 66. If he flopped the underfull and was trying to slowplay, he had to be annoyed with the turn and river. Now he is in a situation where again, no worse hands would call his river bet and no better hands would fold. So once again, if he had a set of sixes, he almost certainly would check to me and react to my river action. What about an ace? Well, while it is certainly possible that an ace would bet the river, it is more likely that he would check and give an aggressive player like myself some rope to hang myself. But even setting aside that argument for a moment, what hand could he have with an ace in it that could have called before the flop and on the flop? Well, this particular opponent would almost certainly have reraised my late position preflop raise if he had AQ or AA. If he had A6, he would have just folded before the flop. And no other hand containing an ace would have called my flop bet. So putting that all together, I could be sure that he did not have an ace, a queen, or sixes full.
So what did that leave him? His only possible hands were a pocket pair of some sort, or a hand containing a single six. Of course, both of those hands had been counterfeited by the aces and queens. Therefore, it is likely that he felt that he now had to bet to win the pot.
Of course, I knew that whatever junk he might have had, he still had to have a better hand than mine. I could only play the board, and if he had a single card in his hand higher than a six, he held the better showdown hand. But from recreating the play of the entire hand, I also “knew” with close to complete certainty that he had a hand that had been counterfeited and could not stand any heat. Moreover, he could not be sure that I did not have an ace myself (as I would play any ace in a very similar fashion). Therefore, I raised his river bet to $2000. He instantly folded, showing pocket tens.
So what is the moral of this story? Against tricky opponents, it can be very challenging and misleading to try and decipher the strength of their hands based on their actions at a single point in the hand. However, if you evaluate the play of the entire hand and consolidate the information that you gather at each street, you can make optimal decisions with relative ease and accuracy.