Play On The End, Part Two: Calling to Catch a Bluff

Poker Concepts, Strategy

September 25, 2007

In poker, play on the last betting round (aka  street) takes on a decidedly different nature from play on any other round. Because there are no cards to come, the relative rankings of the players’ hands are fixed, and as such all betting revolves around uncertainty about opponent hole cards, not uncertainty about the cards to come. This simplified environment causes many issues that are murky and complicated on earlier betting rounds to become more clear, and as such play on the end is the perfect framework for introducing a number of important poker topics.

In the last installment of this series, we discussed the two fundamental types of bets & raises – value bets and bluffs. Now I want to talk about calling on the end. For the time being, assume that play is heads-up and you are facing a bet, and thus you have the option of closing the betting by calling. Also remember from last time that excessive aggression on the river with mediocre hands has a high probability of splitting your opponent’s range and being incorrect. So only rarely in this situation will you be raising – and almost never with a mediocre hand. That leaves the player with a mediocre holding two reasonable options – call or fold.

The first key thing to notice is that you are not risking the same amount by adopting one line vs. the other. A call risks the amount of the bet you are facing, but you stand to win the pot. A fold risks the amount of the pot (which you will have surrendered in the case where you were really best) to save the cost of one bet. This creates a huge distinction between play on the end in limit games and play in PL or NL games. In a limit game, it’s unlikely the bet on the end will be a large portion of the pot size. Therefore in limit games a call risks a little to win a lot, while a fold risks a lot to win a little. The situation is much different in big bet games. There bets are often the size of the pot or thereabouts, and the risk and reward for each decision are more closely matched if not exactly equal. Of course you opponents at big bet games have the option of substantially underbetting on the river, which creates circumstances similar to a limit game.

In limit games, play on the river with mediocre hands is usually fairly simple. The odds being offered you by a call are often upwards of 6:1 (the situation in holdem with a raise preflop and one bet on every subsequent street). Assuming you hold a mediocre hand such as middle pair, you have to ask yourself if there’s any plausible way villain could have gotten to the river without a made hand. In heads-up play against aggressive opponents who push draws and even air, the answer to that question is almost always “yes”. When this is the case, you usually have to call the river with your mediocre holding because the chances your opponent is weak are more than 6:1. In other words, in limit games (especially at the higher limits) the standard rule of thumb is to always call the river if you’ve got something.

Of course this, like all rules of thumb, is not always accurate. When the pot size is very small (as sometimes happens with passive play or in games with fewer streets such as limit draw) this rule does not necessarily hold because the risk and reward for calling are much closer. In such circumstances, more judgment must be applied. There are also circumstances where villain has made bets that essentially have to be value bets on previous streets with what has to be a made hand that beats you. For example, when a tight opponent 4-bets before the flop in limit holdem, they always have a big pocket pair or AK. There’s no point in calling such an opponent down on the river with middle pair on an ace-high board since you’re essentially 100% sure that you’re beat. These decisions, like all odds decisions, are a matter of comparison. So if the pot is offering 8:1, but you think it’s 25:1 against you being good, by all means pass. The key thing to note, however, is that except in very specific circumstances you’re rarely that sure you’re beat.

As I alluded to earlier, the situation is somewhat different in big bet games. The logical reasoning (namely comparing odds offered by the pot to the odds you think you’re good) is the same, but the bet sizes are much larger relative to the pot. As a result, in big bet games there isn’t any particular built-in bias towards calling on the end – it’s simply a matter of judgment where you have to decide how likely it is that you’re beat. This is one of the areas where NL play is much more complicated than limit play. Your opponent’s choice of bet size plays a big roll in this as well, which I’ll discuss in a future article.

Returning to limit games, it’s important to remember that we’ve been discussing play where it is heads-up on the end. If there are multiple players in on the end, some things change. The first key point is that you should be very careful about calling if you can’t close the action because you can spend a bet and still not get a chance to win the pot if the opponent behind you raises. This is a true case of paying money for nothing, and should be avoided unless you have very strong evidence that the opponent behind you is very weak and will fold. Be especially mindful of this situation is split pot games where you’re at risk of being quartered or hold a non-lock hand in one or both directions. If your two opponents hold (near)locks, they will cap the betting with you stuck in the middle, and you will get either 1/4 of 3-way action or nothing at all and lose substantial money.

Even if you can close the action on the end, you should be far more cautious about calling when there are one or more callers in front of you. While you are often unsure if one opponent is bluffing, the chance that one or more opponents are calling with weaker bluff catchers than you have quickly approaches zero. You generally need a legitimate hand to call once someone else has already done so.

Basically, when you take all of this into account, the “always call” rule of thumb is not applicable to multi-way action.

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