PLO Rivers with Jeff Kimber

PLO Rivers with Jeff Kimber

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

By Jeff Kimber

Having brushed up our pre-flop PLO game, narrowed our starting ranges and worked on our post-flop tactics, we get to the most important street in poker, the river. Like the medal ceremony at the London Olympics, or payday if you work a nine-to-five, this is when the fruits of your labour are rewarded, and hopefully when you’ll receive your just deserts for your hard endeavour.

It sounds obvious, but it’s important to realise there are no more cards to come, no draws, no backdoor outs or implied odds. You either have the best hand now or you don’t, and therefore your river bets are either value bets or bluffs. Value-betting and bluffing are two of the biggest contributors to profitability and, with the pot bloated after three streets of betting, mastering both of these on the river can be the difference between a winning and losing session.

When approaching river play it’s important to bear in mind factors like game-flow, stack sizes and, of course, how the board reads and whether this has changed since the last round of betting, but player tendencies will be key to making the correct decision and how to carry out your plan.

Because the nuts is far more prevalent in PLO compared to NLH, players are much warier of someone holding the absolutes, and therefore they play more straightforward. Of course, the higher up the stakes you play, the more complex opponents get, but at all levels it’s important to take notes on your opponents’ styles. Ask yourself how much they bluff, how creatively they play, how often they check-raise rivers, raise as a bluff, and bluff when checked to. Your default position should be to expect opponents to play A-B-C, especially at the lower stakes, unless you have a reason to think otherwise (ie, previous experience).

Online note-taking is simple, but in this day and age, where phones have note taking facilities, there’s no excuse to not take player notes in live games too. I’m not advocating having a dwell and getting your phone out for a read when someone sets you in on the river, but if you recognise a player from a previous session when they join the table, taking a moment to re-read your previous notes on him might be the difference between winning or losing a couple of buy-ins. Having played a tight range pre-flop in position, hopefully our main job on the river will be extracting value, but it’s important to choose the right value bet size for the job, depending on the board texture and our how our opponent plays.

Our default will be a medium-sized bet – around half to three-quarters of the pot. This gives a good balance between providing fold equity when the draws don’t get there, and plain value when we have the best hand. However, on occasion it’s optimal to either lower or raise our bet size.

If we’re pretty sure our opponent has a weak hand, we select a small value bet that will induce a crying call. For example, if we hold aces on a K-4-4-7-2 board and have bet the flop and turn, we can be pretty sure that our opponent has, at best, a king and, taking into consideration his tendencies, won’t love his hand enough to pay off a big bet but won’t like to fold the river. We can bet a quarter or a third of the pot and eke out that last bit of value. Of course, good players can and do recognise these value bets and make solid folds, but for the most part, especially at lower stakes, players are just too stubborn and inquisitive to fold to a small bet.

We also use small bets to induce flairy players to bluff-check-raise the river. These bets need to be made with great consideration to stack sizes to make sure we have set up a scenario that gives the impression we have plenty of fold equity should they get busy.

One of the smartest times to pull this weapon from the arsenal is when you have a hand that looks “impossible” for you to have. This often arises when you’ve just called a raise pre-flop with aces and found an ace-high board. We can call bets on the flop and turn (or check behind on fourth street if our opponent slows down), then bet small on the river when the action is checked to us. Because it looks pretty hard for us to have much on an A-5-6-6-T board – even more so if the flop draws have missed – a quarter or third-size pot bet on the river looks like we’re just trying to take the pot away, and can lure an unsuspecting foe into a check-raise pot bluff.

Big river bets, three quarters of the pot to full pot, are used on specific opponents. Some players will call no matter what, so why not extract full value? Some will call small bets but default to a position of ‘he must have it’ when you fire full pot. Therefore, depending on the result we want, and of course while trying to keep a balanced range, we would try and extract max value with our made hands in the first case and apply max pressure to force a fold with our air in the second.

One of the most common scenarios for firing full-pot river bets comes on flush boards, where opponents are loathe to fold any kind of flush, especially if they’ve flopped it. Because betting with the bare ace is a legitimate PLO tactic, too many players make their mind up that their seven-high flush is a great bluff catcher and go into call mode, no matter what the size of the bet. The fact that a full pot-bet can actually reinforce their view that you must be bluffing (“why would he bet so big if he had it, doesn’t he want value?”) makes bombing the river an even more attractive proposition with the nuts.

Of course this comes back to player tendencies, and it’s important to take notes again here on players who do things out of the ordinary, such as ‘fires full pot on three streets with flopped nut flush’, or ‘bets small with flopped nuts, bets full pot with ace blocker’ and my favourite ‘doesn’t fold any flopped flush no matter how big you bet’. Whenever I see that third note, I always hope I found out that information by bombing the nuts against a station, rather than bluffing the blocker against him.

Inexperienced players often miss a lot of value by being scared of value-owning themselves and getting called by better hands, but it’s imperative to remember that, in the long run, if you continue to miss value by checking back fairly strong hands in the fear of being check-raised or of being shown a better hand, you will lose more value than you save. The bottom line is you will be a less profitable PLO player.

Value-betting thinly is one of the most important skills a PLO player can acquire. It sounds obvious, but tighter players, who play better starting hands that therefore flop more equity – higher (nut) flushes, higher two pairs, higher sets – get to showdown less often than looser players, but when they do get there, they show up with better hands.

Two very important stats you can extract from your Hold Em Manager can therefore help you decide whether to value bet an opponent and if so how big. The WTSD% (Went to Show Down) tells us how often an opponent gets to show down. The W$SD% (Won $ at Show Down) tells us how often they win when they get to showdown. Tighter players will have low WTSD%, but higher W$SD% as they have it more often. These are not the kind of opponents we want to value-bet thinly.

Loose players have high WTSD% as they play too many hands and don’t like folding, but lower W$SD% as they often turn up with bad and dominated hands. These are the prime candidates for a thin value bet. Putting it more simply: against a nit we should either have the nuts or be bluffing; against a fish we can value-bet widely. River-bluffing is a skill it takes years to perfect, but it’s so important to be able to take pots down without the best hand if you are to be a profitable PLO player. It takes nerves of steel, because the nuts is more likely in PLO, and every now and then you will get it wrong and walk into the absolutes, but as long as you get it right more often than wrong, the bottom line will benefit.

Winning PLO players will often turn a made-hand into a bluff. This takes good hand-reading ability and recognition of board texture. Weaker players will call down with hands that, while they have some value, have no relative value at this stage. Good players will recognise that their holding is no longer strong enough to win the pot, but spot the opportunity to bluff instead. As with all bluffs, we need to make sure our story makes sense and that the hand we are repping is within our range, and that we have enough fold equity to force our opponent to slide his hand into the muck.

Bluff-raising the river is also a skill all the best players possess. A lot of online PLO players are on auto-pilot throughout their sessions, more concerned with playing the maximum number of tables and achieving the most rakeback than spotting opportunities such as when to bluff raise. If you’re eight-tabling and a screen pops up and the river had brought a third spade, it’s easy to make sure you don’t have the flush. Check your action and get on with another screen.

However, a good, thinking player will spot an opportunity. Say there was a possible flopped straight on this board and our opponent has bet the flop and turn only to check the river now a third spade has arrived. If he now makes a small bet which looks like a blocker, we can take the opportunity to use our position, stack and board-reading ability to put in a raise and take it down.

Often player tendencies will lead you to pull off the bluff raise, or decide against it, remembering your opponent has to be good enough to lay down his hand. If you’ve played a thousand hands with a guy and always seen him check-raise his flopped sets, we can discount a set from his range if he donks a 9-6-3 flop. If the turn pairs the board and he checks, we can be pretty sure he’s half given up on his probable wrap. Now the river brings a deuce and he leads again. We know this opponent can’t have a full house. He wouldn’t have called pre-flop with pocket deuces in his hand, and would check-raise a flopped set or good two pair and probably check-call and reassess bottom two.

So when he leads the river, our hand is irrelevant. We can easily rep a flopped set that we’ve just called on the flop for deception and to force him to play three streets out of position, and raise it up. It’s impossible for our opponent to call here and we rake in a nice pot.

We must play good PLO pre-flop and on the flop and turn, but the river is where the glory is; where the big pots are won or lost and when the bets are at their biggest in pot limit games. Mastering the river and knowing which weapon to pull out of the arsenal and when can turn a break-even player into a winner, and eventually a good player into a great one.

Tags: Jeff Kimber, strategy, PLO