One of the biggest mistakes that I see at the lower stakes of no-limit is the check-call on the river. In an earlier article I talked about how important it is to raise-fold when playing deeper stacks. That concept stems from one of the most important in live no-limit—the bet-fold.
Bet-folding refers to betting with a hand that you think is best and then folding to a raise. The mere fact, especially on the river, that your opponent raises, usually gives us enough information to know that our hand is no longer good. For some reason most recreational players are scared of bet-folding which is why you see so much check-calling. Rampant check-callers lose a ton of value especially on later streets.
Let’s take a look at an example. We raise in early position with A♣ A♥ to $10 in a $1-$2 no-limit game with $300 effective stacks and the button calls. The board comes out K♣ 5♦ 2♣. We bet out $20 and our opponent calls. Turn is a T♠. We bet $50 and are called again. The river is the 7♣ completing the flush. What is the best play here? Most players at the $1-$2 level would check-call. However, if we look at the combinations of hands that would call both our big flop and turn bets we see that there is actually more of a chance that our opponent has top pair. If our opponent does have a hand like KQ or KJ and we check he will merely check back the river and we will win. However, if we make a small value bet, especially at this level, we are likely to get called. If our opponent was on a flush draw he will most likely raise the river and we can fold. The worst option is for us to check and then call a bet. Especially when the scare card comes it is so likely that your average player will check back one pair here. If in fact he does bet he most likely has one pair beaten. You can even make the case that the river is more of a check-fold then it is a check-call but checking is giving up way too much value. You really should be bet-folding most rivers when you have what appears to be the best hand unless the board runs out in a way where it is difficult to get called by worse.
There are two reasons where you should check-call the river but they are normally misused. The first and most common is to induce a bluff. The best times we should do this are usually in spots where our hand is only medium strength and it is tough for us to get called by worse if we bet again. Let’s use the same example from above but change our hand from AA to K♦ J♦ and change the river to a 7♠. We again bet both the flop and turn but on the river our hand basically loses to any other king that would call a preflop raise. There is not a lot of value in betting again because the flush draws will fold. However, we may want to consider check-calling if we think our opponent is capable of bluffing a flush draw. Again, we would never want to make this play with a hand like AA or AK because we lose all the value from those weaker kings on the river. It is also a common misconception that people will all of a sudden bluff big when they miss if you have shown strength throughout the entire hand. Say you raised preflop and then bet close to pot on the flop and turn into three people. You have basically announced that you have a pretty strong hand and even clueless players will realize that when you check on the river you are not going to fold especially in big pots where the draw misses. That is why we should concentrate on getting thin river value as the pots get big not catching bluffs.
The second reason why you may want to check-call the river usually only applies in bigger, tougher games or against good players. Basically you check to get your opponents to “value-own” themselves. Value-owning refers to when a player bets a hand that they think is best for value and gets called by a better hand. Sometimes it is best to allow your opponents to value-own themselves because if you come out and bet the river they might fold. Here is an example of this—Let’s say a 70 year old tight guy raises to $50 from up front in a $5-$10 no-limit game with A♣ Q♣ and $1500 effective stacks. A young, skilled professional covers him and calls in position with K♦ Q♦. The board comes out Q♠ 5♠ 2♥. The 70 year old bets out $75 and the professional calls. The turn is the 9♥. The old guy bets $100 and the professional calls once again. The river is the 3♥ and the old guy checks. The professional, wanting to make it look like he missed a flush draw, now bets big—$300 for value. The old guy calls and scoops the pot. If the old guy had actually come out and bet $300 on the river there is a good chance that the professional would have folded. Three bets from a tight upfront player is usually going to mean that KQ is no good. However, since the old guy checked he actually gets the professional to “value-own” himself making even more money. There is an in depth discussion about bet-folding and river play on my Deuce Plays podcast “Citizen James Part I and II.”