Poker Strategy: Playing Preflop, Playing The River

Poker Strategy: Playing Preflop, Playing The River

The Pros: Nathan Gamble, Greg Himmelbrand, and Matthew Marinelli

Craig Tapscott: How do you adjust your game preflop when having an aggressive player on your left? And if the same player was on your right, how do you proceed?

Nathan Gamble: I primarily play mix games these days and the aggression level of the players on either side of me dictates my style of play on any given day.

If an overly aggressive player is directly on my right, I will typically three-bet them relentlessly preflop with hands that play well heads up, and flat call with hands that play better multiway, both preflop and post-flop. If the same player is on my left I will usually flat call with premium strength hands once they’ve three-bet an initial open, this disguises my hand and allows them to believe they have the initiative and continuation bet most flops/draws once it’s checked to them. By doing so I’m allowed to check-raise at various points during the hand and trap not only the overly aggressive player, but also the entire field of players who are still in the hand.

The majority of poker, and specifically a lot of mixed games, revolves around the concept of having hands that play better multiway versus hands that play better heads up. When we look at split-pot games you may have the absolute nuts in one direction yet be completely hopeless to scoop the other side. In that situation it is vital to keep as many players in the field as possible. You’ll still scoop half of the pot, but it’ll show more profit than if you only played it heads up. Utilizing other players aggression to help dictate exactly how many players see the next card is crucial to being a winning player at the tables.

Against players who take the aggression too far it’s important to understand when it’s appropriate to push other players out of the pot. Against a rational opponent you would only ever win half of the pot with a particular hand, however against someone who is too aggressive you may be able to scoop an unlikely hand from time to time and should strive to get it heads up with them lighter than against a more logic-driven opponent.

Greg Himmelbrand: Three of the biggest mistakes I see people make preflop in this spot are overly tightening up their opening range, calling too many three-bets with marginal holdings, and four-betting the wrong type of hands.

So how should we adjust? While we should tighten up to a small extent, our initial opening range shouldn’t be altered that much. We may choose to slice off the very bottom of our opening range in dynamic spots where a three-bet is common, we can shave some of the fractional opens and turn them into pure folds, and limit or eliminate some of the exploitative opens we might take in some spots. But cutting off too much of a standard profitable opening range from our position because we’re worried the player to our left might three-bet us is just costing us EV (expected value).

This now brings us to how to react when we are being three-bet preflop. This is the most common mistake players make; over calling three-bets with marginal hands because the player three-betting them is active. Remember that playing out of position is always going to be an uphill battle. We are going to be making all our decisions without information, while they will get to see what we do and react each time.

Because of this, they will over realize their equity while we will under realize ours, so we can’t start showing up with all kinds of hands and expect it to be profitable. We’ll need to peel with some speculative hands that do well in three-bet pots and some strong hands that aren’t quite strong enough to four-bet, and we’ll need to fold some hands that are mandatory opens but just won’t do well enough in three-bet pots out of position to continue. The specific hands will vary by position. 

Matthew Marinelli: It can be tempting to fight fire with fire when up against an aggressive opponent. You naturally want to stand up to the bully by raising more aggressively and playing looser, but this can blow up in your face. In actuality, the best strategy to counter a loose-aggressive opponent is to tighten up your preflop opening range and fight back by folding very little after you make your initial raise.
For instance, the optimal open-raise frequency on the button is around 42 percent, with a small blind three-bet being around 15 percent; however, the button tightens up to just a 36 percent opening range if the small blind increases his three-bet to 20 percent. Fringe hands in our range like K-8 offsuit prefer to just take down the blinds, so those close hands can become folds when a loose opponent denies much-needed fold equity. The same will hold true when they are on our right; we three-bet fewer speculative hands because we’ll get four-bet too frequently. We often want to fight back by playing more aggressively ourselves, but it’s important to remember that folding can be a weapon too. 

Another piece of practical advice for dealing with bullies at the poker table is to not overreact. Splashy players will ultimately crumble if you stay solid and continue executing your core strategies, whereas getting drawn into their game of making big bluffs and calling extra wide can cause you to make costly mistakes because you’re out of your comfort zone. The best thing you can do is to stay calm and continue playing a solid, tight-aggressive game, while taking lines you’re familiar with. You won’t beat these bullies by hurling haymakers at them, but by steadily out-boxing them and letting their aggression be their undoing. 

Craig Tapscott: Shifting to the other end of the hand, Patrik Antonius recently said that river decisions are one of the hardest to master. Can you share different river scenarios when faced with a bet or a check-raise, what goes through your mind?

Nathan Gamble: Patrik is clearly talking about big bet games in this situation as the pot has been built up to the point where the large bets start flying on the river and a single mistake at this point can decide if you have a winning or losing day on the felt.

In this year’s WSOP main event I played a hand versus Dylan Linde on day one before we made it to the feature table. The blinds were 100-200 with a 200 ante. I raised with QSpade Suit QDiamond Suit to 500 in the hijack. Dylan three-bet next to act in the cutoff to 1,900. I decided to call in order to disguise my range with the intention of calling down on most boards against a very aggressive opponent.

The flop came KHeart Suit 5Club Suit 5Diamond Suit. I checked to Dylan who continued for 1,400 into a pot of 4,300. On this board texture he will be betting 100% of his hands, as such I have an easy call. The turn was the 7Club Suit. I check. Dylan bet 6,500 into a pot of 7,100. I understood that Dylan is a very aggressive and very knowledgeable player. He knows that he retains all combinations of A-K, K-K, and A-A in his range and gets to bet appropriately. This also means that he will be betting with a large amount of air.

With Dylan having either a very good hand or complete dust, I decided to call. On the river 3Spade Suit I checked to Dylan who continued with his story and put in his remaining 19,000. In this type of river spot, it is important to realize I would never be here against a player who I deemed less than world class, as I would not have believed them capable of firing a second bullet on the turn with air and folded my pocket queens then.

Against a world-class player such as Dylan, I know he tends towards pure aggression and is not afraid to pile chips in when he has a range advantage; knowing my opponent led me to the river spot and without any new information to lead me a different way I made the call. Sadly, this time Dylan had the A-K, yet I would happily make the call against him again. After the day was over, we were talking, and he confirmed that he would bet in the same manner with a large amount of air due to his overall range advantage on the river. Sometimes making the right call doesn’t always mean you win.

Greg Himmelbrand: When faced with a tough river decision which often involves a large bet or over bet, or a check-raise all-in, it’s important to put together all pieces of the hand and determine if anything doesn’t add up. What hands is our opponent representing with this river bet, and would these hands have played the way he did on previous streets? What bluffs might he have here? Is he unbalanced in one direction or another? 

A good way of determining how to deal with these spots is to figure out how high up you are in your range, and call when you are near the top, while folding when you are closer to the middle or bottom. In addition, you can look to call with hands that unblock his bluffs, while folding hands that block his bluffs, even if those hands are sometimes stronger.

One hand that comes to mind was when I was playing a $10-$25 cash game with a $50 big blind ante. I opened pocket tens from UTG+1 and got called by the big blind. The flop came 7-6-5 rainbow. We continuation bet. They called. The turn was a 7 and went check, check. The river was a queen. The big blind checked, and we went for some thin value with a river bet.

The villain then woke up with a 5x check-raise. A classic example of us capping ourselves on the turn by checking back, leaving us with no boats, straights, or trips the vast majority of the time. Therefore, unless we had exactly Q-Q, our best hands were merely bluff catchers, which made this a perfect spot for our opponent to check-raise us, since he had all the strong hands still in his range.

Some things that go through our mind are: Where are we at in our range? Are we blocking or unblocking his bluffs? With plenty of chips behind, how often will villain donk lead strong hands on the turn, since it’s a card that will often go check, check? How often would villain lead the river with his strong hands after we checked back the turn?

Finally, these decisions ultimately come down to his ratio of bluffs to value hands, versus the pot odds we are being given on the call. If we take his hands that call the flop that now need to bluff the river, versus his strong hands and see it is unbalanced in one direction, that can make our decision. Due to several different factors, we decided on a truly coinflip call, and won the pot against 6-5 which was counterfeited on the turn. He decided to turn his hand into a bluff once we bet the river. 

When deciding to make a river bluff ourselves, we look to our range as a whole and see where we are in it. If we are at the bottom of our range, and our range includes a lot of strong hands, it looks like a good time for a river bluff. If our range lacks strong hands or is filled with too many weak ones, it’s better to wave the white flag. Furthermore, the more range and nut advantages we have, the more bluffs we can incorporate

Matthew Marinelli: The biggest mistake the average player makes is folding too often, which often stems from loss aversion. Loss aversion is essentially the feeling that losing hurts more than winning feels good, and it leads to most poker players playing passively to avoid the pain and uncertainty of risky investments at the poker table. 

A common example is facing a small bet on the river. If we face a half pot bet on the river, then we need to win 25% of the time when we call to break even. The problem is that river bluff catching is the perfect scenario for loss aversion to rear its ugly head. It can be hard for many players to consistently bluff catch against a small bet like that because they will lose 75% of the time, even if that’s expected given their pot odds. The prospect of losing so often can be painful to face, and many poker players will fold their weak bluff catchers and wait for a better spot, but that better spot may not come often enough. 

On the flip side, it’s a good idea for the average player to try bluffing more. If you believe that a lot of poker players have a hard time consistently calling, then it makes sense to be willing to pull triggers often on the river and put your opponents to tough decisions.

This is where the poker truism, “play your opponent; not the cards”, comes in. If you’re up against a loose opponent with a history of light call downs, then it’s best to play a fairly basic strategy against them and be willing to give up more on the river. On the other hand, it’s best to play more aggressively and bluff more often when you’re playing against tighter players that are hoping to cooler you with a big hand because they won’t call with as many weak bluff catchers as they should. ♠

Nathan Gamble is a native of Texas, where he learned to play poker from his father. He is a two-time World Series of Poker Bracelet winner, and can often be found playing $80-$160 mixed games at Resorts World. Gamble is active on Twitter, Twitch, and Instagram under the username @GambleOnPoker.

Greg Himmelbrand is a professional poker player with $2.2 million in live tournament earnings and three World Series of Poker Circuit rings to his name. The New Yorker also has two wins on the Mid-States Poker Tour. Follow him on Twitter @GregHPoker.

Matthew Marinelli is a cash game professional living in Los Angeles. He is Poker Detox’s winningest player of all time. He joined in late 2018 and quickly moved from $100NL to $2,000NL. He is well versed in the game, but what sets him apart is a deep understanding of theory, a gritty mindset, and the ambition to beat the world’s toughest games. Find him on Twitter @MatthewMarinel5.