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River Bets: How to Decide Which Hands to Call Down Vs Triple Barrel

It’s rarely fun to face a triple barrel — bets on the flop, turn and river.

Small mistakes are magnified when the pot gets big, and pots are on average the biggest on the river. The results of one river decision can make or break a session.

Against good players with relatively balanced ranges, you’ll need to call down with some less-than-stellar hands to avoid getting exploitatively bluffed. This can be unnerving for some people.

So, the question is: how do you decide when to make the hero call and when to let it go?

The main factors you need to consider when facing a bet on the river (or any bet, really) are:

  • The bet size
  • Relative hand strength
  • Blockers
  • The opponent’s tendencies

We’ll dive into each of these, then take a look at an example hand with range breakdowns so you can see each factor in action.

4 Key Factors Vs Triple Barrels

1. The Bet Size

The bet size greatly impacts the optimal calling range.

  • The larger the bet, the narrower your calling range should be
  • The smaller the bet, the wider your calling range should be

This is because your pot odds diminish as the bet increases, therefore you need a stronger calling range when a bigger bet size is used.

2. Relative Hand Strength

Stay conscious of how strong your hand is relative to your entire range. This can prevent you from over-folding or over-calling in certain instances.

You can calculate the theoretically correct portion of your range to continue with — either by calling or raising — by calculating the minimum defense frequency (MDF).

Calculating MDF reveals what percentage of your range you must continue with versus a bet to avoid being exploited. The formula is as follows:

MDF = pot size / (pot size + bet size)

The answer will be a decimal, which can be multiplied by 100 to express as a percentage — that’s the minimum percentage of your range that you must continue to avoid being exploited. If you reference this figure and use a Hand Matrix program (like PokerRanger) to map out your range, you can get pretty close to the theoretically optimal continue range (more on this later).

If you are thinking of making a hero call with a marginal hand, but you notice an abundance of better calling hands in your range, you can — and probably should — let the marginal hand go.

Their Range Matters Too

Don’t forget to consider how your range fares against that of your opponent given the board texture.

If you are at an inherent range disadvantage on a particular board, you should have less of a propensity to call versus barrels from your opponent. For example:

100NL Cash Game. 100BB Effective Stacks

Hero is dealt Xx Xx in the big blind
UTG raises to 2.5BB. 4 folds. Hero calls.

Flop (5.5BB) A♠ K♠ J

This is a bad board for us. We have far fewer strong hands in our range than our opponent in this situation. This is because we are expected to 3-bet hands like AA, KK and JJ, meaning that our opponent can have all sets in their range whilst we cannot.

When a board presents a big discrepancy in range strength between players, adjust your calling range accordingly.

(Note: If you’re serious about improving your cash game and tournament skills, check out The Upswing Lab. Click here to learn more about this poker training course developed by Doug Polk & Ryan Fee.)

3. Blockers

A card is known as a ‘blocker’ when it reduces – or ‘blocks’ – a number of specific hand combinations that another player can have.

When facing bets, it is favourable to call down with hands that block your opponent’s most likely value hands, as this increases the likelihood that they are bluffing. Alternatively, it is often advisable to fold hands that block your opponent’s most likely bluffing hands.

The effect of blockers can outweigh that of absolute hand strength in some spots. For example:

100NL Cash Game. 100BB Effective Stacks

Hero is dealt Xx Xx in the big blind
CO raises to 2.5BB. sb folds. Hero calls.

Flop (5.5BB) 3 6♠ 7♠
Hero checks. CO bets 4BB. Hero calls.

Turn (13BB) A
Hero checks. CO bets 10BB. Hero calls.

River (33BB) K
Hero checks. CO bets 24BB.

Now ask yourself, which hand would you rather call the river with: 9♠ 9 or 5♣ 5. Click “Show” below when you’re ready for the answer.

5♣ 5 is a more profitable call.

There are a few reasons for this:

  • 55 (and 44) block our opponent from having his most likely value combination: the nut straight (54s).

When we hold two straight blockers, it is 50% less likely that our opponent has 54s as we reduce the number of possible combinations from 4 to 2.

  • 99 blocks likely bluffing combinations

9♠ 9 blocks multiple missed straight and flush draw combinations (98, T9, J♠9♠, etc), all of which our opponent is likely to play this way as a bluff.

  • It is unlikely our opponent is value betting with 7x

If 7x made up a large portion of our opponent’s range, 55’s blocker effects would not overcome 99’s absolute hand strength. With this board runout, however, our opponent’s 7x combinations will likely check back.

Learn more about using blockers to make your bluffs and value bets more profitable in Ryan Fee’s article Hand Combinations: The Secret Weapon Pros Use to Win More Money.

4. Opponent Tendencies

Your opponent’s tendencies matter too, as they usually do in poker.

Against a player that plays a wide range of hands aggressively, you’ll want to call down lighter than you would against a tight opponent that rarely bluffs.

This point will be obvious to most, but it reiterates that your calling ranges should be dynamic when playing against unbalanced opposition in order to maximally exploit them.

Flop, Turn & River Bet Hand Example

Now let’s take a look at an example hand with some in-depth range analysis. We’ll be using PokerRanger to map out these ranges so you can get a better idea of how to go about constructing your own.

(Note: I’ll be estimated ranges in the example below without using MDF to nail down the exact correct frequencies. For some in-depth MDF examples, check out this article.)

100NL Cash Game. 100BB Effective Stacks

Hero is dealt Xx Xx in the CO
HJ raises to 2.5x. Hero calls. 3 folds.

The first thing we should do here is look at how a Hijack opening range compares with a Cutoff calling range. Using the ranges from The Upswing Lab, a standard Hijack opening range will look something like this (26.09% of hands):

river bet call down

Hijack opening range from The Upswing Lab (Red = Raise, Pink = Raise or fold, Blue = Fold)

And our CO calling range versus a HJ open (8.4% of hands):

river bet preflop ranges

CO vs HJ RFI range from The Upswing Lab (Green = Call, Light green = Call or fold, Orange-Red = Raise or call)

We’ll now construct our Cutoff calling ranges when facing a bet on the flop, turn and river.

Flop (6.5BB) 9♠ 3 2
HJ bets 4BB.

Below is what our calling range may look like from the Cutoff facing a flop c-bet:

call down on flop

CO continue range vs flop bet (Green = Call, Blue = Fold)

Flop Range Notes

There are a couple of interesting things to notice about this range.

  • We don’t have a raising range

First, you’ll see that we have elected to not raise with our 3 combinations of top set. We simply do not have enough strong hands on this dry board to effectively balance a raising range and protect a calling range.

By having a hand this strong in our calling range, we deny our opponent the ability to run over said range with extreme aggression. We can set up a raising range on a later street when it is more feasible for us to have value hands.

  • We played conservatively pre-flop

We have included JJ and TT into our pre-flop flatting range which, though conservative, has merits for being done at some frequency. This strengthen our pre-flop calling range, which carries over to a stronger range post-flop.

Raising versus a c-bet with these overpairs doesn’t make much sense. Our opponent can still have all stronger overpairs in their range (QQ-AA) while we cannot. By calling, we further strengthen our calling range.

  • Floating a few hands is necessary

Floating this flop bet with a few hands (JTs, QTs, ATs, QJs) is necessary to prevent over-folding. These aren’t made hands, but their numerous backdoor draws and overcard outs make them good choices to fill out our call range. On the turn, we will be presented with opportunities to bluff when our opponent gives up and/or we pick up equity.

The number of these floats to include in your calling range should vary depending on the bet size and the style of your opponent. Float fewer hands if your opponent is overly-aggressive and unlikely to give up on the turn.

Turn (14.5BB) 4♣
HJ bets 10BB

Here’s a reasonable Cutoff turn range facing this bet:

river bets call down

CO continue range vs turn bet (Green = Call, Blue = Fold)

Turn Range Notes

Note that even though we continue with all pocket pairs, 55/66 are better hands than 77/88 on this turn. Our opponent won’t be betting a hand in between them for value, so 55-88 have equal pair-value and function as bluff-catchers. 55 and 66 are more profitable hands to call with as they have additional straight outs and block the Hijack’s straight combos (56s and A5s).

The turn brings no flush or straight draws for our flop floats. Against this turn bet we can fold most — if not all — of them. (Depending on the bet size and player type, the best high card floats may still want to continue on the turn.)

River (34.5BB) K♠

Finally, let’s look at what our calling range looks like on the river. There are also some raising hands in this hand matrix which we’ll discuss as well:

river bets call down

CO continue range vs river bet (Green = Call, Blue = Fold, Orange-Red = Raise)

River Range Notes

On this river, we choose to fold our weakest pocket pairs that do not block our opponent’s value hands (77 and 88). 66 would be a more profitable call than 77/88 because it removes 65s, but we choose to fold it here nonetheless.

We can finally put in a raise with our 99 on this river hoping to get value from our opponent’s many value hands (such as 44, 33, 22, AA and K9). Note we balance this river raising range by raising 55 at some frequency — which blocks both 65s and A5s.

How Do I Decide When to Call Down?

Next time you face a triple barrel, ask yourself the following to help you reach a decision on whether to make the call down:

  • How big is the bet size? The larger it is, the narrower your calling range should be.
  • How strong is my hand relative to my range? If it is near the bottom of your range, consider folding or turning it into a bluff (blockers permitting).
  • Who has the range advantage on this board? If the texture is more favourable for your opponent, you should be calling with a narrower range of hands.
  • Do I block my opponent’s value hands or their bluffs? Lean towards calling with hands that contain effective blockers.
  • What type of player is my opponent? If you are up against a loose aggressive player, you should be calling down with a much wider range of hands than if you are facing multiple bets from a nit.

Until next time, Upswing fam!

(Note: Master poker with guidance from world class players in The Upswing Lab training course. Members gain access to our private Facebook group with Doug Polk, Ryan Fee and 2,370 other poker players! Click here or below to learn more.)
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