Cash game strategy basics: Turn and River

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Cash game strategy basics: Turn and River

In this article we are going to discuss the basics of playing on the turn and the river in Texas Hold'em. There is no point in taking the hints below as the gospel truth – it's our intention to make up a list of the main rules that every beginner must know. Following them will allow you to play hands on low limit tables successfully – however, the more expensive your game becomes, the more skills to need to acquire to equip your turn and river arsenal.

Previous lessons:

Let's divide playing on the turn and on the river into two categories, as we did for playing on the flop. We will call them aggressor's strategy and caller's strategy. It's worth mentioning that when you're on the turn you need to be aware of your opponent's approximate range, or what he could have called or bet on the flop. It's difficult to over-estimate the significance of this information, as the turn and the river are the most creative streets in the whole game.

Playing aggressively on turn

As a rule, you usually make the decision whether to play a big or small pot on the turn. If you bet, there will be 30 to 40 big blinds in the pot on the river. If you check there will be 17 to 20. Here, it is especially important to remember the low stakes key rule: big pots for big hands, small pots for small ones.

If you were an aggressor pre-flop and on the flop, you will rarely get into complications while playing on the turn and on the river. You just have to follow a simple concept: Never try to check with strong hands, never try to play your “monsters” slowly, and never bluff with rags.

The guidelines for the bet size on the turn and river are the same as they were on the flop: if you decide to bet, the size of your bet has to be between two-thirds and three-quarters of the size of the pot.

With good hands such as top pair, a set or two pairs, you should only check when the turn is the fourth card of a flush or a straight. In all other cases betting makes the most sense, even if you have an over-pair and on the turn you completed a pair with the highest card on the flop. Opponents on low limits will often give their money away with weak combinations such as second pair.

If you check to your opponent whilst out of position, remember you should always fold after. Never try and call with weak combinations (in terms of relative strength, for example such pairs as 66 on  a 76Q2 board where all four cards are suited) when out of position as if you did not “believe” your opponent has a strong hand. Doing so will bring you nothing but losses, and you are breaking the principles of the game – you gave the initiative and position to your opponent.

Only top pairs with weak kickers on totally safe boards without a draw could be an exception. You are allowed to check and call out of position when you have them, as you almost always have the best hand, but not too strong a one.

Some people may argue – what about top pairs and over-pairs if the third card to a flush or the third card to a straight was dealt on the turn? There's no point in being afraid of such boards as you can still bet, as your opponents might not have a completed flush, but just a flush draw. A flush is quite a rare hand from purely a mathematical point of view. Your opponent is two to two and a half times more likely to have a weak hand (presuming that you have the top pair) than a flush on such a turn, and your opponents are much more likely to call more often with a weak hand than bet with it themselves.

When it comes to medium-strength hands such as second and third pair, you have to check with them in position at this stage. Check when out of position with the intention of folding to an opponent's bet later on. You will often hope for a cheap showdown with weak hands against combinations of the same weakness. At that, there is no point thinking that your opponents will bet with their weak hands to your check on the turn. Do not forget that there are not so many such weak hands remaining in their ranges, as they called pre-flop and called after the flop as well – quite a good hand is necessary to do so. Your second pair may well be weaker than your opponent's hand after his raise on the turn.

The only exception to this rule is the situation when you had top pair on the flop, and a higher card came on the turn. For example, a JT3 flop with a A on the turn. In this case, you should bet on the turn with your J (for instance, KJ) as higher cards are very rarely likely to help your opponent, except for rare hands such as AJ or AT, so there is no reason to keep them off.

It's now time to ask yourself a question – what should you do if your opponent raised your bet with a good enough hand?

In cases where you bet on the turn or the river and were raised, you should fold each and every hand except for the ones that were named below. It is necessary to ALWAYS fold your over-pairs and top pairs on the turn to an opponent's raise. If you have two top pairs or better, you should go all-in to your opponent's raise. The following hands should be folded to an opponent's raise:

  • Weak flush on boards four cards to flush (a weak flush is one without a K or A)
  • Weak straights on boards with four cards to the straight (here are any non-nuts, and a weak straight is weak)
  • Any straight when the third or fourth card to the flush has been dealt on the turn
  • Any set or two-pair boards where there are three or four cards to the flush

If an opponent's stake size is so small that it is equal to one-and-a-half to two pot sizes on the turn before your bet, you are allowed to call all-in and go all-in yourself for the rest of the money with hands like a top pair with a good kicker or a strong draw or better, but only if the fourth card to a flush or straight has not arrived on the turn.

When can you bluff on the turn?

Firstly, the best hands for a contbet on the turn are draws. If you have a flush draw on the board with two cards to a flush or straight draw, then a bet will be the best decision in many cases – however, you should not forget that betting with a draw is still bluffing, so you hope that your opponent with fold.

The following situations should be avoided:

  • Do not bet with a flush draw (if you only have suited A or K) on a board with three cards to a flush, as an opponent is likely to call with many hands
  • Do not bet with a flush draw on a board with four cards to a straight
  • Do not bet with a straight draw on a board with three obvious cards to a straight (for example K2JT when you have A3)
  • Do not bet with a draw when the highest or second highest card from the flop was paired on the turn, or an opponent's range is likely to have been strengthened (K2JT illustrates this idea well)

Naturally, if you have a very strong draw that combines both a straight and flush, then it is worth betting on a board with both three cards to a straight, and three cards to a flush. It is useful to call and watch the river with such a draw, in the hope of getting into your outs. Boards with three cards to a flush are an exception – here you should fold your monster draw.

It is necessary to fold to a raise with any flush or straight draw, as there is not enough strength in them to have enough chance to win the pot if you invest.

It's the same with weak pairs – if you have a draw which you cannot bet with as you are out of position, only checking and folding are the options. You do not really want to call your opponent's bet when bluffing out of position.

It is possible not to bet with a draw if you have a pair and some kind of draw in your hand. You can check when in position with such a combination as you do not have sufficient reason to bluff (as sometimes your pair will turn out to be the best hand, and you have a back-up plan with drawing hands). Checking and calling out of position are only allowed of you have second or top pair as well as some kind of draw.

One further situation where bluffing is possible is when a higher card is dealt on the turn. These are also called “scare” cards. Most often it is an A, K or Q being dealt on the turn, on boards such as J52, T94 or 763. The term “scare” card is related to any card on the turn that is higher than the highest card on the flop – the point being that such cards often do not help a player without initiative, but a pre-flop aggressor could well have gotten into one of the highest cards as they will almost always contbet with them on any flop.

After a bet on one of these types of turns, you should almost always continue playing aggressively on the river too; you will expect to fold on the turn from second flop pairs, but flop top pair will rarely fold on a “scare turn”, preferring instead to wait until the river.

When is bluffing on the turn not worth doing?

Try not to begin senseless bluffs with rags that you have no hope of bettering, and try not to bet less on “bad” boards and boards with weak gut-shots as well (the ones that will not give you the best straight or the one where a straight is obvious) – these are the worse hands for bluffing on this street. 

Playing aggressive on river

If you have done everything right on the turn, then playing on the river at low limits will not bring you much difficulty. You will already know a lot about the opponent's range which means that most decisions will be easy as well.

Although many people say for good reason that playing on the river is the most complicated aspect of poker, it's only really something to worry about on middle and high limits. Often, the complexity of playing on the river can be explained with the complexity of good players' ranges, but the rules we give below are sufficient for beginners.

On the river, you should continue to bet with all the strongest hands – made flushes, made straights, sets, two pairs and the best top pairs. Checking on a safe board should only be considered sometimes and only when you have top pairs with low kickers (it is better to check them in position and bluff sometimes out of position in the hope for an opponent's bluff). The check range can be complemented with all second and third pairs – if you have them you should check in position and fold to any bet. There is no pointing betting with top pairs and over-pairs on the river where one of the obvious draw hands has been closed, or your opponent could get into two pairs. A disciplined check/fold will be the best decision.

Additionally, if you were betting on the turn with a draw and your opponent made a fast call, it makes sense to refrain from bluffing. On low limits, players often make a call with weak hands on the flop, but they prefer only strong combinations for calling on the turn – bluffing against top pair on the river is rarely successful. That is the reason why over-pairs on the river where the highest flop card has been paired are not worth betting with.

The speed of a call to your bet will often be of great significance when making the decision on whether to bluff. If the opponent called in only a couple of seconds on a safe board, he is very likely to have a strong hand such as top pair. Vice versa, if he thought for some time before making a call on a likely bad card it often hints he has a middle-strength hand that was not improved on the river.

The river is almost a great street in which to “catch” opponents' bluffs. If an obvious flop draw was not completed by the river, you can check and call with your top pairs when out of position. For example, when there was a flush draw on the flop, but the turn and the river came out peacefully – then it makes sense to check with the top pair, making your opponent bluff with his possible draw as he has no other way of taking the pot.

We have discussed the strategy of playing against raises on the river before.

Playing on the turn as a caller

To say that playing the turn and the river when you don't have the initiative is complicated is like saying water is wet. The pot has become larger and larger, and there are less strong hands remaining in your range, as you were making re-raises with most of them remaining pre-flop or on the flop. Making an expensive decision is easiest with strong combinations, so the starting strategy for the turn is based on playing strong hands.

This means that if you called your opponent's bet with second pair on the flop, no matter what comes out on the turn, you have to fold. One nice exception is a turn where you have a flush or straight draw except the pair; then calling makes more sense – but you should be more careful with pairs plus draw on turns where the third card to a flush has come. Here a second or top pair with a draw at least on Q would be a good candidate for calling.

One interesting exception is pairs with an obvious draw, such as, for example, 89 on a 8T63 board: such hands should be folded. Your pair is not very strong, and you cannot count on a straight, as if it is closed on the river, 678T will be on the board, and your opponent is not likely to pay your straight.

If you only have a flush draw or a straight draw on the turn (and not a monster draw that is always worth staying in the game with), you can only call in position with a hidden straight draw (one where your opponent will not notice on the river that therefore might earn you extra money) and with nuts flush draws with over-cards. All other draws should be folded immediately. The reason for this is that the draw on the turn always requires potential profit from one more opponent's bet on the river, but when you are out of position, he is likely to be scared by the potential flush and check on the final street, leaving you without additional value.

Top pairs and over-pairs are always worth calling except on boards with three cards to a flush or a straight – here you should immediately get rid of your cards. With two pairs or a set you can call on the turn with three cards to the flush, as now you can beat any draw and any top pair, which you opponent can sometimes bet with.

Sometimes opponents will refuse to bet on the turn – in this case you bet with any draw out of position, any top pairs and often with total rags (if you've somehow managed to reach the turn with them). At the same time, top pairs and worse should be checked to await the freebie showdown.

Naturally, all the strongest hands such as a made straight or flush, sets and two pairs on safe boards are worth a raise in an attempt to get as much money into the pot as possible.

Playing the river as a caller

The river on the street is where the relative strength of your hand becomes almost the only key factor in the deal. Read our article on the topic with keen attention, and always remember that the real strength of you hand on this street is significantly different from its chart position.

If you have been following all our recommendations, you should have left in your hand only the strongest combinations that are easy to play either in or out of position.

Just as before, any second pair gets folded on the river. Over-pairs at this stage should be treated just as the strongest top pairs and get called on any safe board (where no draw has been completed).

Any top pairs with a kicker lower then a ten are worth folding to the third opponent's bet, as well as any top pairs and over-pairs on board with:

Three cards to flush

Four cards to flush

Four cards to straight

With sets and two pairs you can just call to an opponent's bet on three cards to a flush.

On safer boards with two pairs and better on the river, you should raise with the same attitude as on the turn – to get as much money into the pot from your opponents as possible.

Only the weakest two pairs from all possibilities on the board are an exception. The best idea with such a hand is often just to call.

Always remember that if your draw is completed by the river, but you are out of position, you should never bet first when the initiative is taken by an opponent; this way you will just reveal the strength of your hand and inform all that you have, for instance, completed your flush. Check and wait patiently for the opportunity to raise.

It's worth mentioning that if your opponent was in position on the turn but decided not to bet, on the river you may consider that you have gained the initiative. This means that a bet is worth making with any top pair or better, but bluffing and betting with second ones in such a situation is not recommended. As a rule, you opponent is likely to have a medium strength hand, and is waiting to call on the river with it. If he bets, you can easily discard your low pairs.

Sometimes on the river if your opponent is out of position but has the initiative they will refuse the bet. In such a situation you should bet with any top pair or better, and with any bluff. Middle pairs should rather be put into your check range (as such hands earn the most money, especially from cheap showdowns).

Beginners often make a big mistake on the river by making too small bets. The same applies as it does on the turn – a standard bet should be between two-thirds and three-quarters of the pot size. Too large a bet with a strong hand will rarely get a call from weak combinations, and trying to “buy” the pot by bluffing cheaply will almost never work out.

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