Why You're Afraid of Value-Betting the River

Peter Eastgate
The uncertainly effect: silent bankroll killer.

The scene: The river card has been dealt; it sits next to a small mountain of chips.

The first player, who's been check-calling all the way, checks again.

The button, who's been pushing the action, says, "Okay, I check. The pot's big enough," and shows down pocket queens on a K Q 6 9 6 board.

A simple scene, yes? Also not an uncommon one.

Just think how often you've witnessed something like it. Here's a guy with the third-best possible hand checking the river.

Sure, the check-caller could have rivered quads, but we've all heard that comment made when the button has the stone-cold nuts.

It's actually not a simple situation at all. It's rife with financial and psychological elements, mostly taking place inside the head of the guy with the pocket queens - largely unconsciously.

Simple Money Mistake or Deep Human Paradox?

It's clear from a basic strategic perspective that failing to bet the river here is a money mistake. Dan Harrington has argued that it's one of most common and costly errors that otherwise good players make.

Failing to value bet in such situations can, over the long haul, turn a small winner into a break-even player or even a loser.


Dan Harrington
Action Dan: Still amazed when good players miss value bets.

So, why do so many players do this? Why would they give up a chance at considerable gain and accept, in its place, a more modest win?

Is this an individual, chancy thing, like stupidity? Or is it possibly the result of some deeper feature of human conduct, some tendency we have to behave in less-than-optimal ways?

It turns out that the latter is closer to the truth. There is a fascinating, deeply paradoxical and surprisingly common aspect of human behavior behind it: it's called the uncertainty effect and it's found whenever people are involved in situations that lack full certainty.

It may seem weird that poker players would be averse to uncertainty, but under the right conditions they will be. To get a better feel for how this mechanism operates, let's get away from the green felt and out into the "real world."

Here's the deal you're offered. You can purchase either:

  1. A $50 gift certificate to a store
  2. A lottery ticket where the prize will be either a $50 or $100 gift certificate (to the same store) based on the flip of a coin.

How much would you pay for each?

Astonishingly, a recent study found that the average amount people would be willing to pay for the first was MORE than for the second.

And this wasn't just one nutty outcome. This paradoxical result has been found in study after study in all sorts of circumstances.


Rolf Slotboom
We are a weird species.

Uri Simonsohn, at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, chalked it up to a "literal distaste for uncertainty" and reports finding it in a variety of real-world settings including book stores, restaurants, whatever.

And, of course, we see it in sharpest relief when a poker player checks on the end with what is almost certainly the best hand.

As I've often pointed out in these columns, we are members of a very weird species. We are simply not the rational creatures we like to think we are.

We do not make optimal decisions, even when we ought to know better, even when we think we know better.

Emotional Cost vs. Cash Cost

Now, knowing that people make these silly decisions is amusing but it's only half the story. Why do we do these things? Why are we so ridiculously irrational?

The reason stems from a deeply ingrained human characteristic: risk aversion. Settings that contain risk or have uncertain elements make many of us feel uncomfortable; they produce distinctly negative emotional experiences.

From an evolutionary point of view, being risk averse is adaptive. Being wary in risky situations dramatically increases likelihood of survival.

If you don't know what's out there waiting for you, you're far better off being cautious and guarded - even it means you forgo occasional gains.


Allen Kessler
Value-betting the river: fraught with emotional cost.

While this worked fine eons ago, in the modern world it yields this odd paradox where we will devalue an option that is obviously better in material terms because it is wrapped in uncertainty and loses value in psychological terms.

In short, it just may cost more emotionally to bet on the river than it's worth in cash.

About now I can hear some of you howling, "Not me doc, no way would I do anything that stupid."

Well, maybe you wouldn't ... and maybe you would. We don't know since we haven't collected the data. But do ask yourself if you've ever checked the river in this kind of hand.

And, in case you're curious: Simonsohn's data shows that the uncertainty effect is found in over 60% of the population.

More psychology articles from Arthur S. Reber:

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