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.

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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Arthur Reber 2011-10-10 21:53:22

It's late in this thread but I want to say something to Smith and others with similar views.

Evolution isn't a theory. Evolution is a fact like gravity is a fact or the earth traveling around the sun is a fact. There are (and have been) various theories about it. The one that has the most evidence to support it is Darwin's and is based on the principle of natural selection. In fact, Darwin's model has more support for it than almost any major theory ever proposed in science.

In terms of what scientists call "explanatory power" it has virtually no equal. Nothing in biology, medicine, botany, physiology, psychology, sociology or any other biological or social science can be fully understood without taking into account evolution.

Much of the debate about evolution misses these points. Positions like Creationism or its recent version Intelligent Design are not scientific theories nor do they provide any insight into the process of evolution. They are articles of faith.

People are free to hold their beliefs but when they use them to undermine science it is troublesome.

And those courses in Philosophy of Science and Logic.... I used to teach them.

rivermesilly 2011-08-22 21:43:05

I love the river and betting for value is my default

Arty Smokes 2011-06-15 22:28:39

I've evolved (intellgently) into a player that value bets the majority of the time, but I've also learned the truism that if you bet on the river, you'll usually only get called by a hand that beats you, so sometimes a showdown is okay too. In the example given, I think you have to value bet with the big full, as someone with the nut flush would be duty bound to call, as would someone with sixes over 9s, kings or queens.
Having said that, I had a horrible experience this morning with a similar board. I flopped a set of 5s, but the flop was all hearts. I checked, then bet on the turn (Jd) and had two callers. The river was the Jack of hearts, so I'd made a full. The guy with the ace flush raised big and I wrote "I've got your flush crushed" in the chat box as I re-raised him. I was slightly taken aback when the third player raised all in. I insta-called and he turned over pocket jacks for runner-runner quads! (He'd limped pre-flop which made it all the more shocking).
On that hand I was always destined to lose my entire stack, but I think I'd play it the same way again, although I might be a little scared if I'm re-raised (it didn't occur to me at the time that even J5 beat my pocket 5s). There's a clip on Youtube of someone making an impressive laydown of jacks full (against kings full), but as a relative beginner it's really hard for me to fold a full house, especially when the pot is three times my buy-in! Maybe my emotional intelligence needs a bit more time to evolve.

Mark C 2010-11-16 04:48:24

The 9 is a club Edgar.

Good article btw (to the author), although I doubt, I'd not value bet in an example as extreme as this one, it does very well illustrate how it happens and is something i'm very guilty of!

How much of an effect do you think wanting to know what your opponent was calling with has subconciously on not value betting? Could the fear be not of them havign the better hand but of folding?

Edgar 2010-08-04 01:37:10

It's mentioned in the article that pocket queens are the third best hand on a K♠ Q♠ 6♦ 9♣ 6♠ board. Correct me if I'm wrong but there's
a) J♠ T♠ for a straight flush
b) pocket sixes
c) pocket kings

all which should be ahead of QQ here. Right?

Archie 2010-05-09 21:31:13

Nice article. I always valuebet the river. I used to be afraid too. But usually 95% of the time, if a person checks all the way to the river he has nothing. Maybe a small pair, busted draw or something similar to that.

Every now and then you'll run into someone with a monster waiting to trap you. But If you're smart you'll probably get away with minimal losses.


And to Smith: Very entertaining.

Evolution does not have intelligence? I'd think not, it's like poker - based on probability, chance and eventually simple logic.

Going to a College does not make a person smart. Actually I'm pretty sure that 80% of people attending schools offering higher education are quite dumb. And they think that once they have taken a few classes on a subject, they can be considered experts.

I think that the debate between Evolution and Creation and whatnot is pretty silly.

But my two cents is that Evolution theory all in all is about a thousand times more credible than anything else I've ever heard.

Vincent Vaiano 2010-01-11 23:42:12

Nice job Smith. I like both of your responses. Now, to the article. I realize that I have done this more than once. Thanks for the article. I learned to be a little more honest with my self and my game. This information can do nothing be help me evolve as a poker player.

smith 2009-10-21 13:35:00

lol Mr. Makana you define the typical evolutionist "argument": and that is insults, insults and some more insults.

I'm currently attending University/College, and I've passed the subject of Philosophy in Logic, which states that insulting or attempting to discredit your opponent in an argument is called a fallacy.

You've blatantly insulted me and, as another typical evolutionist, you assume everyone who rejects your ideology lacks intelligence. You use insults, attempts at discrediting and assumptions of stupidity to prove your ideology that evolution is TRUE????

Do you have a degree or are you working towards a degree?? The whole point to my other above message was to address that evolution does not have intelligence, yet evolutionists believe it is the origin of intelligence.

Why don't you PROVE to me WITHOUT FALLACIOUS arguments that evolution is true? You wrote a long piece of text which can be summed up with "You are an idiot"-Makana

Who is really the idiot here?

Makana 2009-10-12 11:49:00

Smith, that was the most nonsensical and ignorant commentary I have heard about anything in a long time. An ant is more intelligent than evolution? Wtf does that mean?

And your use of non-intelligence? Plant matter is far from intelligent, yet I would not consider a tree to equal "non-life" as your brilliant equation might suggest.

After attempting to comprehend your incredibly meaningless corollaries, the only conclusion I have reached is that perhaps you are correct in refusing to accept evolution as the precursor to intelligence, as clearly evolution did not leave you with this admirable trait. Maybe you should start praying to your intelligent creator that you will be blessed with intelligence in the near future. Or maybe you're just a little behind in the learning curve, give it another 10,000 years. Although by then, you'll probably be way behind the ants.

Tumas 2009-10-11 06:31:00

id maybe check if it was a non board pairing spade, but since i have queens full im all in even if i get check raised on the river.

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