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Representing on the River: Turning a Pair Into a Bluff

Greg Himmelbrand (left) and Justin Liberto (right)

Covering live poker tournaments for a living affords me the opportunity to see countless thousands of hands played out, many of which offer interesting and potentially valuable insights into how players — both amateurs and professionals — play the game. In this ongoing series, I’ll highlight hands I’ve seen at the tournaments I’ve covered and see if we can glean anything useful from them.

This week’s hand presents a situation in which a player having presumably flopped the best hand is doubtful about being in the lead by the river, making a river check-raise an option with which to try to represent something stronger.

The Scene

Three players are left in Mid-States Poker Tour Maryland Live! — an $1,100 buy-in single reentry (per starting day) tournament that drew 270 players. Everyone has $24,738 locked up, and those left are all experienced tournament players: MSPT team pro Blake Bohn, Justin Liberto, and Greg Himmelbrand.

The blinds have just moved to Level 25 (15,000/30,000/4,000). All three players have solid stacks, with Liberto leading with about 2.4 million. Levels are an hour long, so there is plenty of play at this point.

The Action

Himmelbrand (pictured at left with head in hand above) raised from the button to 60,000, and Liberto (on the right) defended his big blind. The flop came down {5-Diamonds}{8-Hearts}{9-Spades}, and Liberto checked. Himmelbrand bet another 60,000, and Liberto called. The {a-Hearts} hit the turn and action went check-check, and Liberto checked a final time following the {10-Hearts} river.

Himmelbrand then bet 130,000, and Liberto raised to 485,000, causing Himmelbrand to wince.

After a couple of minutes of tanking, Himmelbrand decided to call with {k-Clubs}{10-Diamonds}, winning the showdown against Liberto’s {j-Hearts}{9-Clubs}.

Concept and Analysis

Himmelbrand makes a standard preflop open from the button, and Liberto defends his big blind. Himmelbrand’s hand has a ton of value when he makes pairs, as he will often have top pair when he does. For Liberto, he’s getting an excellent price with a very playable hand, and Himmelbrand’s button range should be fairly wide even with two strong opponents.

The flop comes down good for Liberto, giving him top pair of nines with a mediocre kicker on a rainbow board. He check-calls a small bet. Raising here would chase away some of Himmelbrand’s bluffs and give Himmelbrand the opportunity to reraise and potentially take the pot.

Once Himmelbrand’s flop bet is called and the {a-Hearts} comes out on the turn, the card opens up an opportunity to keep firing and represent that the ace hit him. However, he opts to check back and ends up hitting second pair, top kicker on the river ten.

This is where things get interesting. When Liberto checks again, he hasn’t really shown an ounce of strength at any point in the hand, leading Himmelbrand to deduce (correctly) that his pair of tens are probably best. He bets about half-pot on the river and is surprised to see Liberto respond with a big check-raise.

Himmelbrand suddenly finds himself in a tough spot with just a mediocre pair. Liberto check-raise represents that he backed into a heart flush. It’s a believable story, as he could easily have hands like {6-Hearts}{5-Hearts} or {9-Hearts}{7-Hearts} that would fit all of the action thus far. From where Liberto’s sitting, it looks like Himmelbrand has a one-pair hand, as he likely would have bet the turn with anything better to build a bigger pot.

Ultimately, Himmelbrand does decide to call and wins the pot. However, that doesn’t mean Liberto’s play was a bad one. Once he checked the river, he likely hoped to win a showdown with his nines. When he saw Himmelbrand bet half the pot, he realized his pair was probably no good, meaning his options were to give up or turn it into a bluff by raising.

Liberto elected for the latter and put Himmelbrand to a very tough decision, causing him to tank for a considerable amount of time and give Liberto a chance to win the pot. Credit to Himmelbrand for making the tough call, and he went on to win the tournament.

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