Understanding when strong hands are 2nd best is an ability born from a study of ranges and relative hand strengths. As Kenny Rogers said, you gotta "know when to hold'em and know when to fold'em." But even if you figure out that you are beating absolutely nothing on the river when facing aggression, and you know that your opponent's betting pattern screams monster, it is sometimes still very difficult to find the fold button.
Think about all of the times you have called with one pair after getting raised on the river. How many times was your hand good? Depending on your experience, you can probably count the number of times on one hand. Being able to bluff raise a river is a skill that very very very few players possess. And since very few people fold big hands to river raises, in most games it is a skill that you really need not aquire. Here is a classic example of beating nothing on the river but calling with a seemingly strong hand anyway.
Example #1: Trips no good
No-Limit Hold'em, $0.50 BB (5 handed)
Hero (BB) ($16.75)
Preflop: Hero is BB with Q♠, 7♦
3 folds, SB calls $0.25, Hero checks
Small blind is a passive calling station. There was no point in raising pre-flop since he is never folding, and shoving seems silly since he will probably limp-call a fairly wide range.
Flop: ($1) Q♦, 3♠, 9♦(2 players)
SB bets $1, Hero calls $1
We flop the nuts against the station and plan to go for three streets of value.
Turn: ($3) Q♥(2 players)
SB checks, Hero bets $2, SB calls $2
A good river card in the sense that he will be more likely to stick around with a 3 or 9 in his hand and it makes it less likely that he has a queen. Also, there are plenty draws which make value betting here is a must.
River: ($7) K♣(2 players)
SB checks, Hero bets $3.50, SB raises to $17.50, Hero calls $9.75 (All-In)
We try to get value from the weaker pairs in his range and boom, we get check-raised all-in. The only hands that he would raise for value are full houses, trip queens, and a straight. Since it is unlikely he has a queen, then 33, 99, and JT are most obvious. And since calling stations are passive players by nature, a bluff raise seems out of the question. So taking all factors into account and the fact that we are, at best, only tying if he has a queen, this is an obvious fold. But like most players, I was married to my hand and called the raise.
Total pot: $33.50 | Rake: $1.65
SB had 10♦, J♦ (straight, King high).
Hero had Q♠, 7♦ (three of a kind, Queens).
Outcome: SB won $31.85
Our opponent flopped an open-ended straight flush draw and did not raise the flop, thus confirming our read that he is a passive player. It's hard to think of trips as a bluff catcher, but in this case, that's all it was.
Bad river calls may seem like a huge leak since you lose a lot of money at once when it happens. But making the 2nd best nut hand and getting raised on the river is not something that happens very often. So while it's a leak, it's not really going to destroy your long term bottom line. The most frequent way a player leaks is by not making strategic pre-flop folds. Getting involved with these seemingly strong hands that are actually very marginal or losers is a much more common scenario and thus the source consistent bleeding.
Take this example:
Example #2: A short stack folds QQ pre-flop?!?!
No-Limit Hold'em, $0.50 BB (6 handed)
CO ($66.42) Opens 20% from cutoff
Button ($51.37 3% 3-bet
SB ($92.59) 4% 3-betting TAG regular
Hero (BB) ($12.12)
Preflop: Hero is BB with Q♥, Q♠
2 folds, CO bets $1.34, Button raises to $4.18, SB raises to $92.59 (All-In), 3 folds
Wow look at that action. The 4-bettors range here is QQ+ and AK. We have 40% equity against that range. Not good enough since we only have a big blind involved. This should be a snap fold.
Total pot: $10.20 | Rake: $0
SB didn't show
This is an extreme example, but you will face many tough decisions with hands such as 99, TT, AQ, and even AK sometimes. Being able to spot a marginal all-in decision is not so much a talent as simply having a knowledge of ranges.
<The above blog post is an excerpt from something I wrote in 2012 that eventually was edited out of my first book. I will likely include it in my advanced strategy second book, which I have plans to publish on a future date.>