Essential Tips for Betting on the River

  • Avatar for WSOP Winner Chris 'Fox' WallaceReviewed by  WSOP Winner Chris ‘Fox’ Wallace

When it comes to Texas Hold’emhow to play on the river is both a complex topic and a simple one.

It’s complex because developing a plan over multiple betting rounds including flop, turn and river is tough to get right. It involves taking into account bet sizing across those streets, relative to stack depth, as well as considering how your opponents’ actions across those streets define their range.

That is to say: how can you narrow their possible range of holdings, based on their actions across this specific runout, and also based on any other information we have (such as their tendencies, their view of us, our relative positions, stack depths, and the stage of the tournament)?

In this sense, betting or checking river with the right frequency can be considered one of the toughest things to get right in poker.

It All Comes Down To This

In another sense, river decisions can be simpler than decisions on earlier streets.

This is because when betting on the river you don’t need to consider implied odds on future streets, as there are no future streets! You don’t have to consider what cards might come up, or your chances of hitting one of your outs. It’s all about this moment.

Understand Your Strategy for How to Play the River

As such, several reasons we might have for betting on earlier streets go out of the window on the river.

We no longer care about charging equity, that is to say, we don’t care about folding out (or at least charging a high price to continue) those hands in our opponents’ range which might hit a card on later streets. We only care about either getting value from worse hands or folding out better hands, depending on whether we are betting for value or bluffing. Semi-bluffing is no longer a part of the game on the river.

Reasons for Betting on Flop & Turn:

  • Value & Protection – protecting your hand against bad cards which can improve on future streets
  • Airball Bluff – bluffing with no equity for future streets
  • Semi-bluff – bluffing with a drawing hand which might hit on later streets
  • Charging Your Opponent – to realize their equity on future streets
  • Maintaining Initiative

Reasons for Betting on the River:

  • Value (either fat or thin – see below)
  • As a bluff

If Better Hands Will Call and Worse Ones Will Fold, Why Bet?

Let’s look at an example:

You’re holding Cards - 6 diamond, 9 diamond

and the board shows Cards: Ace club, 10 club, 8 club, 6 heart, 6 club

You’re heads-up, it’s checked to you. Do you bet?

Against somewhat decent competition, the answer is “no”. A worse hand will not call here, and a better hand will not fold. You also have showdown value, meaning that it is still reasonably possible that you can win at showdown once you check back.

Of course, it’s possible that you might get called by some opponents with something like Ax because they want to “keep you honest”, but don’t count on it. It’s possible you could occasionally get called by a worse 6x hand, but it’s unlikely.

Value Owning Yourself

It’s also worth bearing in mind that it’s not sufficient when betting for value that you know you will occasionally get called by a worse hand. It needs to happen more often than the times you get called by a better hand, for the bet to have value.

For example, if you bet 1,000 chips and get called 1 time in 10 by a worse hand, but the other 9 times get called by a better hand, you’re losing 9,000 chips for every time you gain 1,000. This is known as value owning yourself.

If you get called, you will probably be beat. If you bet, and your opponent folds, did you gain anything? No – they most likely had the worse hand anyway, so if it had gone to showdown you would have won the same amount anyway. This is a situation where you, in most cases, will simply not gain anything from betting, but you stand to lose most of the times you get called.

If you’re betting a legitimate hand, ask yourself these questions: Will a worse hand call? Will a better hand fold? Will you win the majority of times that you’re called?

Fat and Thin Value

Against so-called ‘Calling Stations’ (players who are very passive post-flop and will call down with any piece of the board) you should be much more inclined to bet the river with decent hands. The answer to the question “will they call with worse hands?” so often comes up as “yes” that it becomes worth it to bet for value with mediocre hands. This is the concept of betting for thin value.

Betting for fat value is betting in any spot where it is easy to see many worse hands calling you. Betting for thin value is betting for value in a spot where you judge that your opponent will call with worse holdings just often enough to make it an overall profitable value bet.

Let’s look at another example:

You are in position heads up on the river holding Cards: Queen diamond, Jack club

and the board shows Cards: Queen club, 5 heart, 7 spade, 2 diamond, 2 heart

Your opponent is a competent regular and you started the hand UTG+3 vs. BB, continuation-bet half pot on the flop and got called, before the turn went check/check and your opponent checked to you on the river.

You decide that they will call with several worse combinations of Qx including QTs and Q9s, probably Q8s. You think they will sometimes call with a worse pair such as 99 or A7s, and that they likely would have led out on the river with most of their two pair combos or better (those which beat the 2s on the table), and with a better Qx, at least the majority of the time.

For those reasons you feel that they will be calling with worse hands more often than they call with better hands, and you will therefore not be value owning yourself when betting for value.

Remember, on the river:

  • You’re either betting for value (you want a call), or as a bluff (you want a fold)
  • If for value, which worse hands are calling you?
  • If as a bluff, which better hands are folding to the bet?
  • Don’t value own yourself going too thin for value!
  • Don’t miss out on value by not going thin enough
  • How does the villain perceive your range? Are they even thinking in ranges?
  • With what range of hands does the villain get to the river?

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