When Should You Bluff The River? (Step by Step Guide)

When Should You Bluff The River?

This article was written by blackrain79.com contributor Fran Ferlan.

Bluffing the river is something a lot of players struggle with, and some of them don’t even do it at all. 

And it’s understandable. 

Not only is there so much information to consider, the amount of money in the pot by the river often blindsides players, and they just don’t have the nerve to pull off a big bluff, even if they think it might be profitable.

So knowing when (and when not) to bluff the river means having an enormous edge over your competition. 

Before getting into the topic of river bluffing, let’s start with a broader question: When should you bluff, period? 

The answer is this: 

You should bluff when and only when you can get better hands to fold. 

It’s a simple answer, but there’s a lot to unpack here. How do you know better hands will fold to your bet?

You simply can’t ever know for certain. The best you can do is make educated assumptions.

When you get to the river, all the cards are on the board and there’s no future prospects to think or worry about. You will either have a made hand or nothing at all. 

Your made hands will range in strength, of course, from the absolute nuts to a single pair. Imagine a spectrum with those two extremes. Your hand strength will be relative to that spectrum. 

This means that even made hands can be turned into bluffs, like BlackRain79 discusses in this video, running a big bluff with pocket T♠T♣ on: 

2♣2♠7♠7A♠


We are indeed choosing to turn pocket tens into a "bluff" here even though we have plenty of showdown value.

And conversely of course, marginal hands can also be turned into value betting candidates. 

When considering your hand strength, it’s important to think in relative terms. Put more simply, your hand strength will vary based on your opponent type, his range and the board runout. 

So when should you bluff the river, then? When you can get your opponent to fold better hands. 

But since it’s impossible to actually force someone else’s action, it’s not helpful to think in these absolute terms, i.e. can I or can I not get this person to do x, y or z.

The better approach is asking, If I do this, how often will this person do x, y, or z? Or in topical terms: If I bluff the river, how often will my opponent fold?

There are factors that will render river bluffing more profitable, and there are factors that will make it less so. 

This article will break down these factors, and also highlight some common situations in which river bluffing might be profitable.

Let’s take a closer look.


1. When You Have a Tight Table Image


Your table image will be a huge factor in determining the profitability of your river bluff. You should only bluff if your opponents give your bets due credit.

Think about how your session was going. Were you involved in a lot of hands, betting and raising erratically, and pushing your opponents out of the pot every chance you got?

Or have you been card-dead for a while, folding a lot and missing all the flops? 

What about the showdown hands? Have you tried bluffing before and got looked up? Or did you go to showdown only once with the stone cold nuts?

How do your opponents perceive you? Do you have any prior history with them?

For example:

Here is a great spot to bluff a reg (regular opponent) as BlackRain79 discusses in this video:

  
How about this also:

Does anyone have a chip on their shoulder and is trying to get even with you? Or did you just sit down at the table and they haven’t figured you out yet? 

If there is no history between you and you just started playing, you can use that to your advantage. Pulling off a big bluff early on in the session can do wonders for your table image. 

Anonymity works in your favour. With no reads to work with, most players will give you the benefit of the doubt and let you have it for a while.

It will take them some time to figure out you’re out of line. This is important because you will be able to extract more value out of them later on when you actually do wake up with a monster hand.

So as a general rule, the tighter your table image, the more likely your bluff is to succeed, especially on the big money streets, i.e. turn and river. 

And conversely, the looser your table image, the more selective you should be with picking your spots for a huge bluff. 

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bluff even if you suspect your opponent will fold regardless. 

There’s just something about pushing someone out of the pot even though they know you're full of it, but just don’t have the heart to call you down with their Ace-high or third pair.

If you know someone’s way too timid and what’s more, your aggression will infuriate them to no end, by all means go for it.

Just be careful not to push too far, and be prepared to get called down from time to time. Even if your bluff doesn’t work out, the silver lining is that your opponent will give you absolutely no credit from that point on. 

When that happens, simply switch gears, tighten up considerably, and when you get a decent hand, value bet them relentlessly and watch them donate their stack to you.

For more, here are top 10 reasons why poker players go on tilt, and how to fix them (if tilt is a big problem for you!).


2. When You Have Fold Equity


Simply put, fold equity is the percentage of times the villain folds to your bet. 

The profitability of every bet you make will be determined by adding your hand equity (i.e. how often you will win the hand) and fold equity.

For example, if you shove the turn with a nut flush draw, your hand equity is about 17% (because you have 9 outs to the nuts). 

However, that doesn’t mean you are expected to win the pot only 17% of the time, because you can also win the pot by making your opponent fold. 

If you suspect the villain will fold about half the time, it means you have an additional 50% in fold equity. 

When you add those two, you conclude your shove is profitable. I excluded the pot and bet sizes for the sake of example. 

Those will of course, play a part in determining if a play is +EV or not. There are numerous fold equity calculators online you can play around with to get a better feeling for it.

If you want to know all the best poker software for today's games, BlackRain79 actually has an entire article on that.

The bottom line is that when you’re trying to bluff the river, the assumption is you have very little to no hand equity (because you missed your draw, for example). 

If you have a mediocre hand, it’s highly unlikely the villain will call you down with worse hands, so those mediocre hands are essentially turned into bluffs (i.e. you are trying to get better hands to fold).

With no chance of winning the pot at showdown, you have to rely on fold equity to determine whether or not you should bluff the river.

When should you bluff the river?

The more fold equity, the more profitable the bluff, and the less fold equity, the more should you be willing to give up altogether and count your losses.

This is something that BlackRain79 discusses in much more detail in his latest book, The Micro Stakes Playbook.  

The aforementioned table image will play a huge role in increasing or decreasing your fold equity. An out of control maniac will have significantly less fold equity than a nit. 

That’s why it’s important to be cognizant of your image and try to use it to your advantage.

The other side of the coin is, of course, your opponent. Against certain types of players you should assume you have absolutely no fold equity whatsoever. I’m talking about the calling stations, of course. 

There are no absolutes in poker, to be sure, but when playing against these kinds of opponents, you’re better off erring on the side of caution and just dispense with the bluffing altogether. 

To pull off a successful bluff, your opponent has to actually have a fold button, and here it’s simply not the case. 

So you should bluff the river only when you are up against the opponents that are actually capable of folding. And even then, you should only do so if your bluff is believable.

Bluffing is essentially acting, so you have to make sure you act as if you are actually holding a monster hand. 

The way to do that is to think through the previous action and figuring out if you would have played your strong value hands the same way you played your bluff. 

If there is any inconsistency in your act, your opponent might figure out something doesn’t add up and call you down. 

If you decide to pull off a river bluff, use the bet sizing you would use if you decided to bet for value. 


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3. When You Have No Showdown Value


If you imagine your relative hand strength on a spectrum, it will fall somewhere between the stone cold nuts and total air. 

The closer you are to the nuts, the more value-betting oriented your hand, and the further you are, the more your hand falls to the bluff category. 

Between those two extremes, there are hands with showdown value. (There are also hands that can be categorized as semi-bluffs, but those do not apply on the river, as there are no more outs to count on).

Hands with showdown value are those that aren’t strong enough to be clear value-betting candidates, but are strong enough to win at showdown against a significant chunk of your opponent’s range. 

In other words, hands with showdown value are those mediocre hands that can win at showdown a decent amount of time, but can’t get action against weaker hands. 

Betting those hands on the river isn’t advised, because you: 

a) you can’t get called by worse hands

b) you force worse hands to fold instead of checking in order to potentially induce a bluff from your opponent and extract value that way.

Hands with showdown value are therefore best played as bluff catchers. On the other hand, if your hand has no showdown value, you can consider bluffing with it instead. 

Since you can’t win at showdown, the only way to win the hand is to push your opponent out of the pot. 

If you decide to go for that line, you should of course make sure your opponent can actually fold. Otherwise you’re better off just giving up.

This is something that is discussed at length in Crushing the Microstakes. Some players just simply aren't worth trying to bluff!

But beyond that, your table image, fold equity and showdown value (or lack thereof) should give you a pretty good feel whether or not you should bluff the river. 

Now let’s look at some specific situations where river bluffing might be profitable.


4. When Your Opponent Failed to C-bet The Turn


This is one of the spots to look out for, as it can be outright profitable regardless of your hand strength. 

If your opponent doesn’t double barrel on the turn, you might want to try and take down the pot on the river, if you assume he will just give up the hand often enough. 

Here’s the situation: 

You call the villain’s open-raise out of position preflop, you check the flop, villain c-bets. You check the turn and villain checks back. You bet the river, villain folds.

Your river bet in this spot is called a probe bet. A probe bet is a bet made out of position when your opponent missed the opportunity to c-bet on the previous street.

As such, it can only be made on the turn or river. Betting in this spot can be outright profitable with a wide range of hands. 

You should be on the lookout for these kinds of spots, because taking down a lot of these small pots can quickly add up, and can do wonders for your winrate.

It’s not enough to just wait around for the nuts all day. You have to be willing to look for small edges like this and fight for every pot, especially when your opponent shows disinterest like in the example above.

Of course, if your opponent did in fact bet the turn, then running a big bluff like BlackRain79 discusses in this video is a bit ill-advised!


And that is because most of the time when people at the lower stakes double barrel you, they have something strong and it will be pretty difficult to make them throw away their hand.


Example Bluffing the River Hand


Effective stack size: 100 BB
You are dealt J9 in the BB.

TAG villain open-raises to 3x on the BU.
You call.

Pot: 6.5 BB

Flop: Q♣T♠5
You check. Villain bets 3.5 BB. You call.

Pot: 13.5 BB

Turn: 2
You check. Villain checks.

River: 7
You ???

You should bet 7 BB.

This is an example of the pot where nobody is particularly stoked about their hand, so why not take the initiative and try to fight for it? 

There will be a bunch of those smallish pots throughout your session, so look for every opportunity to take down as many of them as possible. 

Let’s take a closer look at the action.

TAG villain open-raises on the BU, and we call with our decent speculative hand. We assume the villain is stealing the blinds relatively frequently, and we decide to defend.

We flop an open-ended straight draw, and villain fires off a standard c-bet. 

We consider check-raising, but we assume villain will be c-betting pretty widely in this spot, and our draw is well-concealed, so we just flat call instead, hoping to get more action if our draw completes.

The turn is no help for us and we check. The villain doesn’t double-barrel and checks behind.

The river fails to complete our straight draw and we have no showdown value at all. So our options are either check-folding or bluffing, and bluffing is far more favourable. 

One might worry about the flush draw completing, but it’s highly unlikely the villain has a flush in this spot, and we could quite easily try to represent it. 

If our opponent had a flush draw on the turn, wouldn’t he be more likely to double-barrel as a semi-bluff than to check behind? 

And if he had a top pair hand, wouldn’t he also double-barrel to extract value and charge us for our drawing hands? 

It’s more than likely he just gave up on the turn, and wouldn’t call us down with his bluff catchers, especially with the flush draw completing. 

Sure, he might try to bluff catch from time to time with Tx hands, middle pairs like pocket Nines or Eights for example, but not nearly often enough to render our bluff unprofitable. 


5. When You Can Triple Barrel


When bluffing the river, it’s important that your actions tell a believable and coherent story. In fact, this is one of the easiest ways to tell if someone is bluffing.

Also, the villain actually has to pay attention to that story. Many players at the lower stakes just simply aren't paying attention and it is important not to think above their heads.

But assuming a competent player who is indeed paying attention...

If you decide to bluff, you shouldn’t just do it out of the blue in the middle of the hand because you think the villain is weak and HAS TO fold or something like that. 

The villain might be weak, but strong enough to look you up if your story doesn’t add up. 

As a general rule, it’s best to keep things simple, even when bluffing. Remember, the point is to represent a strong hand. And triple barreling screams strength.

If the board gets progressively scarier street by street, consider triple barreling (i.e. c-betting the flop, turn, and river) to apply maximum pressure on your opponent. 

Just be on the lookout for potential draws completing. 

If there aren’t any, it’s quite possible your opponent’s range will consist of a lot of busted draws or mediocre hands that won’t stand the pressure of the triple barrel. 

To be sure, your opponent might be slowplaying, so you have to take that into consideration as well. 

That’s why the previous tips about knowing your opponent type, as well as your table image are so important when guiding your decisions.


Example Bluffing the River Hand


Effective stack size: 100 BB

You are dealt A3 in the SB. You open-raise to 3x.
A tight and aggressive villain calls in the BB.

Pot: 6 BB

Flop: J♣42
You bet 4 BB. Villain calls.

Pot: 14 BB

Turn: 8♠
You bet 7 BB. Villain calls.

Pot: 28 BB

River: K♣
You: ???

You should bet 14 BB.

This is a good spot for a triple barrel bluff. Let’s break down the action again. You open-raise with a decent speculative hand and the villain flats. 

You already know his range is capped, meaning you can exclude premium pocket pairs (Jacks and better), AK and probably AQ from his range, because he would have 3-bet those instead of calling.

You flop an inside straight and flush draw, giving you 13 outs (any Five or a diamond). You are pretty confident the villain wouldn’t have called preflop with a hand like 63, so you don’t have to discount your outs. 

He might have a 65, but that’s only a small part of his overall range. 

Villain calls, so you narrow down his range to Jx hands, broadway hands or suited connectors with the diamonds, some Ax hands (even though you block a lot of them with your hand), maybe some pocket pairs (Tens, Nines, or Eights, for example). 

No change on the turn for either your or your villain’s range, so you continue semi-bluffing. Villain calls again. 

This caps his range even further. There are no odd sets he might have, because those would have raised you by now. 

The villain might have picked up a draw with his suited connectors, like QT, T9, Q9, maybe T7 if we’re being generous. 

Your hand didn’t improve on the river, but it’s unlikely the villain’s did either, except for KJ, but again, it’s only a small part of his overall range. 

You do have some showdown value with your Ace-high, but not nearly enough to bluff-catch with a check-call. 

That leaves you with two options: 

Either check-folding, which is the easiest one, or triple-barreling, which might be more profitable for a couple of reasons. 

First of all, no draws completed, and you assume a good chunk of villain’s range will consist of busted draws.

Secondly, the river is a scare card, so villain will have a hard time calling you down with his Jx hands. And finally, your bluff tells a believable story. 

Your range is uncapped throughout the hand, so it may easily contain Aces, Kings, Jacks, KJ and so on. 

The villain will rarely have the heart to call you down with his second pair, third pocket pairs, let alone bluff-catch with Ace-high hands.

Of course, there’s no way to accurately assess your opponent’s range. 

The best you can do is make educated assumptions. You won’t be right every time, but you don’t have to be. If you’re right more often than you’re wrong, that’s good enough.


6. When Your Opponent Doesn’t Triple Barrel


Another spot to look out for is when the villain misses the opportunity to c-bet the river. This will often happen when some kind of potential draw completes on the river, and you can successfully represent a made hand. 

A lot of decent regulars know by now they should play aggressively postflop not only with strong made hands, but should also mix in a couple of bluffs here and there as well. 

This is something that is discussed in much more detail for example in Modern Small Stakes.

They will c-bet the flop often, keep barreling on the turn, but a lot of them don’t have the heart to fire off a third shell on the river, especially on scary board runouts.

So if you are playing in position and you missed your straight draw, for example, you could still try to represent a made flush if the villain checks to you. 

If the villain c-bets the flop and turn, but checks the river, he’s more than likely not too thrilled with the board, and you can try to take away the pot with a busted draw.


Final Thoughts


Knowing when, and when not to bluff the river is rarely easy, and making a wrong decision can spell the difference between an insanely profitable session and an outright disaster.

That is why know exactly when (and when not to) bluff the river is an integral part of any advanced poker strategy. 

That being the case, a lot of players refrain from making huge moves on the river, even if they feel it might be the best course of action.

Unfortunately, as is usually the case in poker, there are no absolute ways to know whether or not you bluff will be profitable. Sometimes you just have to take the leap.

There are, however, some factors that will indicate that your bluff will pull through.

One thing to have in mind is your table image. You should have an idea about how your opponents perceive you in order to get a better feel on how they might react.

If they view you as an out of control maniac, you might want to refrain from overbet jamming the river with your Ten-high.

If you haven’t made a move in what seems to be hours, and haven’t even gone to showdown once the whole session, your opponents might think twice before calling you down.

Your table image will play a huge role in determining your fold equity, but it’s not the whole story. You have to take into account your opponent’s tendencies as well. As a rule of thumb, don’t bluff the calling stations, ever. 

Against nits, go wild. If they fold everything except the stone cold nuts, it doesn’t even matter what you’re holding. You might as well bluff them holding two napkins in your hand. 

Also, consider the showdown value of your hand. If your bet will only get called by better hands, and you’ll get all the weaker hands to fold, you’re better off not betting. 

If you have no showdown value whatsoever, you can either count your losses and give up, or try to bluff and push your opponents out of the pot. If you opt for the latter, have all the previous points in mind.

Finally, be on the lookout for some common situations that might render a river bluff profitable.

If you’re playing out of position, consider probe betting if your opponent missed to c-bet the turn. More than likely he gave up the hand altogether, so probing can be outright profitable regardless of what you’re holding.

If you decide to bluff the river, make sure you tell a believable story. Triple barreling signifies extreme strength, so use it on favourable board runouts.

If your opponent doesn’t triple barrel, on the other hand, it might mean he’s not too stoked about the board runout. That being the case, consider firing off a bet if you can represent a strong made hand yourself.

Lastly, if you want to know the complete strategy I used to crush the small stakes games online for some of the highest winnings ever recorded, make sure you grab a copy of my free poker cheat sheet.

When Should You Bluff The River?