Should You Bet the River? 3 Questions to Ask

Should You Bet the River?

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

The river is the biggest money street in no-limit Texas Hold’em, and playing it optimally is what makes or breaks your winrate. 

So it’s important to know when to, and more importantly, when not to fire off a bet on the river. 

As is usually the case in poker, whether or not it’s profitable to bet any street will depend on a lot of variables, and there’s no way to give a clear-cut answer other than the all too familiar: it depends. 

Since all the river spots will inherently be unique, there really isn’t a way to unpack it all in one article and give a one-size-fits-all answer. 

What this article will do instead is provide some general questions you should ask yourself on the river in order to make the most +EV decisions. It’s not about telling you what to think, but how to think. 

Some of the variables to consider when deciding to bet are the same on every street, namely your opponent type, the previous action, are you playing in position or out of position, just to name a few.

I advise you to check it out in my previous article on betting the turn, as all the concepts mentioned apply on the river play as well. 

As for the river play itself, when deciding to bet or not it’s important for you to clearly define your bet either as a value bet or as a bluff. Here are the questions you can ask yourself to do so successfully.

Let’s start with value betting the river for maximum profitability.


1. Which Hands Will Pay Me Off?


If you’re betting the river for value, you should be aware of the hands that will actually pay you off. The more hands you can come up with, the wider your opponent’s range, and consequently, the more frequently you should bet the river. 

The number of hands will mostly be determined by the type of opponent you’re up against. The tighter the opponent, the less hands in his range, and the looser the opponent, the more widely can you value bet profitably. 

Just to be clear, a value bet is any bet which is more than 50% favourite to win against your opponent’s range.

Watch this video by BlackRain79 to learn more about value bets.

 
This means you should expand your value betting range on the river if you suspect your opponent can call you down with worse hands. This is called thin value betting. 

A thin value bet is a bet where you expect to win the pot a little more than 50% of the time. 

In practice, this means you should bet the river with marginal hands that you usually wouldn’t consider value betting with, but do so because you suspect your opponent could call you with worse hands.

For example, your opponent likes to make huge hero calls with Ace-high hands, or is a huge calling station who can’t fold their third pocket pair to save their life. 

In these situations, you can’t wait around for the nuts all day to try and take their money. 

You have to be willing to bet with hands you wouldn’t otherwise be quite comfortable with, like top pair weak kicker, second pair, trips on a wet board and so on. 


Betting the River Example Hand #1


Effective stack size: 100 BB
You are dealt 77♣ in the CO.

You open-raise to 3x.
A loose passive fish calls on the BB.

Pot: 6.5 BB

Flop: Q97♠
Villain checks. You bet 5 BB. Villain calls.

Pot : 16.5 BB

Turn: 3♠
Villain checks. You bet 12 BB. Villain calls.

Pot: 40.5 BB

River: 2♠
Villain checks.

You: ???

You should bet 25 BB.

This is a clear value bet spot. Some players might freeze up when they see a flush draw completing and check behind just to be safe. But by doing so they’re missing out on a ton of value. Let’s break down the hand street by street.

Preflop we have a standard open with a middle pair and the villain calls on the BB. Villain is a typical calling station who plays too many hands, calls too much, chases all sorts of draw and so on, so we assume his range is extremely wide here.

We hit a bottom set on a rainbow flop and want to start building up the pot as quickly as possible. 

We are getting called by a wide range of hands, including, but not limited to: Qx and 9x hands, gutshot straight draws like KT, JT, J8, T8, 86, maybe some pocket pairs like pocket Tens or Nines. 

And considering our opponent type, we are probably getting called down a lot wider than that, with hands like Ace-high, other pocket pairs, backdoor flush draws, you name it. The list goes on and on.

The turn doesn’t change much, except it puts a possible flush draw on the board. Not much to tell here, we’re still in a heavy value betting mindset and continue barreling.

The river completes a flush draw and we fear we got outdrawn yet again. After all, we’re up against a recreational player who loves chasing draws and probably plays every suited hand. So we should just cut our losses and check behind, right?

Not necessarily. 

Just because the villain could have a flush, it’s not all he could have. It’s only a part of his overall range, and there are still plenty of hands we’re ahead of. 

If the assumption we made that he plays all his suited junk is correct, it’s also reasonable to assume he’s going to get sticky with top pair hands, some weird two pair hands, maybe even some middle pairs if he loves hero calling and tries to bluff catch.

Also, the villain’s river check doesn’t really indicate a strong made hand. Wouldn’t he be more likely to donk bet the river in that case? 

Sure, he might be slowplaying, but in that case, he will come over the top with a shove. In that scenario, yes, our set is probably not good anymore, and we can fold begrudgingly.

By the way, check out BlackRain79's insanely popular "15 proven ways to crush the micros" article for more on the correct slowplaying strategy.  

But until then, based on the previous action, the player type and the perceived range, we should assume we are ahead until proven otherwise. 

If not, we’re missing out a lot of value, and it can be terribly detrimental to our bottom line. 


2. Which Hands Can I Get to Fold?


If you decide to bet the river as a bluff, you should also figure out which hands will actually fold to your bet. It’s important to know your opponent type as well. 

You shouldn’t really bluff against recreational players on the river for a couple of reasons.

First of all, if they got to the river in the first place, it’s reasonable to assume they have something, and might decide to get sticky with their marginal holdings because:

A) they already feel committed because they put a significant portion of their stack in the middle

B) they have a tendency to call too wide and too frequently and think everyone is bluffing far more often than they actually do

C) they often greatly overvalue their relative hand strength. This means they never fold their “strong hands” regardless of the board runout. They’ll call you down with weak flushes, bottom end of a straight and so on. And they never ever fold a full house. 

So trying to rep a monster hand, especially on wet boards against fish is ill-advised to say the least. This is something that is discussed in much more detail in Crushing the Microstakes.

One situation where it could be profitable to bluff the river against fish is when you suspect they have a drawing hand and the river bricks (i.e. it fails to complete any straight or flush draws and is unlikely to change the situation dramatically). 

Fish love chasing all sorts of ludicrous draws, so if you think a significant portion of their range is made of busted draws, you might try to go for a small sized bluff. 

See this video that Nathan made for the optimal strategy to play against the fish.


The reason you should go for a smaller size is because fish tend to be pretty inelastic, meaning the bet size doesn’t really affect how often they call or fold.

Whereas a more skilled player might be thinking about pot odds and how often they need to be right in order to render a call +EV, their fishier counterparts aren’t overly concerned with these notions. 

If they missed their draw, they’ll give up, and if they connected, they’ll let you know.

One caveat here: if your opponent doesn’t have a fold button at all, you shouldn’t try to bluff them ever, regardless of how well you thought through their range and concluded they have to fold in this and that spot, because you would have done the same.

You shouldn’t assume your opponent thinks the same way you do, or even that they’re thinking somewhat rationally at all. They might just call you down out of spite, out of frustration, or just because f**k it, let’s gamble.

So as a general rule, you’re better off value betting the river against recreational players. Also, the fishier your opponents, the thinner your value bets can be. 

If you are up against thinking regulars, on the other hand, successfully bluffing the river can potentially spell the difference between slightly losing or breakeven players and huge winners. 

If you are able to pull off just one big river bluff in a session, it can do wonders to your bottom line. Most players at the lower stakes, fish and regulars alike, are far more inclined to value bet the river rather than pulling off some daring bluff.

However, if you do decide to bluff the river, you need to make sure it has a relatively high chance of succeeding.

As mentioned before, you shouldn’t try to bluff the players who don’t have a fold button. 

You also have to make sure your bluff tells a believable story. The way to do that is to replay the hand in reverse and figure out if you would have played your strong value hands the same way. 

If the answer is yes, your bluff is more likely to work. If not, your opponent might figure out something doesn’t add up, and might call you down.


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Betting the River Example Hand #2


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

A tight and aggressive regular open-raises to 3x on the BU.
You 3-bet to 12x. BB folds, TAG reg calls.

Pot: 23 BB

Flop: JT♠7♠
You c-bet 12 BB. Villain calls.

Pot: 47 BB

Turn: 5♣
You bet 24 BB. Villain calls.

Pot: 95 BB

River: 2

You: ???

You should shove all-in.

While shoving all-in on the river holding absolute air isn’t something you should do as a default, in this situation it does have some merit. Let’s take a closer look.

A decent TAG villain open-raises on the BU and we 3-bet with AKs. Villain calls, so we already know his range is capped. 

We can exclude Aces and Kings from his range (and we block those anyway). So his range probably consists of pocket pairs, suited broadways hands, suited connectors and such. 

Not the greatest flop for us, but we do flop a gutshot straight draw, and we still have two overcards, so we go for a half-pot c-bet. Villain flats. 

Our assumption is he plays a pretty straightforward ABC style, so we can narrow down his range to some drawing hands like AQ, KQ, 98, 99, 88 and top pair hands like AJ and KJ.

The turn doesn’t change much. We didn’t improve, but neither did our opponent (probably). 

Our range is still uncapped, and we have some equity to fall back on, so we continue barreling. Villain flats again. We can’t further narrow his range, so our assumption he has a mediocre or a drawing hand stays the same.

The river is another brick. We can hardly win the hand at showdown at this point. We can, however, consider triple-barrel bluffing. 

By shoving all-in, we get maximum fold equity, and the villain will have a hard time calling us down with top-pair hands, and won’t be inclined to bluff-catch with pocket pairs (like pocket Nines or Eights, for example). 

Also, the river didn’t complete any straight and flush draws, and we’ve shown massive strength throughout the hand, so our bluff tells a believable story.

By the way, if you want to learn more, check out Nathan's 10 easy ways to tell if somebody is bluffing. 

Our range is uncapped throughout this hand though, so our range could easily hold premium pocket pairs, even sets of Jacks or Tens.

Now, it’s important to point out that we could have been wrong in our assumptions, and we’ve made quite a few of them throughout the hand. 

We assumed the villain would play his draws passively, that he wouldn’t slowplay his strong hands (like sets, for example), and that he wouldn’t bluff-catch with top-pair hands.

Also, our range estimates could have been dead wrong. But that’s poker. 

You work with the limited information you do have, and you aren’t guaranteed to be correct a hundred percent of the time. The villain could easily snap-call us with a set of Sevens, AJ, JT and so on. 

But it’s not the end of the world if he does. Sometimes you take a shot and you miss. 

The alternative is being overly predictable, and that’s hardly an optimal long-term strategy, especially against more observant opponents. 

Pulling off a big bluff like in the example above, even if it fails, will do wonders for your table image, if nothing else. 

Poker is a game of calculated risk, and sometimes you have to pull the trigger in less than ideal circumstances. Not taking risks is also a risk.


3. What is My Opponent’s WTSD Percentage?


Finally, one thing you should be on the lookout for is your opponent’s HUD stats, if your site allows HUD use. By the way, here is the HUD used by most pros.  

On your HUD, you should check their WTSD stat (went to showdown) in order to figure out how much to expand or tighten your value betting range.

WTSD shows the percentage of times a player went to showdown. The bigger the WTSD, the more you can expand your value betting range

A player with a WTSD below 20% is an extreme nit, and goes to showdown with very strong hands only. 

You can bluff the river the most against this type of opponent, and if they raise you, you can basically be sure they have the nuts, or close to it.

Decent players will have a WTSD% between about 24% and 27%.

Players with a WTSD above 30% are huge calling stations, and you should expand your value betting range significantly against them. Bluffing them is out of the question, of course.

It’s important to mention, however, that the WTSD stat requires quite a big sample size to be accurate. 

You shouldn’t really rely on it with less than 500 hands at a bare minimum. 1000 is better, but to be truly accurate (with a margin of error of 1-2%) will require 5000 hands.

For a complete breakdown of how to use the WTSD HUD stat Nathan already has an entire article on the best WTSD stats.


Summary


Playing the river optimally can be quite challenging with the overwhelming amount of information to consider.

But it is a crucial part of any good advanced poker strategy.

When you add to it the pressure of having to make a decision for a huge amount of money, it can get outright debilitating, and your mind suddenly just goes blank.

In order to avoid such an overwhelm, it pays to take a second to play the hand in your mind in reverse and think through your opponent’s range. 

By engaging in complex problem solving like this, you’re less likely to freeze up and potentially screw up your session or deteriorate your winrate.

The first thing to do is clearly decide whether you are betting the river for value or as a bluff.

If you’re betting for value, think through all the potential hands that could pay off your bet and size it accordingly. Think what kind of opponent you are up against. 

As a general rule, the fishier your opponent, the wider your value betting range. Don’t be afraid to go for very thin value bets if you’re up against huge whales. 

Missing out on a river value bet just because you think they might have drawn out on you is not a winning recipe. Always consider your opponent’s whole range, not just the hands that have you beat.

Conversely, if you are up against decent thinking players, don’t be afraid to try a big bluff from time to time. 

If all you do is play standard ABC style against other regulars, you’re basically just trading the money back and forth between you, minus the rake. 

So to truly get ahead in today’s games you have to be willing to try something unconventional from time to time. You can’t get ahead by following everyone else.

Having a hunch for good thin value betting spots or the nerve to pull off a huge bluff is great, but at the end of the day, you could hardly go wrong with cold hard data. Numbers never lie. 

So consult your HUD stats to accurately assess your opponent’s showdown tendencies. The more they deviate from the norm, the more you should exploit them.

Lastly, if you want to know the complete strategy to crush small stakes poker games, grab a copy of the FREE BlackRain79 poker cheat sheet below.
 Should You Bet the River?