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StrategyNo Limit

On the River - Theory


In this article
  • What possibilities you have on the river
  • How valuable your hand is
  • What role your position plays
To reach the showdown of a hand, you have to battle your way through four streets of play – all of which have their own dynamics and problematic aspects. Among these four streets, the river stands out as being especially tough to play.

This article discusses the particularities of river play and what specifics one should pay attention to. The next article then contains various examples of different spots and opponents that are analysed with special attention given to position.

Which problems do you face on the river?

As mentioned earlier, all the streets have their own problematic aspects, but the river is often underestimated in its importance. It's kind of like a real river - if you aren't careful you might get caught in the current.

Getting a proper feel for playing the river can be difficult. The human brain remembers standard situations and will try to fit everything into certain patterns. As a poker player, you know how extremely dangerous that can be. Consequently, you should analyze your hands on an individual basis instead of trying to categorize your play through past experiences and "standard" plays. At the end of the day, you can be satisfied if you come to the conclusion that your playing style garnered a positive expected value. 

This type of learning is obviously very important, but you will only really benefit if you think all your decisions through in this manner and apply what you learn from one hand to a similar situation later on. As you start to develop and improve this thought process, you will find yourself making correct decisions much more often. A lot of experience and practice is needed in order to perfect this.

When you look at all the different streets, you will, of course, see most of the decisions you make in poker take place before the flop. As a result, your pre-flop abilities and strategies against different opponents are already very strong, and over time you have begun to make fewer mistakes.

Only at the very end do we get to the river. It's only logical that the last street is played relatively rarely compared to the three before it. When you look at your VPIP and "went to showdown" values, you will immediately see that you rarely have to make decisions on the river (in fact, you only do so roughly once every 25 hands). In other words, you gain comparatively little river experience.


This is very much a shame when you consider that the most expensive decisions are made on the river. By the river, the pot has normally become very large and, as bets in No-Limit Hold'em are always in proportion to the pot, so are your investments.

Moreover, there's a large difference between the river and all the other streets: The hands are complete and no more cards will be dealt. There are two opposing hands, of which one is better than the other and has the right to claim the pot. However, whether the best hand will actually take down the pot has yet to be decided.

You often regard the hand on the river as finished, where the only thing left is to reach the showdown. If you put your opponent on a draw, then he either got there and you will have to be careful, or he missed and you are very likely ahead. In that case, you should already have made the decision on the turn whether you want to induce a bluff on the river or value bet. However, by the end of the hand, people sadly often lose their last bit of focus and concentration. 

Naturally, the odds also change. On the first street, you generally regard odds in the sense of, "what is the probability that one of my outs hits on the following streets?" You mostly assume you are behind, but mathematically you can relatively precisely calculate the probability of the next card giving you the best hand. So, with pot odds, implied odds, and a lot of experience you can determine whether a call with, for instance, a draw on the flop has a long-run positive expected value.

On the river, you also get odds when an opponent bets; however, you can't rely on strict mathematics to guide you.


PartyPoker $25 NL Hold'em (6 handed)

Stacks & Stats
MP ($25)
CO ($25)
UTG ($25)
BB ($25)
SB ($25)
Hero ($25)

Pre-flop: Hero is Button with A , K
UTG raises to $1.00 2 folds, Hero raises to $3.25, 2 folds, UTG calls $3.25

Flop: ($6.35) K, 3, 4 (2 players)
UTG checks, Hero bets $4.50, UTG calls $4.50

Turn: ($15.35) 5 (2 players)
UTG checks, Hero checks

River: ($15.35) 6 (2 players)
UTG bets $7.50, Hero ???

This is a standard hand up until the turn, when you decided to check behind to induce a bluff. You could also play bet/call on the turn, since you are in a 3-bet pot, but let's take a look at all your options first.

In this case, the opponent bets into you. You have to pay $7.50 in order to have a chance of winning $22.85. That gives you odds of approximately 3 to 1, which means you have to be ahead one in four times for this to be a profitable call.

To use these odds can be difficult. Are you ahead one in four times? At first glance, you will see that a quick mathematical estimation isn't possible. It's exactly these types of situations that require experience, and it's obvious that you have to be careful, as the decisions in these spots are expensive.

You can't simply use the Equilator, give your opponent a range and then see if you are ahead most of the time; you shouldn't fall into a certain pattern of thinking and end up always using the same lines. The size of the opponent's bet or raise can drastically change the odds and quickly turn the positive expected value of a call into a negative one.

The above example is clear: You have checked behind on the turn to induce a bluff, and because of the small size of the bet and the likelihood that the villain is bluffing, this is a must call with top pair/top kicker.

Nonetheless, it would be wrong to use the check behind turn/call any river line without also looking at the odds. A pot-sized bet in the same situation would warrant a bit more thinking and you certainly shouldn't blindly call a push.

That's not the entire article...

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Comments (8)

#1 Smileyphil, 03 Mar 09 19:09

Very useful article thank you. The river in someways is the most important part of the hand as it is where the big money usually starts to float around - however as the article says our experience of this situation is very low compared to our preflop experience.

#2 TheBrood, 04 Mar 09 18:51

I took the quiz on River play and failed. So here I am reading up lol

#3 looserbaby79, 16 Sep 09 05:37

i failed in that quiz aswell - 7 points
very helpful thx

#4 Tim64, 16 Nov 10 11:04


#5 livelydolphin, 03 Jan 11 13:56

I disagree with the call in the 1st example. What possible holdings could the villian be bluffing with? There's no possible flush draw on flop. With a weaker pair, UTG will more likely cheack for free showdown. His bet screams straight or at least two pairs.

#6 sapheal, 24 Jun 11 09:42


Villain could have AK/KQ and be value betting thinly this hand. This could also be a blockbet w/QQ-TT.

Villain is not going to play AA this way and isn't going to call w/ low pp OOP vs 3bet.


#7 Strongsl, 31 Aug 11 00:24


#8 delanonunes, 13 Oct 11 13:04

Great article once again : )