No-Limit Hold'em: BSS - The River (1)

After the river all of the possible variables were disclosed within the game. The river is therefore very different to the previous betting rounds. Now we either have a (the best) hand or we don't. We can no longer expect any further help.

At this point a lot of players often don't give enough thought to their betting options. The hand is almost over, people's concentration is waning and mentally, the hand is practically finished. However, a profit-oriented player shouldn't simply dismiss the river. On the contrary: The river is often considered the most important round of betting. There are three reasons for this:

  • There are no more drawing hands.
The major difference to all other streets is that now there are only made or trash hands. On the river mostly two players going head to head – one of them has 100% equity, i.e. the winning hand, and the other one 0% equity, i.e. the losing hand.
If we bet on the river with the nuts, then we are betting entirely "for value". There are no other ways of losing the hand, which means that we are entitled to win the entire pot. This train of thoughts is important in terms of bet sizes as concepts such as protection are now of little importance.
  • Big pots are up for grabs on the river.
In the course of the betting rounds, a comparatively big pot is built up to the river due to various bets and raises. The bigger the pot, the bigger the bets will be since they are interdependent in no-limit hold'em. The more money we bet, the more influence our decisions will logically have on our win rate.
  • We have more information than at any other point in time.

In order to be able to make decisions as precisely and correctly as possible, we should always use all of the available information. On the flop this information is still incomplete. Only one round of betting has taken place by that point, meaning that we can only make rough assumptions about our opponent's possible hand range.

After the river card has been dealt we know exactly how strong our hand is and can relate it to the information from the previous rounds of betting.


The concepts

Four concepts form the basis for the decisions that have to be made on the river:

  1. Value bets
  2. Block bets
  3. Bluffs
  4. Calls


These concepts will now be explained in more detail by means of examples.

1. Value bets

With good made hands our aim is always to maximize profit. This applies in particular to the decisions we have to make on the river due to the above-average pot and bet sizes.

Let's look at a simplified example. We are heads-up on the river and have the nuts, meaning that we have the best possible hand and can no longer be beaten. It is now important to extract as much money from our opponents as possible. What are our options? In theory we can check (and then raise), bet small, make a normal bet (approx. half to the size of the pot) or simply go all-in.

In general we should largely ignore the first two options. If our opponent is not a hyper-aggressive player, then he will check behind on the river too often to make this move profitable. We should also only rarely make a small bet as opponents generally only decide whether they want to call another river bet and not whether to call a big or a small bet. If we are called, the size of the bet seldom makes the difference. The cards are the decisive factor. If we value bet, then we should make a big bet in order to maximize profit.

  • If we have a good made hand on the river, then we should always bet a large amount.

Ideally this should be precisely the maximum amount that our opponent is willing to call. In extreme cases this may mean that we can go all-in immediately

  • Example of a value bet with the nuts

This example hand impressively demonstrates the importance of correctly proportioned value bets on the river. Here we hit our set on a draw-heavy flop () and therefore assume the role of the aggressor.

We are called down by villain 1. The last community card is the and gives us the nuts, meaning that we no longer need to worry about winning – it's simply a case of extracting the maximum amount of money from our opponent. Checking doesn't make much sense here because if villain 1 had a good hand, he would have already shown strength and would have re-raised. With a lot of combinations, from made hands to busted draws, he can often check behind. We therefore decide to make a value bet. We bet as much as possible in order to maximize our profit in case we are called. The pot is 71.5 BBs and the effective stack size is 172.5 BBs. Going all-in straight away is clearly not an option with such big stacks. We make a "normal" bet of 50 BBs, i.e. almost a pot size bet. Our opponent calls and we win a pot of 171.5 BBs, including 50 BBs due to our value bet, meaning that we got more out of the situation than by checking.

The entire situation is however more complicated if we only have a made hand that has some showdown value, but could also be way behind. Here our decision should be based largely on the type of opponent and on the structure of the board. Depending on whether there are enough hands that would pay us off, we should consider whether it is better to end the hand with a bet rather than by checking (or check/call). If we decide to bet, we should always consider whether the stack sizes are big enough to be able to get away from the hand if an opponent raises all-in. If the answer to this question is "no" then we should simply play our hand like the nuts, i.e. we bet and then call the all-in.

In general, such strong hands are also the winning hands in these situations because a lot of opponents will tend to go all-in on the turn with their above-average hands. The reason for this is the fear of certain river cards preventing a large pay-out because they are scare cards and thus make it easier to fold.

  • Example of value betting with a good made hand

We wake up with pocket rockets and raise four times the big blind. Only the big blind calls and we see the flop of: . Now we bet both on the flop and the turn, our opponent calls quickly each time. The river completes the board of: . The opponent checks to us and we now have to decide whether to check behind or make another value bet. After the action of the previous betting rounds, villain 4 won't have a in his hand because in this case he would have gone all-in on the turn. A lot of busted draws or jacks are thus in his range. Consequently, there are not many hands that will beat us: Thus, we should definitely make a value bet in this situation.

But what should we do with marginal hands that we would fold in case of a raise and therefore do not treat them like the nuts? On the one hand we can still check in order to call a bet (depending on the opponent and bet size), on the other hand we can make a block bet, which is often more profitable.

2. Block bets

Here we are also holding a made hand that will often win, but can also lose. We are therefore unsure as to whether we have the best hand, but would like to see a showdown as cheap as possible. When we are in position, we can achieve this with a simple check, but when out of position we may be faced with a bigger bet which could make the whole situation pretty expensive.

So if we're playing out of position and want to see a cheap showdown, we should make a block bet.

The block bet is a small bet to prevent an opponent from making a bigger bet.

We therefore determine the price of the current round of betting, which saves us money by betting less than our opponent would have done. However, we should also consider that this type of bet is most effective against inexperienced players. Strong and experienced players will often recognize block bets and will raise without necessarily having a good hand in order to force us to fold or pay a higher price than we would have paid by playing check/call. The amount is about one third of the pot.

  • Example of a block bet

We are dealt in the big blind. Villain 8 makes a standard raise to three times the big blind from the CO, and we call for set value. The flop is which gives us middle pair and an open-ended straight draw. Here we have the opportunity to play check/raise or to bet depending on our opponent's playing style. We decide to bet our good hand. The turn is the , which gives us a set, but each and will complete the straight and we can also still be beaten by .


We make a bet in order to find out where we stand. If our opponent now raises, we will have a simple fold or call depending on the odds. But villain 8 simply calls and the appears on the river. Now all of the hearts combinations which form a flush and thus the better hand will beat us as well. Nevertheless, our set is still good enough to beat hands such as overpairs or two pair. We can get called by a number of hands here – some will be better and some worse than ours. Our aim is therefore to see a cheap showdown: We therefore make a block bet of approx. one third of the pot.

Now we already know how to proceed when we have the nuts, very good and marginal made hands, so there is one category left: Trash hands, i.e. cards with which we can't win a showdown. The standard line with such hands is of course check/fold, but we still have the opportunity to bluff on the river.

3. Bluffs

Sometimes we need to mix up our game to make it more difficult for our opponents to read us. If we always check bad hands and bet made hands, we offer our opponents too much information, meaning that it is necessary to bluff every once in a while in order to maximize our profit.

Right at the start of this section I would like to point out that we shouldn't over-exaggerate river bluffs. As pots on the river are generally fairly big, failed bluffs can quickly become very expensive. A river bluff must therefore always be thought through.

So what are the situations where a bluff makes sense? This question is hard to answer in general because it always depends on the type of opponent we are up against, the action that took place on the previous streets and the board. In principle we should only bluff with really bad hands that have practically no showdown value.

There are two disadvantages of bluffing with mediocre hands:

  • We could win more chips with the current value of our hand by deploying a more passive approach (check/call) if we keep aggressive players with worse hands in the hand.
  • We run the risk of having to fold a better hand if an opponent decides to bluff raise.

If we choose bad hands to bluff with, it will make our life easier as we can either win the pot immediately in case the opponent folds or we can give up our hand if raised.

  • Example of a bluff

In this hand villain 6 raises pre-flop to three BBs. We have and call hoping to hit a good flop in order to get paid off. The player in the big blind also calls and we see the flop: . We have hit a double gutshot. Villain 6 makes a continuation bet and we call (villain 4 folds). The turn is the – a good scare card that we can use for a semi-bluff after the opponent checked. Unfortunately we are called, but the provides us with another good bluffing opportunity because villain 6 checks again. His turn call has shown that he has an acceptable hand. or a busted draw would be possibilities here.

We can at least be sure that he doesn't have a very good hand since he would have bet on the turn or the river. Only few players check-raise on the river with good hands because they simply fear not getting paid off in case the opponent checks behind. Our opponent therefore shouldn't have hit the as well. In addition he can't really call here with an as he will be beaten by a number of hands and even if he has a flush he could be afraid of a full house. Thus, we make a sizeable bet again to force him to fold.

As in every round of betting there are also a number of criteria both in favour of and against bluffing on the river:

  • If we bluff, we play in exactly the same way we would do if we had a good hand. In other words: We don't adjust our bet size.
  • Our hand has to be logical. A bluff doesn't make sense if there are no logical hands that we could represent.
  • We should never bluff a calling station as we won't have any fold equity.
  • If we have played our draw aggressively with small cards up to the river and not hit, then a bluff may be profitable because our opponent may also have a busted draw. If the opponent has a better busted hand we would lose a showdown, but win the pot with a bet.
  • If our opponents have shown weakness during previous betting rounds, this is another argument in favour of a bluff.
  • Consequently, we shouldn't bluff if our opponents have shown strength.
  • Scare cards on the river will make our bluffs much more credible.

After we have clarified which concepts to use, we come to a more passive play: Calling bets.

4. Calls

We should only call bets on the river with mediocre hands as we should raise with very good hands and fold bad hands. This means that we are dealing with hands that we already looked at in the "block bets" section: Hands with which we can be both ahead or behind.

A typical situation looks as follows: We have an acceptable made hand and the opponent in front of us bets, or we checked out of position and the opponent behind us bets.

Since we don't know whether our hand can win a showdown, we can usually only call or fold. We should avoid raising with such hands because we may have to play for our entire stack.

In these situations our job is to limit the number of hands our opponent can have. To do this we need to answer several questions:

  • Was our opponent on a draw?

Has the action up to now been relatively one-sided, i.e. we bet and the opponent just called, it is very likely that he is on a draw. If the river now completes a draw and the opponent bets, we should generally fold. But if the river card is a rag, i.e. a card that has no apparent impact on the hand, then we should call.

  • Does the opponent represent a logical hand?

When considering a bluff we always have to ask ourselves if we are representing a logical hand – this applies in exactly the same way to our opponents' bets. If a player bets on every street, he will generally have a correspondingly good hand. But if he showed weakness in the meantime and now bets unexpectedly on the river, he is probably bluffing.

  • Have we induced a bluff?

If we checked behind on the turn, for example, in order to induce a bluff from our opponent on the river, we should always call. An induced bluff is always an option if the board is fairly dry, i.e. there are only a few scare cards that would make us fold in this situation.

  • Has the opponent bet on the turn?

As already described, most players with good hands try to build a big pot before the river because bad hands on the river will rarely lead to a lot of action. For this reason aggressive play on the turn is usually a sign of a very good hand.

  • Can we determine the strength of our opponent's hand based on our reads?

The bet size is often a good indicator of whether an opponent has a good or bad hand. A lot of opponents will tend to play good hands differently by either making very small value bets or big overbets. Depending on the type of opponent we can adjust our river calls.

  • Example of a call

Until the turn this example hand was very one-sided: Our opponent calls our pre-flop raise as well as the flop and turn bets.

On a board such as he may have done this with a pocket pair, a , a flush draw or even just with overcards. Our overpair is therefore correspondingly ahead of his range. The river is the - a relatively good card for us as it doesn't really change anything.

Villain 7 now bets into us, which is highly suspicious. If he had a strong hand, then why didn't he raise before the river? Thus, he isn't representing a logical hand that would beat ours. His story is therefore implausible so we call. We also call if we should still play with big stacks and if the opponent, as in this case, has gone all-in. A raise wouldn't make much sense here as only better hands would call us.

Now the theory of river play is completely explained. In the second part we will look at how to practically implement the theory both in and out of position by means of several examples.