Dipping in the River

The river is where your Poker hand, both literally and figuratively, all goes down. Good luck! We hope you win.

Final Betting

From a pure theory point of view, the river card is very different from all the others in that your hand is determined. The card distribution is over and now it’s just a matter of figuring out who has the best hand.

Well, almost. There is this little final betting detail left.

Fifth street is probably most akin to pre-flop action, in that it’s the place where occasionally you’ll see the bets really stack up. The variations mean that the river can take on a few different betting personalities, ranging from a nice quiet beer float trip to a life-threatening white-knuckle shoot through Class IV rapids.

All-checking, no dancing

Usually rivers are checked all the way around for one of three reasons:

The board is threatening (for example, five hearts or a full house is showing).

Extreme betting early on has caused people to back off (especially if the draws people were shooting for didn’t come through).

Players’ hole cards just missed the community cards entirely. (This is especially common when it’s only the blinds that were left in the hand.)

If you’re in a later betting position and everyone is checking, this can be a very good time to pick up a pot. In fact, your ability to pick up the stray pot in these situations may very well make the difference between being a winning and losing player. If you consider the action you’ve seen in the hand up until now and take into account the types of opponents that are still in the hand, you can then decide whether to check or bet in the following circumstances:

If there was heavy action and raising surrounding a flop with two of the same suit (say, J♣ 8♣ 3♥), but things have since cooled off, you may well be looking at a broken flush. Fire a bet out if you have a pair that matches the middle rank of the community cards or higher.

If the only people in the hand are the blinds, make a bet if you have any pair.

If someone has been betting heavily up to this point but suddenly backs away from betting on the river, they probably will not check-raise you (this is much more of an expert play), and instead have been bluffing by over-betting. Make a bet if you have middle pair or better; or you believe there is a better than 50/50 chance your opponent will fold.

If all else fails, or if you get flustered, or if you’re just filled with doubt, check. It doesn’t cost you anything.

Walking through the firestorm

Sometimes the river is the place where people sort of go insane and just start hurling bets at each other. You only want to get mixed up in this madness if you either have the nut (maybe second nut) hand, or the player you’re up against is known to be looser than a broken jar of pennies in the bed of a pickup truck on a gravel road.

The most important thing you can do in this situation is make sure you’re reading the board correctly. Make sure you’re not getting caught up in a situation where your good hand is blinding you to bigger possibilities. Because pots can grind up so high over the course of a hand, one mistake here can wipe out an entire week’s (or more) worth of Poker winnings. Here are but a few examples that I’ve seen people self- destruct on:

You’ve hit the nut flush on a board of 1010962with A9. Started off pretty good with two pair, and then you runner-runnered into the nut flush. Don’t get so wrapped up with your flush that you ignore the full house possibilities here. A common starting hand, especially from late position, is 9-10. Likewise, anyone tripping his pocket 2s, 6s, or 9s is sitting full. For sure you should call any bets, but don’t raise and reraise. If people seem really eager to move any money into the pot, just call.

You trip on the board, holding a singleton. For example, the board is Q♦ K♦ K♥ 7♠ 6♥ and you’re holding K♣ J♣. Yes, you’ve got trip kings, but anyone who’s tripped up with a pair (Q-Q, 7-7, 6-6), now has a full house.

You play into a gapped straight like so: You hold Q-9 and the board shows K-J-10-2-4. The good news is you’re holding a king-high straight. The bad news is A-Q is a bigger straight than yours. Good slow-players love these kinds of set-ups. For some reason, the gapped straights are easier to be fooled by than holding 6-7 with a board of 10-9-8 because it’s so obvious there’s another possibility (J-Q) on top.

Yes, you might look at these hands right now and say, “Yeah, yeah, whatever,” quickly blowing off the advice we’re giving. Unfortunately in the passion of betting — especially big betting — when you have a hand that’s made, it becomes remarkably easy to overlook another (better) hand. And if you do overlook another hand, you will not only pay, but pay dearly.

The telltale sign on No-Limit games on the river is if someone raises you the minimal amount, instead of pushing all-in, and (especially) if she does it again when reraised. What’s happening here is the other player knows she has the nut hand and she’s trying to maximize her return on the hand — she’s afraid that if she pushes all-in, she’ll lose equity in the hand by your folding.

Betting in moderation

The most common thing to see on the river is a bet, maybe two, with people deciding if they’re going to call. If a bet has been made in front of a player deciding to act, unless he’s one of the world’s great actors, what he’s always doing is looking at the board and answering the following questions, probably in order:

What was the betting pattern of the person who placed the initial bet throughout the hand?

How does the pattern apply to the position of that player relative to the dealer (the cards the bettor would have started with) and the cards I see on the board?

What kind of player am I up against? Loose, tight, aggressive?
Can the hand I’m holding right now beat the hand I think this person has?

These are the steps you should be going through as well, but the reason we talk about watching someone else do them is it can give you a very good feel for the strength of her hand as she makes the decision. For some reason, even very top players will drop their emotionless facade on fifth street, sometimes even if there are players still to act behind them. And if you’re acting even later than the person considering, you have the ability to make an even better read on the overall power of your hand.

As a general rule, it takes a better hand to call than it does to make a bet. The more people calling, the better your hand has to be to win.

Deciding if you’re being bluffed

A savvy player, especially if he’s aggressive, or if he senses weakness in an opponent, will do exactly one thing when the river has determined he has a crappy hand: Bet. That is the only possible way to save the money that he’s already put in the pot.

You now know this. The catch, of course, is that the person betting will also bet when he has a hand. So how do you know which is which? Again, the most important thing is to consider the player and ask yourself the following questions:

Is this person prone to bluffing?

How long has it been since this guy bluffed and does it seem like it’s time again?

Is there something very clearly wrong on the board or the cards that would hint at a bluff (like two cards to a flush or a straight that never materialized, or possibly a low-ball board such that someone holding two large pocket cards would never have paired)?

Even if you’ve determined that you believe your opponent is bluffing, you still have to be able to beat his “non”-hand. Any reasonable pair should be plenty.

The generally accepted rule is that you should look at the pot odds of your call. If there’s $36 in the pot, and it costs you $6 to call, you can ask yourself if you think there’s better than a one-in-six chance that you’re being bluffed, and if so, call. And whatever you do, make sure to keep track of whether you were right or wrong against that player. Because even when you guess wrong, there may well be something in what happened that will keep you from making that mistake again.

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