Playing the River

By Tom "TIME" Leonard

One could say the turn represents the home stretch and the river the finish line. When you’ve arrived at the finish line your hand is fully realized – there are no more cards to come. Utilizing your knowledge of your opponents, your hand reading skills, a review of the betting and the value of your hand in relation to the board, you need to decide if you have a winner.

If you have arrived on the river without much of a hand and were not on a flush or straight draw you might want to evaluate how this happened. Taking stock and deciding to tighten up on earlier streets in the future is never a bad idea.

If you believe you have the best hand you further need to decide how you can make the most of it by winning as much as possible. If you determine you don’t have the winner you need to make an assessment as to whether you can still make it the winner or if discretion and folding to find a better spot is the most judicious course of action.

Let’s examine in more detail certain elements that must be reviewed once you’ve arrived at the river.

The Maximum Value Bet

The term “value bet” is often misused, referring to a small bet into a large pot. It has value because the small bet size will induce an opponent to call. However, if you are doing this you are losing money in the long run. To truly place a value bet means you are extracting maximum value from the hand based on what your opponent thinks you have.

Let’s do a quick math exercise to explain. Let’s say you bet $100 into a $500 chip pot and expect to get called 90% of the time. So in 100 hands, you would make $9,000 (100 x 100 x 0.90). Now, instead let’s bet $250 into that $500 pot. It’s hard to tell whether you are bluffing or not. You certainly won’t get called as much, but it’s realistic that you will get called at least 60% of the time depending on how the hand was played. So $250 x 100 hands x 0.60 = $15,000.

Chart for sizing value bets on the river

That is $6,000 more chips that you earn over 100 hands simply by increasing the size of your bet.

So when it comes to the river and you have a potentially winning hand, you should be thinking about value betting – which is essential to your profit margins. Even when you have a great hand it’s not as easy as – “I know I have the best hand and I know I can get paid off”. More frequently you will possess a medium strength hand and have questions as to how to proceed. Here is a check list to consider as you get ready to either lead out with a bet or respond to an opponent’s bet or check.

  • Will you get called? There is always risk when initiating a bet, so if you believe that the likelihood of a call is remote it usually is better to check the hand down.
  • Will your opponent check a hand that beats you? If your value bet is a thin one at best, you often are only thinking you’re value betting when, in reality, your opponent has induced you to bluff.
  • Will your opponent check raise? The answer to this question obviously lies in your knowledge of your opponent.
  • Will he check raise bluff? If you are against a savvy opponent and betting very thin you could invite trouble. If your savvy foe reads you as weak he may well attempt to move you off your hand with a raise.
  • If you check will it induce a bluff? Many times, especially with medium strength hands, a check to induce a bet/bluff is the best and safest way to go.


Know your intended victim’s strengths, frailties and most importantly his impression of you. There are times you realize the only way you can win on the river is with a bluff. This is usually the result of a missed draw. Now you need to be able to read your opponent to determine if he has a hand which he will feel compelled to call or if he can be encouraged to muck.

The best poker players to bluff on the end are better players who think they have you all figured out and believe you don’t have it in you to bluff on the end. These are the players that have watched you show down quality hand after quality hand when you’ve been called at the river. They think they’re smart enough to save money on the end when you make that river bet. Occasionally offering these players the opportunity to show how smart they are can be profitable.

Laying Down Hands

If you’re a skilled poker player then you are able to make smart laydowns. Some players cannot bring themselves to release good hands. They get too emotionally attached and make the nonsensical rationalization that they have too much of their own money in the pot. Money that is already in the pot is no longer in your possession. In fact, if you never lay down a winner then you are playing too loose. Poker values are situational and you must look at each situation with brutal honesty in order to maximize your profit with your winning hands and minimize losses with losing hands.

The real key to being able to make big laydowns is to keep them to yourself. We’ve all seen the dandy that wants to bask in his own perceived brilliance by showing the table just what a top notch player he is by showing everyone the big laydown he just made. Those demonstrations represent an out of control ego.

Not only is the momentary gratification not worth it but it invites trouble for the future. That trouble comes from observant opponents who attempt more bluffs against you. Make your laydowns and keep your poker image intact.

Risk vs. Reward

Risk versus reward should always be in the forefront of your thoughts at the no-limit hold’em table. One miscue and potentially your whole stack can disappear. Players who regularly seek out small edges in no-limit hold’em come to regret their greed. While often is the case that the spoils go to the bold – always weigh the risk versus the reward.


The river affords you the opportunity to put to good use all the information gathering you’ve performed through observation. If you’re in a quandary as to the value of your hand, tend to call the tricky loose players and give the tighter, solid players credit for a good holding instead of your chips. If you do fold and find out that you folded the winner learn from it and don’t beat yourself up.

Poker playing experience and observational skills are paramount to success on the green felt. Poker is a game of situational values. It is relatively easy to play both monster hands and junk. The one you bet to the hilt and the other you muck. The vast majority of the hands you will play will be somewhere between these two ends of the spectrum. There is no magic formula to easy success but my advice is to pay attention and gain playing experience. As you become more and more experienced you will be amazed at how you can “see” things that you never realized were there.

By Tom "TIME" Leonard

Tom has been writing about poker since 1994 and has played across the USA for over 40 years, playing every game in almost every card room in Atlantic City, California and Las Vegas.