The river is home to some of the toughest decisions you will make—hero calls, triple barrel bluffs, agonizing folds and everything in between. And with the pot size at its largest on the river, a great call can make your session, while a mistimed bluff could cost you your stack.
Today we’ll discuss 4 tips for smooth sailing on the river, which have been gleaned from content in Ryan Fee’s Upswing Lab module on river play. The first two tips are fundamental and the final two are on the advanced side.
Let’s dive in!
1. Practice defining ranges away from the table
Every player’s range is shaped by their previous actions. Consequently, by the time a player reaches the river their range will be at its most defined.
You should always be ‘ranging’ your opponent(s) on each street. Take a mental note of everything: their position at the table, their pre-flop and post-flop actions, their bet sizings, how they respond to bets from others, etc.
Generally, the more aggressive action there has been, the narrower (and stronger) an opponent’s range should be. And in spots where play has been passive, their range will be wider (and weaker).
A helpful way to range opponents is by asking yourself questions after your opponent makes a decision. Questions like:
- What does my opponent’s preflop range look like?
- Which hands would my opponent c-bet vs check back in position?
- Is my opponent’s range capped when they don’t c-bet the turn?
Questions like these will get you in the habit of accurately ranging your opponents, which will make your river decisions easier to make.
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It’s important to note, however, that you should avoid thinking in a definitive way when ranging opponents. For example, let’s say you’ve 3-bet from the big blind versus a button open-raise and the button called. While it is sensible to think that your opponent is not likely to have AA in their range based on the action, it would be incorrect to think that they never have it.
Remember: Players behave differently at the table, and good players in tough games will mix up their frequencies to keep their opponents guessing. Assuming that an opponent can ‘never have hand X’, or ‘always has hand Y’ based on some set of actions can be dangerous, and could potentially cause you to make the wrong decision.
2. Use pot odds when calling and betting
Pot odds are especially crucial on the river to guide your decision-making.
Since there is no more action after the river, pot odds provide a more precise metric for calling/folding, as opposed to the flop and turn, where implied odds, non-zero equities and wider ranges are at play. This is why you’ll often hear pros say on the river, “I need to be right x% of the time to call, here.”
Pot odds are expressed as a ratio, such as 2-to-1, which can be converted into a percentage — 33% in this instance. However, calculating pot odds using ratios is a somewhat messy, multi-step process. We prefer to use a formula that doesn’t require converting a ratio to a percentage.
To calculate how often you need to have the best hand when calling on the river, use this simple and quick formula:
(Opponent’s bet size / Total pot size if bet is called) * 100
For example, suppose you face a $30 bet into a $50 pot on the river. You would need to have the best hand versus your opponent’s range more than 27.3% of the time to make a profitable call (30 / (50 pot + 30 bet + 30 call) * 100).
A similar formula can be used to determine how often a bluff needs to work in order to turn a profit:
(Bet size / Current pot size, including the bet) * 100
Suppose you bet $30 into a $50 pot on the river as a bluff. In this case, you would need your opponent to fold more than 37.5% for your bluff to be profitable.
Take some time to work through more examples like these with different bet sizes. Here’s a few to get you started (click “show” when you’re ready for each answer):
Q1. Villain bets $150 into a $300 pot on the river. How frequently do you need to have the best hand to profitably call?
Q2. Villain bets $750 into a $1,000 pot on the river. How frequently do you need to have the best hand to profitably call?
Q3. You bet $85 into a $150 pot on the river as a bluff. How frequently must Villain fold for your bluff to profit?
Before long, calculating pot odds will become second-nature, which will refine your decision-making on the river.
3. Focus on card removal when bluffing the river
Card removal (a.k.a. blockers) is a factor on every street, but it’s less of a priority on the flop and turn because, when there are still cards to come, we focus more on bluffing with hands that have equity versus a calling range. This consideration is irrelevant on the river, since our bluffs will have 0% equity when called.
Another reason that removal is most important on the river is that it proportionately impacts our opponent’s range. Because ranges are more defined and narrower on the river than they are on the flop and turn, blocking a select few combinations of hands becomes much more significant. As always, we want to bluff with hands that likely remove value combinations from our opponent’s range.
Removal can also play a role when we’re calling on the river, albeit a much less significant one. Primarily, we’ll decide whether to call with our hand based on its equity. In more marginal spots, however, we should consider the removal effects of our hand, and call with those that best block our opponent’s value-betting range.
For more on this topic, take a look at this piece from Ryan Fee. It provides an in-depth look at bluffing with blockers on the river.
4. Consider firing an overbet when your range is polarized
Betting ranges on the river are usually polarized. Since equity denial is no longer relevant, medium-strength hands are bet strictly for value, with no protection benefits.
Incorporating an over-betting strategy in polarized spots is an excellent way to get maximum value with our strongest hands and to push as much fold equity as possible with our bluffs. Specifically, we should overbet when it’s unlikely that our opponent has a strong hands in their range that beats our value overbet range.
For example, Doug Polk had this prime overbet spot heads-up vs Ben “Sauce123” Sulsky at $50/$100, and it also highlights the card removal concept we discussed in tip #3:
$50/$100 on PokerStars. $14,600 Effective Stacks.
Doug is in the big blind with
Sauce123 raises to $250. Doug calls
Flop ($500) 9♦ 6♦ 5♦
Doug checks. Sauce123 checks.
Turn ($500) J♣
Doug checks. Sauce123 checks.
River ($500) 3♥
Doug checks. Sauce123 bets $323. Doug raises to $14,000. Sauce123 folds.
As long as Doug chooses his bluffs carefully (over-bluffing would be a very easy mistake to make with so many A♦Xx to choose from), this is an awesome spot for a massive overbet. Doug would reach this river with at least 5 value combos–A♦2♦ through A♦8♦–and Sauce123 will almost never have a flush after checking back twice (most players will literally never have a flush on this river).
Check out this article for some more real-world over-betting examples.
That’s all for today!
Drop any questions, comments or suggestions for future articles in the comments section below!
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