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Value-Betting the River

You have to keep punching on the river

by Ed Miller |  Published: Oct 03, 2008


The river really separates the pros from the amateurs. I don't mean that pros tremble in fear of the river card while amateurs gleefully plan their latest bad beat. Quite the opposite, as the river is probably the betting round where pro players generate the greatest edge over their amateur adversaries.

Amateur players tend not to bet enough hands for value on the river, and that error cripples them in two ways. First, they don't win big enough pots with their good hands. The river bet is often the biggest bet of the hand, and when amateur players check down hands they should be betting, they win medium pots when they should be winning huge pots.

Second, amateurs can't bluff as effectively when they don't value-bet to balance their strategy. If I know a player likes to check down good hands like top pair or a medium-sized two pair, I use that knowledge against him when he does bet. I know that his range is very polarized – either he has a real monster or he's bluffing. He doesn't have anything in the middle because he checks those hands down. This knowledge presents me with some slam-dunk opportunities to snap off bluffs. If I know that in a certain situation, someone would bet only a full house or nothing, when he bets, he'll usually be bluffing. After all, it's a lot easier to have nothing than it is to have a boat.

Betting From Out of Position

Many players get very timid on the river. If they have a hand like a decent pair, they'll check and just hope the hand gets checked down. Imagine if you were a boxer and your strategy for the last few rounds was just to cower in the corner and hope you didn't get punched. You'd get picked apart. You might make it through some fights, but in others, your opponent would seize the opportunity, find the right punch, and knock you out.

Checking the river too often also will get you picked apart. Sometimes your opponent will check and you'll get to see a showdown. You might even win some pots. But other times, your opponent will bet, and the bet will be on his terms, to his advantage. You'll get bluffed off the best hand. Or, you'll pay off better hands. Over time, this passive strategy gives your opponents too much leeway, and you'll pay for it.

You have to keep punching on the river. Sometimes you'll get knocked out anyway, but sometimes you'll land a good punch yourself. An active strategy makes you a much tougher target.

Making Blocking Bets

Making blocking bets is one way that you can stay more active when out of position. Blocking bets are small bets, usually around a quarter to half the size of the pot. If the pot on the river is $100, for instance, you might bet out for $30 or $35. Blocking bets do two things for you: They help you get paid by worse hands, and they set the price of a showdown.

Let's say you have A-9 on a J-9-5-4-8 board and check the river. Your opponent might check behind with hands weaker than yours and bet $70 with better hands and some bluffs, so you feel compelled to call. This strategy wins you nothing when you're ahead and loses you a good bit when you're behind.

Now let's say you bet out for $35. Your opponent calls with both weaker and stronger hands. You're winning something from worse hands and not losing as much to the better hands. By "setting the price" of a showdown at $35, you take away much of your opponent's positional advantage.

Blocking bets are an effective tool, but they do have some downsides. If you make blocking bets only when you want to see a cheap showdown, you give good players too much information about your hand, and they can use it against you. Also, if your hand is really fairly hopeless, sometimes just checking and folding is better than trying a blocking bet.

Betting Scare Cards

Adding blocking bets to your strategy isn't the only way you can be more active when out of position. You also should bet some scare cards.

Let's say you flop a set and bet the flop and turn. Your opponent calls both streets. The pot is $400, and you and your opponent both have $200 left in your stacks. The river brings the third heart. You know that your opponent easily could have been drawing to the flush. Shove all in anyway.

The short explanation is that if you check, you let your opponent off the hook with top pair or two pair, but you usually end up paying off the flush anyway. Whereas, if you shove all in yourself, you pay off the flush, but get paid off by the weaker hands. Checking has you winning a little or losing a lot. Shoving has you winning a lot or losing a lot. You're better off playing the latter strategy.

The stack sizes were key in this example. The pot was $400 and there was only $200 left in your stack, so you'd likely be committed with a set no matter what. If you had $1,000 left, the situation would be considerably trickier, and the best play might depend on your history with your opponent.

Recently, I played a hand in which I shoved all in on a scary river card. I had opened for $10 in an online $1-$2 game with A-Q from three off the button. A new player who had posted in the cutoff called, as did the big blind. The flop came A-9-3 with two diamonds. I bet $25, and the player in the cutoff called.

The turn was an offsuit ace. I bet $70, and the cutoff called. The pot was $221 going to the river, and we each had $95 left.

The river was the 2, completing the possible flush. I shoved for $95 and got called. My opponent had 9-5, and I won a big pot from my opponent who had flopped middle pair and went with it.

Obviously, some percentage of the time I could expect my opponent to have the flush. But if I had checked the river, I would have paid off an all in bet. So, I was likely going to lose the maximum to a flush no matter what I did. By shoving all in, I won an extra $95 from a hand that almost certainly would have taken a free showdown if I had offered it. That's the benefit of betting aggressively for value.

Ed is a featured coach at Also check out his online poker advice column, He has authored four books on poker, most recently, Professional No-Limit Hold'em: Volume 1.