river strategy tips

5 Tips for Playing the River | Upswing Poker Level-Up #33




This article is a transcription of the Level-Up Podcast, hosted by Upswing VP Mike Brady with Gary Blackwood. You can watch or listen to the entire episode via the links above or read on if you prefer a written version.

Mike (00:00):

The river is when the pot is at its biggest. That means good plays are heavily rewarded and mistakes are magnified. Let’s spend a little time Leveling Up your poker strategy so you make better decisions on this extremely consequential street. My name is Mike Brady, alongside Scottish poker pro, Gary Blackwood.

Gary (00:19):

What’s up guys? We’re going to give you five tips for how to improve your river EV. We’re going to focus on things like blockers, splitting your range, going thin for value over folding, under folding. If you want to improve on the river, this is the podcast for you.

Mike (00:32):

And if you want your bluffs to work more often and your strong hands to bring in as many chips as possible, listen closely to tips number three and number five.

Tip #1. Bet Thinly for Value, Especially in Small Pots!

So Mr. Blackwood, what is your first tip for playing rivers in no limit, Holdem?

Gary (00:47):

So the first thing that we’re going to talk about today is betting thinner for value. It is so important that we’re going for value really often with hands that might feel a little ambitious to value bet in the right spots.

I’m specifically talking about single raised pots where your opponent has capped their range by checking the flop and checking the turn, or they’ve bet the flop and then checked on the turn and we arrive to the river with a hand like second pair, third pair, even fourth pair in a variety of situations, these hands might feel a little thin to bet, but it’s really important we’re betting them in the right circumstances and getting thin value.

Even in three bet pots, your opponent can check the flop and check the turn. It’s very clear you’ve got the best hand. Let’s go ahead and bet that third pair for value and get called by Ace High, all the weird and wonderful combinations that our opponent can call us with. These thin value bets add up so much over time. This tip is especially useful for live players. There are generally lots of value to be had while playing live when people have capped themselves and these small thin river value bets, they all add up.

Mike (01:47):

We’ll jump into a quick example. So suppose the button raises to $15 in a $2/$5 game and you call from the big blind. It doesn’t really matter what your cards are yet. The flop is 9 8 3 rainbow and both players check the turn is a 2 bringing a full rainbow to the board, no flush draws and both players check again, the river 5 completes the 9 8 3 2 5 board.

Think for a second. What’s the worst hand you’d value bet in this spot as the big blind having faced those two checks from that button, pre-flop raiser. Think about it for one second. Pause the podcast if you need a moment, then we’re going to go ahead and reveal the answer.

Gary (02:25):

So the worst hand that we should be value betting here is pocket fours. For a lot of us that might feel extremely ambitious, but if you really think about it, your opponent might have some better hands, maybe some pocket sevens, pocket sixes, but there’s so many combos like Ace King, Ace Queen, Ace three, Ace deuce, all these types of hands that can call our value bet that are worse than ours.

So our pocket fours, so much of our 5x our pocket sixes, pocket sevens, all of our 8x, all of our 9x, we should be betting really thinly here at equilibrium, IE how often the solver wants to bet and as mentioned, some of us this will feel unbelievably thin, but if you really think about it, your opponent rarely has a better hand and there are quite a few combos in your opponent’s range that can call your bet. So we want to be going really thin here, the worst hand pocket fours all the way through up to our really strong hands.

Mike (03:15):

Gary and I were discussing this example before we started recording and we talked about how a lot of players won’t even bet with some of their eights on this 9 8 3 2 5 board. They’ll just check a hand like eight seven or even Ace eight in some extreme circumstances and that is just leaving so much value on the table and if you’re one of the players who is checking a hand as strong as pocket sixes here or even a hand as strong as Ace five, you are leaving a lot of money on the table.

Yes, occasionally you’re going to bet the pocket fours or you’re going to bet the Ace five and they’re going to call with pocket sixes and you might lose a little bit extra than what you would’ve lost if you checked and maybe they checked behind, but a lot of times they’re just going to have Ace high. A lot of times they’re going to have a two or three or a worse five if you have Ace five and you give them that chance to make a losing call, which is a profitable endeavor for you, especially when they’re so, so rarely going to have you beat.

Tip #2. Fight for Small Pots!

Let’s move on to your second tip for River play. Take it away.

Gary (04:14):

Let’s look now at the other side of the coin from the previous tip, these small pots that nobody seems to want. Let’s get out there and start to vacuum them up with some of the bigger bet sizes IE around 75% pots, sometimes an over bet if necessary, we’ll delve a little more into the sizes in due course. The best players in the world are masters at just picking up these pots that nobody seems to want with their complete air balls. Hands like 10 high can’t always be checked down. You should hoover up these small pots and be aggressive force people to make a tough decision with their fourth pairs, their fifth pairs, their ace highs when we’ve got nada.

Mike (04:47):

I love the switch between vacuum and hoover there really balancing your range. Let’s look at an example for fighting for small pots. So the button raises to $15 at $2/$5 and you call from the big blind. This is actually going to be the exact same example as the previous one.

We’re just going to talk about the other side of the coin and which hands we bluff with. The flop is 9 8 3, both players check, the turn is the 2 of diamonds bringing a complete rainbow and both players check again. Finally, the river 5 completes the 9 8 3 2 5 board once again. Think for a second again, you can pause the podcast if you please, what would you bluff with here? What are some of the hands you would bluff with? How frequently would you bluff with them? Give that a moment, mull it over and Gary’s going to go ahead and reveal the answer right about now.

Gary (05:36):

A variety of combos, the really weak parts of your range that unblock your opponents folds and we’ll talk about what I mean by that in just a few seconds. Hands like J6, 74. Remember the board is 9 8 3 2 5 – K6, Q4. Basically everything that’s worse than K6 should be bluffed very, very often some of those combos that I’ve are pure bets and if we’re the type of player that’s just checking it down with our king six suited in the hope that we’re good or we’re just being very passive and we’re not fighting for these pots, we want to change that immediately and start to be a lot more aggressive with these weak jack highs and queen highs and all these types of airball hands that want to be bluffing. We absolutely should be using these as bluffs. I did mention un blockers a few seconds ago.


We don’t bluff with hands like king jack, which have marginal showdown value and plus they block the types of hands that we’re trying to make fold. We wouldn’t bluff with a hand like ace seven here because again, it’s got reasonable showdown value and our ace blocks a lot of hands like Ace King, Ace Queen that we’re trying to make fold. So the marginal showdown hands like the strong king highs and most of the ace highs they just want to check down, but a lot of our weak hands like J6 and 74 really important we’re being aggressive with these on the river in this scenario and trying to hoover up these small pots.

Mike (06:52):

This combines really well with the first tip about thin value betting to create a really aggressive strategy that your opponents are going to struggle to play against. Think about if you’re the type of player who’s not finding those thin value bets and is also not finding these bluffs.

What that often means is you are going to be checking this river extremely often. You’re only going to be betting when you have an eight or better. You’re only going to be bluffing when you have seven high and those hands that are clearly, clearly never going to win at showdown and that’s going to result in you betting the river something like 15, 20% of the time, which means your opponent’s going to just get to check back, realize all their equity and have a super easy life. They can kick their feet up on the table and know that you are not going to put them in tough spots.


But if you’re the player who’s going to bet pocket fours, you’re going to bet 5x, you’re going to bet pocket sixes, you’re going to bet every eight and nine and then along with that you’re going to bluff with a bunch of king highs and queen highs that don’t have showdown value.

You’re going to bluff with the seven highs, the jack highs, the 10 highs. All of a sudden you’re betting this river pretty damn frequently with a quite balanced range and your opponent is going to be on their back foot. They’re going to be left guessing and they’re not going to be able to just simply check back and get to showdown and win the pot as much as they want to. You want to be that aggressive player who’s putting them in tough spots and if you follow these first two tips, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

Tip #3. Leverage Blockers to Make Your Bluffs More Effective in Narrow Range Spots

Let’s move on. Gary, what have you got planned for your third tip for playing the river?

Gary (08:20):

So we’ve spoken about some great tips for smaller pots. Let’s start to talk about bigger pots. My third tip here is everyone’s favorite buzzword: blockers. People put too much emphasis on their blockers in smaller pots where ranges are much wider, blockers are not as important as you might think when ranges are really wide and diluted, but in bigger pots like three bet and four bet pots, they become much more important and you want to really focus on the types of blockers that you have or the types of blockers that you don’t have.

Let’s say you’ve three bet pre flop with Ace Queen of spades in the small blind versus the button the flop is K72 with two spades. You bet the flop you get called the turn is an offsuit 10. You’ve got a really nice candidate to continue barreling on the turn you’ve got a big draw so you bet again and your opponent calls again.


The river is a total brick. Do you want to follow through and shove this hand on the river? The answer is definitely not. Your ace of spades blocks a lot of hands that your opponent is going to call on the flop call on the turn and then fold on the river. Your queen of spades as well. You’ve got two really bad blockers here so your hand just wants to give up.

Now, a hand like ace three of spades isn’t as bad to bluff because yes, you’ve got the ace of spades, which isn’t ideal, but the three of spades doesn’t block anything you’re trying to make fold. We’ve got many, many better candidates to bluff on the river here. Hands like queen jack of diamonds, we block king queen, we block king jack. We don’t block the flush draw that we’re trying to make fold. So when it comes to bluffing, really think about your blockers and your unblockers.


Another very quick example here, same scenario if the flop is jack of clubs, jack of diamonds, four of spades, a hand like queen ten of hearts is a really nice triple barrel here because you block combos like queen jack suited and jack ten suited that can call you down and you unblock the marginal hands like ace high and pocket sevens, which are more likely to fold in your opponent’s range. So let’s really think about our bluffing candidates and which ones work better and which ones don’t work as well because of the blockers or the unblockers that we hold.

Mike (10:18):

I want to reiterate something to make sure it didn’t get lost. When ranges are wider, blockers are less important because the ranges are super wide, so blocking a few combos here and there just doesn’t make that big of a difference. They have so many other combos that they can call with or whatever, but in bigger pots where multiple streets of betting have occurred, your opponent’s range has continued to narrow.

First they called the pre-flop three bet, then they called your flop bet, then they called your turn bet. All of the sudden their range on the river is very small. It’s only a handful of hands in some cases and when that’s the case, when your opponent’s range is really narrow, blocking just one crucial hand will actually make your bluff work considerably more often or unblocking one particular hand that they might call with will make your value


bets get called significantly more often, so keep that in mind. When ranges are narrow blockers become more valuable. And if you just mess around with any range construction tool, something like Lucid GTO, which is coming out soon on Upswing poker or even a simple tool like pokerstove or poker Equilab, you can see on rivers how few combos players will have after they’ve called multiple streets, say they have a range that’s a total of 32 combos and if you have a certain hand it makes them only have 28 combos and the four combos you blocked are value hands. All of the sudden your bluff is going to work a lot more often. Their range went from 32 to 28 hands. That’s a big difference.

Tip #4. Bluff-catching Tends to Work Well in Small Pots, But You Can Over-Fold in Big Pots

Moving on now, Gary, what is your fourth tip for playing the river like a pro?

Gary (11:52):

We’ve just spoken about bluffing the river. Let’s talk about calling the river in general. I think a really good exploitative piece of advice is that you want to call relatively wide in smaller pots like single raised pots button versus big blind where the button c-bets and then they check the turn and then they stab the river. Your second and your third pairs, these hands are okay to call with versus the right types of players. It’s a myth that people don’t bluff enough and I really do believe that in pots that are on the smaller sides, people bluff quite often because it’s a small pot that’s less scary to them to bluff for 13, 14 big blinds, something like that. So don’t be afraid to make some light calls in smaller pots with the right types of hands where people are going to feel more comfortable bluffing.


On the flip side, in larger pots where people three bet pre flop or they four bet, then they bet the flop and they bet the turn and they’re shoving their whole stack on the river. You are much better off tightening up and slightly over folding in these spots. This is a spot where I’m very happy to fold my marginal bluff catchers and only call my stronger hands. People feel much less comfortable bluffing it off for all their chips in big pots than they would do betting in small or medium-sized pots.

So here we can exploitatively tighten up and just call the stronger parts of our range and bluff catch less. Having said that, we all know the types of players in our games who are super aggressive or we’ve got a really splashy rec who loves to bluff. We of course do not tighten up versus these guys and we can make some thinner calls overall, but for the most part versus your ABC players that you play against, they don’t feel comfortable bluffing for all the chips in the bigger pots and we want to exploit that by tightening up and folding our bluff catchers.

Mike (13:27):

As Alex Foxen once said, phenomenal player, phenomenal advice here. “Use folding as a weapon” against weaker players who aren’t willing to put in those bluffs.

Tip #5. Split Your Range Between Two Different Sizes on the River

Gary, let’s wrap this thing up. Hit us with your fifth and final tip for playing rivers.

Gary (13:43):

So the last thing we’re going to talk about is splitting our range. Now this is a fancy term for having a couple of different sizes on the river. So the way that poker works is you open pre-flop on the button and the big blind calls, the flop comes down ABC. You look at that board and you have one size with the range that wants to bet. You generally wouldn’t have a small size and a big size, you can if you want, but the difference in EV is absolutely minimal. So you’re better off just having one size on the flop, on the turn, one size. However, when we arrive at the river, you’ll generally want to have a small size and a large size. That small size will be 33% when we’re out of position, 50% when you’re in position, those types of second and third pairs that we spoke about earlier and your really weak top pairs in certain situations. And then you’ll want to have the larger bet size to go with the stronger parts of your range, your sets, your straights, your flushes and so on.


This is really important, particularly that smaller size because if we want to bet hands like third pair, we can’t really do that if we just have one size of 75%. We need this small size to allow us to bet really wide with these thin hands which all add up. Now you might think that having two sizes lead you to be unbalanced and it’s of course important for you to put some strong hands in your small bet size. Not always, but sometimes. The two types of really strong hands that go into your small bet size will be 1. Nutted hands like T8 on 9 6 2 7 3 or a nut flush, second flush type hands. The reason for this is that when you bet small, your opponent should raise your small bet a lot, so it’s super nice for us to induce that raise and then shove it in their face with our nutted hand. The second type of hand that you can bet small with to balance your range is a hand that blocks your opponent’s calls. So on a board like Q 9 3 7 2, I’ll never bet small with pocket threes, I don’t block anything I’m trying to get called by. That’s a great hand to go into my really big size, but a hand like Q9 on Q 9 3 7 2 where we block the queen, we block the nine. Not always, but sometimes that’s a nice hand for us to put into our small bet size.

Mike (15:45):

Yeah, I think splitting your range on the river and probably splitting ranges in general between multiple sizes is something that a lot of our listeners are not super experienced with. So I think it’ll be helpful to kind of run through both of those examples that you talked about briefly there. So let’s put some specificity to those examples. Talk about how we might go about building our small bet range and our big bet range on those boards. So first one, let’s say it’s $2/$5, again, you reach the river with $60 in the pot and the board is 9 6 2 7 3 and let’s say a flush is possible. It was 9 6 2 rainbow, turns 7 of hearts brings a flush draw and the river 3 of hearts completing a flush. Maybe you c-bet on the flop, maybe you call the turn probe. It really doesn’t matter what the action is. The important thing is the action has checked to you on the river, $60 in the pot and you’re deciding to build two different betting ranges. That small bet range, Gary, what is that going to look like?

Gary (16:38):

So in this specific scenario when we’re in position or out of position more so when you’re out of position, you want to bet a lot with your second pairs, your third pairs, you’re going to have some of your flushes or straights for value. Again, it is quite important to be balanced in this node and we’re obviously going to balance this with some bluffs. We can put a variety of bluffs into our range here depending on how we arrive to the river. But looking at this board, we’ve got plenty of bluffs to choose from. Hands like JT, Q7, XYZ, the list goes on. So we’ve got those second and third pairs, the marginal parts of our range, some really strong hands for balance and we’ve got plenty of bluffs to choose from as well.

Mike (17:15):

Yeah, it’s just really important to mix a handful of those super strong hands into the small bet range. You do not want to be betting small and the very best hand you could have is second pair, obviously that’s extremely exploitable and you better have a really good reason for doing that if you choose to do so. But most of your strong hands are going to go into that big bet range, right? And that’s kind of the reason we have that big bet range is so we can get max value when we have a very strong hand. So that big bet range, Gary, correct me if I’m wrong, it’s going to be strong top pairs and better. That includes all your two pairs, your sets, your flushes, your straights, and then you’re going to balance that with bluffs as well.

Gary (17:52):

Yeah, absolutely. A lot of our big bet range is going to be made up from exactly what you’ve said there, strong top pairs, two pairs, sets, straights, and then we balance these with our bluffs as well. It’s kind of difficult. One of the most difficult parts of the game is to work out which bluffs go into the small size and which bluffs go into the big size. Generally people tend to just mix. Sometimes they’ll take the same combo, say queen eight on this texture. Sometimes they’ll bet small with it. A lot of the times they’ll bet big with it. Generally you’ll use the big size more when you’re bluffing, but you of course have to have some small bluffs in there as well just for balance purposes and it’s really cool to just bet the river for a small size with queen eight and make your opponent fold.

Mike (18:32):

Yeah, it’s really nice to get an efficient bluff through like that. I think the takeaway for anyone listening who is wondering, well how exactly do I decide what to bluff with? Just try to have some sort of logic to it. Like Gary said, you’re going to bluff more with the big size, your opponent is getting worse pot odds, so naturally you’re going to bluff more with that range. It’s kind of just how poker works mechanically, but as long as you have some logic in game, I’m going to bluff with this hand and the small size because X, I’m going to use the big size with this bluff because of Y. Or if you just mix, like Gary said, you’re going to be close enough to right and you’re not going to be losing a lot of EV. And then if you want to really study up and dig into some spots, look at some solver solutions, maybe check out the upcoming GTO trainer on Upswing poker, Lucid GTO, and you could really study exactly how the solver chooses their combos.


Maybe you could pick up on some heuristics that you could carry to your game, but in the meantime you’re going to be totally fine, kind of just winging it and using logic in the moment. Just make sure you’re trying to balance these ranges and you’re going to end up pretty close to correct. Let’s look at that second example real quick too. So now it’s $1/$3. Let’s say you reach the river with $30 in the pot, so 10 blinds and the board is Q 9 3 rainbow turn 7 bringing a flush draw, and this time the river 2 does not complete the flush. So no flush possible, no straight possible. The board is Q 9 3 7 2, and you are on the river. How are you building your small bet range on this one, Gary?

Gary (19:55):

So again, given its checked to us, our opponent is very likely to have capped themselves, IE they’re not going to have very many top pairs in there, almost no nutted hands, so we can again bet really quite wide for value here. Pocket eights, some of our second pairs, some of our weaker top pairs. One of the nice hands to balance your small bet size with is some of your weaker top pairs. In this example obviously we’ve got queen four, queen five, and then we’ve got our top two pair we spoke about. We block some of the hands we’re trying to get called by here, so we want to put our top two pair into our small bet size for example. And then again, we’re balancing it with plenty of bluffs. We’re going to have hands like King Jack, King ten, plenty of candidates that we can bluff on this board. We just take a look at it and see all the missed draws that we’ve got. Some of the King highs and Jack highs as mentioned, plenty of candidates for us to bluff.

Mike (20:41):

Perfect. And then the big bet range, same as before, it’s going to be strong top pair or better, balanced with bluffs. That’s where you’re really going for the home run trying to win as much money as possible. Sometimes even with an over bet when you have a set or something or a really, really strong top pair, that’s where you’re going for the big right hook. Sorry for the mixed sports metaphors here, and you’re going to try to extract as many chips as possible from your opponent with that part of your range, but then you’re also going to eke out some value with those hands like pocket eights and second pairs by putting those into the small bet size so you get the best of both worlds. You get to be small with your medium strength hands and get that crying call from your opponent and then you’re going to go for the home run with those super strong hands. Tends to work out quite well.


That’s all we’ve got for you today. Thank you very much for listening to the first episode of season four of the Upswing Poker Level Up podcast.

If you’re just checking us out for the first time, we have over 30 episodes in the backlog. You can learn about all types of different concepts from check raising to three betting. It’s all starting to blend together, but we’ve covered a lot of different things, so go check ’em out on our YouTube channel or on whatever your podcast app of choice is. They’re on all of ’em.

And keep in mind, if you don’t like and subscribe to this podcast, you will never get pocket Aces again, so be sure to click those buttons and support us. We really appreciate your time. We hope it’s been well spent for you. Take care.

Browse all Level-Up episodes here >>