When to Make a River Value Bet in Poker


Quite often in the course of an average poker session you'll be faced with this dilemma:

  • Should you bet the river when in position for value?

The plus side is obvious. When your opponent calls with a worse hand you stand to win a bigger pot. But by betting the river, rather than checking, you make yourself vulnerable to a check-raise. 

If your opponent does check-raise you'll be in a tough spot whereas you could have avoided all that by seeing a cheap showdown.

Which Hands Can Be Value Bet?

First, decide whether your hand warrants a river value bet or not. There's no one answer - merely a sliding scale based on the factors below.

There are very few hands that you can paint with a broad "Always value bet" or "Always check down" brush. Poker is not that easy. Your hand must be strong enough that if you're called it's best at showdown.

After all, that's what you are doing with a value bet:

  • Trying to make your opponent call with a worse hand

Depending on the factors below you could decide to value bet the river holding anything from a single-pair hand to a full house.

river value betting
Punish loose-passive players.

Which Players Should You Value Bet?

Your opponent is easily one of the most important factors when deciding to bet for value or not - he or she makes all the difference.

One opponent may call large river bets with any pair; another may fold everything but trips or better. You must identify your opponent's playing tendencies before opening yourself up with a value bet.

The ideal opponent to value bet is a loose-passive player. Loose-passive players play too many hands and go too far with them. These players are just ATMs dispensing cash. Value bet them relentlessly.

If you notice a player calling down lightly (with worse-than-average hands), hammer those rivers with top pair, good kicker, because you know that player will call.

Further, due to their passive nature, loose-passive players are less likely to punish you with a check-raise.

Don't Ignore Tight-Aggressive Players!

Tight-aggressive players can also be targeted for value betting. This may sound counterintuitive - after all, how can both loose-passives and tight-aggressives be value-bet targets?

Doesn't a tight-aggressive style tend to defeat loose-passive players? Wouldn't that mean that TAGs are less likely to make river calls with worse hands? Yes and no. It depends on how good a player he or she is.

Over the years TAGs have learned about pot control and found that value betting other TAGs with one pair is a losing proposition because TAGs do not pay off rivers with a worse one pair.

These same TAGs now know that a player firing three barrels (i.e. a river bet as well) has either a monster or a stone-cold bluff. There are fewer monsters out there than bluffs, so a lot of TAGs will end up making hero calls against a player who fires three barrels.

It's up to you to find out who these players are. Some TAGs are fixated on trying to make hero calls on the river. If you can find those players, you can exploit them.

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How Does Your Image Affect Value Betting?

Your image dictates how your opponents are going to play against you. It affects every decision they make, so ultimately it should determine every decision that you make.

when to value bet
Use your image to your advantage.

You can obviously then use your image to your advantage. If you have caught a wave of cards and been very active, but haven't shown anything down, players will perceive you to be loose-aggressive.

If your opponents think you're loose-aggressive they'll call you down lighter on the river. This is what you want. A player who will call you down light will also pay off your value bets.

River = Big $$$

The river is the most important street to play. Sure, you don't play as many rivers as you do flops, but it's by betting the river when the pot is big that you'll make your money.

Don't get into the habit of wanting to see cheap showdowns. Use all the information you have available and look for good spots. If you feel that your opponent might call with a worse hand, absolutely stick a bet out there.

Making good river value bets can take your game to the next level. If you look for good spots, you can make a killing. If you don't, you'll be leaving money on the table.

Further Reading:

Why You're Afraid of Value-Betting the River

By Arthur Reber

The scene: The river card has been dealt; it sits next to a small mountain of chips. The first player, who's been check-calling all the way, checks again.

The button, who's been pushing the action, says, "Okay, I check. The pot's big enough," and shows down pocket queens on a K Q 6 9 6 board.

A simple scene, yes? Also not an uncommon one. Just think how often you've witnessed something like it. Here's a guy with the third-best possible hand checking the river.

when to make river bet
Dan Harrington

Sure, the check-caller could have rivered quads. But we've all heard that comment made when the button has the stone-cold nuts.

It's actually not a simple situation at all. It's rife with financial and psychological elements, mostly taking place inside the head of the guy with the pocket queens - largely unconsciously.

Simple Money Mistake or Deep Human Paradox?

It's clear from a basic strategic perspective that failing to bet the river here is a money mistake. Dan Harrington has argued that it's one of the most common and costly errors that otherwise good players make.

Failing to value bet in such situations can, over the long haul, turn a small winner into a break-even player or even a loser.

So, why do so many players do this? Why would they give up a chance at considerable gain and accept, in its place, a more modest win?

Is this an individual, chancy thing, like stupidity? Or is it possibly the result of some deeper feature of human conduct, some tendency we have to behave in less-than-optimal ways?

It turns out that the latter is closer to the truth. There is a fascinating, deeply paradoxical and surprisingly common aspect of human behavior behind it: it's called the uncertainty effect and it's found whenever people are involved in situations that lack full certainty.

It may seem weird that poker players would be averse to uncertainty, but under the right conditions they will be. To get a better feel for how this mechanism operates, let's get away from the green felt and out into the "real world."

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Here's the deal you're offered. You can purchase either:

  1. A $50 gift certificate to a store
  2. A lottery ticket where the prize will be either a $50 or $100 gift certificate (to the same store) based on the flip of a coin.

How much would you pay for each?

Astonishingly, a recent study found that the average amount people would be willing to pay for the first was MORE than for the second. And this wasn't just one nutty outcome. This paradoxical result has been found in study after study in all sorts of circumstances.

should i value bet on river
We are a weird species.

Uri Simonsohn, at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, chalked it up to a "literal distaste for uncertainty" and reports finding it in a variety of real-world settings including book stores, restaurants, whatever.

And, of course, we see it in sharpest relief when a poker player checks on the end with what is almost certainly the best hand.

We are members of a very weird species. We are simply not the rational creatures we like to think we are. We do not make optimal decisions, even when we ought to know better, and even when we think we know better.

Emotional Cost vs. Cash Cost

Now, knowing that people make these silly decisions is amusing but it's only half the story. Why do we do these things? Why are we so ridiculously irrational?

The reason stems from a deeply ingrained human characteristic: risk aversion.

Settings that contain risk or have uncertain elements make many of us feel uncomfortable; they produce distinctly negative emotional experiences.

From an evolutionary point of view, being risk averse is adaptive. Being wary in risky situations dramatically increases likelihood of survival.

If you don't know what's out there waiting for you, you're far better off being cautious and guarded - even it means you forgo occasional gains.

While this worked fine eons ago, in the modern world it yields this odd paradox where we will devalue an option that is obviously better in material terms because it is wrapped in uncertainty and loses value in psychological terms.

In short, it just may cost more emotionally to bet on the river than it's worth in cash. About now I can hear some of you howling, "Not me doc, no way would I do anything that stupid."

Well, maybe you wouldn't ... and maybe you would. We don't know since we haven't collected the data. But do ask yourself if you've ever checked the river in this kind of hand.

And, in case you're curious: Simonsohn's data shows that the uncertainty effect is found in over 60% of the population.

More Poker Psychology & Strategy from Arthur S. Reber:

More Poker Strategy from Dan Skolovy:

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Carla Bennings 2010-02-05 06:27:32

I got interested to read on when I've read the first paragraph regarding betting. I've never taken poker seriously until today. Maybe I am still not getting used to playing poker online poker.williamhill and I am giving it a try. :D thanks


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