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3 tips for playing the river in poker tournaments

3 tips for playing the river in poker tournaments

Chances are that many of the biggest poker tournament pots you’ve ever won or lost were decided by the river.

Sometimes the river card saves us, often times it kills us, and occasionally it changes nothing. But if you’ve reached the river in a poker tournament hand, these three things are always true:

(a) There are five community cards on the board
(b) You’ve seen three previous actions (post-flop, flop, turn), and,
(c) You’ve got a decision to make.

Here are the BBZ Blog’s three tips for playing the river in poker tournaments.

Make sure your bluffs makes sense

When you’re watching the likes of BBZ coach Jon “apestyles” Van Fleet and BBZ student Lex Veldhuis battle in high stakes tournaments on Twitch, you’ll often hear them say “I need to find bluffs” when making big river decisions.

BBZ at work: Jordan “bigbluffzinc” Drummond

Great players never bluff without good reasons. So what do they mean by “find” bluffs? Well, when they have strong hands and want to bet the river for value, they also need to figure out which hands they would play the same way–on every street–as bluffs, for example, a missed draw with blockers, so that their value bets are balanced in the eyes of the opponent.

In our article ‘When to bluff on the river in position’, we go over a hand in detail that BBZ founder Jordan “bigbluffzinc” Drummond covers in his BBZ Bundle.

BBZ gets to the river with 67 on a 349Q10. He’s completely missed and, as World Series of Poker commentator Norman Chad would say, he has squadoosh.

But BBZ ultimately decides to go for an all-in bluff on the river. To get to that decision, he asked himself these three questions:

What are you trying to get them to fold?

In the aforementioned hand, BBZ concludes that while the villain can occasionally hero-call with a nine or a ten, there are still hands out there that can fold to a shove, including all ace-highs (the villain has far more in their range than BBZ does, based on how the hand was played). Both players also have busted flush draws in their ranges and the villain will also have to fold these to a shove.

Does your range interact well with the board?

BBZ concludes that while he has complete air on the river, his button-call range is all over this board. This means he has more hands that interact well with the board than the villain does.

Do you block your opponent’s potential draws?

Finally, BBZ concludes that the flush draw is the most obvious draw on this flop, and therefore diamonds are the most obvious bluffs. The fact that BBZ doesn’t have a diamond in his hand means he actually unblocks flush draws, slightly increasing the likelihood that his opponent could have one. By the river, the villain is probably not expecting BBZ to continue bluffing with diamonds, which makes his shove in this instance even scarier.

So remember to ask yourself these questions the next time you’re lining up a river bluff:

  • What are you trying to get them to fold?
  • Does your range interact well with the board?
  • Do you block your opponent’s potential draws?

To read the full hand analysis, check out: ‘When to bluff on the river in position’

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Try a check-raise for value

When you’ve got a super strong hand on the river and you’re praying for action, it’s always tempting to pile the money in yourself and hope your opponent goes for it.

But sometimes, the only way you’re going to get more value is to trap and go for a check-raise.

In our article ‘3 interesting hands from Bungakat and Spraggy study session’, we cover a hand in which BBZ student Spraggy was crying out for value on the river.

Spraggy has 66 on a Q7726 board, so he flopped trips and rivered a full house.

You can watch Spraggy at

Spraggy leads for 75% pot on the river and his opponent calls, which is obviously a great result. But BBZ coach bungakat ponders whether he might have made more money had he gone for a check-raise instead.

“First of all, my thinking is: how likely is he to bet pocket eights through pocket jacks here [when checked to]?” says bungakat. “If he’s value betting those hands then I want to go for a check-raise. But another question is, are you going to get value from that range?”

The opponent might then talk themselves into calling, believing Spraggy to be bluffing, but it all depends on the skill level of your opponent.

“In higher stakes games, I don’t mind putting [this strong hand] into my check-raising range, but [at lower stakes], I’m probably just going to pot it and say deal with it.”

You can never go wrong by betting your strong hands, but when the situation is right, try adding a check-raise to your river arsenal.

To read the full hand analysis, check out: ‘3 interesting hands from Bungakat and Spraggy study session’

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Remember: you don’t always have to be a hero

apestyles on the Twitch grind

While it often feels like our opponents always “have it” when they bet the river, the truth is that of course, they don’t. The skill comes in determining whether they’re betting for value or to bluff, and to know when we should defend on the river.

In the apestyles bundle for BBZ, apestyles dedicates a seminar to defending versus river bets, parts of which we highlighted in our article ‘The apestyles guide: When to defend on the river’.

An important element of defending versus bets on the river is to understand bluff catchers, and when you should make hero-calls with them.

A bluff catcher is essentially a hand that can beat all bluffs but can’t beat anything the villain would be betting for value. “The nature of bluff catchers is that they’re indifferent between calling and folding versus a balanced betting range,” says apestyles.

But you should make sure your bluff catcher can beat ALL bluffs before you click the call button.

When determining whether he wants to make a river hero-call or not, apestyles asks himself a couple of questions:

  • What portion of our range are we supposed to call?
  • How does our range break down?

“The truth is, the population is under bluffing rivers,” says apestyles. “My general recommendation when you’re holding a bluff catcher is to lean towards folding unless you have a good reason to call. You can call more often when you’re facing a small bet or when your cards blocking value and unblocking their bluffing range.”

At the end of the day, when you face a triple barrel on the river and you have a bluff-catcher, you’re likely to ask yourself: is my opponent bluffing? “That’s important, but the problem is that it’s unknowable,” says BBZ. “A much easier question to ask yourself is: is this hand in the top half of my range?”

To learn more about hero-calls and when to defend on the river, check out: The apestyles guide: When to defend on the river

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