River Bluffing – What Should You Do?

I’ve talked about bluffing before, but river bluffing is another story. It is one of those things that every player knows they should do, but few players can actually pull the trigger. IMO, many players miss these opportunities because they simply don’t understand exactly what they are doing. The fact that river bluffs are the most expensive in poker tends to exacerbate the problem and reduce the quality of decision making.

When To River Bluff?

One of the mistakes many players make is to think I should river bluff because, “it is the only way I can win”. This is terrible reasoning, and if this is what you are thinking please just check :). Another common mistake is failing to ask does my hand have showdown value? A lot of players make the mistake of checking weak hands like A high that actually have significant showdown value vs busted draws. Betting in these situations may falsely give the player the sense that their “bluffs” are successful enough to be profitable. However, what the players are failing to consider is that in many of those situations their A high would have won at showdown with a check back.

The question players should really be asking is as follows….

1) After taking into account the showdown value of my hand, does betting x amount on the river yield a positive expected value versus what I perceive my opponents calling and folding ranges to be. So, for all you math guys out there lets create a hypothetical situation. Player 1 raises pre-flop and has position on player 2. He bets the flop, turn, and then faces a decision on the river if he should fire the third barrel. Now we will assume that 100% of player 2’s range is composed of one pair hands that A high always loses to and player 2 folds 6 out of 10 times. How do we determine the profitability of river bluffing in this poker hand?

Board: 7s6s2h2c3c

Stakes: $1/$2 NLHE

Player 1: A 10o

Player 2: 55

River Pot: $100

Sample Size: 10

River Bet Size: $50

Folding frequency: 60%

Calling frequency: 40%

The answer is as follows……Forgive me if I missed a bracket which messes up the formula. You can see the answer below and I think you will get the point.

(((Pot won when bluff successful) * (percentage of pairs opponent folds*total sample size)) – (Amount lost when bluff unsucessful)* (percentage of pocket pairs opponent calls on river * total sample size)) / total sample size = Per Hand EV

Assume your opponent folds 60% of the time on the river when he has a pocket pair and you bet half of the pot.

($100) * (60%*10) – ($50) * (40%*10) / 10 = $40 plus EV river bluff

That is a pretty significant amount of positive EV that is being generated if our assumptions are correct. In fact, this is a plus EV decision that yields approx 20 BB – not bad! Unfortunately, there are very few river situations that are this blatantly plus EV. Our real goal when considering river bluffs is to identify our Villains range as accurately as possible, and base our decision on what we hope to be an accurate bunch of assumptions. Sadly, you are not going to have time to run the math in real time :). However, the more work you put in away from the tables the better you will become at identifying real world situations to pull the trigger on a bluff.

Good River Bluffing Board Textures:

Busted draw boards are both good and bad spots to bluff in. They are bad because regs will often check hands on the river thinking the best value is in getting you to bluff with a busted draw – be wary of this trap. However, if you have a 3 high flush draw and the river is a busted draw board, versus a weak opponent, with a wide range going into the river, then a bluff may be a great idea. So, as with most areas of poker, I hesitate to say that xyz is the board that you should always be bluffing on. The answer is, as always, it depends! lol Against regs, I have found that board textures that yield high numbers of mosnter hand combos are the most credible for you to have a hand strong enough to justify a river bet. Just me careful and make sure that you have a good reason to discount the likelihood your opponents range is composed of those monsters :)). For example, you may know a certain Villain always raises their monsters on the flop or turn, and tends to call with more marginal hands. Bottom line,  you need to make sure when you are bluffing that another reg will assume calling is a negative EV play. This requires you to understand the way they are likely to perceive your range.

Bad River Bluffing Board Textures:

The worst boards to bluff on tend to be connected boards that yield potential busted straight draws and flush draws. This means a thinking opponent may put you on a huge number of draw combos, and you may see some incredibly light calls in these situations.

When Not To River Bluff:

Don’t go for the big river bluff when you are on tilt. I can tell you from experience there is a tendency to misread your opponents range and incorrectly perceive a good bluffing spot when you are frustrated. Make sure you are thinking clearly and using the logical side of your brain not the emotional side :).

Metagame Benefits of River Bluffing

Metagame benefits can be difficult to quantify, but significant, especially against weak players. Many weak players incorrectly assume their opponents fall into two categories.

1) LAG’s that are capable of bluffing

2) TAG’s / nits that are incapable of bluffing.

I have found this often presents TAGs with some cool bluffing opportunities, and then if you show your opponent you can get paid off like the LAG’s while playing TAG ranges – that is a good thing :). Generally, if you are a TAG I suggest showing bluffs versus weaker opponents because your river betting ranges are likely largely composed of value hands. If your are a LAG I generally suggest not showing since you may like to bluff more frequently on the river and have more balanced river value vs river bluffing range. The exception to this rule is against weak players who don’t adjust and start recklessly calling if you show a bluff. Against them, I generally suggests TAG’s and LAG’s show the bluff and then just nit it up.

The Mental Side of River Bluffing

Yeah, this is going to vary a lot by player. My biggest thought here is know yourself and don’t go for a river bluff if it means you will go on raging tilt if you lose. Also, don’t river bluff if you have to quit if it goes wrong – I have seen a lot of players try one last desperate bluff and them disappear out of their seats when it fails. Normally, if you are in this state it means you are capable of objectively evaluating ranges and making a good river bluffing decision.

Hope you enjoyed this post! Don’t forget to check out my book Exploitive No Limit Holdem!

-ThePokerCapitalist (No nonsense, no ads, straight talk on poker)

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