What is the river in poker?

Poker.Org Staff
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Published: August 1, 2022 1:41 PM EDT

You’ve seen the term “the river” thrown around in poker news articles, during poker commentary, in poker rooms, on podcasts, and even during play in your local home game. It’s a common poker term that’s important to know if you want to understand the game. But what is the river, and what does it mean for your own play?

Let’s take a look at this term and get you up to speed.

What is the river in poker?

The river is the last of the community cards dealt in a game, both in poker tournaments and cash games. It’s also known as fifth street, as it’s the fifth and final of the five community cards. Most importantly, the river often makes or breaks a hand and decides the outcome of a showdown.

The river is the final deciding factor in a complete poker hand. 

Poker players receive two hole cards from the dealer in Texas hold’em, or four hole cards in Omaha. The dealer then burns a card and presents the three-card flop on the table. After a round of betting options, the dealer burns and presents the turn card (fourth of five cards on the board, or fourth street). And finally, fifth street is the river, after which another betting round can ensue until there’s a winner (or a chop).

In card games like Stud, the river isn’t a community card but rather the final card dealt to each player.

What is the origin of the “river”?

No one really knows the origin of the term “river.” Some speculate that it had something to do with the riverboats in America, where players competed in various poker games. Others say the river is the final chance for a player to win or lose — sink or swim.

How do you play the river in poker?

The strategy for playing the river in poker depends greatly on what the players have done so far during the hand. Your river strategy will depend on the betting patterns of your opponents, tells, and the real money in the pot.

It’s important to remember that the river is the last opportunity to win the hand. It’s the point where you can represent the strength of your hand — or the bluffed strength — and bet in a way that forces other players to fold. At the same time, it can be a reason for caution if your opponent has shown that they’ll call any bet.

The best calculation to use for the river is pot odds. If there’s $100 in the pot, and you could bet $50 to possibly win the pot, that gives you 2-1 odds to win. Any odds greater than 50% are good odds.

Position on the river

A player’s position is always important in poker. While your position at the start of a card hand can determine opening hands and initial bet sizes, it can also dictate moves on later streets. 

The best position on the river is usually a later position. A later position puts the onus on other players and gives you more response options. It also lets you calculate pot odds for a call. In essence, a poker player in late position post-flop — and all the way to the river — can gather more information to inform their final decisions.

Playing in position

When playing the river in position, you have the control. You can bet or raise with the nuts and control the size of the pot. Even if you think the opponent has the better hand, you can easily fold to a bet. You also have the option to simply check and hope that the opponent checks as well.

Being in position when moving toward a showdown on the river gives you most of the control, time to think, and the ability to both act and react with some poker strategy in mind.

Playing out of position

Being out of position isn’t the worst thing in the world, because you still have options.

You can lead the action with a check to find out where your opponent landed on the river. And when calculating any pot odds, you can always fold if you aren’t sure of your hand strength.

Unless you believe you have the nuts or something close to it, the best way to play out of position on the river is to be cautious and watch the opponent carefully. 

Can you bet after the river card is dealt?

Poker allows betting on every street. Players can bet before the flop, after the flop, after the turn, and then again after the river.

A player can check, bet, call, raise, or reraise after seeing the river. This is the time that betting choices are the most important, as there’s most likely a fair amount of money in the pot that’s up for grabs. After the river turns up, the stakes in the hand are often highest (whether in a home game or high-stakes poker, when decisions can make or break a pivotal hand).

Betting on the river: yay or nay?

Before betting on the river, consider everything that happened before it. What were your opponent’s actions preflop, and after the flop and turn? What did the bet sizing say about their possible holding? Did you pick up any tells? Do you remember how that person played any previous starting hands?

There are three important factors in deciding whether or not to bet on the river.

  • Do you think you have the best or worst hand, a strong hand, or a weak hand?
  • How will your opponent react to a bet?
  • How much money is in the pot? In other words, what are the pot odds?

The best poker books contain entire chapters on river play because river strategy can be complicated. But at its simplest, base your decision on the strength or weakness of your hand, your perception of your opponent’s hand and possible actions, and what’s at stake. 

Bet on the river if you want to force your opponent into a tough decision likely to make them fold their hand. If in position to do so, this is an effective way to take the pot without even showing your hand face-up.

Also, bet on the river if you have the nuts or are fairly certain you have the best hand. You can make a value bet on the river or reraise your opponent to make them pay the price to see your better hand. This is the best opportunity to win money with all the possible information available from the hand.

Featured image source: Flickr by World Poker Tour used under CC license