What Is the River in Poker?

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Poker hand and casino chips with the word “bet”.
BetMGM Sep 26, 2023, 11:50 AM

Nobody knows exactly why the river is called “the river.” Some say it’s because card cheats on the old Mississippi riverboats were thrown into the river after being exposed at the end of the hand. Others say it’s because once you’ve crossed the river, you can never turn back. 

Whatever the truth of the matter, the fact remains that the river card has the power to decide the outcome of a hand of live or online poker. The river can reverse a player’s fortunes, snatching victory from defeat or vice versa.

Defining the River in Poker

What is a river in poker? It’s the final deciding factor in a hand of Texas Hold’em or Omaha. These community card games begin when players receive two hole cards (Texas) or four hole cards (Omaha) from the dealer. A betting round then takes place in which players raise, call, or fold, depending on the strength of their cards and the actions of other players. After that, the dealer burns a card and lays out three community cards on the table. This is called the flop. 

Another betting round takes place, after which the dealer burns another card and turns over the fourth community card, called the turn or fourth street (because it’s the fourth card.) There’s a third betting round, and then the dealer burns another card and presents the fifth and final community card — the river. This is the card that can make or break your hand and determine which player comes out on top at showdown.

The Drama of the River

Read any fiction books on poker, and the drama of the river is sure to feature at some point. The reason the river has so much power is that it’s the last unknown factor in the hand. If you don’t connect with the flop, there’s always the chance of improving your hand on the turn. If the turn doesn’t go so well, then you might find redemption on fifth street. But when the river comes, all the cards are on the table, and chance has no further part to play. This is when poker can get as intense as casino table games such as blackjack and roulette. But it’s not the moment of truth just yet. You still have to play the river.

Playing the River

Most times, you’ll be playing heads up (one-on-one) if you make it to the river at all, and you’ll be in one of three basic situations: You believe you have the best hand, or you believe you have the worst hand, or you aren’t sure. How you play depends on multiple factors, including your read on your opponent (based on their actions on previous streets,) your hand strength, and most importantly, whether you have position over your opponent.

ln Position

Playing in position simply means that your opponent has to act before you. The advantage is that you get to see how your opponent reacts to the river before you make your decision.

If you’re in position and you’re sure you have the best hand, your strategy should be to get as much money from your opponent as you can. Bet and raise big to grow the pot.

If you’re sure your hand is the worst and your opponent bets, it’s usually time to fold. That’s because villain seldom bets from out of position with a poor hand.

What if you’re weak-handed and villain checks to you? This is a tough call, as you have to decide whether to represent strength (bluff) or fold. It’s all down to how well you’ve read your opponent. If you’re 80 percent sure your bluff will succeed, go for it. If not, fold.

If you’re unsure whether you have the best hand or not, and your opponent checks to you, it’s usually correct to check behind and see the cards while hoping for the best. If your opponent bets, it’s down to how you read your opponent, whether you call or fold. Carefully think back over all their actions to see if their story adds up. This is one of the most important life skills you can learn from poker!

Out of Position

Wondering how to maximize your winnings when you have the best hand but you’re out of position? Make a decent bet and hope your opponent calls. If they’re unsure about their hand, they’re not likely to bet. If you think they missed a draw and are weak-handed as a result, you can check to them, hoping they’ll put some money in the pot with a bluff-raise, which is better than just forcing them to fold with a bet of your own.

If you’re out of position and have the worst hand, it’s usually correct to check and fold if your opponent bets. Bluffing is seldom a good idea.

Not sure about your hand? Out of position on the river, the only thing you can be sure of is not to bet out. Hands that beat you will call, and hands that you are beating won’t call, so you lose either way. Rather, check to your opponent and see how they react. If they bet back into you, it’s time to call their bluff or fold.

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Actress Vanessa Hudgens flipping casino chips next to the text "The King of Casinos"
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Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.