The river card in poker represents the culmination of a hand in community card formats, i.e., flop games. It can also make or break a pot for any given player who remains in a hand.
Below, we’ll take a look at how the river card marks the conclusion of a poker hand in games where community cards are present. We’ll also answer the question of whether poker pros often “win” with the river card.
What is the River Card in Poker?
The river card in poker is defined as the final face-up community card that is dealt near the end of a hand. After the river card is dealt, there is one final betting round that any player who is still competing for the pot can participate in.
Two of the most common games that feature a river card include Texas Hold’em and Omaha Hi (as well as Omaha Hi/Lo).
In these poker game variants, all players seated at a table when the hand begins – after any blinds or antes are posted – are dealt starting preflop cards face-down. Then a betting round occurs.
Immediately following the initial betting round, the dealer places three community cards face-up near the center of the table. These three cards can be utilized by any of the players who remained in the hand after the first betting round. These three cards are defined as the flop, and trigger another betting round.
The turn in poker refers to the fourth community card that is dealt face-up near the center of the table. It is dealt alongside the flop cards and is also referred to as fourth street in poker terms. This face-up card also triggers a betting round.
Finally, the river card (referred to in poker terms as fifth street) is the very last card that is dealt by the dealer in community card poker game variants.
Once the face-up river card hits the board upon being placed next to the other four face-up cards, one final betting round ensues and then the hand concludes. If only one player remains in the hand during any stage, the pot is automatically awarded to that player. If two or more players remain in the hand after the final betting round, the hand concludes and the pot is awarded to the player who has the strongest 5-card poker hand among the remaining competitors.
In Texas Hold’em, players can use any combination of their two hole cards and five community cards to make a 5-card hand. In Omaha, players must use exactly two of their four hole cards and three of the five face-up community cards to form their 5-card hand.
Basically speaking, the river card in poker represents the final piece of the puzzle (or final option) for each player’s hand strength relative to showdown. Once the face-up river card is dealt, any player who is still in the hand and competing for the pot knows – or should know – the exact 5-card showdown strength of their own hand.
The Poker River Card and Pot Size
Due to the status of a poker river card as the final card to be dealt, the prize pot for any given hand is – on average – at its largest when the river card is present.
Not only does a poker pot include all betting action from the preflop phase, flop phase, and turn phase; there is also one final betting round after the river card is dealt.
And although there is a “cap” placed on the amount that can be re-raised in fixed limit formats for games like Texas Hold’em and Omaha, “no limit” formats mean just that – players who are still competing for the existing pot can choose to commit all their chips during any phase of a hand, including on the river. Knowing this is critical for calculating pot odds.
Do Poker Pros Often Win with the River Card?
Well, superior poker players can often extract greater monetary value from their opponents once the river card is dealt.
Let’s look at an example hand from a $2/$5 No Limit Texas Hold’em game and see if we can learn why decisions that come after the river card is dealt can be more valuable in a monetary sense. Let’s assume that each player starts the hand with a $500 stack size.
Player 1: Posts $2 Small Blind and is dealt As-Ks face-down
Player 2: Posts $5 Big Blind and is dealt 7c-6c face-down
Player 1 raises to $15 preflop and Player 2 calls. The total pot is now $30.
Player 2 Checks the action and Player 1 bets $20. Player 2 calls. The total pot is now $70.
Player 2 Checks the action and Player 1 bets $50. Player 2 calls. The total pot is now $170.
At this stage, both players KNOW the strength of their own hands. The best 5-card hand that Player 1 can make is two pairs: kings and deuces with an Ace kicker. The best 5-card hand that Player 2 can make is two pairs: sixes and deuces with a king kicker.
If we’re watching this hypothetical hand play out on stream, then we know that Player 1 will win the entire pot if the hand goes to showdown. What’s more, both players KNOW that there is no possible made flush hand – any spade draw that was made possible by the community flop cards missed on the river.
But does Player 1 know that? And does Player 2 know that sixes and deuces are no good against Player 1’s superior two pairs hand? Probably not, but both players may be more aware of their mathematical advantage/disadvantage despite the lack of insight regarding their opponent’s precise hole cards.
However, there’s still a river decision to be made by both players, and the original preflop pot of $7 has ballooned to $170. Each player still has $415 remaining in their respective stacks, too!
The action is now on Player 2 who remains out of position due to being the Big Blind in a heads-up poker contest. Player 1 has the Button, so it’s up to Player 2 to decide whether to check or bet after the river card is dealt.
If these two players are competing against each other in a “raked” poker game, we can assign a hypothetical per-hand rake cap of $5 and assume that cap has already been hit at this point. So right now, after the river card is dealt, the winner of the pot is guaranteed to receive a total prize of at least $165 – pending any action that ensues.
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So let’s say Player 2 decides to bet $100 into the $170 pot and Player 1 decides to call.
Player 1 will win the hand at showdown – $365 once the $5 rake fee is collected by the hosting card room.
But what if Player 2 decides to check the action on the river, Player 1 subsequently bets $100 and then Player 2 check-raises all in? Now Player 1 is faced with a river decision of whether to commit $315 in remaining chips in a pot that has now grown to $685 (minus $5 in committed rake fees)!
If we’re watching along on a live stream as this hand occurs then we all know that Player 1 can win a pot of $995 if Player 1 decides to make the call. We also know that Player 2 will win a total pot of $680 (after the $5 rake is taken) if Player 1 decides to fold.
But does Player 1 know that? And does Player 2 know that the all in wager is a bluff against Player 1’s superior hand of two pairs: kings and deuces? Probably not – but both players might still be keenly aware of the mathematical reasoning behind the move.
Post-Hand Rewind and Analysis (Pot Sizes and Monetary Results)
Arguably, Player 2 could have simply folded the action preflop when Player 1 raised to $15.
Now… whether a fold would have been the “correct” play for Player 2 to make is a mathematical equation that can include more variables than even the most-skilled poker player can calculate with precision on-the-spot?
Why is this the case? Why is it pretty much “inconceivable” for any player – regardless of skill level – to come up with an exact calculation? Because the amount of insertable variables is so large relative to the short amount of time that any given player has to make a decision in an actual poker game.
And if a player is incorrect when assigning a numerical value to any one of the many variables (or if a player incorrectly “weights” one variable more or less heavily than another variable), then the resulting solution is consequentially skewed.
What is Player 2’s preflop calling range to a 3x raise by the Small Blind? What is Player 1’s raising range of 3x the Big Blind preflop? Is either player a “loose” or “tight” player preflop? How does each player determine betting sizes postflop?
Does Player 2 have “somewhere to go” after this hand concludes? Are there any “live tells” for in-person play or “timing tells” for online play? Is either player winning or losing during this session or over recent sessions in a way that their preflop and postflop action ranges would be affected? What other variables might impact the equation itself? Slightly or not so slightly?
Data. Correct data can lead to correct solutions; incorrect data can lead to incorrect assumptions.
So if Player 2 had decided to fold the action preflop – whether correct or incorrect – Player 2 would have lost the $5 Big Blind as a result. A per-hand loss for sure… but the monetary consequences of that decision (even if incorrect), may have only been 5 percent of the total personal chip commitment at that time. And 5 percent of $5 comes out to $0.25.
River pots present a potential for larger monetary gain or loss compared to earlier streets.
If Player 2 happens to bet $100 on the river and gets called (and if the long-term expectation of that action by Player 2 was negative 5 percent), then Player 2 loses $5.00 in expectation on the river action alone.
What if Player 1 takes the bait and bets out $100 after the action is checked on the river, and then gets re-raised all in only to fold the hand? By forfeiting the (much larger) pot, the monetary consequences will be greater even if the fold is only a negative 5 percent expectation loser in the long run.
River Card Value is Studied and Understood by Top Pro Poker Players
Through knowledge gained by study and real life experience, highly skilled professional poker players are able to win more money with the river card than any other stage of a poker hand that involves face-up community cards.
Top pros – again, due to their knowledge – are able to comfortably make river decisions due to the accuracy of the numerical values they assign to any number of variables that they choose to include in any decision making process. Inferior players are often frozen as if they were a “deer in headlights” because of their lack of knowledge in similar River situations.
Perhaps all players are “guessing” at some level regardless of skill level, but a top poker player’s “guesses” will consistently outperform those of an inferior player. And this superior performance is, in the end, the result of a mathematical formula.
For deeper insight into the ins-and-outs of the river card in poker, you might want to consult a number of resources that are publicly available on the internet. These resources include content published on poker forums, in poker books, and on social media.
For a more specialized poker learning experience, there are premium poker training sites and poker coaches that share their knowledge with aspiring poker players for an hourly fee or subscription rate.