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Make Winning River Calls and Smart Laydowns


Sky Matsuhashi

on October 11, 2023

How profitable are your river calls? Let's work to improve this key part of your game.

Listen to this podcast as you follow along below:

“I know you’ve got it, but I call.”

How many times have you heard someone say that? Yep, we've heard that hundreds of times from other players.

What do you say in your head when you hear somebody say this? It’s probably something like, “Then why the heck are you calling? It’s obvious you’re beat, you know you’re beat, so you should just save those chips and fold.” Of course, we don't say this aloud because we want players to make losing calls like this. This helps boost our own profits!

However, be honest with yourself right now, have you ever said this? I know I have, probably hundreds of times. But I'm always striving to make winning river calls and folding when I know I'm beat. And I want to help you do the same.


Are You Making Winning River Calls?

Let's see how much you're winning or losing when making river calls.

Open your PokerTracker 4 database and run this filter for Called River – Any Call:

What's your win rate? Hopefully it's positive.

But for many players, you'll find a negative win rate, sometimes as bad as -1,000bb/100 hands or even worse.

Now a lot of people will tell you that being a slightly losing player when calling rivers is okay, that it's acceptable. For example, if your win rate is -500bb/100 hands, that means you lose on average 5bb with each river call. They may reason, “Well, you commit on average 10bb's through the streets before the river. After you call, you end the hand on average with only losing 5bb's. This means your river calls are saving you 5bb's. Good work.”

I think that's the wrong way to look at it.

Your decision to call should lead to winning the hand most of the time, giving you a positive win rate. I know that YOU are NOT calling to lose less. Nobody calls with “This call will lose me less in the long run” going through their mind.

We call rivers to win the hand, so we shouldn't be satisfied with a losing win rate.


Why We Make Losing River Calls

So, why do we make losing river calls especially when we know we're beat? Most often, we have a 1 pair hand and we hope we're good:

  • We hope he's bluffing.
  • We hope he's betting a weaker hand.
  • We hope he didn't just river his flush.
  • We hope he wasn't betting trips the whole way.

Losing river calls are the most expensive mistakes in poker.  This is when the pot’s the biggest, so a bad river call is worse than a bad preflop, flop or turn call.

So, why do you call the river with top pair when you know you're beat? I think there are 4 reasons why you call, and they’re all related to emotion.


1. You Don't Want to be Bluffed

It sucks getting bluffed. You pull-off bluffs all the time, and because of this, there’s some hopeful part of you that believes your opponents also bluff all the time.

The Truth:

Most of your bluffs are made preflop, on the flop or on the turn. And they get progressively fewer as the hand goes on. You, and your opponents, bluff the river the least.

Let's see how often you bluff the river. Run a PokerTracker 4 filter for “Bet River”. Now go through every hand and calculate the % of bluffs you made.

I did this for 2 months of play and I came back with 96 river bets.  I went through all of them and I counted 8 bluffs (<10%): 4 weak pairs, 1 Ace-high, and 3 no-pair hands.

So, that means that I'm a value-oriented river bettor, and most other TAG’s are this way, as are LAG and recreational players.

Most players are happy checking and calling, instead of betting, with their weaker showdown worthy hands and missed draws. So, if they’re betting, it's most likely for value.


2. You’re “Pot Committed”

You’ve put money in the pot on the first three streets, and you still think of that money as “your money” and you’re not giving up on it.

The Truth:

The money in the pot is no longer yours. The only way the pot should affect your decisions is when you’re calculating some form of poker math like the break-even calling point.

If the final pot is 20bb’s, and your opponent bets half pot at 10bb’s, you need to win the pot at showdown 25% to break-even (10bb call / 40bb total pot). Are they bluffing 25% of the time?  Are you winning at least that often?

Folding doesn’t make you a weaker player, but calling when you know you’re beat does. There’s no such thing as “pot committed” when you know you’re beat. If you can save 10bb’s by not making a losing river call, that money stays in your bankroll.

A BB saved is a BB earned!


3. You Can't Accept Your Hand is No Longer Good

Sometimes that one pair hand feels so strong that it blinds us to the fact that it can still lose.  You hit TPTK with AK on the Ace-high board and you think to yourself, “Bingo! I'm going to win a big pot here!” So, you bet the flop and turn, and when your opponent bets river, you rationalize that your hand just can’t be beat (even though their bet is telling you that you are beat).

The Truth:

The hand isn’t over and you haven’t won until the pot is pushed your way. It doesn't matter if you flop TPTK, a set or even a flush. Try not to let potential winnings blind you to your opponent's actions and making good decisions.

No hand is worthy of an automatic river call, not even TPTK on many boards, nor even a small flush on a 3-flush board. Always give it thought. When they bet, “What's he doing this with?” (Poker's Ultimate Question) should be the first question that springs to mind.

The answer to that question will guide your decision. And, if you can't logically answer it, folding is probably the best response.


4. You Want to Validate Your Read

Sometimes you say to yourself, “If I call and I’m wrong, at least I get to see what they have and learn from it.”  This is why the old saying, “curiosity killed the cat” is so accurate.

The Truth:

If your opponents bet 90% of the time with hands that beat 1 pair (like I discovered above), then you’re making an automatic losing call. Most of the time, they’re betting hands they believe will win. That means it’s often 2pair or better on dry boards, and straights or better on wet boards.

You've probably called to validate your read dozens or hundreds of times, and it's been validated over and over again. So, when will you finally get this through your thick skull?

Stop validating and start folding when you know you're beat.


Work to Make Winning River Calls and Fold More

In-game Work

1. When you are facing a river bet:

  • “What's he doing this with?” should be the first question that pops into your mind.  In fact, you should've been asking and answering this question through every street (hand reading, more below). If so, your answer will be more precise and accurate on the river. Let your answer guide your response to their bet or raise.
  • It's critical that you can name worse hands in his river betting range before you call. This is why I love the question, “Is he betting the best hand I beat?” For example, you hold AK on a rainbow Axxxx board. You flopped TPTK and your opponent called the flop and turn. The river card is a blank, but he comes out firing 2/3 pot. “Is he betting AQ?” If you believe he can, and even some worse hands like AJ and AT, then calling is probably a good play.
  • “Does he have busted draws he can bluff?” Don't be too quick to put them on a busted draw river bluff. Make your bluff reads based on player type (LAGs and TAGs) and if you've seen them bluff a river in the past.
  • If you can't come up with good answers to any of the above questions, then just fold. Tag the hand to review later.
  • Tag all losing river calls with a “LosingRiverCall” tag to review later to see if you made a mistaken call.


2. When not involved in the hand:

  • You're not in the hand, but you see a river bet. Imagine you held TP and faced that bet.
  • Ask/answer the questions above and decide what you would do if you were in their shoes.
  • Because you're not involved, you have no pressure so your mind can think more clearly and come up with valid answers.
  • Putting in the river calling reps, even when not involved, will strengthen your poker brain.


Study Work

1. Calculate How Often YOU Bluff the River

Do the work I mentioned above about filtering for river bets and counting your river bluffs. Seeing this % for yourself will help you get it through your thick skull that river bets and raises are mostly (90% of the time) made with better than TP hands.


2. Review Tagged River Calling Hands

You've been playing with a river focus (above) and tagging important hands. Pull up those tagged hands to review.

When reviewing hands, put your opponent on a preflop range of hands and ask/answer the 3 questions above when facing the river bet.

Also, do a full hand reading exercise with 1 losing river call per day.

Take note of the mistakes you made in your poker journal so you can work to NOT repeat them and improve your river calling win rate.



Spend the next 7 days with a river calling focus. Do the action steps above every day for your in-game and study work. At the end of your 7 days, pull up your river calling win rate again to see your progress. Good luck and enjoy!


Sky Matsuhashi

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