As you move up the limits, one of the most important skills to develop is the ability to make thin value bets. Unfortunately, value-betting thinly is often more complicated than it looks, and requires you to quickly assess a number of different variables, including your position, the skill level of your opponent, and, crucially, whether you can represent any strong hands.
Imagine you are playing $1/$2 NLHE and you open from the cutoff with A♥-8♥ to $7 and the big blind calls. The flop comes 8♠-5♣-3♦ and your opponent checks. While this isn’t a great flop for your range, you should still be continuation-betting this flop with a very wide range, and A♥-8♥ is a very standard c-bet here since your opponent will call with a lot of worse hands.
Suppose he calls and the turn comes Q♦, and you now are debating whether to check or bet.
Against a random opponent this is a good spot to exercise pot control. Your opponent probably won’t continue with a lot of the pocket pairs that you beat on the turn and he might even release some 8-x hands that you’re ahead of. In addition, he likely won’t fold 9-9 or T-T, and if he did float the flop with A-Q or slow-play a set he’s obviously going nowhere. All of these are valid points and good reasons for checking the turn.
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When you check, the problem occurs when the river misses your range and you now try to get thin value hoping your opponent hero-calls. Suppose the river is a 2♦, making the final board 8♠-5♣-3♦-Q♦-2♦. If your opponent checks you might be tempted to make a value bet here, but when you bet this river, what hands are you representing? If you had a hand that couldn’t beat a marginal pair, you would almost certainly have bet the turn as it hit your range so much better than your opponent’s.
It’s also extremely difficult to represent a flush, since you’d probably have bet any flush draw in your range on the turn. When you do bet here, your hand looks exactly like a hand stronger than K-8 but never stronger than a Queen, so a good opponent will know that if he check-raises the river you will always be in a tough spot with what is a bluff-catcher.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t ever value-bet the river here when you hold T-T or A-8s, but rather that you should be careful and not make a habit of betting it against good opponents. As mentioned, it’s extremely difficult for you to actually have a bluff on the river since you’d already have bet it on the turn, so good opponents will very rarely call you with worse and often mix in check-raises both for value and with bluffs.
If your foe is a good hand reader but too aggressive you might want to value-bet the river and snap off a check-raise, especially if you think he’d be more likely to value-bet the river himself with his strong hands.
Against bad hand readers, betting the river is rarely a problem. Your opponent will simply think: ‘I’ve checked all three streets so he probably thinks I’m weak, and he didn’t bet the turn so he can’t be very strong. I’m also getting really good odds and don’t have to worry about facing another barrel, so call!’
These players are also more likely to worry that you’re going to check back the river with a hand like pocket tens, so they’d likely bet out if they had a set or a Queen on the river themselves.
In reality, whether or not you should go for thin value almost always depends on your opponent. Yet you should be aware of what your range looks like, and be aware how vulnerable you are when you have no strong hands in your range.