Donovan started playing poker in 2004 and is an experienced tournament and cash game player who has a passion for teaching and helping others improve their game.
To lead off this lesson, let’s first define what we mean by a “value bet”. A value bet is not just betting really small to induce someone into calling. A value bet means that you have sized your bet the perfect amount to get the most value possible from a hand worse than yours.
A common mistake players make on the river is checking behind “just in case I’m beat” instead of betting for value. As you are about to see, it doesn’t always pay to be conservative. Your goal is to maximize your gains when you are ahead, not just win pots. In order to effectively do this, you must practice good hand reading skills and narrow your opponents range. Now you can start to quantify “just in case” and “sometimes I’m beat here”. And what does “sometimes” really mean? 10% of the time, 20%, 50%?
An Expected Value Perspective
To put this into an expected value perspective, let’s say you are in a cash game and have a 100 big blind (bb) stack on the river, the pot is 16bb and your opponent checks. You may not be ahead 100% of the time and they aren’t going to call 100% of the time, but in order to determine how much value you can get out of a hand you should always ask yourself, “how often do I think I am ahead here and how often will they call?”. For lack of a better term, you can call this your “value equity”.
Let’s say you feel you are about 80% confident you have the best hand and that your opponent will never fold a better hand. Now they may also fold a worse hand some times, so for the sake of this example let’s say they fold 20% of the time. So, 60% of the time you are going to get called and win money (assuming you are betting a reasonable amount). For this example, let’s say we bet 50% of the pot, or 8bb.
As you can see, both checking and betting are profitable and will increase your 100bb stack you had on the river. However, betting will earn you 10 more bb in the long run even though you’ll be beaten some of the time. You can use the above chart to help you analyze your hands by determining your opponents hand range and your equity vs. those hands using a tool like Poker Stove.
In the above example, we bet 50% of the pot assuming that we would get called 80% of the time. Obviously that and any other example can never duplicate a read you have on a specific situation. How you size your bets to maximize your ability to get called will be based on the board texture, your table image, your opponent’s image, stack sizes and several other factors.
In regards to bet sizing, one common misconception is that the smaller you bet, the more likely you are to get called. While that can be true in theory, at some point you will get to the point of diminishing returns, meaning that you are going to get the same amount of calls as you shrink the size of your bet. In many situations, for example, a 2bb bet will get the same amount of calls as a 1bb bet and yield double the profit.
In some instances a larger bet may even get you a higher % of calls because the type of poker player you are against may see that larger bet as a bluff and be more willing to call you down. So your thought process shouldn’t simply be “will they call me or not?” it should be “what size can I make my bet to maximize my profit?”.
Below is a hypothetical example to illustrate the point. Let’s pretend this is early in a no-limit hold’em tournament. After the turn, there is 600 in the pot and the blinds are 25/50. You put your opponent on a range that you think is likely to call.
As you can see, you may lose money if you bet 400 instead of 300, but even though your opponent will call you more when you bet 300 you will actually make more money in the long run if you bet 600.
Going for Thin Value
Thin value is defined as betting in a spot where your opponent only has a small range that will call you with a worse hand. Being able to read your opponent’s hand confidently will enable you to get value where other poker players may not and is a major difference between good and great players. In these spots you will likely only be able to bet a small amount in order to get a call. Here’s an example:
In a $1/$2 cash game you raise on the button to $6. The small blind, who is a solid player, calls you and the big blind folds. There is now $14 in the pot and the flop is . The small blind checks, you decide to bet $8 on the flop and the small blind calls. The turn is the , the small blind checks, and you decide to check behind. The river is the and your opponent checks again. This is a common situation where many people check behind:
But let’s narrow his hand range down really quickly.
Since this is a solid opponent, he would have most likely re-raised pre-flop with a strong Ace, AA, KK or QQ and he would have likely folded a weak Ace. So there is only a small range of Aces that he could have in his hand. There is a heart draw on board as well, so some % of the time, he will bet the flop or check-raise with a hand like AT or AJ since you could be semi-bluffing a draw. The same will go for a set. He could have 22, 33 or 44 but those would have most likely check-raised the flop or at least bet the turn.
His check on the river narrows his range to flush draws and mid pocket-pairs. Could he have a hand like , , ? Sure, but that represents 3 specific combinations of hands. He could also have 55,66,77 and 99 and since there are 6 ways to make a pocket-pair this is 24 combinations. So of the 27 combos of non-Ace hands that might call you, you are beating 24 of them. This is a spot where we can look to make some extra profit by betting for thin value.
If we are trying to get a pocket-pair to call us with two over-cards on the board we can’t bet too much. He has to either be a calling station or a thinking player who will assume we are bluffing the river some percentage of the time. If they can justify that they are ahead or we are capable of bluffing here 20-25% of the time, we can effectively bet roughly 20-25% of the pot for them to think they are making a profitable call. The pot now has $30, so we should go for thin value and bet about $7-$8. It’s such a small bet that it will get called a high percentage of the time and while it might seem silly to bet an amount so small, if we encounter this situation once every 200 hands, we are making an extra $300-$350 over a small sample of 10,000 hands.
A word of caution: When you go for thin value, you also have to be prepared to fold to a raise. This is where betting for thin value can be tricky. There are times when you are beaten and there are times when your opponent may read your small bet as weak and will raise you on a bluff. This will depend on how your opponent views your play, so before you make your bet have a plan for what might happen if your opponent raises.
Setting Up Your River Bet
Before you get to the river, how you played the flop and turn can dictate how much value you get out of your bet. While this applies to both cash games and tournaments, in tournaments you will often be looking to strategically size your bets in order to get all the chips in the middle by the river. Here’s an example:
The blinds are 100/200, there are 2000 chips in pot on the turn and you have 3,500 in your stack. For the sake of the example, assume you have a big hand like a set on an Ace high flop. If you check the turn trying to slow play the most you will be able to bet on the river is probably 1,000 or 1,250. Betting more looks like you are committing your stack and will give off a read that you have a really strong hand. However if you bet 1,250, on the turn instead the pot on the river will now be 4,500 and you will only have 2,250 in your stack. You can now go all-in on the river and will be giving your opponent 2-1 on a call. In the end, you earned 3,500 by betting the turn as opposed to the 1,000 you would have earned by playing tricky.
As you are deciding how to play a certain hand on the river, if you are able to narrow your opponent’s hand range to a specific set of hands as opposed to just “strong” or “weak” you will be able to find value where other players are not. This might be sizing it just the right amount (be it big or small) or simply just making the decision to bet instead of check behind. No matter what the situation, you should always ask yourself, “how can I make the most money out of this hand”.