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A Fine Distinction

by Barbara Connors

Poker is a game of tough decisions. At their core, most of them can be boiled down to one cosmic proposition: Should you play it safe, or should you take a risk for the opportunity of making a greater profit? Figuring out when that extra risk is worth taking, or whether discretion is the better part of poker’s valor, is one of the great challenges of the game. A good example that illustrates this concept is the thin value bet. While technically this bet can take place on any street, generally speaking, a thin value bet is made on the river when your final hand is rather lightweight—perhaps a hand like middle pair. It’s far from the nuts, not strong enough to be bet with any real confidence, and yet it’s not completely worthless either.

 This is the kind of hand that a player usually likes to check down and see a cheap showdown. That’s the easy and safe thing to do.

 But for players who want to push every advantage, exploit every edge, and who don’t mind risking a few extra chips now and then, there is value to be mined from those middling hands—as long as you know when, where, and against whom to apply the pressure. As usual, the key lies in knowing your opponents. More specifically, you must be able to put your opponent on a range of hands with some degree of accuracy. Next, you must be able to guesstimate how often said opponent will call down your less-than-stellar hand with an even worse hand of his own.

 For example, you have A-8 suited in the cutoff, and when the river card is dealt, the community board reads 5-8-JK- 3 of mixed suits. On the flop, it was checked to you, you fired out a bet, and everybody dropped except for the big blind. On the turn, it was checked around, and it’s been checked to you again on the river. Unless you have a decent read on your opponent, any bet you make here is just a wild-ass guess. Thinking about the texture of the board, the betting action, and the playing style of this particular adversary: What are the chances that your river bet would be called by a worse hand?

 If your opponent was calling with 9-10 he’s certainly not going to pay you off now, though he may try a check-raise bluff. However, if you have reason to believe this opponent would call with dreck—a worse eight, a pair of fives, a lowly pair of treys, or perhaps even a lowlier ace-high—that could tip the scale in favor of pushing out a thin value bet. What could cause an otherwise thinking opponent to call off his chips with sub-par slop? In a nutshell: because he suspects a bluff. The more aggressive your table image, the greater the likelihood that some weary-of-beingsteamrolled opponent will decide to play sheriff, expecting to snap off your bluff with his bottom pair. Or maybe the player on the other side of the table is not a thinking opponent after all, but a call-happy blockhead who always has to make sure. Either way, a thin value bet starts to look a lot more valuable in those kinds of circumstances.

 Along with a reliable read of your opponents, a good awareness of your own table image is critical for thin value bets to be successful. But even when executed flawlessly, thin value bets are not very lucrative in the long run. That’s what makes them thin. Middling hands are, after all, quite vulnerable, and they’re just not going to make a lot of profit over the long haul. But done right, with a strong base of knowledge so that the additional risk is calculated as opposed to being foolhardy, thin value bets can be an effective way to elevate your game.

 Barbara Connors is a sucker for classic old movies, science fiction, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Her life’s ambition is to figure out the unusual behavior patterns of that unique breed of humans who call themselves poker players. Contact her at

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