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Poker Strategy: The Offense And Defense Of Thin Value

Three Top Poker Pros Share Their Tips

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Mar 23, 2022


The Pros: Billy ‘DGAF’ McNulty, Patrick Howard, and Ed Liu

Craig Tapscott: Please explain how you use thin value bets to get the maximum value out of a hand.

Billy McNulty: The beauty of no-limit hold’em is that you can bet any amount at any time. If you have a weak hand but believe it is likely best, you are going to want to go for a thin value bet. 

In general, you should choose a small sizing when value betting thin against solid, math-oriented opponents. They aren’t going to like paying you off due to the weakness of their own hand, but they will be all but forced to due to the amazing pot odds you will be giving them. 

Against “feel players” who “go with their gut” and are fearless, value betting thin gets a lot more fun. Depending on how likely you think it is your hand is best, multiplied by how sticky your opponent is, multiplied by how bluffy he or she thinks you are, you can actually size all the way up to all in. This is one of the best feelings in poker, owning your opponent by stacking him or her with a weak hand. 

Let’s say I get to the river on a board of QDiamond Suit 10Diamond Suit 8Club Suit 6Club Suit 2Heart Suit. I have ADiamond Suit 10Club Suit. I’ve deduced that my opponent only has J-10, 10-9, 9-9 or 9-8. If I think my opponent is pretty risk averse but also a solid math-oriented player, I might bet a quarter of the pot, giving him 5:1 pot odds on a call. He pretty much has to pay me off. 

In this same situation, if I know my opponent loves to make hero calls and thinks I’m a maniac, I might go all-in for three times the size of the pot. My opponent’s pot odds will be really bad in this case obviously, but he will think I’ve made a very polarized bet; the nuts or nothing. And since he blocks the nuts no matter what his hand actually is (same range as in the first scenario), he might be inclined to give me all his money. 

Patrick Howard: In practice, players tend to overfold the river, which makes thin value-betting lower EV than it should be in theory. I generally try to avoid going for really thin value due to the population’s tendency to overfold.

If I do attempt to go for thin value, for example, going for two streets of value with a hand like a weak middle pair, then I’ll often exploitatively size down on the river to make sure I don’t value cut myself, especially if I’m playing in a pool where I don’t need to worry too much about being counter-exploited for having a sizing tell like this.

It’s important to note that if you are up against a player who gets to the river in certain lines with an extremely capped range (i.e. they do not protect their range by slow-playing enough nutted hands), then you can often value bet thin, even if the player overfolds the river. Remember that in order for a value bet to be +EV, you must win at showdown more than 50% of the time when you get called. Therefore, a player’s get-to-river range will have a major impact on how often you are betting into stronger hands, and subsequently how thin you can go with your value bets.

If I am playing against a player who defends at optimal frequencies, or even slightly over-defends, I’ll use the opposite strategy. I’ll value bet as thin as I can without making a major polarization error in theory, perhaps choosing to exploitatively size up on the river. 

If I’m playing against a recreational player who is simply a calling station, then I will often restructure my bet sizing sequence starting from the flop. I will usually size up my flop bet or raise size and try to get all in as quickly as possible with anything close to a nutted hand against these opponents.

Ed Liu: Value betting is the essence of making money in poker. When you think you have the best hand you want to increase the size of the pot. Otherwise, all players will break-even in the long run and the house collecting the rake will be the only winner.

When you have a monster hand you want to try to build a monster pot. But what about when you have a mediocre hand and you put your opponent on a mediocre hand? This is where thin value bets come into play.

Let’s say you’re facing an opponent on the river with the action on you. You have a decent hand but you’re not sure if you are ahead or behind. Using hand-reading skills, you think back about what happened in the hand before the flop, on the flop, and on the turn. It’s like you are communicating with each other using the language of poker. 

A bet means I have a hand. A raise means I have a better hand. A check means I’m not sure about my hand. A check-raise means just kidding, I have a great hand and now you’re in trouble! The great players use all the information to deduce what their opponents likely have down to a small range of hands. Can someone just mess with you and speak a completely different language? Sure, they can. But unless there is a well-thought-out method to their madness, they are probably the fish and will end up being easy money.

How many hands in your opponent’s range are ahead of you? How many hands are behind you? How many hands are behind you but will still call you if you bet? You should bet for thin value when the times where your opponent calls and you win the pot outweighs the times your opponent calls and they win the pot. You should do it more frequently against calling stations who often show up with lesser holdings and less frequently against nits who often show up with better holdings.

Craig Tapscott: How do you combat an aggressive opponent once you realize they are capable of value betting thin?

Billy McNulty: It comes up all the time in poker hands where only two players remain in the pot and both strongly believe the other is “capped” at a weak hand. These deductions come from passivity on previous streets, disjointed board textures, physical and verbal tells, and other factors. At this point—often on the river, but also on earlier streets as well—the player who believes they have the better of the two weak hands will be inclined to employ a thin value bet; typically, a small bet to entice their opponent to call with their weak hand due to great pot odds, just in case their hand is better.

While this concept of thin value betting is great for the bettor’s bottom line, it is detrimental to the caller’s bottom line, and it can be embarrassing as well. 

So how can one combat thin value bets? My best advice is to start by slow playing the occasional strong hand. This will make you less exploitable when you play passively on early streets because your range will be balanced with weak hands and strong hands as well.

For example, you have 2-2 and it comes J-9-2 rainbow. The preflop raiser, who is a good player, continuation bets for about half the pot. You just call. The turn is a 4 and he checks. You think he just has 9-X or 10-10 a lot here because if he had better he would have bet again, and if he had worse he would have done something different on the flop. Just check back. He would likely make a good fold if you bet now, and he will be inclined to put out a thin value bet on the river after you feign weakness here by checking back.

Then when he does value bet the river thin, you win more money in the hand than you would have had you played the earlier streets aggressively, and you might even confuse your opponent into calling your river raise. 

You should also occasionally turn your bluff-catchers into bluffs often when facing what appears to be a thin value bet. This means raise those too, sometimes. Soon people will be too scared to value bet thin against you!

Patrick Howard: If an opponent is value betting thinner than the average opponent, and all other factors remain constant, that means their overall river bluffing frequency will decrease. Depending on how significant of a change I think this will make in their bluffing frequency relative to the optimal bluffing frequency, I may respond by exploitatively folding more of my bluff catchers than usual. 

(As an aside, it is possible that you could encounter an opponent who overbluffs the river despite making very thin value bets, and in this case the correct response would not be to overfold, but to overcall.)

If I am facing an opponent who is capable of thin value betting, and I don’t have a pure bluff catcher, but instead I have a hand which may have shreds of split equity or value domination against my opponent’s thin value betting range (for example, a medium-strength top pair versus a triple barrel on a dry board), then I will call more with these hands, as they should now have a significantly higher EV to call versus my opponent’s betting range.

Another exploitative factor to consider is if an opponent is capable of value betting thin but has a hard time defending those thin value bets versus a raise. I may exploit them by turning more of my bluff catchers into bluff raises rather than calls, to capitalize on their overfold.

Now, if an opponent is value betting way too thin, and is actually making huge polarization errors (perhaps a wild recreational player), I would simply use the exploits above to a greater degree. The nice thing about your opponent making value betting errors is you don’t have to change your strategy to capitalize on their mistake. It’s simply an unforced error and they will lose a lot of EV in practice as long as your river defense is reasonably balanced.

Ed Liu: Adapting your game to the opponents you are playing against is also key for playing great poker. If you realize an aggressive opponent is capable of value betting thin you need to adjust your game accordingly. If they are capable of betting with a mediocre hand you need to call more often with hands that beat mediocre hands.

You should play even more selectively against aggressive opponents who put you in tough spots. They win a lot of extra pots because opponents do not have the heart to hang with them facing bets on multiple streets. The last thing you want to do in these situations is call this street and then re-evaluate. They are counting on you to lose heart later in the hand. 

Just like in chess, the more steps you can think ahead in poker, the bigger the advantage you will have over your opponents. It’s better if you choose early on to either fight hard or just give up. Getting caught in the middle can waste a lot of chips without having a legitimate enough of a chance to take down the pot.

If you are near the top of your range given how the hand played out, sometimes you just need to stand your ground and refuse to get taken off your hand. Another adjustment you can make is to increase your bluff-raise frequency. If they are routinely value betting thin with marginal holdings, they are doing it with hands that cannot withstand a raise. One or two bluff raises after their river bets will really get them gun shy when they are thinking about trying to eke that last bet out of you. ♠

Billy ‘DGAF’ McNulty is a longtime cash game pro and content creator, known for his Sessions podcast. He is a regular commentator for Hustler Casino Live and operates the poker apparel company Poker Rags. Follow him on Twitter

Patrick Howard is a professional online cash game player and the lead strategy developer at Poker Detox, a coaching and staking company which pioneers data-driven poker strategies. His brother Nick is also a poker pro. See more from him @mobiuspoker.

Ed Liu has been grinding cash games for more than 15 years. The poker coach also has three World Series of Poker Circuit rings. Find Liu on Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter @jk_unsuited and his YouTube channel EdLiuPoker.