How familiar is this scenario: You see a flop from the big blind after a hand is limped, with five players in. The board plays out with AK6T4 rainbow, checked down to the river, with no one showing much interest in the pot. On the river, the middle position player bets half pot, it’s folded to you, and you call with your four to be beat by a six, or you call with a six to be beat with a ten, or you call with a ten to be beat by a king.
In your mind, you thought you were probably beat, but figured that it was cheap enough to pay and learn something about the other player. Sometimes you win a small pot this way. Most of the time you lose. Is the price worth the extra information?
Most of the time, it’s pretty obvious that no one has any real strength. If a player had some strength – a set, top pair, two pair, straight – they would most likely try to extract value before the river, or protect against draws. It’s apparent by the lack of bets and the demeanor of the players – see them smile and giggle as it checks around – that the old hold’em adage has held true, “it’s hard to make a hand”.
You can be confident that the player who bet the river is doing so fairly light. You know this already. Why pay to find out what you already know? Am I advocating that you fold in these situations? Absolutely not! You should raise. If you turn your weak hand into a bluff, most of the time you will win the pot. Once in a while, you will get called or reraised and lose, but the times you win these pots easily outnumbers the lost pots.
Did you lose any information on the other player by raising and not seeing his hand? Not really. You learned just as much by your raise. If he folds, you know he was weak. If he calls, you get to see his hand. And if he raises, you know he was sandbagging a very strong hand.
The same principle applies to many hand scenarios. You may need to pay for information early in your poker career – to learn about betting patterns and tells. But at some point you need to switch to making a profit from the information you already paid for. Even when you are playing a different set of opponents, what you learned about patterns and tells can be applied without paying again. At some point in your poker career, you should be sitting down at the table as the Master, no longer the Student.