“I had to raise to see where I was at.” You’ve probably heard these words or something similar if you’ve played more than a little poker. In Dan Harrington’s book on cash games, which in many ways is one of the best poker books out there, he says something like, “I like to define the hand with a single raise.” That’s the basic idea: you raise, their action tells you how strong they are, and you go from there.
This works great, if they cooperate. Many players have what could be called an honesty threshold: a level of action, either in bets or dollars, past which they don’t mess around. For example, a mediocre player might be capable of raising some speculative hands pre-flop and continuation betting on the flop, but once he gets raised he just plays according to his hand strength, folding weak hands, calling with marginal hands, and raising strong hands.
Typically, the better the player, the higher the threshold. The best players are capable of playing deceptively for any amount at any point in the hand. If your raise syncs up with your opponent’s honesty threshold it will probably work out pretty well: for a minimal investment you’ll get reliable information about their hand. But if it doesn’t you could be getting yourself into trouble by building a big pot without getting any reliable information. Betting to “see where you’re at” can be effective against weak opponents, but it’s dangerous against tough opponents.
One player at Motor City, we’ll call him Zed (I’m going to start changing the names, because I’m not thrilled about giving away reads) makes these types of raises far too often at pretty much every point in the hand. In one hand at 5/10 I open to 40 in early position with Ts9s and he calls in middle position. We’re about 1600 deep. No one else calls and the flop comes 8c6c4s. I have two over cards, a gutshot, and a backdoor flush draw. I bet 75 and Zed raises to 175. Since I’ve played with him awhile I know exactly what this means: he has a marginal hand like 99 or A8 and is making a small raise to “see where he’s at.” In this case his raise has told me exactly where he’s at, but I don’t intend to react as honestly. He’s bloated the pot, told me what he has, and re-opened the betting. The football equivalent would be telling the other team you’re running a long pass play and giving their defensive end a free shot at your quarterback. I re-raise to 450 and he quickly folds, saying, “Nines, I don’t think they were good.”