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The Art of the Check-Raise

By Marc Weinberg

It’s hard for some people to realize this, but too much of a good thing can indeed have negative repercussions for the person who believes the indulgence can continue unabated and indefinitely. That sixth cupcake, eighth pint of beer, or tenth consecutive check-raise will suddenly offer you very little in the way of benefits and plenty in the way of harm. And yet, many online poker players behave as though the check raise is the only way to play a hand. The concept of value betting is as foreign to them as the guys were who came out on the beach to welcome Columbus.

If you have a strong hand you have to trap, right? Trapping is cool, right? Wrong, and wrong again. Trapping with a check raise is profitable and correct when you have first established a willingness to value bet hands. The check raise derives its value from being deceptive. But if all you ever do is check raise then you’ve become as predictable as someone who always calls. In short, you have become a poor poker player and you will ultimately lose.

The check raise used to be frowned upon by old-time poker players due to its sneakiness. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago (as recently as a few years even) when you had to first ask the game if check-raising was even permitted. Certain card rooms and plenty of private games prohibited the check raise, declaring it unethical and not in the true spirit of the game of poker. To forbid the check raise is ludicrous. It is an essential tool, and a key component of poker betting strategy. Without it poker loses much of its subtlety and nuance, and betting bullies would have free reign to terrorize the rest of us with their incessant raising.

There are several reasons to check raise a pot and one of the most compelling is to slow down a maniac. If a bully is betting at and raising every pot then you combat him by slow-playing a powerful hand (when one comes your way), or by representing a hand of that nature. The way you do this is to let him have his betting fun in the early rounds, but on the turn or the river you pounce with a well-executed check raise. This sends him a couple of vital messages:

  1. you have a real hand here;
  2. you are not to be trifled with any longer as a player;
  3. it’s time for him to show a powerful hand or start slowing down from now on.

The check raise is fun and cool and potentially very profitable if used in the right way at the right time. But with the online poker phenomenon, there are now thousands of new, inexperienced poker players who feel the need to make what they consider to be flashy, sexy plays all the time (the youth who play poker suffer from the same paucity of ideas as all other youth, and tend to behave in similar, juvenile fashion). Here are some examples:

When you hold J-K and the flop comes J-4-7 it is not cool to check raise. In fact, it is really dumb. Your hand is not powerful enough for a check raise, and if you check and everyone else checks behind you then you have really missed out by not value betting your fair hand of top pair. But in online no limit poker it is common to see a huge check raise with this mediocre holding.

“Dude,” I can hear my adolescent online poker friend lamenting after the fact, “I had top pair and a most excellent kicker. I had to put him all-in with the check raise! What were the chances he could beat that, like 5% max?”

If you allow someone else to bet with this board and then they respond by calling your massive check raise chances are (unless they are also childish and dim) they can beat a pair of Jacks. They might have J-7 or Q-Q or J-A. There is a decent probability you’re facing hands of that nature. I didn’t even mention 4-4, 7-7 or J-J!

The point is you should never have check raised in the first place. You should have rather made a probing value bet to establish your own hand, and then see what happened. If you were raised you could start to consider the fact that you’re behind or beaten. If you get flat called you might be up against a weaker J or a drawing hand, and both of those options suit you. If everyone folded you take down the pot with your bet. A check raise here can only get you into trouble.

There are times when the check raise works perfectly as a trap, and knowing when to set it can make you a lot of money. For instance, you face a big pre-flop raise from a solid player and you hold 4-4. You call and then check the flop when it comes 2-4-8. This is now the perfect moment to check-raise with abandon. Your opponent hopefully holds a monster hand like AA or KK and will bet big to try and win the pot. In fact, he would bet big with almost any premium hand against that board. You might even simply call his raise behind him and go for the check raise on the turn. Regardless, your check in this position sets you up to win an enormous pot.

A check raise works best when you can conceal a very powerful hand. If you’re in the big blind with 6-8 and the flop comes 4-5-7 you are in a beautiful position to check raise. But so often you see players trying to check raise with a weak two pair or even worse a drawing hand (say the flop came 5-7-J), and you just shake your head at the computer screen in complete and utter disbelief.

The real issue that I want to drive home here is that repeatedly check raising a pot will mark you as a weak player, and you will become very easy to beat. You have sacrificed the element of surprise, which is the greatest reason to try this strategy in the first place. You also give away too much information regarding your hand. No one will bet against you when you check, and you’ll give up free cards. Then you’ll be forced to bet later on at which point you will often find you are no longer in the lead. Missing a bet is a crucial error made by weak players, and it’s usually because they fell in love with the notion of the check raise and forgot to win the pot by making value bets when they had legitimate reason to do so.

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