Wait your turn

In a climate where it’s all about aggression, the use of ‘checking’ has reached an all-time low

You are merely deferring your chance to act. If someone else takes the lead and comes out betting, you can still fold, call or raise

Last time we discussed calling as a strategy. While winning at poker does require aggression, and betting and raising are key to aggressive play, successful players always have a wide variety of tools at their disposal. If you rely solely on hyper-aggressive play, this could lead to money being lost unnecessarily. Unmitigated aggression can mark a player out as a one-trick pony who is easily countered by any opponent astute enough to observe him closely. Tempering your tendency to lean too heavily on betting and raising by calling every now and then provides a good tactical balance to aggressive play.

Although checking has many of the same attributes as calling, the difference comes in one’s position in the betting order. Once someone acts, you no longer have the option of checking. When first to act in the betting order, or if the other players check before you act, your options are twofold: you can check or bet. That’s all. You might think checking is a weak strategy, and you’re not alone if you do. But it doesn’t have to be. After all, checking is not an act of surrender or a form of capitulation – it is merely a wager that holds no value.

Think of it as deferring your option to act, and passing that opportunity over to opponents who act after you in the betting order. It’s as if you’re holding a door open for a stranger, saying: ‘Go ahead; I’ll wait while you go on ahead.’ That’s all. You are not relinquishing your chance to act; you are merely deferring it. If someone else takes the lead and comes out betting, you still have three options available when the action gets back to you. If someone bets, you can fold, call, or raise. All of your options are at your disposal. You haven’t surrendered a thing. This is hardly a weak strategy.

Well, maybe one thing. If you checked because you have a powerful hand and want to raise after someone else bets – but everyone checks behind you – your opportunity to check-raise has been foiled. Rather than trapping your opponents for two bets, all that failed check-raise will accomplish is to give your opponents a free card – which you probably didn’t want to do.

Check-raising is one of those ‘I need assistance’ strategies. After all, you can check, bet, fold, or call all by yourself. But you can’t check-raise without a little help from your friends. At least one player has to bet after you check in order for you to check-raise. And, unless you have a human-raising machine sitting to your left, you can’t always be sure that the check-raise you are hoping to launch will get off the ground.

But checking is a good idea when you have a very big hand and the opponent to your left is aggressive. Your check should convince him to bet. Then you can checkraise and win a bigger pot. If your overly aggressive opponent’s bet attracts calls from players who act after he does, you can trap them all for two big bets in a fixed limit game, or blow them out of the pot with a big raise in a no-limit game. If your opponents realise you will check-raise very big hands, it might allow you to check and get a free card when you’re the one who’s on a draw and in need of help to complete your hand. When you need improvement, what could be better than getting some help at no cost?

So drawing…

A good example of this is a check from the big blind when the pot is not raised. By checking the big blind you are essentially seeing the flop for free. If it’s to your liking, your opponents won’t have any idea how powerful your hand is until you begin pounding them with it later in the betting round. Look before you leap.

When you’re early to act in the betting order and don’t know the strength of your opponents’ hands, checking allows you to take a deep breath and see what the other players do before you act. Let’s suppose you called with J…-10Ú and saw a flop of J;-8;-7:. You might have the best hand right now, but then again any one of your opponents might still be in the lead. The possibilities are rampant: a Jack with a better kicker is an obvious example, and if you are up against a couple of opponents, you might be trying to fend off a flush draw, a straight draw or even a made straight. All you have is one pair with a vulnerable kicker plus a gutshot straight draw, and while it might be the best hand right now, it doesn’t come with a guarantee – it is still vulnerable to other drawing hands.

Basically, this is not a hand you can ever be comfortable with because many turn cards can cripple it. Prudently checking seems like the best course of action. If there’s a bet and a call, and particularly if there’s a bet and a raise, saving your chips for a better opportunity by tossing your hand away is generally the best option.

Don’t throw it away

Checking affords the leeway to defer your opportunity to act until after you see what your opponents do. If there’s no appreciable action and you feel your hand is in the lead, you can come out betting on the next round as long as the turn card is benign. But if there is sufficient action to convince you that your hand is not in the lead, you can toss it away with the assurance that checking and folding will save you a few chips. It’s important to remember that money saved is equal to money won. Money that stays in your hand because you were prudent enough not to wager it foolishly away spends just as well as money you win.

Checking in early position can be vitally important when you’re playing no-limit. No-limit is a game where position is even more important than in fixed-limit poker. If you have a draw in early position and are facing two or three opponents, it’s wise to check and see what your opponents do. If they check, that’s great. A free card may allow you to complete your hand at no cost or risk to yourself.

Betting always runs the risk of facing a big raise. You’ll probably have to fold your hand and relinquish any chips you’ve already invested in it – simply because you’re not getting the right price to draw.

Betting a draw against one opponent is a smarter idea than wagering into a large field. Against a lone opponent you stand a good chance of driving him off his hand and winning the pot right there. If he calls, you may still catch the card you need to complete your draw. If you get lucky, the fact that you did bet the draw disguises your hand and may enable you to take a large portion of your opponent’s chips.

Make my day

Checking is also a terrific tool to use when you are in a quandary as to how your hand stacks up against your opponents. A check here is another deferral. It’s as if you’re saying: ‘Go ahead, give me some idea about the real or purported strength of your hand. Once I have some additional information at my disposal, I’ll decide what to do about it.’

While aggressive play is still the hallmark of a skilful poker player, it’s selective and aggressive play (not unrestrained, unmitigated aggression) that can make good players even better. Selective and aggressive means betting and raising most of the time with your good hands and checking and folding your weak ones. But when you have a drawing hand, are trying for a checkraise, or you want to deceive an overly aggressive opponent into committing and losing all his chips, checking and calling – or checking and raising – is a tactical ploy that can yield terrific results.

Next time I will be bringing together all the concepts of passive play involving checking and calling. If you have any questions or ideas as to future articles, please feel free to contact me at LouKrieger@aol.com

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