Springing the trap

Check-raising an opponent is one of the lowest blows you can land in poker

Most check-raises should be made when you have a strong hand

Check-raising is naughty. It’s poker’s bad boy move. It’s telling a lie. It’s setting and springing a trap. It’s big, it’s hard and it’s clever. And as an old lady in the Excalibur hotel casino, Las Vegas, once told me, ‘It’s part of the game but it’s kinda low – I’d never do it to you.’ Check-raising in no-limit Hold’em tends to be a big deal.

Usually you’re committing a lot of chips, sometimes your entire stack, to your hand and the pot. For some players trapping people with check-raises is a big part of their game, while others do it very rarely, but you should definitely consider making it part of your arsenal. Before you do that though, let’s look at the dos and don’ts, the things to think about, and how you can offend old ladies in the US without getting deported.

Power poker

A check-raise is a two-stage play. A player checks with another player or players left to act behind him. After someone bets and the action returns to him he then raises. This move is perceived as very powerful, because the player making it is stating he has a very strong hand, being as he’s playing back at someone who has already taken the betting lead and shown strength in the hand.

You can check-raise for value, when you think you’ve got the best hand and want to elicit a bet off another player who might otherwise fold. But you can also use it as a semi-bluff with a drawing hand, or as a complete bluff when the strength of the move will (hopefully) force a better hand to fold. This is a ballsy play that relies on you having a good read on your opponent. I’ll look at each of these moves in more detail through the course of this article, but first I’m going to consider the associated risks.

There are two dangers implicit in any attempted check-raise. The first is that your opponent won’t bet. As you’re first to act, by checking you’re giving your opponent the chance to take a free card, which can be particularly critical in a heads-up pot. This means that having identified a spot where you wanted to get chips in the pot none will have gone in, which is not good. You’ve also put yourself in a position where your strong hand could be overtaken by the free card you’ve given away.

The second problem is that you’re building a large pot. In no-limit games, making a decent check-raise often involves committing a lot of chips; this means you’ll pay a bigger penalty if you’re wrong about the strength of your hand or if your bluff is called.

There’s no real way around this last point because in most situations, for a check-raise to be effective, it’s right to make a significant raise. Think about it in the same way as any other bet or raise – something like three times the original player’s bet would be standard, if they have presumably made a standard bet initially.

Weak players often make the mistake of doing minimum check-raises to test the initial bettor, either as a bluff or to find out if their hand is good. I wouldn’t recommend this against decent players as they are being offered great odds to draw if their hand has outs. It can also be seized upon as a weak bet by stronger players who may play back at you. However, a minimum check-raise can be a legitimate bet size against an aggressive player if your plan is to induce a big bet or shove from them.

When looking at bet sizes, you should always be aware of your stack. If your check-raise is going to commit you to the pot you’re better off just moving all-in. For instance, you’re playing in a tournament and you have 15 big blinds left. Your opponent bets three times the big blind. A normal check-raise would now be between eight and 10 big blinds, but as this is more than half your stack you should back your move up by pushing all-in.

It’s also essential that you always think ahead. If you’re executing a check-raise it’s vital you have some kind of plan for the future of the hand. For instance, if you’re bluffing and get called you should be aware of whether you intend to follow up on the turn and what cards will be more or less likely to continue the bluff. Similarly, if your opponent re-raises you with a big bet or all-in shove, you should have an idea of the range of hands this represents and how you will act against him.

Good value

Most of the time you’re going to be check-raising when you’ve got a strong hand and you’re looking to gain maximum value from your opponent by trapping their chips in the pot. As I stated before, the great danger of this play is that your opponent doesn’t bet and you either fail to maximise the value of your hand or give a free card that either beats you or stops you being able to bet the next street.

Think very carefully about how often the other players bet or check in position before using it as a technique, and remember that the more aggressive your opponent is the more likely your check-raise is to succeed.

How can you extract the most value? Rather than check-raising the flop you should think about executing it on the turn. A common line to take with a strong made hand is to check and then call the pre-flop raiser’s bet on the flop and execute the check-raise on the turn. If you flop a set you’re allowing a raiser to make a continuation bet and/or hit a card. And if they connect on the turn your check- raise is likely to get paid off.

This will build a big pot and weaker players will find it difficult to get away from their hand. More experienced players, however, will notice the strength this betting pattern telegraphs and are less likely to get trapped by it.

If you’re first to act on the flop and you were the pre-flop raiser, another effective betting pattern to consider is to bet the flop and then check-raise on the turn. Say you’ve raised with A-A and the flop comes down a friendly J-6-2 no suits. Now you bet the flop and your only opponent calls. The turn is another Two.

On this board it’s extremely likely that you have by far the best hand. Against an aggressive player it may be best to check (representing that you’d made a continuation bet on the flop with a hand like A-K) and allow him to bet with the intention of raising him. This extracts maximum value on the occasions he called you on the flop with a medium strength hand and would otherwise have folded to a second bet from you on the turn.

Positive expectation

Check-raising as a semi-bluff is one of the most effective uses of the move in no-limit play. Check-raising with a draw traps your opponent’s money in the pot and, depending on the size of your draw, does so in a situation where you will often only be slightly behind, neutral or even ahead.

The strength of the check-raise also creates enough of a possibility that your opponent will fold to give you a positive expectation. You can use this move on either the flop or the turn, but if you pull the trigger on fourth street your opponent will have to fold more often to make it a winning play as there’s only one card left to come if you’re called.

However, make sure that you don’t always check-raise your made hands in one way and your drawing hands in another, or it’s likely that someone will spot the pattern and slam your fingers shut in the cookie jar. This semi-bluff move is a very profitable play in tournaments, especially if you can make a small overbet and get all your chips in and/or all your opponents’ chips, as players are more worried about going bust so will call your semi-bluff less.

Big bluff

This brings us to the sexy but dangerous move, the check-raise bluff. As check-raising is usually associated with strength and involves a large bet it’s very difficult for opponents to continue in the hand. As continuation betting on the flop is such a common place tactic in today’s games, check-raising is a way of punishing players trying to take advantage of their position.

For example, if the flop is a scary 8-7-5 and you check-raise it’s tough for a player with two big cards or even an overpair to continue, especially if you’re willing to follow up with another meaty bet on the turn.

Be aware of when your check-raise bluff will not be large enough to allow your opponent to fold. This sounds obvious but players make this mistake all the time. Say you’re in a tournament and there’s 1000 in the pot on the flop. You check and your opponent bets 800 leaving 1800 behind. If you check-raise him all-in it will now cost him 1800 to call into the 3600 pot.

With odds of 2/1 he’s likely to call you down with a wide variety of hands and, depending on the stage of the tournament and the player, he may even call with overcards rather than leave himself with a short stack.

Final thoughts

Remember that when making any play it needs to be congruent with the rest of your style. If you check-raise with strong hands you need to balance this by sometimes check-raising as a bluff, otherwise you’ll never get paid off when you have a great hand. Similarly if you often take the lead in hands and bet them strongly after the flop, when you make a great hand and attempt to trap, your opponents are very likely to smell it. Well, that’s check-raising in a nutshell. Now go forth and abuse old ladies – and everyone else for that matter.

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