As discussed in earlier columns, while there is plenty of luck involved in the game, poker is a game of strategy and skill, as well. Getting your foot in when you can is a necessity – especially in tournament play, where climbing blinds can threaten your progression. One strategic maneuver in the game is the use of a check-raise.
When a player checks his hand during the betting round, with intentions of raising an ensuing bet made by an opponent, this is known as a check-raise. It is particularly useful in no-limit games, such as Texas Hold'em.
The check-raise is primarily used as an intimidation factor, which is precisely why timing is crucial for the move to work effectively. It is implemented during a hand where you may not have ideal positioning for extracting the most chips from your opponent. It informs your opponents that you are capable of making a risky move toward a pot and suggests you are playing with a strong hand.
The check-raise is one of the most popular traps in poker. In the past – and even today at some games – it has been regarded as poor etiquette. But the truth is check-raises have become an essential part of today's game.
Let's say, for example, you're under the gun with pocket 7s, spades and hearts, and you decide to limp in. After the initial round of betting, two players in late position and the big blind are still in the hand, along with you. The flop comes: 3h 7c Kd.
Now, let's imagine that the big blind checks to you. After flopping a set, your initial reaction may be to bet your three 7s. But take note of where you are seated in relation to your opponents. One player has already checked to you, but two others are positioned after yourself. By checking, you could suggest that your hole cards missed the flop completely, opening the betting to the other players.
A bet from either of the two late-position players would be a good one to make a check-raise upon. A bet from a player in late position would likely mean one of three things: (1) He hit the King and believes his top pair is good enough to bet, (2) he has a marginal hand, such as a small pocket pair, or a pair of 3s, and thinks a bet will weed out players who missed the flop, (3) or he is using his position to take what he can and hopes to win the pot with the bet.
After a player bets his hand, come over the top with a raise. The strength of your hand can usually dictate the size of your raise.
By doing this, you have shown the other players that you are not afraid to take risks and have suggested to them that you have a strong hand. You would have likely seen a pre-flop raise if opponents had pocket kings, so it's probably safe in this situation to assume you have the best hand.
If the players fold, you can rake the pot, knowing you made a little more than you might have if you came out swinging. If players come along for the ride – say, holding Kh Qc – you have them right where you want them.
The check-raise can be implemented in any poker game you sit down at. Don't think that you have to hold a monster hand after the flop in order for it to be successful. Semi-bluffs, such as drawing hands for straights and flushes, can also be effective with a check-raise. In these situations, it is more effective to make the check-raise a little stronger, especially if you think your opponent has a marginal hand.
If you are working with four cards to an open-ended straight or a strong flush after the flop, it might not be a bad idea to check-raise an opponent's bet by at least twice as much as their bet. Not only are you representing a strong hand, you are soliciting more chips from your opponent who may not be too strong himself. To top it off, if you do complete that straight or flush, you probably have him beat, and there's more money in the pot.
Keep in mind, check-raises on drawing hands are not always aimed at keeping players in the hand. Sometimes you want to get your chips in there and take down the winnings. The maneuver is often designed to take down small pots, not necessarily win you the biggest pots.
Because the check-raise is typically used to represent strength, it can be used as a bluff move, as well. Keep in mind, however, check-raise bluffs should only be used when you think your opponent has a hand he can fold. Don't get caught trying to check-raise a Ah Ks Kh board when you already smooth-called a pre-flop raise, sitting on 5c 6c.
If you do decide to bluff your way through a hand with a check-raise in an effort to win the pot, make sure you raise with enough “oomph” to scare off your opponent. A minimum raise on a player's bet might not be enough for him to fold a mediocre hand. (For this reason, the check-raise as a bluff or semi-bluff is more effective in no-limit styles of poker.)
Sometimes, your entire chip stack could be your sole defense. Check-raising all-in on a bluff has definitely worked in the past for some gutsy poker players, but it's important to know that you're putting everything on the line, in hopes that your opponents at the table will fold.
Know your opponents. Many good players will respect the check-raise. If you think you're in a hand with a good poker player, and he came along after your check-raise, he may have a better hand or might be drawing toward a better one. Likewise, less-experienced players don't always heed the warning of a check-raise and may come along anyway. Be careful of who you're up against and consider the size of your check-raise – if it is, in fact, the move you decide to make.
Keep in mind that whenever you decide to get sneaky and implement a check-raise, it's a two-way street. If you check a strong hand to an opponent, with hopes that he will bet, you are giving him the luxury of making the decision and seeing a free card. He can just as easily opt to check, as well, warranting an extra card to come out and potentially make his hand.
Poker great Doyle Brunson claims to use the check-raise technique rarely in no-limit Texas Hold'em for this reason, according to his book “Super/System.” At the same time, it's very difficult to watch World Series of Poker highlights or clips from “Poker After Dark” and not see the check-raise be put to use after a few hands.
Use the check-raise sparingly and keep your opponents off balance as they try to read you. Mixing up your betting scheme is, and always will be, one of your best defenses in poker. So, go out there, throw some check-raises into your opponents' bets and pull down some pots. You may even be surprised with what you can get away with. Good luck, and see you on the felt.