Did you know that check-raising used to be banned in most casinos? Seriously! It was considered deceitful to act weak by checking only to raise when the action got back to you! Poker has come a long way since then, and you’re now free to check-raise to your heart’s content. It’s a pretty important part of a winning player’s strategy and should be one of the first advanced strategy tools to implement in your play when learning how to play poker. So, we’ll break down all the what, when, and whys about check-raising in poker.
What is a Check-Raise?
A check-raise is when a player checks out of position with the intention of raising a future bet from their opponent. It can be done either as a bluff or as a value bet, with the aim of either applying maximum pressure on an opponent or getting maximum value from them. You must be out of position to be considered a check-raise; checking back in position to raise the turn against a bet is not considered a legitimate check-raise. A check-raise can also only be made postflop. Let’s look at an example of one in action:
In a $1/$2 cash game, you’re in the big blind with 3c3d. You face a raise to $6 from the villain on the button, and you call. The flop comes Ac9d3s; you check, your opponent bets $4, you raise to $14, and your opponent folds.
The $14 raise after you checked on the flop constitutes a check-raise. This would be an example of a check-raise for value, given the strength of the hand that was check-raised.
Benefits of Check-Raising
You may be thinking, “Why would I try to check-raise when I’ve got a strong hand? If my opponent checks back, then no money goes in on that street! So what are the benefits of check-raising over just betting out?” You, ahem, raise an excellent point! Whenever you go for a check-raise, you’re running the risk that your opponent doesn’t take the bait and just checks back. However, check-raising has plenty of benefits, which means it’s sometimes worth taking that risk.
Benefit #1: Apply Maximum Pressure to Your Opponents
Facing a check-raise is never a comfortable spot to be in unless you have a very strong hand. A lot of pressure can be applied to weak/medium hands with a check-raise, especially if they’re followed up with bets on the turn/river. You’d be surprised how often people fold pairs–even top pairs–to check-raises on the right boards. Part of the effectiveness of check-raises is the threat of bets on the turn and river.
When you check-raise, you can substantially bloat the pot, and if you do so on the flop, then by the river, the pot is exponentially bigger than it would have been if the action went bet/call. By check-raising early on in the hand, you’re making your opponent decide whether or not they want to play a big pot with what will often be a marginal hand. Most players don’t like to make these tough decisions for large amounts of money and will almost always air on the side of caution and fold their hand.
Benefit #2: Build a Pot with Your Value Hands
Even though we’ve just extolled the effectiveness of check-raising as a bluff, it’s also good for building the pot when you have a value hand. The best hands to check-raise for value are those that don’t block good hands that your opponent can have to call you down with.
For example, a straight such as Jc9c on QdTs8d is a great hand to check-raise as your opponent can have all the Qx, two pair combinations, sets, and flush draws. A hand like QcTd isn’t as great to check-raise because you block your opponent from having some of those hands they could call with.
Wet boards are also much better to check-raise for value on than dry boards as there are many more draws that your opponent can call with. Also, when you check-raise on a dry board, you’re banking on your opponent having a strong hand that they can call with–which is unlikely when you have a strong hand yourself.
A board like QdTs8d is a much better board for check-raising than Ac9s4d.
Benefit #3 – Attack Players Who c-bet Too Much
Back in the early 2000s, people would hardly ever bet unless they had a made hand or a strong draw. If they missed, they would just check and give up–even if they were the preflop raiser. People then discovered that if they started to bet more often, their opponents would fold. Sounds pretty obvious in today’s poker world, but back then, it was nearly unheard of! Even today, the c-bet is a very effective tool as it’s hard to continue against it if you have absolutely nothing.
The problem is that many players blindly c-bet every flop because they’ve heard that c-betting is what they’re “supposed” to do. These players are ripe for exploiting, and check-raising is a great way to do that. Players already under-defend against check-raises even when c-betting a normal range, so if you check-raise someone who is betting 100% of their hands, you can expect that check-raise to almost always work.
Keep an eye out for those players who don’t seem to care what comes on the flop when they bet–these are your prime targets.
Benefit #4 – Take Initiative Back from the Preflop Aggressor
Playing pots as the preflop caller is often challenging as you don’t have the betting lead going into the flop. So unless you decide to lead out and play out of flow, you’ll check to the aggressor, who will likely make a c-bet. If you check/call against this c-bet, they keep the betting lead going into the turn.
This puts you on the backfoot if you want to get them to fold or if you want to build a pot, as you’re very likely to check to them again on the turn, and they have the option of just checking back. By check-raising the flop, you get to have the betting lead going into the next street. This allows you to build your pot/apply max pressure (depending on your aims for the hand) rather than checking and hoping that they make another bet or playing out of flow by donk-leading.
Now that we know what we “theoretically” should be looking for when we check-raise, what real-world strategy adjustments can we make to best exploit our opponents?
Look For Over-CBettors
We mentioned earlier that a benefit of check-raising is that you can attack players who c-bet too often. This type of player is more commonly found than you’d think due to the trend of players c-betting a wide range for a small sizing. While this strategy is good in some situations, it’s overused by the general population and can be exploited.
If you see players betting a small sizing on dynamic boards, they’re likely misapplying this strategy. Small sizings are good on dry boards as it’s hard to make a hand, and your cheap bluff will often work, but that’s not the case on dynamic boards. When you see these small sizings on wet boards, you can exploit the fact they’re likely c-betting too wide by check-raising them.
Even on dry boards where players are supposed to use a small size, it’s unlikely they have a hand, so a check-raise will often work. Playing these spots against thinking opponents becomes a giant game of “they know that I know;” “they know that I’m betting a wide range on this dry board, so they’re going check-raise a lot, so I should defend a wide range to counter that, etc., etc.” The best targets for these kinds of exploits are the players that aren’t thinking–they’re the ones that heard that c-betting small with a wide range is good and apply it in every spot. These players are your targets.
Exploitably Check-Raise for Value on Boards That Are Bad for Us
Part of the danger of trying to exploit our opponents is that we ourselves become exploitable when we do so. What we’re banking on is that our opponents won’t notice, or at least will take a long time to notice how to exploit us, and by that time, we’ve already won enough from them that we don’t really care. It’s important to remember this as this strategy will sound very exploitable–because it is.
Earlier, we talked about how check-raising on a board where our opponent has more strong hands is a bad idea as we won’t have enough value bets to properly balance out our range, meaning our opponent can happily call down often and expect to win. However, if we expect our opponents to do this, we can check-raise only our value hands and expect to be called down. Our opponent will think we’re over-bluffing, but in reality, we’re way under-bluffing.
Finding these exploits where our opponents will do the opposite of what they should is where we start to print money in EV. If our opponent knew we were under-bluffing, they’d fold almost everything–but they think we’re over-bluffing, so they’re going to call down even lighter, which means we get paid way more often than we should.
However, it’s important to be mindful of how exploitable we’re being, and if you see your opponent start to adjust to your strategy, then you must revert back to optimal play.
Target Weak/Passive Players
Weak or passive players are the perfect target for bluffing. These players do not like putting in a lot of money without a very strong hand and are therefore easy to bully off medium/weak hands. Furthermore, due to the strength of the check-raise, you can expect weak/passive players to fold almost all their hands when facing one.
If they continue against your check-raise, you have a very easy give-up as you know that they will have a very strong range. Check-raising these players with a wide range and giving up with your bluffs on the turn and river will be an extremely profitable play. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because you’ve check-raised the flop, it means you need to barrel off on the turn and river; we’re check-raising a wide range because we expect them to fold a lot, so when they call the check-raise they’re unlikely to fold to a turn/river bet.
What to Do When Facing a Check-Raise
We’ve talked a lot about what we should do when deciding whether or not to check-raise, but what if we’re the ones facing a check-raise? There are two ways we can look at it, either the theoretical approach or the exploitable approach:
When you’re facing a check-raise, you need to look at how both your and your opponent’s ranges interact with the board and ask yourself a couple of things:
- How often does my opponent have a very strong hand?
- How often do I have a very strong hand?
- Who has an equity advantage on this board?
These questions will give you an indication of how often your opponent should be check-raising. If they often have a very strong hand compared to you, then you can expect them to check-raise often, and if they don’t, then you can expect the check-raise percentage to be much lower. Next, you need to ask yourself this question about your opponent:
- What kind of player are they?
Whether they’re passive or aggressive should significantly impact how you react when facing a check-raise. For example, on boards where you don’t expect your opponent to check-raise very often (AcKsQd, for example), your opponent shouldn’t have many value hands and will likely be over-bluffing. However, if your opponent is a nit who hardly ever bluffs, then you know their range is weighted far more towards value, and you can tighten up accordingly.
If you think your opponent is a balanced player, then you need to pick the best hands in your range to call down that either blocks their value range or unblocks their bluffing range. For example, on a board of Jc9c8d, we want to have hands that block straights/two pair but don’t have any diamonds. A hand like JsTs is theoretically a better hand to call down vs. a check-raise and barrel off than a hand like AcJs. Both hands are the same hand rank, and we don’t expect our opponent to do this with a hand like KJ, so kickers don’t matter. The JT hand doesn’t block the flush draw and does block the QT/T7 straight.
Theory is all well and good, but poker is played by people, and people aren’t very good at playing a purely theoretical game–this includes your opponents. People get scared, have biases, and have favorite hands that they always want to win with. Trying to play optimally against the high-stakes robots is the only way you’ll survive, but against Joe and Bob at the local cardroom, it’s not going to be the most profitable way to play.
People at low stakes live/micro stakes online do not check-raise anywhere near enough of the time, especially as a bluff. It’s a lot of money to put in with a bluff, and with the potential to lose even more on turns/rivers, players just don’t want to take the risk. This means that a player’s check-raising range is going to be weighted far more towards value than what’s theoretically correct. To exploit that, we can over-fold against these check-raises and only continue when we have a very strong hand.
The only caveat to this will be if you’re playing against a maniac. Maniac players are far more common at the lower stakes, and these players are capable of punting off with any two cards at any time. So if you find yourself in a game with one of these players, grab some showdown value and hold on for dear life, even against a check-raise–it will be worth it.
Finally, one exploit that you can take with you is to always fold to river check-raises unless you hold the nuts. If you thought people didn’t check-raise enough on the flop, people do not get anywhere near the correct check-raise frequencies on the river. The pot is at its largest on the river, meaning that a lot of the time, a check-raise will be an all-in, and people do not feel comfortable doing that when they know that if they’re called, they lose their stack with no chance of improving their hand. A river check-raise is always an incredibly strong hand, so save yourself the money and fold your bluff-catcher.
Let’s have a look at some examples of check-raises in action and analyze whether not they’re good:
It’s a $0.10/$0.20 online cash game, and we’re in the BB with JcTs. Our opponent on the BTN raises to $0.60, the SB folds, and we call. We notice on our HUD that our opponent has a 100% c-bet frequency over 2000 hands. The flop comes 4c5c6h; we check, our opponent bets $0.45, we raise to $1.30, and our opponent folds. Was this a good check-raise?
If you only looked at our hand compared to the board, it would not be considered a good check-raise; we have a bluff utterly unconnected to the board, and if we’re called, we have very few outs to improve. However, in the preamble, it’s stated that our opponent has a 100% c-betting frequency over 2000 hands–not an insignificant sample size. Our opponent also used a small sizing on a board that should be better for our range than theirs. All of this points to someone who is c-betting blindly–so while the hand choice may not be perfect, it’s a good exploit of a weak player.
It’s a $1/$2 live cash game, and we’re in the BB with 4c4d. Our opponent from UTG+1 raises to $7, it folds to us, and we call. We’ve seen that the player is likely a recreational player from other hands we’ve watched. The flop comes AcKs4h; we check, our opponent bets $15, we raise to $60, and our opponent calls. Was this a good check-raise?
This time the hand is a good candidate for a check-raise, but not the board. This is a much better flop for the UTG raiser than it is the BB caller, and as such, we should not be check-raising this board much, if at all, in theory. However, we noted that our opponent is a recreational player, and they have made a pot size bet on this board. From that, we can guess that our opponent has a hand they like, such as top pair, that probably won’t fold to our check-raise. It’s an exploitative check-raise, but against this opponent, it is likely the most profitable play.
We’re in the late stages of an MTT, one player away from the final table, and we’re in the BB with 8c7d. Average stacks are around 20bb deep, we have 40bb, and our opponent in the CO has 30bb. Our opponent raises to 2.5bb, it folds to us in the BB, and we call. The flop comes 6c4d3h, we check, our opponent bets 2bb, we raise to 7bb, our opponent goes into the tank and eventually folds 8h8s face up. Was this a good check-raise?
This is a classic example of applying pressure to a weak player in an already high-pressure situation. No one wants to bubble the final table, especially when they have a higher than average chip stack. The hand we chose to check-raise is good as we have two overcards to top pair as well as a gutshot straight draw. Our opponent folding 88 there may seem ludicrous to some people, and it is a tight fold, but you need to consider the ICM and overall tournament implications in this hand. When we check-raise the flop, we’re telling our opponent that we’re likely going to be playing for stacks by the river–and when you have an above-average chip stack on the final table bubble, do you really want to be playing for it all with just a pair of eights?
While check-raising can be scary–especially with a bluff–it’s important to know when and with what hands you should be doing it with. Make sure to always consider how both your range and your opponent’s range interact with the board before deciding whether or not to go for a check-raise.