When she went to University, my daughter got invited to poker games. She had never learnt the game, but she has inherited the family drive and determination, so she got good fast.

A few weeks later she sent me a text message asking if it was true that players were not allowed to check raise the river more than three times a night.

“No that’s not a rule. Why do you ask?”

“Because I keep doing it and the boys claimed that was the rule and I wasn’t allowed to any more”

I told her she was cleared to continue. This story illustrates just how annoying many players find the check raise. Legend has it it used to be banned in certain card clubs as too sneaky and underhand.

In this article I’ll look at when you should use the check raising weapon, what hands you should do it with both for value and as a bluff.

Check raising the flop as the defender

The most common scenario in poker is the button raises, and the big blind just calls. In this classic matchup, both will have wide ranges, but the big blinds range will be capped preflop (meaning it won’t have the strongest hands like pocket pairs and strong high cards, because they would all have threebet preflop). It will also be missing the weakest hands which would just have been folded. A range consisting only of medium strength hands like this is referred to as “condensed”.

By contrast the button’s range is linear, meaning it has all the hands the button thinks are strong enough to open, and missing all the weaker hands they just fold.

a man with a grey shirt at a poker table check-raising

Because of this, on most flops, irrespective of whether the big blind has flopped a good hand, they should check to the raiser, as the old saying goes. If they lead with their strong hands, they might as well tell their opponent they have a strong hand. Even more importantly, when they don’t lead out they might as well tell them “I don’t have a strong hand: otherwise I’d bet”.

There are a few situations where it is correct to bet into the raiser (more on those later) but these are exceptions that prove the rule. Most of the time leading into the raiser is not a good idea for the reasons just explained, so much so that the term often used for doing so is the “donk bet”, a disparaging one that suggests only donkeys would do it.

There are many flops that are so much more likely to have hit the button that when the big blind defender does check, the button can and indeed should just go ahead and bet irrespective of what they have. Examples include ace high boards, and boards with high cards generally, since it is more likely that the button is holding these cards than the big blind.

To take a concrete example, imagine the button raises off a stack of 40 big blinds, and the big blind defends off a similar stack.

The flop comes A82 rainbow.

This is a flop where the big blind should check regardless of their hand, and the button should bet no matter what they’re holding. Action is back on the big blind. If they’re holding a medium strength hand like 98 or A3 they should just call.

Their hand isn’t strong enough to raise for value, but is too strong to fold to a single bet, especially if the button is betting 100% of the time just because this is a good flop for their range. So calling is the best plan, hoping to either improve on the turn, or that the button will give up if they were bluffing and we can win at showdown.

If the big blind has missed the flop completely and is unlikely to improve to a strong hand they should just fold. But if they have a strong hand, like two pair, or even something like ace ten which will be ahead more often than not and can get called by weaker hands, they should go ahead and raise for value.

man in green shirt pushing chips into the middle of the table

Given that they have some strong hands in their range they can raise for value, the big blind should also check raise as a bluff some of the time. So when should you bluff? In any spot (not just check raising) to be un-exploitable you should be bluffing often enough that your opponent is making a mistake if they fold all their bluff catchers (hands that lose to all your value but beat all your bluffs), but not so often they’ll show a profit calling with them all.

Live you can use physical reads like always bluffing when you get a sense from the opponent they will fold, or you can just randomize in some way, but in theory the best way to do it is just use the correct percentage of your range that works best as a bluff.

What do I mean by “works best as a bluff”? When it comes to check raises on the flop the best bluffs have the following characteristics:

1. no chance to win at show down unimproved

On A82 6♠3♠ makes a better bluff than KQo because most if not all of the hands that will fold to our raise are better than 6♠3♠, but worse than KQo. Therefore when they do fold it’s a much bigger win for 6♠3♠ than KQo. Furthermore if our opponent re-raises us, folding 6 high is a lot less sad than having to throw away KQ

2. Some prospects to make a very strong hand

This is important because our opponents won’t always just raise or fold: they will call some of the time. This isn’t the end of the world or the story when we have 6♠3♠: we could pick up a gutshot if a four or a five hits the turn, or a flush draw if one of our suit appears. When we improve or pick up equity in this way, we can bluff again, getting folds from the part of the opponent’s range that was just about strong enough to call the flop check raise but isn’t strong enough to call the second barrel. When we don’t improve we can just give up.

This keeps our frequencies in check: if we fire the second (and potentially third) barrel too often, our opponents can exploit us by trapping us with their value hands safe in the knowledge we will continue to shovel money into the pot with all our bluffs, but if we don’t fire it often enough, they can exploit us by floating (calling our bet with the intention of making us fold on a later street when we give up).

If we do improve on the turn and we bet and they call us again, we might potentially win a very big pot on the river when we improve to a straight or a flush that is all the more disguised by virtue of the fact it got there runner runner.

On the other hand, if we miss but get a sense our opponent is hanging on reluctantly, or we get a river card that doesn’t actually improve us but looks to our opponent like it might have, we retain the option to fire the third barrel as a bluff. This is why double backdoor hands (hands that can go runner runner to different kinds of strong hands) make such powerful flop bluffs: they will occasionally make a very strong hand by the river (strong enough to allow us to happily get all the money in) but more often give us good potential bluffs on later streets.

3. block our opponent’s hands that will continue

Preferably they should block our opponent’s hands that will continue and unblock their hands that will fold to our bluff. This is the least important factor but it is a nice bonus. When we check raise on A82 we want our opponents to have high cards that have missed, so 6♠3♠ also makes a better bluff than KQo for this reason.

Check raising the turn

When we check call the flop, we go to the turn with a condensed range, because we would have check raised our strongest hands, and some of our weakest as bluffs. This means on most turn cards, our hand won’t improve.

When we do actually improve on a card which is worse for our range overall than our opponent (or on a blank: a card unlikely to have either us or our opponent), we should check again to allow them to bet all their bluffs and worse value. We can then raise if they do, having won at least one extra bet from their bluffs and their value that continues (but would only have called if we bet ourselves).

Man playing online poker on a laptop in his room

On some specific cards our hand will improve a lot of the time (for example if the second or third card on the flop pairs on the turn, we are much more likely to have improved than our opponent as we would check call all our second and third pair hands on the flop, so they make up a much larger percentage of our range going to the turn.

If our opponent is at all perceptive enough to recognize that this is a better card for us than it is for them, they will check behind a lot of the time, so we may be better off doing our own betting with both value hands and bluffs. But if they’re not that perceptive and they’re betting stations (the type who tends to keep betting until we either fold or raise) then we are better off checking to them to set up a check raise.

River check raises

The river is in many way the trickiest street to decide whether we should bet ourselves or go for a check raise. If we have check called both flop and turn we generally won’t be betting the river unless a clearly very favourable card comes (for example, we hit a flush on the river).

If one or more of the earlier streets has gone check check then we have to decide whether we want to check the river or lead with both value and bluffs. With our total air bluffs we generally want to lead because we can’t win if our opponent checks behind. Check raise bluffs are a little trickier, they generally have these characteristics:

(1) They have some showdown so they can win if our opponent checks behind

(2) They have useful blockers to some strong hands our opponent could have

Here’s a concrete example:

We defend our big blinds. We check call the flop

Th 8♣ 2

The turn is: 4♣

and we check call again

The river is: 3♣

Which of the following hands makes a better check raise, A♣2♠ or J9?

The answer is A♣2♠. It’s possible our opponent is bluffing with a straight or flush draw. If they give up, our bottom pair wins. Furthermore our Ac is a useful blocker: not only can our opponent not have back-doored the nut flush, but we also block some other strong hands like A5, AT etc. And with no hearts or cards that make up busted straight draws (Q, J, 9 or 7) we don’t block missed draws making it more likely our opponent holds those and less likely they have value.

By contrast J9 blocks little or no value and lots of busted straight draws, and has no show down, so if we want to bluff with that, we are better off leading.


In summary, the check raise is a very powerful weapon to have in your arsenal with value hands and as a bluff. With value it works best when our opponent is likely to bet when checked to, and we have a hand strong enough to get called by worse hands when we check raise.

On earlier streets we want to use hands that are very weak right now (so we love when they fold and don’t mind too much when they raise) but can pick up equity on the turn (allowing us to bluff again) and make a very strong hand on the river. Check raises also get under people’s skin like my daughter did with her classmates, and make them more wary of betting in future when you check to them, which gives you free cards more often,

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Dara o'kearney

Poker Pro, Coach, and Author

Former ultra-runner turned poker pro Dara O’Kearney, Ireland’s top online winner with over $3 million in profit, has a stellar poker career. He’s earned 8 Pocket Fives Triple Crowns, a 2008 European Deepstack win, and notable victories like a Super Tuesday win in 2013. With 225 cashes, 76 final tables, and 10 wins in 21 countries, his live poker record is impressive. O’Kearney, a coach and best-selling poker book author, co-hosts The Chip Race Poker Podcast. As a Unibet Poker ambassador, he reached new heights in 2015 with a $262,502 2nd place finish at the WSOP. Stay updated at daraokearney.com.

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