When NOT to Check-Raise

Recently I have been reviewing hands from small stakes poker tournaments for some of my private students and it seems like their opponents (amateur small stakes players) check-raise in exactly the wrong spots. In general, you want to check-raise the flop when you can extract value from many inferior made hands, when you can make many superior hands fold, or when your marginal value hand plays poorly on future betting rounds, usually because your opponent is overly aggressive and the board will significantly change.

Instead of check-raising for these reasons, many amateur players check-raise because they want to protect what they assume is the best hand at the moment.  For example, a tight, straightforward player raises to 3 big blinds out of his 50 big blind effective stack from middle position and you call in the big blind with 9c-8c. The flop comes 9h-4s-3d. You check and your opponent bets 4 big blinds into the 6.5 big blind pot.

This is a horrible spot to check-raise because when your check-raise gets called, you will usually be against a range that contains almost entirely better made hands. Assuming your straightforward opponent will only call your check-raise with top pair and better made hands, you will have about 17% equity when called. If you elect to check-call instead, you will have 62% equity against your opponent’s range (this assumes your opponent will continuation bet 100% of the time on this uncoordinated flop, which may or may not be the case).

In order to profitably check-raise in this spot for value, you have to expect your opponent to raise preflop with an incredibly wide range and be willing to stack off with hands like A-J and 5-4 on the 9-4-3 flop, which is almost never the case. The correct play by far is to check-call because having 62% equity in a small pot is vastly superior to having 18% equity in a large pot.

The reason many amateur players check-raise in this spot is because they don’t want to get outdrawn by various overcards. They assume that any overcard drastically decreases their hand’s equity. While all overcards on the turn could improve your opponent to the best hand, it is important to realize that many of them do not. If your opponent has Q-J, an Ace, King, and Ten do not help. This means that when an overcard comes (it won’t come every time) it will help your opponent less than half of the time when they hold overcards. Of course, when they don’t hold overcards, the overcard will not help.

You must become comfortable with not knowing exactly where you stand if you want to succeed at poker. The desire to always have clear information is the downfall of almost all small stakes no-limit hold’em players and is one of the main reasons they never move up to medium and high stakes. Keeping your opponent’s range wide by check-calling the flop will lead to you playing many more turn and river situations, which is another thing many amateurs do everything in their power to avoid.

Keeping your opponent’s range wide is the key to maximizing value with marginal value hands. Just be aware that by check-calling, you will get outdrawn more often. Losing medium-sized pots is not the end of the world (many amateurs hate losing any pot, let alone a medium-sized pot). If you learn to navigate the turn and river successfully, you will see an immediate increase to your win rate, allowing you to win more money in the long run and move up to larger buy-in games.

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19 Comments

  • Avatar Jack says:

    Just interested as to why top pair 9 is not marginal. What’s considered marginal, middle pair? If so, why check raise middle pair or what is an example of marginal:
    “Or when your marginal value hand plays poorly on future betting rounds, “

  • Avatar Douglas LaFave says:

    A “tight, straightforward player” raises to 3 big blinds out of his 50 big blind effective stack “from middle position” and you call in the big blind with 9c-8c. My quotes around the pertinent info. These should both factor into your initial estimation of villain’s range at the moment you called pre-flop. Now you check the flop, villain bets, and you should be re-estimating their range – which contains some pure air (AK, AQ, etc), some better hands than yours, but not a lot of inferior made hands with high draw value. I.E. his range didn’t have hands like Q-10 or J-10 in it pre-flop. It maybe has a few 8-8 or 7-7 in it depending on any additional read you have. It also doesn’t have basically any better 9 hands than yours other than maybe A-9s.

    So this is either a C-bet or you are behind (which would likely be a bigger pair) or maybe he’s checking the water with a pair lower than 9. So rather than check-raise, which as stated only gets a call from better hands (8-8 isn’t calling it, ever), hang out to see what the turn card is and what he does on it. You’re checking almost anything other than maybe a 9, but there’s also a pretty good number of possible turn cards that should slow him down. And yes you will sometimes have to drop the best hand when he doesn’t lay off the pressure, but this player as described (tight, straightforward) is usually going to let you know what he has on the turn by what he does.

    This is good advice to me to be less afraid in tournaments, especially middle-late in the tournament, to play later streets and trust my read, and not for example change my read on the turn just because I’m getting anxious about just calling. I get this sometimes where I start envisioning the best or worst possible scenarios for opponents hand rather than just reading what’s there to read, adjusting their possible range, and figuring out how to proceed from that.

  • Avatar James says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks for the great content.

    What are we hoping to achieve by check calling the villians bet?

    Are we aiming to win the pot with top pair, or are we calling in hope that we make trips/2 pair?

    Do we fold this hand if the villian bets the turn or do we continue with top pair, with the risk that it becomes a bluff catcher (bearing in mind we have marked the opponent as a tight player)?

    Thanks!

    • We are keeping the opponent’s range wide, making our top pair a decent favorite. The plan is certainly not to fold to additional aggression unless the opponent is extremely passive.

  • Avatar Kristof says:

    Which hands _would_ you check-raise with on this board?

  • Avatar Eliasaph says:

    This paragraph must be one of the most inspiring things I have read about poker recently:
    : You must become comfortable with not knowing exactly where you stand if you want to succeed at poker. The desire to always have clear information is the downfall of almost all small stakes no-limit hold’em players and is one of the main reasons they never move up to medium and high stakes.

  • Avatar Greg says:

    Ok I understand your thought process in keeping his range wide but shouldn’t we want to figure out if we are crushed? If we did check raise and get called (or worse, re-raised), wouldn’t that be enough information to keep us from losing more chips on later streets? In my mind I want to know what he has and a check raise is a decent way to find out.

    • Figuring out that your opponent either has a strong made hand, a draw, or a total bluff does not really help you. If your opponent is straightforward and awful, perhaps raising for “information” makes sense, but most players today are not that bad.

  • Avatar Eliasaph says:

    This paragraph must be one of the most inspiring things about poker I have read recently: “You must become comfortable with not knowing exactly where you stand if you want to succeed at poker. The desire to always have clear information is the downfall of almost all small stakes no-limit hold’em players and is one of the main reasons they never move up to medium and high stakes”.

    I wonder if you could explain a bit the last reason you gave for check-raising: when your marginal value hand plays poorly on future betting rounds, usually because your opponent is overly aggressive and the board will significantly change.

  • Avatar Po-Hsiang says:

    Is there a scenario where you can check-raise for protection?

    • Sure, mostly when I can get called by lots of worse made hands. In general, making the pot big when you primarily get called by draws with equity and better made hands is not ideal.

  • Avatar Steve says:

    Can’t this basically just be boiled down into “small hand, play small pot” ??

  • Avatar James says:

    Hi again Jonathan,

    I played last night in our weekly pub match and took on board your advice about check-calling to keep our oppenents range wide, when we hit the flop.

    Had a lot of successs with this last night, by keeping opponents in with their missed draws and lower pairs.

    Thanks for the advice!

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