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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