Performing a check/raise with no hand feels like cheating on your last homework assignment; when you get away with it, it’s worth it, but the one time your teacher finds out you may never want to do it again. A check/raise is when we choose to “check” the action post-flop to our opponent who bets, allowing us to then raise over-the-top. Let’s consider why this play causes confusion.
In your home game when a player announces “check” it usually means “I have nothing and do not want to put any more money into the pot.” When the next player bets it most likely conveys “I have something.” So when the action goes check, then bet, we expect the original player who checked to fold the hand when the action returns. “I have nothing” (check from Player A) to “I have something” (bet from Player B) to “I still have nothing” (fold from Player A). But when the player who initially checked comes back and raises she is now saying “I have something and was hiding it from you.” Let the mind games begin. Today’s post will cover how to know when it’s best to attempt a check/raise bluff and also how to recover quickly when unsuccessful.
In order to grasp the right time to try a check/raise bluff on the Flop, one must have a good understanding of continuation bets. A continuation bet is made by a player who raised in a pre-flop situation and then bet again after the action was checked to them post-flop. They raised, then continued on the flop with a bet. Our article on “The Standard Continuation Bet” explains that in many cases, this bet is made with no hand and can be considered a bluff. The knowledge that a post-flop bet may be attempted with a weak hand opens the door for a check/raise bluff. We will check to the player that raised pre-flop, let her make a continuation bet, then raise this bet in hopes of getting a fold and winning the pot.
Let’s talk about stack sizes and applying pressure. If you have 1,000 apples and the first one you pick to eat is rotten, then you will toss the apple, shrug, and grab the next one. If you have 20 apples, you may cut out the rotten part and eat the clean section. But if you have only 1 apple, you may eat the whole thing even though it’s rotten. While nobody is actually consuming poker chips, a similar concept applies; the more chips we have, the more flexible we are able to be. A stack with 200 big blinds is more likely to put a wrench in your check/raise bluff than a stack with 20 big blinds. This is why the best time to make this type of play is when we have chips and our opponents don’t. The Poker Model suggests that the best time to try a check/raise bluff is when your opponent must go all-in over the top against you to get you to fold. As always, individual players may break the general trend, but be prepared to see more “moves” like over the top bluffs, float calls, and big bets on the Turn and River from bigger stacks than smaller stacks. This piece of the puzzle is critical to be aware of when finding the appropriate spot to perform a check/raise bluff.
Table image plays a role as well. A player who has been making multiple continuation bets is more likely to get check/raised. One more level of depth tells us that a player who check/raises often is more likely to get raised over the top. The above “battles” are certainly important to have a grasp on. Ultimately, someone will have a hand and likely get action because of the table image that they have built.
I’m in the small blind with 27 big blinds. The table has folded to the cut off position (one seat right of the button) and SrJOAO1972 min-raises (doubles the big blind). SrJOAO1972 has 38 big blinds and has been very active. With my above 25 big blind stack and his 38 big blinds, I’d be calling with any pocket pair up to Q-Q, A-10, A-J, A-Q, K-Q, and K-J. I’d be 3-betting with K-K, A-A, and A-K. I have 3-3.
Because SrJOAO1972 has been raising and making continuation bets on the Flop, I already have a plan for 3-3. If I miss the flop (which is likely), then I’ll check/raise bluff SrJOAO1972’s expected continuation bet, leaving myself with 20 big blinds. While it would be much better if SrJOAO1972 was the one that had closer to 20 big blinds, my short stack makes it harder for SrJOAO1972 to raise over the top without a real hand because he’d essentially be putting me all-in with nothing. Also, I haven’t made any previous check/raises, so there is less of a reason for SrJOAO1972 to think that I’d be bluffing. The plan is solid in that it will leave me with 20 big blinds no matter what and also helps my table image. I’d much prefer to have over 50 big blinds when making this play, but am thinking that it’s still worth it.
Do I have to make this move right now? Absolutely not. I could choose to be patient and call with 3-3 to see the Flop, ultimately folding to a continuation bet if I miss. The texture of a “missed” board will play a role in my decision. For example, a board of 8s-9s-10s is a big miss for me and I may want to do a check/raise bluff, but then could be called with a very wide range of hands, like any flush draw, straight draw or pair. Compared to a Flop of K-K-5 which is also a big miss for me but leaves so few hands that my opponent could have made. It would be wiser to attempt the check/raise bluff on a K-K-5 board vs. a 8s-9s-10s while I’m holding 3h-3c.
There is also one other player behind me who has not acted. He may put a wrench in the entire plan by 3-betting pre-flop or picking up a hand post-flop. My plan would then shut down and I would fold, still having over 20 big blinds in my stack.
Assuming jack_wagon calls or folds, my next action will be determined by what comes on the Flop. I’m leaning towards trying the check/raise bluff because I’d like to see a Flop with my 3-3, but also still have a shot at winning the hand if the Flop is unfavorable.
The Flop comes Qs-4c-Qh. While there are worse flops, this one must be treated as though I’ve missed completely. I’d need at least second pair to the board or better to be able to play through the hand and make a River Blocker Bet to keep me around 20 big blinds. To be clear, I’m playing the hand as though I have 2-3, 5-6, or any other two cards that missed the Flop. I’m still in the hand, however, and I have a way to win it using a check/raise bluff. I check. If I had hit a big or average hand I’d still be checking. The reason for this check is that we expect a continuation bet from SrJOAO1972 on any board. If we have a monster (like a Q-3-Q flop) we will check/raise for value, if we picked up an average hand (like Q-2-Q flop) we would check/call and see how the hand plays out while staying above 20 big blinds, if we miss completely we can check/fold or check/raise bluff.
As expected, the big blind checks to SrJOAO1972 who was the initial raiser. SrJOAO1972 makes a standard continuation bet. This is what we thought would happen! Does everybody see why this is a good spot to attempt a check/raise bluff? We have 1) an aggressive player raising pre-flop from late position 2) a standard continuation bet 3) a dead Flop with few draw options. How about reasons to not make the check/raise bluff? 1) I have close to 20 big blinds 2) my opponent has more chips than me 3) there is another player still in the hand.
It is not the perfect spot due to stack sizes and the fact that another player is in, but certainly a good one. SrJOAO1972 could have raised with any two cards pre-flop and continued with any two cards post-flop. This means that if he is not holding the queen or some other pair, then my raise should get him to fold. Another important point is that I’ll look like the one who is holding the queen or set of fours in my hand if I go through with the check/raise bluff. Let’s see what happens next.
I make the check/raise bluff, leaving myself with about 20 big blinds. My bet says, “I have a queen or a set of fours and you better have a big hand in order to stay in.” I’m happy when jack_wagon folds, it was certainly possible that he had the queen and would have stayed in.
The action is back on SrJOAO1972. At this point in the hand I’m expecting SrJOAO1972 to make a fold. The odds of flopping trips or a set are around 11% and I don’t think SrJOAO1972 would bluff over the top of my check/raise. SrJOAO1972 might flat call to see the Turn. In this case I will check/fold to any bets unless a 3 comes later (< 5% chance). In the off chance that a 3 comes on the Turn or River, I’d change gears and be betting to get all of my chips in. As the original plan stated, I’m done putting money into the pot after the initial check/raise bluff. I’m feeling good about my chances of winning this hand and will also be just fine with my 20 big blinds if the plan doesn’t work. I’ve put intense pressure on my opponent and have considered multiple variables in order to determine this move. Nothing was random.
Fail. SrJOAO1972 4-bets me and I have no choice but to fold. A few things may have happened here. The most obvious is that SrJOAO1972 raised pre-flop with any Queen or pocket 4s and connected on a big Flop. Another potential scenario is that SrJOAO1972 recognized that a Q-4-Q board is a good one to check/raise bluff on for reasons described above and knew what I was doing. He then raised over the top in an effort to get me to fold. Although unlikely from a probability standpoint, I believe he had it. Few players are capable of making a bluff raise over the top of a check/raise bluff, this is why the move is powerful in the first place!
“On to the next one” comes to mind. There is no point in agonizing over a hand that has passed. The bottom line is that there will be times where your opponent outplays you or actually has the hand. What’s interesting is that players will make the same string of bets with a monster hand like A-Q, or a complete bluff, like J-10 suited. We still have our tournament life and will never be bluffing that away.
When I get beat like in the hand above, I tell myself “he had it” and then move on. I’ve found that if you start asking “what did you have?” players will lie which doesn’t help in any way. As long as you are making these plays based on table image, stack sizes and Flop texture, you’ll get a few folds and help your own table image along the way. What’s great about making these moves and finding success is that you will eventually have a big hand. How nice to have 9 players around the table thinking your are bluffing when you flop the nuts? Check out “Bet when you have it” for more details on that scenario.
The check/raise bluff gives all players a chance to win pots on Flops that are missed. Do not overuse this tool or you will find yourself giving away valuable chips. Great times to make an attempt are when you see that your opponent is making many continuation bets and has around 25 big blinds, you are heads up in the hand and you have completely missed a Flop. The check/raise bluff is one of many tools related to the meta-game (M-game) of poker. Continue to follow along and become aware of more concepts that cannot be learned in your home game.