“Check” Mate

Before No-Limit Texas Hold’em blew up in 2002, home games that I played in had very little structure. I recall 6-10 of my closest friends passing one deck around and each of us taking a turn as the dealer. “Is anybody betting?”, “Is anybody in?”, “Does anyone want to raise?” was our way of determining where the action was. If you didn’t have a hand, you’d fold or make a ridiculous bluff. If you lost all of your money, then you’d use the house phone to call your mom and get a ride home. The good old days.

It was not until we learned the “flow” of the game that we were able to play tournaments and quit arguing over “who acts first”. This helped us understand that each player gets their own turn on every hand and leveled the playing field. My friends and I saw the fun in betting, folding, and raising with this new structure, but many resisted the idea that they had to announce “check” if they wanted to take no action while remaining in the hand. After a few sessions with the new way of playing all were onboard. The “check” turned out to be an integral part of our home game moving forward.

As we briefly covered in “The Check/Raise Bluff”, a “check” is when the action is on us and we decide to forgo putting any money into the Pot. The action then moves to the next player in the hand on our left giving them the option to check or bet. “Checking” can have multiple meanings with the most common one being, “I missed the card that I needed and I’m hoping to see another one without having to put any more money into the Pot.” Similarly, a check may say, “I’ve given up on the hand”.

Some players will use a check to hide the fact that they have a very big hand. Their hope is that an opposing player will make a continuation bet or have an average hand and make a bet. Players can then check/raise to build a larger pot with their big hand. Be aware that the above line of thinking can occur on the Flop, Turn and/or River. Each additional card that comes gives more information to players; a hand can go from weak to strong and vice versa with the uncovering of one card.

Players may also check with mediocre hands like One Pair or Draws in hopes of seeing additional cards without putting more chips into the Pot. Consider an example where we are holding 5-6 and the Flop is 3-4-A. A check in this situation may get us to the Turn where a 2 shows giving us a Straight (2-3-4-5-6), a hand that we can win a big Pot with.

Let’s take a moment for a quick exercise that will help you guess what your opponent may have. First, remember that there are only four of each card in the deck. If we have a board showing 2-4-6-8-J with two players in the hand, what cards would you guess that they don’t have? Take another minute to think about it and email us if you are struggling with some of the information we’ve presented.

With the above runout there are not four available of each card in the deck anymore. There are now only three 2s, 4s, 6s, 8s and Js. So if we had to guess what these players probably don’t have, then we would guess all of the hands that have 2s, 4s, 6s, 8s and Js, like J-J, 6-8 or 4-5. You see? Next time you see a Flop of Q-Q-Q, do not put your opponent on the fourth Q! It’s very unlikely.

We can also play this game with our own two cards. If we have Q-2 with a Q-Q-3 Flop, then we should not worry too much about our opponent having A-Q. Again, there are only 4 Queens in the deck, what are the odds that you see two on the board, one in your hand and your opponent has one? Very low. Obviously players will make pairs and big hands from time to time, but take a wider approach and think about the whole deck when working to place your opponent on a hand rather than judging only by whether she bets or checks. Generally speaking, it’s more likely that our opponents do not have the cards on the board than do. This helps us place opponents on hands and call out bluffs. Start slow with this concept, but have the awareness that the two hole-cards your opponent is holding are more likely to wrap around the cards on the board than directly match them.

The above logic helps us understand why seemly weak hands (like 2-2 or Ace high) sometimes come out as the winner when the cards are flipped even after betting has occurred. Today’s example will give us more detail, let’s take a look.

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I’m on the Cutoff with about 24 Big Blinds. Blinds and antes are 12/600/1200. I’m dealt 7-7, a mid-pocket pair. If I face an open raise from any of the players to my right, then I will fold because I’d be left with about 22 Big Blinds after a call and be hoping for a 7 to come on the Flop. We’ve learned earlier that because I have two 7s in my hand, it is very unlikely that a 7 will show on the flop (11% chance). When the 7 does not come, I’ll most likely face a continuation bet and need to make the fold. Additionally, if a Flop with all unders comes (like 6-2-2), then I’ll be faced with a tough decision because hands like 8-8, 9-9, 10-10, J-J, Q-Q, K-K and A-A are all in my opponent’s range. Playing against those hands could be a tournament ending experience with 22 Big Blinds. My playable hand range against a raise in this position would depend on where the initial raise came from and my opponent’s stack size. For example, a hand like 9-9 is questionable from an under the gun raise (Firewater54), but should be played from to mid-late position (06269). With more chips (+25 big blinds), 7-7 would be playable as well.

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The action folds to me. I use Rule #1 from “Mid-Stack Management”. This rule states, “Min-raise with any ace, pocket pair, two cards over 7, and suited connectors if I have over 20 big blinds and there is no action in front of me”. I apply the rule to my situation. 7-7 is a pocket pair, I have over 20 Big Blinds ($28,226/$1200 = 23.5), and there is no action in front of me (all players to my right folded). I make the min-raise to $2400 ($1200 x 2) for these reasons.

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The player to my left folds, the Small Blind calls, and the action is on the Big Blind. The Small Blind has about 34 big blinds and the Big Blind has about 28. Because I have about 22 big blinds left at this point (less than both of my opponents and close to 20 big blinds), I’m more focused on my own stack rather than the other players’ stacks in the hand. In a post-Flop situation, I’d be less concerned with putting pressure on them and more with maneuvering to either go all-in with the best hand or check/folding and staying close to 20 big blinds. If the Big Blind decides to raise here (3-bet) then I’ll have to make a fold due to the fact that 7-7 is not strong enough to move all-in over the top. We would need hands like 10-10+ and A-Q+ to make this 4-bet all-in because his range is most likely 9-9+, A-J+. This is a good spot for him to 3-bet bluff, but we will not risk our entire tournament with 7-7 on that assumption. Remember, we want to be all-in and dominating when our tournament life is on the line.

As mentioned earlier and in many other blog posts, we would never want to just call a 3-bet with 7-7 and 22 big blinds because it is unlikely that we’ll improve our hand and we can expect a continuation bet on the flop from the raiser. One more time, we want to keep our 20 big blind stack intact and find a dominating spot to move it all-in with.

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The Small and Big Blind both check and the action is on me. At this point in the hand my opponents would make this check with bad, average or great hands. It is most likely that neither player connected on the Flop (33% chance of making One Pair) which is why making a continuation bet is wise. There are only three 4s, Aces and Queens left in the deck. I wouldn’t make a continuation bet here if I had middle pair (K-4-2 Flop). With Middle Pair, I would check and then potentially use a Turn Blocker Bet to slow my opponents down, stay close to 20 big blinds and get them to check to me on the River. “Mid-Stack Management” provides a similar example of this play with Top Pair. Middle Pair is the worst hand that I’d make this play with. Third Pair and worse should be treated as a missed Flop.

Remember from “The Standard Continuation Bet” that a small continuation bet is ⅓ or less of the Pot, an average continuation bet is ⅓ – ⅔ of the Pot, and a large continuation bet is more than ⅔ of the Pot. My goal right now is to prioritize staying on 20 big blinds rather than making an average to large continuation bet to show strength. This is why I’ll make a small continuation bet here. It should help me learn what my opponents checked with while keeping me at the 20 big blind mark.

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There is $8,280 in the Pot so I bet $2,070 (¼ of the Pot). This small continuation bet leaves me with $23,756 or about 20 big blinds. The Small Blind folds and the Big Blind is deciding what to do. To echo what we learned in “Mid-Stack Management”, I’m fully prepared for any move that my opponent may make. If he decides to fold, then I’ve just won a nice pot and increased my stack. If he raises, then I’ll fold because I do not have a strong enough hand or enough chips to stay in. I would need Top Pair or better to come over the top to his raise because I now have 20 big blinds in a post-Flop situation and Top Pair becomes good enough to get called and be dominating.

This is where The Check/Raise Bluff would come in handy for my opponent. He’s called my bet, checked to me on the Flop, is faced with a continuation bet with no other players in the hand and could get me to fold by raising. If he only followed The Poker Model he might know to attempt this play!

Lastly, if he calls then I’ll have to assume that he has an Ace, Queen or a draw (like 2 diamonds, K-J or J-10). The most important thing for me here is that I will not put any more chips into this Pot unless another 7 comes. In the rare case that a 7 comes, I’ll bet to get it all-in. A set of 7s is very strong and I’ll most likely be way ahead and double up if I get action. I must keep my stack at 20 big blinds and move on if my opponent makes a future bet and I don’t hit the 7.

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My opponent calls the small continuation bet, an 8 comes on the Turn and he checks to me. Is he playing the hand defensively with something like an ace? Is he still hoping to make his draw on the River? These are good questions to ask but more important is the idea of following our original plan, “we will not put any more money into the Pot unless a 7 comes.” With this logic, I have to make a check. My hand is not very good because there are now three over cards on the board. Even if my opponent had two diamonds with an 8 (a hand like 9d-8d) I am still beat.

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I check, another Queen comes on the River and my opponent checks to me. Well, it is much less likely that he has a Queen now as there are only two others floating around. Also, most players would bet a big hand like three-of-a-kind. If he had an Ace in this spot we would expect a River bet from our opponent. None of the draws hit, no diamond, 10, King, or Jack. Lastly, there is no “bluff” bet coming at us from a missed draw. Is it possible that we have the best hand?

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Indeed. I check and flip over a winner. Betting would be unwise because there are very few hands my opponent would call with that I’m beating. For example, he would fold the 4 and all missed draws. I also do not want to leave the door open for him to bluff. Also, players may do anything with any two cards. Maybe he does have an Ace and just played it this way. Most likely my opponent had a missed draw or a lower pair than 7-7. I up my stack to 30 big blinds and move on to the next hand.

Today we saw an example of a hand where “nobody had anything”. From a strictly mathematical point of view, it is not likely to even make one pair. This is why we must focus on sizing our continuation bets appropriately and to play hands how we want to play them. Do not fall into the trap of making hero calls that put you under 20 big blinds or, conversely, assuming your opponent is always playing the Nuts. Take a wider view of the game and observe low pairs winning much of the time. Put it all together and it’s Checkmate for all who stand in your way.

Brett

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