One of the most powerful plays in poker, the check raise, is so effective that many card rooms way back when banned it altogether.
Don’t believe me?
Just take a look at the House Rules board posted in any casino poker room. You’ll almost always find a provision buried in the fine print that reads “checking and raising is permitted.”
The addition is necessary to clarify that yes, check raises are perfectly permissible in today’s game – but at one point in time, the maneuver was simply too effective to let go.
If you came up watching the classic World Series of Poker (WSOP) broadcasts during the boom days (2003 – 2006), I’m willing to bet you have an affinity for the check raise. Back then, the game’s superstars routinely baited their opponents, slyly tapping the table to induce a bet – only to spring the trap with a big check raise.
Fast forward a decade or so, and things have certainly changed when it comes to the check raise. As the theoretical study of no limit Texas holdem strategy has been refined – using game theory optimal (GTO) concepts and situational “solvers” – younger players have relegated the check raise to a relic of sorts.
Sure, the play is still used across the board – from cash games to tournaments – but its prevalence has waned decidedly over the last few years. Adherents of GTO strategy insist that simply betting out with strong hands is the best way to extract value or run bluffs. In an era where pot control and stack preservation reigns supreme, checking with the intention of raising is viewed as an overly risky and reckless approach.
But, like all things in life, poker strategy is cyclical. The smallball strategy of today – limping or min-raising, flat calling and checking back – was actually “in” back in the early 1990s. And conversely, check raising will eventuallybe in vogue once again, as players continue to adapt and adjust their game.
You don’t need to wait for the check raise to be back in style to start adding the skill to your arsenal. If you’re a member of the old school like me, knowing that the young guns are largely looking to play small, passive pots makes aggressive check raising a veritable goldmine. On the other hand, if you’re a young gun yourself, bucking the trend and check raising old guys like myself is a great way to sow confusion at the table.
All in all, every poker player can benefit from brushing up on the old check raise. With that in mind, I’ve put together the following primer on how to set up and use the check raise for maximum profit.
I’ll cover six main motivations for using the check raise – to extract value, to run a bluff, to exploit bluffers, to get a free card while drawing, to obtain information, and as a “squeeze” play. Of course, the fluid dynamics of poker* ensure that you’ll have countless reasons to check raise given the scenario – but these are six of the most common objectives.
1. Check Raising for Value
The most commonly deployed version of the check raise seeks to obtain added value from strong hands.
Connecting with the board to make huge hands is a rare enough occurrence, so you should always be looking to get full value from those favorable situations. In his “Super / System: A Course in Power Poker,” none other than Doyle Brunson himself wrote that he seldom used the check raise, preferring instead simply to bet aggressively from out of position.
But in today’s modernized game, the GTO wizards with their analytics and algorithms have figured that system out – using a strategy based on passive calling to minimize their risk on any given street.
As a result, you should think about check raising with powerful post flop hands to try and build a big pot for down the road.
Imagine you’re playing a $1/$2 cash game with about $500 in your stack. You’re in the big blind, and with 8-8 in the hole, you’re the lone caller after the player under the gun opens to $10.
With $20 now in the pot, the dealer spreads a flop of A-8-2 with two clubs -smashing you with middle set. Based on your conservative opponent’s open from early position, along with previously spotted tendencies, you believe he holds a big Aceand also hit the flop.
With that read in mind, your goal here is to get as much of his $400 stack into the pot as possible. Rather than lead out and simply get called, you decide to use the check raise to extract maximum value on the flop.
After tapping the table, your opponent fires out a pot-sized bet of $20 – which makes sense if they hold the A-K, A-Q, or A-J you’re putting them on.
Now, the moment has arrived.
You slide out a check raise to $80, making it $60 more for your foe with $60 already in the pot. Now its on him to make a tough choice: respect your check raise and lay down top pair, or continue in the hopes that you’re bluffing or drawing to a flush. Today’s players don’t fold to a single check raise all too often, so chances are good you’ll get a call in this spot.
And when you do, the pot swells to $180 total, while your opponent has only left themselves with $320 behind. When the turn brings a blank in the 6 of diamonds, you can comfortably bet between $100 and $150, knowing your opponent has already effectively committed themselves to continuing given the board texture and their perceived range of big Aces.
For a good look at check raising with the goods, check out this fun hand from the European Poker Tour (EPT).
After flopping a pair of fives, Pasi Sormunen check raises and gets called by worse to build the pot. When he lands trip fives on the turn, he executes an especially rare play – the double check raise – by tapping the table for a second time to disguise his hand as a slowed down bluff.
This hand shows exactly how to check raise a stubborn, sticky player with your made hands.
Another way to extract value given this example hand is when your check raise looks like a semi-bluff.
When you flop a big drawing hand – something like K-J of clubs on the example hand from earlier –it’s quite reasonable to go for the check raise. You can force the fold to drag a small pot, or get called and have plenty of outs going to subsequent streets.
Most players recognize that semi-bluffs are often ran via the check raise, so when you actually have the goods like a set of eights, check raising is a great way to get tricky. If your opponent misreads the play as a semi-bluff, you might just get them to shove over the top looking to make you lay it down.
When that happens, your check raise can extract maximum value with minimal effort.
All things considered, you’ll be check raising with big hands in order to build a bigger pot more often than any other iteration of the play.
2. Check Raising as a Bluff
On the other end of the strategic spectrum, check raising as a bluff leaves you puffing out your chest and feeling proud.
It’s one thing to pull the check raise out of your bag when you have a monster, but doing it with nothing to speak of is a different story. This play takes courage – and if I may say so,cojones – to pull off.
Just imagine yourself in this tricky river spot from the Live at the Bike televised cash game.
In the hand, Brian opens to $80 with 4-4 in the hole, then calls a $325 three-bet from David. The flop comes Q-J-3, but David comes along and check-calls David’s $300 c-bet. Both players check the 5 turn, and David checks for a third time on the King river.
When he sees David fire out a $475 bullet, Brian would be forgiven for finding the fold button. There’s three over cards to his pocket 4s out there, not to mention two different straights.
Even so, Brian digs deep into his poker skill set and summons the check raise bluff, making it $800 on top while staring daggers at David. The play looks so powerful – waking up with a big raise on the river after multiple draws and two pairs connect – that David folds his A-K fairly quickly.
Another example of the check raise bluff can be found from the PartyPoker Premier League tournament series, when Dan “Jungleman” Cates pushed fellow high-stakes superstar Sam Trickett off a big pot.
In this hand, Jungleman starts with Q-10 off suit and finds a gut shot straight draw on the 8-9-3 flop (two clubs). Little does he know, however, that Tricket has two of those straight outs in his hand holding J-J.
The pair checks through to the river, with the turn coming Ace of clubs and the river Ace of diamonds. With 35,000 chips in the middle, Jungleman lazily knuckles the felt for a third time, seeming to signal that he’s content to reach the showdown. Taking the bait, Trickett fires out a 10,000-chip value bet – and that’s when Jungleman pounces.
After looking weak through three streets, he suddenly comes alive with a hefty check raise to 45,000. There’s two Aces on board, along with three clubs for a possible flush, so Trickett’s pocket pair shrinks up in a hurry. While the commentators casually predict that Trickett will make the call, he decides to muck his hand instead – sending the pot over to Jungleman with his lowly Queen-high.
You don’t have to limit your check raise bluffs to the river by any means, but as these examples show, the play is most commonly utilized on fifth street. With that said, you should feel free to mix in check raise bluffs on the flop or turn too, provided the situation warrants.
When check raise bluffing, look for spots where you can “sell a story,” so to speak. One of my favorite uses of the play is when I’m coming along from the small or big blind after a series of limps. When the flop brings a bunch of baby cards or a paired board (2-3-6 or Q-4-4), I can casually check and look bored, as if I whiffed everything.
Then, when somebody invariably takes a stab at the pot, I can slide out a decent-sized check raise while suddenly looking interested. More often than not, the bettor will take the cue and put me on some sort of two pair or trips, assuming my rags in the blind turned to riches when the flop brought low cards.
This concept works when the flop comes Ace-high as well, although not with the same frequency. To check raise bluff while repping an Ace, you’ll usually want to be playing from middle position, and ideally, you’ll have been the preflop raiser. When your King-high hand or pocket pair doesn’t connect, but an Ace from space arrives, you can check and hope for a stab from the last player to act.
A check raise here can be quite effective at pushing even decent hands out, as anyone without an Ace must give you credit for having one.
Finally, the best way to check raise bluff the turn exploits the presence of a scare card. Aces are useful in this regard, but I prefer to check raise bluff on fourth street when an obvious draw connects. When the turn brings three or four of a suit on board, or fills in a four-card straight, check raising with air will work more than enough to be a profitable play.
3. Check Raising to Exploit Bluffers
Although rarely used, check raising to punish players who splash around can be very profitable.
Using this play effectively requires a certain feel for the table dynamics. You need to know how opponents acting after you tend to bet their bluffs, and you should target players who don’t like to let the field take a free card.
Imagine you’re playing midway through a nightly tournament at your local casino. You’re holding an above average stack of 60,000, and you pay 1,000 chips to take a flop four-ways with 8-9 suited from the big blind.
The 7-10-5 flop provides an open-ended straight draw, and you check it over to the raiser, who slows down by checking as well. The third player checks too, leaving the button to assess the situation. You know that this player hates to let a pot just sit there without taking a shot, so your plan is simple: check raise his likely bluff.
He tosses out a pair of 1,000-chips for a half-pot bet, and the action moves back to you. At this point, you don’t have anything yet, but that doesn’t really matter. You could have air, a draw, or a pair – your hand is irrelevant. This version of the check raise is predicated on your opponent’s likely bluff.
If you don’t believe they can stand the heat, check raising is one of the best ways to exploit bluffers. Think about it… just calling here might give you a 19 percent shot to hit your straight, but it keeps your opponent’s cards in the mix as well. They might be bluffing with any old hand A-K, Q-J, or 3-6 – but each of those hands is live to outdraw you.
By check raising a bluffer, rather than flat calling, you can end things right then and there.
Check raising to exploit bluffers can also be done with made hands, as shown in this classic confrontation between Tony G and Patrik Antonius.
I won’t spoil this one, but sufficed to say, when you hold the immortal nuts and know your opponent can’t have much – check raising can get chips in the pot that they should’ve never bet.
4. Check Raising for a Free Card
My favorite use for the check raise occurs when I hold a powerful drawing hand.
As you know, a draw’s true value is derived from the full board. In other words, drawing to a straight or flush on the turn only is only half as valuable as seeing the turn and river.
Let’s say you’re playing a $2/$5 cash game and raise to $12 with A-10 of spades. After getting two callers out of the blinds, the flop comes Ks-Js-2d – giving you a monster draw. Any spade is good for the nut flush, any Queen puts you on a Broadway straight, and the Queen of spades produces a rare royal flush.
At this point, you have 12 outs (9 spades and 3 non-spade Queens) in the deck to work with, which equates to just under 25 percent chance to complete your draw on the turn. But that percentage doubles to roughly 50 percent equity if you can see the turn and river – making your unmade hand a slight favorite over even strong top pairs like K-Q.
Thus, it’s imperative to see both streets after flopping a huge draw.
To make sure you do, try check raising on the flop. In this scenario, I’d check and hope to see an opponent fire out. When I check raise here, I’m not really hoping to force a fold – although, that’s fine too – but rather to scare my opponent into slowing down on the turn.
They decide to call your flop check raise, and the turn brings a blank with the 5 of hearts. Now, you can check once again, and your opponent has to think twice about betting. After all, last time they tried that you punished them with a big raise, so why play with fire.
Nine times out of 10, even somebody with a strong hand will check it back here, fearing you already have a hidden monster. This allows you to see the river card for free, which is of enormous benefit when drawing.
Put more accurately, however, you’re paying one bet (your check raise) to see the turn and river, rather than paying two bets (check-calling both streets).
5. Check Raising to Obtain Information
In many hands, you’ll have something to work with, but the more pressing matter is figuring out where your opponent stands.
Say you flop top pair but have no kicker to speak of, something like A-2 on the A-J-5. Instead of calling down through multiple streets, all while you wonder if you’re outkicked, a check raise can clarify the situation.
If you check raise and get raised back, you can safely assume that the typical player has you beat. Maybe they’re going crazy with a three-bet bluff, but chances are they just have a nice hand. This allows you to fold after parting ways with just a single bet.
And if they flat call, you can play the turn conservatively knowing they’re working with 6- something decent.
6. Check Raising as a Squeeze Play
Finally, when the stars align just right, you can check raise to squeeze several players out of a big pot.
Picture a multiway pot with four opponents.
The board is highly coordinated, so you check and hope to see somebody else take the lead. After the next player to act places a small wager, two of the other three players flat call, putting the action back on you.
In this instance, a check raise looks incredibly strong. You know the play needs to push out three players, and those players know that too, so they’ll tend to assume you’re unafraid.
It doesn’t matter if you’re bluffing or value betting here, as the squeeze play usually puts stragglers to a test they can’t pass.
Check raising may not be as popular as it used to be, but the play remains as powerful as ever. Now that you know six of the choicest spots to deploy the check raise, start searching for opportunities to maximize your profit with one of the oldest tricks in the book.