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Poker Table Mind Games

Ins and outs of the check raise

By Jim Feist


August may be hot, but I could care less: Football season is here and the poker rooms are air conditioned! Football season means coaches are going to use strategies to attack the weaknesses of their opponents, such as running the football all day long on a team with a small defensive line, or defensive coaches blitzing often against teams with jittery quarterbacks or shaky offensive lines.

Winning in football is not for the faint of heart. Winning means coming after your opponent hard, with no room for sympathy. And as for coaches complaining about the other guy running up the score? Forget it. No coach wants to be remembered as the guy who blew a 30-0 lead because he decided to go easy on the other team in the second half.

It’s the same with poker, too. That is, if you’re serious about winning and turning a profit. It’s not about going easy on your opponents, but going for the jugular not only with your cards but strategies and even mind games. And there are many poker strategies to learn, modify and master. One is the check-raise, a basic move that can be a powerful tool.

A check-raise in poker is a useful deceptive play in which a player checks early in a betting round, hoping someone else will open. The player who checked then raises in the same round. By checking and raising your opponent’s bet you can use his position against them to get more money into the pot when you’re holding above average cards or make them fold when you’re bluffing.

A check-raise is fundamental but it’s important to understand why and when to use it. A poker check-raise consists of checking when the action’s on you, and then raising after a player behind you has bet. Essentially it’s a trapping move, putting pressure on your opponents. This is utilized for two reasons: 1) Check-raising for value, meaning you want to get more into the pot, or 2) By bluffing you can force an opponent to discard a good hand.

Poker is a game of planning and carefully watching your opponents, so there has to be a purpose to check-raising. Either you’re holding what you think is the best hand and you check-raise for a larger pot, or you don’t have a great hand and you wish to force some players out.

Check-raising can first provide a psychological edge, as your opponent won’t think you have a weak hand. Of course, you can’t do this every time or it loses its edge. It would be like a football coach blitzing every play. Quickly the opposing coaches would figure this out and make adjustments that would burn the blitzing opponent. You don’t want to get burned on the football gridiron or the poker tables.

One plus side of check-raising is that if you do have an above-average hand you will be more comfortable putting more chips at risk. Check-raising puts pressure on your opponent, either by forcing them to make an error (such as calling with weak hand), or you can force an “all-in shove” from drawing hands and second-best made hands.

Check-raising with a real strong hand can be especially effective, but remember it can also scare your opponents into folding. So if you’re not bluffing, be careful not to scare them out. Instead, build up the pot slower to try and milk a bigger payday.

Now, if you don’t have a good hand check-raising can work as a bluff or semi-bluff. You can use the check-raise to knock players off pots regardless of the cards you’re holding. Even novice poker players know they should be continuation-betting the majority of the time when they raise pre-flop, so it’s possible to turn the tables on them with a well-timed check-raise.

Check-raising as a semi-bluff is another powerful way to add strength to the way you play your drawing hands. Next time you flop a potential flush draw, for instance, try a check-raise instead of a check-call and give yourself a second way to maximize the pot. In football and poker, it’s not always about who has the best cards (or players), but who uses the right methods to maximize wins, build up pots, and even cut their losses at the right time.

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