The Joy of Check-Raising the Nuts

play card game "Paris Elysees Club"
People play a card game at the “Paris Elysees Club”. (Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP)

Poker has come a long way over the years. It wasn’t that long ago when you’d risk bodily harm just by check-raising somebody – okay, there might still be some private games out there where you’ll get more than just a chilly reception by making this move. But you should be fine for the most part, especially if you play online poker.

Nowadays, most players understand that check-raising is part of the game. Maybe it’s all those hands people get to play when they’re online; that wealth of experience goes a long way to reducing tilt, and it’s something live poker players didn’t have access to before the internet.

How to Check-Raise Correctly

It’s easy to see why the check-raise was/is so tilting: The check represents weakness, then the raise suggests you were a lying liar, sandbagging your opponent with a disguised monster hand.

But do you actually have a monster? Or were you weak all along, and only now are you trying to fool your opponent by representing strength? That’s exactly the kind of confusion you want to sow at the poker table. Here’s how to do it right.

Balancing Your Check-Raises

As Sun-Tzu said in The Art of War (a must-read if you’re serious about poker, especially tournament poker), all warfare is based on deception. To keep your opponents flummoxed with your check-raises, you want to be strong some of the time, and weak some of the time.

How strong and how weak will depend in part on your bet size. Generally speaking, the bigger the raise, the more often you should be bluffing in this spot, since bigger bets get called less often. Smaller bets are more likely to be called, so you should bluff less often.

Hands to Check-Raise With

Striking the right check-raise balance is more than just about frequency, though. Arguably more important is what kind of hands you do it with. Ideally, you’ll have one of the following:

  • – The nuts
  • – A stronger draw

Even if you’re a relatively new player, the second category should make a lot of sense. When you check out of position with a good draw, your opponent might check back, which lets you see the next card for free. If they bet, then you can raise and perhaps induce a fold.

What if they don’t fold? Well, if they call, you still get to see the next card, which might complete your draw. And if they re-raise, you still have the option of calling or re-re-raising when the situation is right. If the situation isn’t right, just fold. No problemo.

When to Slow Down With the Nuts

Check-raising the nuts is a bit more advanced. Let’s say you’re playing No-Limit Hold’em, you open from an early position with a pair of Tens, the button calls, and the flop comes Ten-Five-Deuce rainbow. You’ve got top set, but there’s only one Ten left in the deck, so your opponent likely doesn’t have top pair.

Think about this carefully: What are they going to call you with if you bet here? They’d normally have raised pocket Jacks or better pre-flop, so that leaves the case Ten, a Five if they have one, maybe a Deuce with an overcard to the flop. They’re probably going to fold otherwise.

Making Your Opponents Bluff or Fold

If you check that top set instead, maybe your opponent will bluff in this spot, hoping you’ve got two overcards that you’ll either fold here or on a later street. They’ll end up folding to your check-raise most of the time, but at least you got one street of value out of them instead of zero.

Slowplaying the nuts like this also helps you by putting lots more chips in the middle than betting out would. Once in a while, your opponent will have pocket Fives or Deuces, and now that the pot is already so big, there’s a good chance you’ll felt them, set over set.

And of course, when your opponents see you are indeed capable of check-raising the nuts, they’ll be more likely to fold when you’re actually bluffing. That’s what a well-balanced “polarized” range is all about. So work on finding that balance, and as always, may the rectangles be with you.