Check to the Raiser

The expression “Check to the raiser” is in common usage at the poker table. The raiser has indicated strength on the prior betting round, and often bets if checked to on the next round. The player who checks is saying, “You have indicated that you think your hand is the best, so a bet is expected from you. By checking, I will defer my decision until you act, and then I’ll let you know if I think your hand is still the boss.” Usually, the raiser bets-but not always.

I would like to address the concept of checking to the raiser as it applies to a hold’em player’s action on the flop with respect to the preflop raiser. In my opinion, checking to the preflop raiser is one of the commonest mistakes made by hold’em players. Of course, checking is often the correct play, but it should be a far from automatic action, both in limit play and pot-limit play. In this article we will talk about when you should not check to the raiser.

Why does the raiser usually bet the flop in hold’em, even if he has no pair and fails to buy help on the board? Simply because the mathematics of the situation dictates that he do so even if he has wound up with a poor hand. It is about 2-1 against improving a no-pair hand on the flop. In a heads-up situation, if the raiser actually had the better preflop hand, he is the favorite to still be in the driver seat. Against two opponents, one of them will help more often then not, but it is still worthwhile investing a bet to see if this has happened. There is a reasonable chance of winning an uncontested battle. But as the number of adversaries increases, so does the chance that one or more of them will improve. To bet into a crowd requires a real hand–for circumspect people like me-and the raiser does not always have such a hand, even if he is a solid player. A fine holding like A-K suited is still an underdog to become more than a pair-draw after the flop. So the more people seeing the flop, the less chance of getting the raiser to bet your hand for you.

Naturally, if you start with A-Q and the flop comes with two aces and a queen, there is no reason to bet and protect your full house. As any terrorist knows, it is the soft targets that need protection. The most vulnerable hands among the decent ones are one-pair hands where an overcard can make someone a bigger pair. If you start with A-Q and make a pair of aces on the flop, it is not so easy for someone to outdraw you on the next card. However, on a flop of 8-5-3, a hand such as an overpair like 9-9 or top pair like A-8 may well be the boss for the moment, but is in dire need of a bet to give it protection against being outdrawn. An overcard can make someone a bigger pair, an undercard makes a bunch if possible straights, and even pairing the board may enable someone to make trips and beat you. There are many hands that the opponent may well throw away if you bet. Overcards, gutshot straight-draws, and small pairs may wish to drop out of contention if there is a bet on the flop-and of course should be charged a price to draw even if they choose to stay in. The situation screams for you to bet.

In poker, as in life, it is unwise to rely on someone else to protect your vital interests if you can do so yourself. If you are fortunate enough to flop top pair with intermediate-ranking cards, it is your job to bet the flop. Do not rely on the raiser to bet and protect your hand for you. Poker is not supposed to be a game played by rote, but in this situation where you flop a hand that figures to be the best but can easily be overtaken, it seems automatic to bet.

To insure protection for your hand is the most important reason to bet the flop right out into the raiser, but far from the only one. Here is a situation at pot-limit that I think the best percentage play is to bet even if you are certain the raiser is going to bet the flop if you check. An aggressive and tricky player makes a preflop raise. You call, and hit a decent hand, but one not strong enough to go up against a big pair. A preflop raise represents a big pair, but as we know, it is not so easy to pick up that good a hand, and raises are frequently made on lesser hands.

Your goal should be proportional to your hand. The goal of a decent but not extraordinary hand should be the modest one of winning a small pot. You simply want to get the goods home without a big fight. But the way many players behave in the situation we are discussing is to provoke a conflict. They check the flop, call when the raiser bets, and then check again on the next round “to see if the raiser is serious.”

Let us now look at the situation from the raiser’s perspective. If he is an unaggressive person, he will most likely check it back on the turn, hoping to draw out, and willing to give up the pot when he does not, which is the vast majority of the time. However, an aggressive player may well decide to keep betting, since his opponent has not indicated a lot of strength with the sequence check-call-check. He may keep coming with the hand, betting on the turn, and possibly even again on the end. Of course, the raiser cannot be certain that his opponent isn’t slowplaying a big hand, but the odds are always way against a behemoth. Such a hand is not easy to get, and might not have been slowplayed had the person gotten one. Just how far are you willing to go with a modest-sized hand against strong betting? A lot of pots are lost by someone with a hand that would have won a showdown, but the player was pressured into folding.

I think of adopting a weak betting sequence as “cornering the raiser.” It may be okay to corner a pussycat, but beware of cornering dangerous animals. An aggressive player is a dangerous animal. The way to give yourself the best chance to win the pot is to make a probing bet on the flop and let him know you have something. If you also lead a lot with your very good hands–as I do–the opponent may well decide to concede a small loss rather than trying to represent a big pair, which may not be the best hand even if he has it. Bet right into the raiser and give him a chance to get out cheaply, rather than provoking a big fight by acting weak and staying in, and you will win most of those small pots, instead of turning them into big pots when your hand doesn’t warrant it. So if you stay for a raised pot on A-J suited or A-10 suited, bet when that ace comes. When you have an intermediate pair like J-J, 10-10, or 9-9 and flop an overpair, go ahead and lead with it. If you encounter strong resistance later, it is a lot easier to turn a hand loose after having shown some strength than if you have shown nothing but weakness. A shrimp does not know if someone kicking sand in his face is simply acting that way because of his small stature. A guy built like Schwartznegger knows that someone getting aggressive with him is likely to be real bad news. Let the opponent know you do not have a shrimp hand by betting the flop, and he is not likely to try and bully you into folding.

So far we have been looking at modest-sized hands. When you are fortunate enough to flop a really big hand like a set, it still may well be right to lead with it. This applies even if you feel sure the raiser will bet the flop. One reason to lead, at both limit and pot-limit play, is to avoid a power sequence that enables the opponent to get away from his hand. Check-raising the raiser shows a lot of strength; it may enable the opponent to make an astute laydown. If you bet the flop and keep betting on later streets, the raiser often hangs in there until the bitter end if he has a real hand, scratching his head after taking a sizable loss, and wondering just when he was supposed to have folded. It is also quite possible he may raise you at some point, as a lot of players are so used to an opponent with a big hand using a check-raise strategy that they fail to show the bettor respect. A lot of people treat a bet into the raiser as a try to win the pot by a drawing hand, or a probe on a hand that can beat an unimproved two-big-card hand (but not much else). Frankly, that is usually what it is–except when made by a strong player. Add the bet into the raiser to your poker toolbox of plays, instead of mechanically checking your hand.

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