CHECK-RAISING: How Do You Prove a Check-raise Was Profitable?

In my mind check-raising is a “dark art” of poker. It’s so powerful it almost feels like it shouldn’t be allowed. This is especially true when you’re in the big blind. Players give you these incredible odds by just 2x raising, so you flat. But don’t you want to do something else when you miss all those boards?

We’ve proven earlier that even if you just continue with made hands you’ll make a profit flatting most bets that just double your first investment but, unbelievably, you can sometimes increase your earnings by 100%, simply by including a check-raising game. I focus greatly on teaching my students how to check-raise for a multitude of reasons. Let’s start with the first one that didn’t occur to me for the first 10 years I played poker.

Your win rate is a great arbiter of how good of a player you are. If you are making 5BB per every 100 hands of tournament poker you play then eventually you are going to turn a profit. That is verifiable proof that you are staying ahead of the game. If your normal BB/100 rate is higher, then that can prove you’re running under expectation. A good win rate is around 5BB per 100. If you could increase that by 2.5BB you’d be injecting 50% more earnings into your bottom line.

Where do we find that 2.5BB however? It’s hard to do from early position. You expand your range, diminish it, work on your triple barrels, and on and on. It seems like the money never comes in.

We shouldn’t try to make our money there. If we fold every single hand UTG we will be making zero big blinds every 100 hands. Certainly, that’s not good, but we’re also not losing anything. However, if we fold every single hand in the big blind, as some position Nazis are prone to do, then we will lose 100BB every 100 hands we play from that position. If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is.

Later in this book we will get more into what we just discussed, but now we’re going to focus on saving those big blinds, as opposed to cutting our limbs off with the forced bets we don’t save.

How Do You Prove a Check-raise Was Profitable?

There is a specific study regimen I have my players follow. They pick a specific topic, learn as much as they can about it, attempt to execute the play in the field, mark the hands for review, and then analyze the hands in their study hours. This teaches them how to fish as opposed to handing them the day’s catch. If I simply told you “check-raise more” you wouldn’t be prepared to adjust as the game changed with you. You need a veritable study method to confirm your plays.

Let’s examine a check-raise I made and see if it was a profitable play. We can find all the check-raises we’ve done by selecting “Tournament Reports” in Hold’em Manager 2, then “More Filters,” and then looking at the Quick Filters section, adding the one that says “Check Raise Flop.” From there, we will get a list of every time we check-raised.

Here we have flatted a raise to 8,000 (Figure 65). My big blind was 4,000, so I only had to call 4,000 more. We don’t 3-bet because this hand works very well postflop and there’s no need to give him a chance to 4-bet us off our hand. We head to the flop after I have completed the bet. On this board of 8♥-5♦-3♦ I check. He bets 11,500. We check-raise to 30,600.

How do we know if this was a good bet? First, we need to see how often our check-raise needs to work. To find this we divide 30,600 by 63,150, which gives us the answer 0.4846. Our bet needs to succeed 48.46% of the time in order to show a profit. Will it work this often? To find this out we have to ask another question. If our bet must succeed 48.46% of the time to show a profit with any two cards, then how often must the villain play to avoid being exploited?

The answer is the remainder. If he’s playing 50% of the hands he is folding the other 50%. He is folding too often. We don’t even need a hand to make this play. In this case he needs to play 51.55% of the time to prevent our play from being instantly profitable. What does 51.55% of his continuation betting range look like? That’s where Flopzilla really is a miracle worker. I can’t tell you how difficult all of this was before this software came out.

Let’s say he continuation bets every hand. He opened from middle position, which the HUD says he opens 17% of the time. Since every one of his other statistics, including earlier positions, has him opening 23% or more, I am going to assume he’s been dealt a few duds in the hijack. However, for the sake of the argument, whenever we are trying to prove a bluff is profitable we should give him the tightest range possible. In this case that’d be 17%. We enter the 17% in the left part of the Flopzilla calculation, in the circled area shown in Figure 66.

We then put the flop into the section marked “board” and then put our hand in the dead cards. Under the heading “Statistics” we have the percentages our player has each hand on this board. If we put a filter next to the ones we believe are going to call or raise against our check-raise we get a percentage at the bottom, which tells us the total of all these hand types put together (Figure 67).

As we can see, if our opponent defends with any pair or any draw he will be defending 51.6% of the time – almost the exact percentage he needed to defend with to make our bet not immediately profitable.

Now, try to think for a second. What assumptions did we just make? There were quite a few of them, but let’s start with the obvious one: we assumed our opponent defended with 2-2 versus nearly a pot-sized check-raise. This does not sound all that likely.

Remember, he had to defend with all those hands just to break even against our check-raise; he did not make money. If he folded any of them he was folding too much, and we were making a profit with any two cards.

Another assumption we made was that he continuation bet 100% of the time. Many people wish to discount this entire process because it’s hard to find a person who continuation bets every single board. In fact, this person’s continuation-bet statistic was low, only 33%. This generally indicates a pretty value-driven range, since you hit the board about 33% of the time. It seems that’s when the gentleman decides to put more chips in the pot.

However, most people’s continuation-bet figure is 75%, 80%, or sometimes higher. This indicates that the person is largely betting air. Since you can only have a hand 33% of the time, then logically, with 33/80 equaling 0.4125, the other 58.75% of the hands must be nothing. This analysis also makes another crucial assumption: he is betting all of his value hands.

I have asked hundreds of poker players from 60+ countries what they check back with on a variety of boards. More than 80% of the time it is a small value hand or similar mediocre showdown value which doesn’t want to get blown off the pot. That’s not a horrible instinct to have. The problem comes when you have a continuation bet of 75% or more, and your opponent has a note that you check back some second pairs and top pairs. That means you can’t even have all of the value hands in your continuation betting range. Now perhaps you have a value hand 25% of the time out of the 75% continuation betting range; you have nothing a full two-thirds of the time here. Your range is insanely susceptible to a check-raise.

The last assumption to examine is that we lose instantly the second our opponent calls. All our calculations took it for granted that if our opponent didn’t fold we instantly lost. If we get to see a turn or have drawing equity our play actually needs to work less. So, why start from the framework of a complete bluff? Because if you get in the habit of making plays which would clear a profit without cards you’ll begin making money regardless of how you’re running that day. Picking hands that add equity is just icing on the cake. And we have some serious icing in this instance. Our over-card outs are fairly safe. We made an estimate as to his range earlier. None of the hands we guessed he could have involved cards that interfere with ours. If we hit a jack our jack is good. He bet/folded A-J and he doesn’t have J-8. Similar logic applies with the king. The over-card outs give us an extra six cards that assist us. We also have a backdoor flush draw. If we turn one of the 10 hearts in the deck we will receive a helpful equity boost. Our double barrels will seldom need to work with this back up plan in place.

That doesn’t mean you should be leading the turn all that often. Many of my students after their check-raise is called say to me, “Well, since we check-raised we have to fire the turn.” No doubt this has been said thousands of times on popular forums. It has a ring of truth to it. After all, if you’re going to build this huge pot out of position, you should be willing to fight for it, right?

Wrong. If you think a turn continuation bet is a good idea it usually means your flop check-raise was bad. You check-raise on the flop because you assume your opponent is continuation betting too many hands and folding most of them. This means he heads to the turn with a fairly tight range. Versus that you generally want to check/fold, bluffing verbally that all the while you were trying to find out where you were at.

There are occasions you get called quickly and you just know the player has gotten fed up with you. These are rare situations but you should bet because your bet will only need to work a small percentage of the time.

Check Raise Sizing

Generally with check-raises we want to make the sizing larger, typically around 80–100% of the pot because we are out of position. If our opponent would like to play with us when we are at a positional disadvantage then they must pay a premium to do so. If our opponent calls us, our play on future streets is usually fairly simple. They have a strong hand, so we can fold.

There is still a place for small raises, however. It’s just that typically their efficacy goes way down with the discounted investment. You’re not making a good “buy.” You’re saving a few more chips when you’re wrong, but those chips aren’t worth it when you consider how much more they’re defending. They should be defending more. If you give them a good price and position than they’ll rightfully want to take a card off to see what you do. If you balk they can put a small bet in there and see if that takes it down. If they have nothing and they want to test you then a small check-raise will ensure their 3-bet doesn’t cost them much.

There is still a stigma attached to a large check-raise bet. It is typically made by beginners who have flopped a big hand and are worried that it’s going to get cracked. If your opponent 3-bet versus that and they are wrong their backer or friends are going to have a field day. The larger check-raise doesn’t even have to work that often either. As we proved in our example hand, our hero had to defend with every single pair and draw in order to break even, and that check- raise we made was almost to the size of the pot.

Hopefully, you have gleaned what types of players we look forward to exploiting with this play. We want guys who are opening and continuation betting too much, clean and simple. Back in the day when I played more cash, if I found a guy was opening 15% or more of the hands from early position I’d lick my chops, thinking “fresh meat.” It was very difficult to defend that range on a variety of boards. The players since then have become more talented, so we want more of a cushion. We are looking for people who are opening 20% of hands or more frequently. We then want them to be continuation betting 75% or more of the time. These people are ripe for a check-raise.

There are some times when you don’t need to read these numbers on a HUD to launch the play. If someone is opening from the button, for example, it is more likely that they have a range of 20% or higher. Even if you know nothing about the guy because you just sat down with him you can guess that he’s part of the 95% of players that open a greater than 20% range. Similarly, if you flat from the big blind and check you can assume most players are going to bet with nothing. You only completed the bet, so you have less perceived risk. You also just checked, showing you have less interest. When they see both of these signs, most opponents go ahead and try to take the pot when they didn’t flop anything. If they check back it’s more often than not a mediocre value hand.

There is a fold-continuation-bet-to-raise statistic, which is handy if the person has never folded to the play. Yet, the sample size is usually something close to three hands. For all you know some recreational player attempted the most ill-advised check-raise bluff ever versus the guy. Perhaps the guy just had a few sets and got action. Either way, the small sample can be seriously thrown off.

If you see 0 out of 3 under this statistic category it should convince you to fold when you’re on the fence, but if everything else lines up you should not be dissuaded. Similarly, if the hand selection, board, bet size, and other statistics do not line up, do not go check-raising just because this gentleman has had to bet/fold a few times.

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