Knowing when to keep the pot small is easy at first. Look back at Chapter One and the reasons for betting. When you can’t plausibly justify a bet for either Reason #1 or Reason #2, it’s usually best to check. The classic example: We raise KK on the button and get called by the big blind. The flop comes down A22r. The blind checks, and the action is to us. We assume a few constants; first, that the big blind will never fold an Ace to a bet; and second, that the big blind will never call with a hand worse than an Ace. Thus, we can’t bet for value, nor can we bet as a bluff. Certainly we can bet to collect dead money (reason #3), but in that event our KK might as well be 73o*
So why do we care whether or not our KK might as well be 73o? The brief answer is that KK has more value than 73o—as far as the action has gone thus far, KK is far more likely to win at showdown than 73o. However, once we bet and are called, they both have roughly the same likelihood to win at showdown. So how do we preserve the value of our KK? What happens if we check behind instead of betting?
Consider our opponent’s range of hands. When he called preflop, we were ecstatic—KK crushes his range and, assuming he would always reraise AA, we are 100% certain to be ahead of his hand. A portion of his hand range contains an Ace, but that portion is far overshadowed by hands like QJ, 76s, 88, and many, many others. Once the flop comes down A22, a small portion of his range has improved to beat us, but the majority of his range is still far, far behind. So, if we bet, we isolate ourselves with hands that beat us. If we check, we continue to play against a wider range—and a range that we’re ahead of. This concept is called range manipulation. Indeed, we can even continue to get value from our hand, as checking behind often induces small bluffs from weak players. We can definitely call at least one bet most of the time and be happy with the additional value. Understanding when to check behind and when to bet is the essence of showdown theory.
When should I check behind?
You’re unlikely to get called by a worse hand (or make a better hand fold).
You’re unlikely to be outdrawn. In the KK example, we’re very unlikely to be outdrawn as no overcards can fall.
We’re also unlikely to be called by a worse hand, as the board is dry and Ace-high. What about, instead, if we hold TT? While we’re still likely to have the best hand, we’re far more likely to be outdrawn. So, we should be far more inclined to bet TT than KK. If we have 33, we should be extremely inclined to bet—our hand wins less often at showdown (has less showdown value) and thus we are okay sacrificing the showdown value of our hand by betting to collect dead money. When should I bet?
You’re likely to get called by a worse hand (you’re still probably unlikely to make a better hand fold).
You’re likely to be outdrawn. We raise on the button with red 8♦8♥, and the big blind calls. The flop is 9♣7♣3♠.
While our hand is very likely to be best, we are likely to be outdrawn. This should incline us to bet. Also, we can be confident to be called by worse hands, including smaller pairs and draws. So, we bet for value and in the process we obtain “protection”. Protection isn’t a word I use often so I’m not going to delve into it too thoroughly, but my quick take on protection is this: any time we have a hand worth protecting, we
have a hand worth value-betting. Any time we have a hand we can’t value-bet, we don’t need to worry about protecting it. If the pot is extremely large and we’re betting for protection, we’re actually betting for thin value (or as a thin bluff) and, more significantly, to capitalize on dead money. In this respect, protection is not a reason for betting, but a consequence of it.
Certainly, you’ll have to walk some fine lines when trying to decide whether or not to play for showdown. What if I have 9♦9♥ on an A♣8♣8♠ board? I’m very likely to be outdrawn, that inclines me to bet. I’m unlikely to be called by a worse hand, so that inclines me to check. The ability to weigh these inclinations are what make somebody good at poker—it’s why KK is a bet on an A♠Q♠9♣ board but a check on an A♣3♥2♠ board. In the spots that are truly close, like the 99 on A♣8♣8♠ board, it probably won’t have much of a lasting effect on your game which route you choose to go.
I see small stakes players make one big mistake time and time again when it comes to showdown theory. They raise A♠K♠ on the button and get called by the big blind. The flop comes down A♣7♣6♦. They bet the flop and get called. The turn is the 8♠, and the blind checks. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen players check behind in that spot. There are a ton of worse hands that can call on the turn. We’re very likely to be outdrawn. This is an automatic bet for value. To paraphrase Doyle Brunson:
“I’m not too worried about getting check-raised… I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” Get the value you need, deal with the check-raise when it happens.
The last discussion to be had regarding showdown theory revolves around the concept of turning a weak hand into a bluff. However, we will deal with that in the advanced section. For now, just focus on getting your value and practicing the reasons for betting. If you can’t justify a bet with one of the three reasons, you should probably check behind. If you want to slowplay with AA on an A22 board, that’s fine, but it’s pretty bad on an A♣Q♣J♦ board. But, in general, if you think you can get called by worse, go ahead and make the bet.
This chapter is addressing showdown theory at its most basic level. In the advanced section, the chapter entitled “The Great Debate” covers the arguments both for and against checking behind on some flops. It’s currently a hotly contested issue among high stakes players.
*To think about this without using the now-defunct reason #3, we might say that we’d be bluffing both 73o and KK in this spot. However, while the 73o would be a pretty good bluff, the KK never causes our opponent to fold a hand incorrectly, making it a pretty bad bluff.