The Great Debate… Bet or Check?

In many cases, we might be inclined to c-bet a polarized range on the flop—only betting for value with strong hands or bluffing with weak hands and checking everything else behind. This is usually known as “pot control”, though I tend to call it “showdown theory”. That’s not necessarily wrong, but I happen to disagree with it ideologically. In fact, this very issue—should we be checking hands back on the flop or should we bet them?—is hotly contested and debated among high stakes players. Some players find themselves on the “check” side of this debate, while I am on the “bet” side. Let’s first describe the scenario:

We’ve raised preflop and an aggressive-good player has called us from the blinds. The pot is HU and we’re in position. We flop a hand that is likely good but that is difficult to get value from. Some examples might include holding AT on a Q32 board or J9 on a Q94 board. In either case, our hand is likely to be best, but it’s going to be difficult to get called by worse hands. Our opponent in the blinds checks to us, and now we have a decision. Do we bet, even though we know it’s unlikely for our opponent to call with a worse hand? Do we check, knowing that if we bet our opponent is likely to check-raise us with a wide range?

Let’s first consider the benefits and drawbacks of checking:

Positives of Checking:

  •   We get a free card and a chance to improve when behind.
  •   We can possibly induce bluffs on later streets.
  •   We don’t have to deal with a check-raise and the possibility that we’ll make a big mistake (either calling too much or folding too much in a large pot).

Certainly, each of these reasons is fair and logical. Let’s now consider the negatives of checking:

Negatives of Checking:

  • We give our opponent a free card and a chance to improve when we are ahead.
  •   We give a perceptive opponent a good idea of the strength of our hand, allowing him to value bet us (or bluff us) effectively on later streets. This occurs because we’re never checking our strong hands or our air hands.*
  •   We miss out on value when our opponent check-raises us with a worse hand and we don’t fold.

Now, let’s consider the benefits and drawbacks of betting:

Positives of Betting:

  • We make our opponent fold his equity share when he has a hand like 55 or A6s and collect dead money.
  •   We maintain aggression, giving ourselves a chance to make more effective bluffs or value bets on later streets.**
  •   We induce bluff check-raises (assuming our opponent is aggressive-good and is capable of this move).
  •   We take an action that is consistent with both strong and weak hands, disguising the strength of our hand in the midst of our entire range. This is often referred to using Aaron “aejones” Jones’ terminology, “range merging”.

What about the negatives?

Negatives of Betting:

  • We create dead money by betting without a strong hand, making our opponent’s bluffs more profitable.
  •   We’re playing incorrectly theory-wise (not betting for either of Reasons #1 or #2), assuming our opponent is capable of bluffing on a later street.*** This is an important caveat, though, as some opponents will be aware enough (or passive enough) to never bluff us once we check back the flop. Against these opponents, checking back the flop is a disaster. However, many opponents will bet the turn regardless of their holding once the flop is checked through. Against these people, checking is theoretically better than betting.
  •   We put ourselves in the position of having to deal with a check-raise. If this makes us particularly uncomfortable, it may drive us towards making a larger mistake.

Either strategy can work, but it’s important to explain why I prefer betting. In order to make checking behind work well, we need to be able to have both a balanced betting range and a balanced checking range. In order to create a balanced checking range, we have to check back some strong hands that we could certainly bet for value on the flop. In other words, to make this strategy work, we have to forgo a +EV flop opportunity in order to create more +EV opportunities later in the hand and with other hands in our range. If we don’t do this, our hand is too easy to read and our opponents will play close to perfectly against us.

However, I’d rather just take the +EV opportunity at the flop and deal with the check-raise when it comes. I often hear my students saying, “I can’t bet here, because he’s going to check-raise bluff me so often.” If you think he’s bluffing you often, then simply don’t fold. Whether or not you want to rebluff with Ace-high or call down with 2nd pair, that’s your decision.

In this sense, we can bet for value. Remember: value-betting isn’t just betting to get called by a worse hand, it’s betting to get called or raised by a worse hand. In short, the more our opponent check- raise bluffs us, the more we can bet for thin value with a hand like Ace-high or 2nd pair.

There is only one time when I often check back the flop. I’d make that choice based on two reasons:

  1. 1)  My opponent is going to check-raise extremely often.
  2. 2)  I don’t have enough equity to play back effectively.

For example, I raise 7♠6♠ and the flop comes down J♥9♥3♠. My opponent is going to check-raise a lot and is unlikely to fold on this flop. I might check it back here. Clearly, I’m just giving up.

There are other extremely specific times when checking back might be better. Let’s say you check back an air hand, and our opponent bets 2x pot on the turn (a move I often pull). Suddenly, this adds more EV to checking back a stronger hand.

Certainly, there are many successful players who check back the flop a lot. Personally, I believe that betting with my entire range is more effective. Like most things in poker, though, it’s more important that you understand why you’re doing something than just to know what to do. This chapter should provide you with enough information to make your own decision as to what is better, given the table dynamic scenario. Understanding both sides of this debate will make the flop seem far easier to play.

*Checking our air hands is irrelevant here—we’re just giving up with them. However, following the chapter “Basic Street Projection”, if we decided there was greater value in checking back the flop with a strong hand we could get higher EV by inducing turn action. But, as I stressed in “Value-Betting vs. Value Owning” it’s usually better to induce action by being aggressive on the flop than by playing passively.
**This is me in 2009 trying to get a handle on street projection.
***With our new definition of Reason #2, we don’t feel so badly about this anymore. The important twist in this point is that, if our opponent never bluffs the turn, checking becomes far, far worse. This will be elaborated in more detail in the chapter “Raising Into Equity”.

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