You’re about to get schooled on check-raising strategy.
A member of the Upswing Lab posted this hand history in our private group and asked how he should play his range:
Online $1/$2. 6-Handed. Effective Stacks $200.
Hero is dealt two cards in the big blind
3 folds. Button raises to $5. sb folds. Hero calls.
Flop ($6): 4♠ 4♥ 3♦
Hero checks. Button bets $2. Hero …
Your strategy in these sorts of out of position spots will have a major impact on your win-rate.
Each of the following 5 strategies are general in nature, but I’ve centered them around the example above to help you understand how to apply them in practice.
Let’s talk check-raising, shall we?
1. Check-raise with more bluffs than value hands on the flop
Your range should consist of roughly twice as many bluff combinations compared to value hand combinations when you check-raise on the flop. I could bore you with the math behind this (and I already have in this article), but let’s save some time with the following rule of thumb:
Aim for a ratio of 2 bluffs to every 1 value hand when check-raising on the flop.
In the 4♠ 4♥ 3♦ example, you will want to check-raise for value with a lot, if not all of your strong value hand combinations (trips or better). In this case that comes out to around 26 combinations of value hands.
A good strategy would be to check-raise 80% of the time when you have trips, and call the remaining 20% of the time in order to strengthen your check-calling range. That way you’ll be protected in case you face big bets on later streets.
With about 21 value hand combinations, you should aim to bluff with 42 hand combinations in order to achieve the 2 to 1 ratio. Which bluffing hands should you choose? That’s what strategy number 2 is all about.
2. Bluff with straight and flush draws, plus backdoor draws when necessary
Your check-raise bluffing range should consist of draws with direct outs to improve and/or backdoor draws that can potentially turn a strong draw.
Direct draws are ideal, but you won’t have enough of those to balance your value range on most boards. When your bluffing range feels too sparse, you can look to check-raise with some backdoor draws as well.
The 4♠ 4♥ 3♦ hand is a good example of a board with too few direct draws. Here’s a list of every direct draw you can have on this flop after defending your big blind preflop:
- A5o (12 combos)
- 65o and 76o (24 combos)
- 75s and 52s (8 combos)
Note: A5s, A2s, 65s, and 76s are excluded because those hands are in the big blind 3-bet range in this example.
You can see that there are 44 combinations of open-enders and gutshots, which is over the 42 combinations needed to balance your value range. So, that should be your bluffing range, right? Not so fast. A-high has too much showdown value in this spot to use as a check-raise.
To make up for those A-high combos, you will want to check-raise bluff with some hands that have backdoor straight and flush draws (8♦ 5♦, J♠ 5♠, 9♥ 5♥).
3. The smaller your opponent bets, the more you want to check-raise
When your opponent bets small, they should be doing so with a wider (and thus weaker) rang than if they bet bigger.
Your response versus a small bet should be to expand the value portion of your check-raising range so you can get more money into the pot with your strong hands. Of course, this also means you should expand your bluffing range (at a ratio of 2 bluffs to 1 value bet).
This strategy punishes your opponent’s medium-strength hands and weak semi-bluffs by not letting them see the turn and river for such a small price. By check-raising, you get to set the price.
Which specific value hands should you add to your check-raise range? Hands like top pair top-kicker and top pair second kicker (at some frequency) will usually be your best option. Fun fact: solvers will check-raise all sorts of top pairs versus small bets (as you’re about to see).
Let’s look at an example to see how changing the opponent’s bet size impacts the optimal check-raise frequency (according to PioSolver).
The example flop is J♥ 8♠ 4♥. Here’s how PioSolver plays versus a standard bet size (66% pot):
You can see the check-raise frequency in the top right inside the orange rectangle.
Versus a 66% pot-sized bet, the solver check-raises 8.66% of the time. The check-raising range contains all two pairs and sets at a high frequency, as well as some top pairs at a low frequency.
Now, let’s see how the solver plays versus a small bet (33% pot) on that same flop:
Versus a smaller 33% pot-sized bet, the solver’s check-raise frequency rises to 12.65% — that’s 1.5 times more often than versus a big bet! Now, top pairs like AJ/KJ are included at a higher frequency, as are bluffs.
4. Check-raise for protection with some medium-strength hands on low boards
Although you should typically avoid merging your range when taking aggressive lines, you can make an exception on low boards (9-3-2, 7-3-3, etc.). It actually makes sense to check-raise for protection with some medium-strength-but-vulnerable hands on such boards.
It’s reasonable to raise for protection on low boards because there are a lot of 2 overcard type hands in your opponent’s range. These hands will (probbaly) fold versus your raise despite having a decent amount of equity to take the lead.
On the 4♠ 4♥ 3♦ flop, the overpairs in your range (55-88) are quite vulnerable to overcards on the turn. Thus it’s okay to check-raise with hands such as 55 through 88 (and maybe even some 3x).
This strategy is not obligatory — it won’t net you a huge gain in EV — but it can certainly help. If you do choose to raise with these hands, you can balance your range by also raising with a bunch more of those double backdoor hands we discussed in strategy #2.
5. Adjust and exploit
If you have any sort of specific read on the opposing player, player type, or player pool, you should look to adjust your strategy in order to increase your EV.
If you think your opponent will fold too often, then you should expand your bluffing range to include even more draws and backdoor draws. If you think your opponent will call too often, then you should tighten your bluffing range to include only strong draws (open-enders and flush draws).
To help you better identify players who fold or call too often, let’s look at the button’s “GTO” response to a check-raise on the 4♠ 4♥ 3♦:
Versus a check-raise, the solver calls with a lot of high card and backdoor flush draws hands, including A9o, KQo, QTs, J9s, and even T8s.
Most players that you will encounter will not call with such a wide range, which means that most player you encounter will fold too often. Against such players, you can ramp up your bluffing frequency on the flop.
Final Thoughts (from mynameiskarl)
In conclusion, I am going to leave you with Upswing coach Fried “mynameiskarl” Meulders’ reply to our member’s hand question:
Until next time, good luck and keep crushin’!
If you want to improve your poker skills with guidance from successful professionals, join the Upswing Lab training course.
You will get instant access to 65 high quality poker lessons, 259 preflop charts, and our members-only community for discussing strategy. Learn more now!