How to Check-Raise with Short Stacks Like an MTT Boss
Check-raising is an indispensable play in tournaments.
Since average stack sizes are shallow, a check-raise will typically represent a large portion of your remaining chips. This allows you to put a lot of pressure on your opponent(s), because in order to play back they will probably have to go all-in and put their tournament life at risk.
However, many otherwise decent players choose bad spots to check-raise, and/or the wrong hands to do it with. To help you avoid such mistakes, I’ve put together this comprehensive guide for check-raising with a shallow stack.
Check-raising from the big blind
The most common check-raise scenario on the flop arises when the player in the big blind faces a c-bet after defending pre-flop. There are a couple things to note about this spot:
- The big blind’s range is usually much wider than the opener's as a result of getting great pot odds to call pre-flop. Consequently, the big blind is more likely to have taken the flop holding a junk hand.
- The big blind will usually be at a range disadvantage. On some boards the big blind will have a range advantage, e.g., when the flop comes 7-5-3 versus a middle position raise. But on most boards the opener will have the stronger overall range.
Recognizing how your range interacts with the board is a crucial aspect of check-raising successfully. You don't always need a range advantage to check-raise, but it’s usually best to avoid check-raising when at a large disadvantage—for example, when the flop comes A-A-J versus an early position raise.
When flatting from the blinds, the best boards to check-raise are low straightening boards, such as 7-5-3 or 9-7-5. High-card heavy boards and total brick boards favor your opponent’s range, and are therefore not boards to check-raise.
It's also important to understand the basics of check-raising math. A good principle to memorize is that, assuming standard bet sizings, a check-raise should be roughly equal to the amount of chips in the pot (not to be confused with a pot-sized raise).
For example, if the pot on the flop is 1,000 and your opponent bets 400, a standard check-raise would be about 1,400 total. This is a handy principle because it makes figuring out whether a check-raise is profitable or not very easy:
1,400 / (1,400+1,400) = 0.5 = a check-raise needs to work 50% of the time to break even.
You need not always follow this principle—and sometimes you shouldn’t!—but it’s helpful to remember that a check-raise of this size needs to work roughly half the time to be profitable (even if you check-fold every turn).
If 50% sounds like a small number, that's because it is. And in today's games, where a typical c-bet size might be just 25% of the pot (making the pots smaller, and thus the amount we need to risk with a check-raise even smaller), you can get away with check-raising often. Even if you check-raise like a maniac, it's not easy for your opponents to play back enough to keep it from being profitable.
So, should you become a lean, mean, check-raising-every-hand machine? Not so fast.
Don't forget that more often than not you will be at a range disadvantage. As a result, it often times doesn’t make sense to raise with any hands on the flop against good players.
Against weak players, however, check-raising with a wide range -- even on disadvantageous boards -- can work well as an exploitative adjustment.
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6 questions to ask yourself before exploitatively check-raising
When you face an opponent who c-bets too wide, you can punish him with an aggressive check-raising strategy. But before you decide to bluff check-raise, you should ask yourself these 6 questions:
1. Does your opponent c-bet too much?
HUDs tell just half of the story; a c-bet percentage of around 60 percent is good, but anything above 80 is exploitable.
However, hand samples often get skewed, and so rather than relying only on c-bet percentage it's important to note at showdown what hands your opponents typically c-bet with. When you see a player c-bet A♣ K♣ on a board of 9♥ 8♥ 7♦, for example, then you've found a player to punish with wide check-raises.
2. What are the stack sizes?
If you're very shallow, you shouldn't check-raise and commit half of your stack with air. The optimal stack size leaves low-but-not-too-low stack-to-pot ratios (SPRs) for turns—around 25–30 big blinds effective.
3. Whose range does the board hit better?
Even against an opponent who c-bets too much you still need to be wary of boards on which you can’t have many strong hands.
For example, on a board of 2-2-5 neither you nor your opponent is likely to have trip deuces. Meanwhile, your opponent can have all the high over-pairs and you can have none of them. So, a check-raise would be risky.
4. What's your actual hand, and where is it in your range?
Generally, you should check-raise only hands that have some kind of equity, backdoor draws, or blockers, as opposed to check-raising total air.
5. Is there another way to play the hand that would make more sense?
Check-raising isn't the only way to play back at a wide c-betting strategy. For example, it might be more effective to check-call with the intention of taking a stab on the river.
6. How does your opponent generally react to check-raises?
Some very active opponents might frequently 3-bet shove over your check-raises with gutshots and random high card combinations. It would be burning money to check-raise bluff against this kind of opponent.
You should now have a good idea about how and when to exploit players who c-bet too much. So, let's move on to a more interesting and tricky topic: check-raising against good players.
How to check-raise against strong opponents
Let's run through some check-raising example hands for each stack depth.
In all of these hands, we will assume that our opponents are c-betting a typical amount, and that they are neither super aggressive nor super nitty, unless stated otherwise.
Check-raising with a shove-or-fold stack (15BB or less)
After defending from the big blind with a 15BB stack, we will typically have just two pot-sized bets behind on the flop. When our opponent c-bets, we should either fold or shove.
But how wide should we check-shove? The answer might surprise you: we should shove very wide. For example:
Tournament. 14BB Effective Stacks
Hero is dealt Xx Xx in the big blind
Villain (MP) raises to 2BB. 4 folds. Hero defends.
Flop (6BB) K♣ 9♠ 2♦
Hero checks. Villain bets 3BB. Hero...?
We estimate that Villain is opening 20% of all hands from middle position. There's 6BB in the pot and we have 12BB behind. Villain c-bets 3BB. Let's figure out how we should play this spot with the following two hands: 9♣ 8♣ and Q♦ J♥.
First, we should figure out, roughly, how much equity our hand has against our opponent's bet-call range. In this example, I gave villain a bet-calling range of KT+ (assuming hands like QQ and 9x check back flop). Here's how Q♦ J♥ stacks up against that range:
16% is actually a pretty terrible scenario for our QJo. 9♣ 8♣ isn't doing much better with 20.5%.
Now, we just need a fold equity calculator to figure out how often a shove must work for it to be profitable. Note that I used Q-Jo in this example:
Even if we have just 16% equity when called, Villain only needs to fold 44% of the time for a check-shove to be profitable (with 9-8s, it's 39%).
How often will Villain fold? While we cannot know exactly, it's easy to estimate.
The bet-call range we gave Villain amounts to 63 combinations, or 5.4% of all hands. We need him to fold less than half the time here, and it isn't hard to find enough combos from his remaining 14.6% of hands that he opened to justify the QJo shove
Now, this spot is likely profitable, but not all that great for us—usually we’ll find spots to check-raise that are more enticing, where an opponent might bet/fold a bottom pair type hand or a weak draw.
Here's a good rule of thumb with a shallow stack (<15BB): a check-shove is rarely bad if you have more than 25% equity against your opponent’s calling range. I think you can skip most borderline cases to decrease variance, but 25% is more than enough equity so as long as your opponent has enough chips to bet-fold.
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Check-raising with a middle stack (~20–30BB)
With middle stack sizes, we will have between three and four pot-sized bets behind on the flop. This makes things more interesting because we no longer have to shove or fold -- we can check-raise-fold or check-call.
This is also a stack size players tend to make a lot of mistakes with, usually because they didn't plan ahead.
Tournament. 25BB Effective Stacks.
Hero is dealt J♦ 9♦ in the big blind
Villain (UTG1) raises to 2BB. 6 folds. Hero defends.
Flop (6BB) A♦ 8♥ 6♦
Hero checks. Villain bets 2BB. Hero check-raises to 6BB.
Let's assume the villain is opening around 15% from UTG+1.
This flop is a slam-dunk check-call with all flush draws, except maybe combo draws (9♦ 7♦, 7♦ 5♦, etc). This is for two reasons:
- Villain has a range advantage on this board, and thus we have very few made hands that want to check-raise
- Both check-raise-calling and check-raise-folding make no sense with a flush draw at these stack sizes (we'll either get it in behind or have to fold without seeing a turn)
Here's what PIOsolver thinks:
The only made hands we can check-raise are 86s, 66, A6, and A8. If we check-raised every draw, we'd be terribly unbalanced towards draws, which Villain could exploit by going all-in very often.
The main takeaway, here, is this: If stack sizes allow your opponent to comfortably 3-bet shove over a check-raise, make sure your hand satisfies one of the following criteria before check-raising:
1. Your hand can comfortably call a shove (a made hand or strong draw)
With these stacks top pair is good enough to check-raise, but you shouldn't always check-raise with it because your check-calling range then becomes very weak, and you'll be easy to play against.
A good way to split your ranges would be to check-raise top pairs with the best kickers, and check-call the rest.
2. Your hand can comfortably fold after check-raising (hands with low equity, like weak draws and backdoor draws)
You'll be folding some equity, but only around 15–20%, which isn’t too painful against your opponent's shoving range.
3. Your hand might be ahead now, but is vulnerable on later streets
Check-raising hands vulnerable hands like bottom pair or a weak pocket pair makes sense some percentage of the time. For example, here's how PIOSolver thinks you should play vs a c-bet on K-8-3 after defending the BB versus an early position raise:
Note that hands like A3, 44 and Q3s are check-raised at varying frequencies. This makes sense considering the great pot odds behind check-raising, and how much these hands benefit from protection.
To sum up: When you have 20–30BB, check-raise hands you're comfortable folding or going all-in with, and be careful not to check-raise-fold with too much equity.
Check-raising with relatively deep stacks (30BB+)
With this deeper stack size we have around six pot-sized bets behind, which gives us room to check-raise the flop, bet the turn, and bet the river. But this stack depth also means more tricky situations, on the turn particularly.
Facing a check-raise on the flop is no longer a commit-or-fold situation for our opponents. Floating a check-raise in-position, for instance, isn’t out of the question with over 30BBs. From our perspective, then, it’s crucial to determine the playability of our hand on the turn.
Here's a pop quiz for you:
Tournament. 35BB Effective Stacks.
Hero is dealt Xx Xx in the big blind
CO raises to 2BB (30% range). 2 folds. Hero defends.
Flop (6BB) K♦ 7♠ 3♣
Which hand would you rather check-raise: A♥ T♥ or 9♠ 8♠? Click below when you're ready for the answer.
We also need to be more careful with value hands. We’re too deep to stack off with every top pair, but unless we're facing a nitty UTG opener, we should still check-raise top pair with the best kickers, and anything better.
The deeper we are, the fewer top pairs we want to check-raise. But at typical MTT stack depths, going broke with the top of your value range is rarely going to be a mistake, especially from a theoretical perspective.
Remember that we're usually at a pretty big disadvantage being out of position with a relatively weak range. We therefore shouldn't be too ambitious with our check-raises, and risk our opponent playing back at us -- value hands and a few bluffs with solid playability will be enough.
Donk-leading on the turn
I want to end this article by talking about an alternative to check-raising: check-calling the flop and then leading the turn—a play I find underrated at slightly deeper stack depths (~25BB or higher to start the hand). For example:
Tournament. 35BB Effective Stacks.
Hero is dealt Xx Xx in the big blind
Villain (straightforward reg in MP) raises to 2BB. 4 folds. Hero defends.
Flop (6BB) K♥ T♠ 3♥
Hero checks. Villain bets 3BB. Hero calls.
Turn (12BB) T♣
Leading turn has a few advantages:
- It's more convincing than a check-raise on the flop
You called the flop to see a turn, which suggests that you have some kind of hand, while check-raising the flop suggests you might be bluffing.
- This turn strongly favors your range
Your opponent would likely check back most tens on the flop, whereas your flop check-calling range is full of them.
- Villain is less likely to continue with hands like A-Q, A-J, Q-J, etc...
...because all those draws are now very weak with just one card to come, and might already be drawing dead.
As for made hands, I wouldn’t expect Villain to fold a king, but I'm optimistic about anything worse. Plus, when Villain does have a king, we'll likely stack them when we have trip tens!
That's all for today! Thanks for reading.
If you want to see more about check-raising strategy, particularly with deep stacks, check out this article by Ryan Fee.
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