In Defence of the Check Raise

I made a point of reading Daniel Negreanu’s latest book recently “Power Hold’em Strategy. On the whole I think it is a very good book but I really bought it because I was interested in hearing Daniels combined thoughts on small ball. Now I know that he has gone on record as saying that it took him quite some time before he actually started winning online and after reading his small ball section then I can understand why.

The small ball section is actually very good but if Daniel was attempting to use tournament small ball philosophy in highstakes online ring games then I could have saved him the trouble because small ball doesn’t work anywhere near as well in this environment.

I am of course making two huge assumptions here, firstly that Daniel used the exact same small ball strategies that he explains in his book in online games and that he was playing for fairly highstakes online as I would imagine that he wouldn’t have been playing for peanuts.

But I recall Daniel saying in that book (or it may have been David Williams quoting advice from Daniel) that it is a better strategy to bet right out in a heads up situation with nothing rather than go for a check raise bluff when out of position. The main reasons of course are that betting out can allow you to find out more information at a much lower cost and a check raise bluff will be far more expensive when it fails.

But let us take a look at a serious counter argument here in favour of making a check raise bluff rather than merely leading out, consider the following points.

  1. If you lead out then your opponent has an opportunity to float you.
  2. You can get raised when you bet.
  3. You can get set up for a turn bluff when you bet and get called (linked to no 1).
  4. You can end up bluffing several barrels into a very strong hand or a hand that your opponent will not lay down.
  5. It isn’t a standard continuation bet so therefore isn’t as obvious.
  6. It dramatically reduces your opponents range if your check raise bluff gets called or raised.
  7. A check raise represents a very strong hand.
  8. It can get stronger hands to fold than a conventional lead bet would.
  9. Checking could get you a free card if your opponent checks behind.
  10. It avoids playing a huge pot (linked to #4).
  11. Checking could confuse your opponent into believing that you want them to bet and this could increase the likelihood of a turn lead winning the pot.

Now before we continue, I think that I should rapidly point out that I am certainly not advocating making check raise bluffs every time you are out of position. It is clearly wrong in poker to implement the same strategy unless you are playing at a very unsophisticated level where your opponents are unaware of what you are doing either through ignorance or because they are frequently changing.

But check raise bluffing when out of position is something that you really need to have in your arsenal of weapons as a counter balancing strategy to always leading out. As always then it is all about finding out what your opponents will stand for. If they fold to continuation bets then why would you want to use a check raise bluff?

But some players and especially at the higher levels will not respect this line of play so you definitely need to balance continuation betting with check raising! This is especially the case on certain types of flops where your opponent may not believe a continuation bet as the board doesn’t correspond with what your pre-flop raise has told them about the possible content of your hand.

But in the higher stakes online games then you will certainly be facing players who will set out to exploit small ball and they will do this by escalating the pot and dragging players away from their comfort zone of playing the pot the way that they want it to be played. The better players can do this for several reasons. Firstly they can do it simply because they ARE better players. Secondly they can do it because in many cases, their bankroll allows them to do it. Thirdly this tactic can exploit many good solid players who don’t have the necessary bankroll and are merely shot taking at that level.

So to finish off then, it is imperative that you blend continuation betting with check raising and even check folding in some cases as part of an overall balanced strategy. As for Daniel Negreanu and David Williams… well they are still better players than me and well done on a great book!