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Poker Strategy With Ed Miller: What A Check Means

Miller Explains Why A Check Isn't Always A Sign Of Weakness

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When people tell me about hands they’ve played, one important and commonly misunderstood idea comes up repeatedly. Here’s an example of a common type of hand story I will hear.

“After a limper I raised to $25 and the big blind and limper called. The flop came king-high and they both checked. The checks showed weakness so I bet to try to win the pot…”
The key idea here is in the last sentence. The player telling me this story says that he bet the flop because his opponents checked, and the checks show weakness.

This idea is partly correct and partly wrong. It deserves some unpacking.

In general, a check is a weak move. That part is correct. If your opponent checks and you bet, the overwhelming majority of the time, he will either fold or call when the action comes back. The check-raise is a relatively rare play, and most definitely a deception. That is, the initial check is intended to disguise the strength of a raising hand.
Checks are weak in nearly every situation—at least relatively weaker than bets. But not all checks are equally weak. Some are very weak, while others are just sort of weak. How do you tell the difference?

The first question to ask yourself is, “How often would my opponent have bet in this situation?” Pretend every action in the hand was just the same up to the check, but instead of checking your opponent decided to bet. Is this a thing he would do frequently? Or would it be a bit of an oddity?

If he might have bet frequently, but instead he checked, then the check tends to be very weak indeed. A player usually has only so many strong hands. If you think he’d be betting a lot, then he’d probably be betting most of the strong hands. Which implies that when he checks, he’s rarely got a strong hand, and therefore his hand is very weak.

On the other hand, if a bet would be an oddity, then the check isn’t particularly weak. The rare betting implies that the player would tend to check weak and strong hands alike. Perhaps this is out of habit, or perhaps this is an attempt to disguise hand strength. (Usually it’s a bit of both.)

Checking To the Raiser

Checking to the preflop raiser is an extremely common strategy. This is what happened in the example hand. Because it’s so common, these checks don’t carry as much information, as your opponents are checking weak and strong hands alike. So it’s not correct to say, “My opponents checked to me, the raiser, so they are probably weak.”

Sure, they are probably weak, but that’s only because most people are weak on most flops. It’s hard to make something good. But they aren’t probably weak because they checked. The check itself means very little, because you’d expect them to check most hands.

So you’re generally right to assume that flop checkers are weak, but you should be quick to change that assumption if they show signs of life on a later street.

Multiway Pots

This logic begins to change as pots become more multiway. If you have one opponent, you can probably expect them to check to the raiser on most flops. With two opponents, this tends to continue to be true. Once you have three and especially four or more opponents, the dynamic changes. This is because the out of position players will become less confident that you, as the preflop raiser, will bet the flop if you miss.

In a seven-way pot, for instance, few players would assume that you would bet a missed hand just because you raised preflop. Out of position players will be more likely to bet their own hands and not check strong hands.

So the more multiway the pot is, the weaker flop checks are, even when players are checking to the raiser.

When The Raiser Checks

When the raiser checks the flop, it’s usually very weak. You can reach this conclusion using the logic from earlier. The raiser is expected to bet. Therefore, a bet wouldn’t necessarily be particularly strong. But you can expect a raiser to bet most strong hands. A check will usually be some very weak hands with the occasional strong hand for deception. But when the raiser checks it usually means significant weakness.

Anyone who checks the flop behind a raiser who checked will usually be very weak. These players aren’t checking to the raiser, since the raiser already checked. Almost always a player will bet any hands with strength in this situation, so a check is very weak.

Applying These Concepts

Here are a few rapid fire examples to help you apply some of these concepts.

You’re on the button in a four-handed pot, and the preflop raiser is to your direct right. On the flop it’s checked to the raiser, and the raiser checks. This is likely a good spot to bluff. The early checks mean some weakness in this multiway pot, and the raiser’s check is quite weak.

You’re in the big blind against a limper and a raiser. On the flop you check, your opponent checks, and the raiser checks. This is a good spot to bluff the turn. However watch out for the limper, as that flop check doesn’t have to be weak.

A player limps, and you raise preflop. The big blind calls, and the limper calls. The big blind bets out about half-pot on the flop. This might be a good bet to challenge (either by raising or calling and waiting to play the turn). Since most players would check hands good and bad in this situation, the bet often actually means a somewhat weak or vulnerable hand.

Two players limp and you raise the button. Both blinds and both limpers call. The flop comes disjoint or with rags. Everyone checks to you. This is a possible situation to bet and when called, plan to bluff the turn. The checks in this situation are weaker than typical “check to the raiser” checks, since the multiway pots might persuade someone with a vulnerable top pair to bet out rather than risk it being checked around. You’ll probably get called on the flop, but often a nice big turn barrel will win you the pot.

Final Thoughts

The simple assumption that checks mean weakness is generally correct, but to use the concept well you have to dig deeper. Some checks show a whole lot of weakness, and other checks are more procedural and don’t mean as much.

If you use a little logic, you can tell which is which, and your betting decisions will improve. ♠

Ed MillerEd’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site redchippoker.com.

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