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A Time to Check

Playing contrary to conventional wisdom

by Roy Cooke |  Published: Apr 09, 2008


Conventional wisdom dictates that you generally follow through with a bet on the flop after raising preflop. Of course, knowledgeable/observant opponents know this, creating lower bluffing value when you missed the flop and making yourself a check-raise station for those who flopped a hand. You need to muddle your opponents' thinking by checking some of these hands when they expect you to bet, making yourself unpredictable to your opponents, causing them to make errors.

A timid, passive player limped in from up front. I like to play aggressively against this type of player, as I found him both easy to read and easy to make fold. The players between us folded. I looked down at the K 10 in middle position. Because it is suited and can also make a straight, the hand generally plays better with several opponents. When I make a big hand, there are opponents around to give me action with inferior hands, suggesting that a call was in order to induce opponents to play.

But this particular situation was different. I'd been card-dead for a while, not having picked up a hand to play for a few laps, so my opponents would tend to overrate the value of my raise. Most of the players yet to act behind me were players who would respect my raise. I thought that playing my hand in a "nonstandard" manner – that is, playing it aggressively against this weak-tight limper, hoping to win a shorthanded pot by aggression – was better than playing it in the "conventional-wisdom" manner. So, I raised.

Alas, things don't always go as planned. The three players behind me called. Calling begot calling – as the blinds called, too. We took the flop off sevenhanded; so much for winning a shorthanded pot with aggression against a passive upfront limper. The situation had changed, not because I had read it incorrectly, but because the unusual circumstances of the strength of the preflop holdings of my opponents had created an abnormal chain of events.

The flop was a clean miss, 5 5 2, one that hits few preflop holdings, particularly those that called a raise cold. That said, it can be a good flop for those who may hold a wired pair, assuming that nobody holds a bigger one or hits a turn card.

It was checked to me. I thought about making the conventional-wisdom play and betting. But, I had completely missed the flop – not even a backdoor-flush draw! The field was big. Any player with a pair was going to call or raise me. Opponents with two high cards, looking at the size of the pot, would likely take one off. My holding could easily be dominated by hands such as K-Q or A-10. And, it was by no means impossible that one of my opponents held a 5 or wired deuces. So, if I bet and hit one of my overcards, it wouldn't necessarily give me the best hand, and might only get me in trouble. Having callers behind me made for a difficult read. Plus, I had several opponents; the more opponents there are, the likelier it is that one of them holds a hand.

For the second time in this hand, I opted for the nonconventional play; I checked. The button bet and was check-raised by the small blind, who won the pot on the river with a bet. I never saw what hand won the pot.

It's not the most interesting of poker stories; however, it speaks to letting cards and situations dictate when to change your play. If you always make the same play in the same situation, observant opponents will pick up on your tendencies and will make correct strategy adjustments that will cost you edge. Making adjustments when situations are marginal will cost you less expectation and still confuse marginally skilled opponents. If you are playing against world-class opponents who will read through your strategy, you will need to take additional steps to disguise your play.

So, when should you adjust your play, using nonstandard moves to deceive your opponents? Check a hand after you have raised preflop when your opponents are observant and when the edge-loss cost in not making the biggest-edge play is small. Take free cards when bluffing is less rich, for example. When out of position, check hands when your opponents are likely to play with you. Check coordinated flops that are likely to have hit many holdings when you have totally missed. Check hands that may be in trouble if they hit; one of the ugliest spots in poker is drawing dead and getting there! Check in situations in which you have several opponents. Check when the style of your opponents is such that they are likely to call!

A variation on this theme is to recognize when your opponents are making conventional-wisdom bets. Check-raise when you hold a strong hand and know that aggressive players behind you will bet, or even on threatening boards, as a bluff. When opponents are going to bet no matter what, their range of hands is broader, and your chance to either move them off a pot or get extra value from your good hands is better.

It is the nature of the game and the human condition that your typical opponents will, over the course of a session, reveal patterns of play that will give you information that will create play-making opportunities. You want to recognize those patterns and use them to your benefit. And as was the case with my play of the K 10, you want to make conscious choices to break your own patterns in ways that confuse your opponents and have greater gain-lesser loss implications.

Roy Cooke has played more than 60,000 hours of pro poker and has been part of the I-poker industry since its beginnings. His longtime collaborator John Bond, a freelance writer in South Florida, is featured in Best American Mystery Stories 2007. Their fifth book, How to Think Like a Poker Pro, is available at and most booksellers.