In limit games, the check-raise is a powerful weapon used by most players. It allows you to win extra bets by sucking in players on weaker hands or to create a bad price for draws to continue by forcing them to call two bets cold. In no limit games, by contrast the check-raise is rarely used. If you want to give draws a poor price to continue, you just bet whatever bad price you like. Thus in no limit games the use of the check-raise appears to be reduced to winning extra bets, but there are other uses, and today I want to discuss one of those, which I'm calling the defensive check-raise.
I find the check-raise useful for playing marginal hands out of position. Since I tend to play strong starting hands, I generally only find myself in this spot when in the blinds. Often enough I flop a high top pair with a weak kicker. This type of hand has some value but not a lot. I don't want to play a big pot, since the bigger the pot gets, the less my chances are of winning in a showdown.
Let's say I'm in the big blind with against the small blind (SB), a middle position limper (MP) and the button (BTN). Let's say the flop comes: . Now I could lead at this pot, but if I get two callers, I'm likely behind to one of them. I could bet the turn but will have to fold to any raise. If I only get one turn-caller, the pot will be sizable, and I can't feel too good going to the river with my marginal holding. Since I don't want to play a big pot with this hand, I could avoid that by checking the turn, but this invites a bluff or semi-bluff and I will likely have to fold if the bet is significant. While the latter approach involves less risk, it also looks exactly like a one-track bluff: stab on the flop, check-fold on the turn. Surely my hand has more value than a bluff.
I prefer a check-raise in this spot, though, of course, I don't make this play every time. The main reason for using a check-raise is psychological. A check-raise suggests a lot of strength, and so many hands will fold, particularly a straight draw from MP that might have just called your flop lead bet but not the BTN's lead and your raise. Moreover, hands that have you beat, such as a higher a Q, may also fold. The check-raise also provides you with more information about your opponents' likely holdings than a simple lead bet. If your check-raise is cold-called you can be fairly sure you are beaten. If the player is particularly bad, then he/she may have a draw, but if so, you have given a poor price to catch, even if counting both the turn and river. If the bettor calls, then you can figure this player for top pair or better, with the possibility of some kind of draw depending on whether this particular player semi-bluff draws or not.
Finally, the check-raise, unlike a simple lead is an action stopper. If you check the turn, the bettor is unlikely to bet again with a weak hand for fear of being check-raised a second time. If you lead the flop, then check the turn, you invite a bet from your opponent(s), but if you check-raise, you suggest that you have enough strength to at least call a bet and so only good hands will likely bet, allowing you to fold knowing you are beat.
Against weak hands that have you beat, the check-raise gives you the best chance to take down the pot on the flop when opponents misinterpret your hand for real strength. In addition, the check-raise may buy you a free or cheap showdown. With a bad kicker like a , you really want some bigger cards to hit the board so that you split the pot against someone with a higher though not great kicker. Against weak hands that you beat, you lose no bets (assuming they bet) and win a decent pot with a marginal hand. Against monster hands that might slow play you, you save yourself a significant amount of money, especially if these hands check and call two bets cold. This is a red light to you. Otherwise these hands might milk you for a small bet on the turn and/or river.
The downside of the check-raise is that you give opponents a free card to beat you. In the example, having a pair of queens reduces single non-queen pairs that beat you to only three cards (unless you are up against big slick). This is fairly low risk. Similarly, a pocket pair has only two outs to make a set and a bottom or second pair has only five outs to beat you. If your top pair is something like an , then you don't have this luxury, of course, as many over cards can beat you. With a decent top pair, however, the check-raise is fairly low risk. You don't have all that great a hand. It really is only good for a small to medium sized pot. Losing a small pot on a five outer is not such a big mistake. Of course, in the example, there is a possible straight and a possible flush draw out, but your hand is not strong enough to play aggressively. If the free turn card completes one of these draws you haven't cost yourself much of a pot.
In summary, the check-raise can be used defensively with a marginal holding to get comparable value to a lead bet. It better defines the holdings you are up against, which allows you to make better decisions when evaluating the strength of an opponent's hand. A check-raise also tends to close the action. This gets you to showdown for about the same price as leading at the pot on the flop and leading or check-calling on the turn, but with the added benefit of discouraging bluffs. Finally, when opponents see you check-raise they bluff you less often because they know you are capable of raising their bluffs. This will get you numerous free cards, which is particularly nice when drawing at a gutshot straight. Incorporate the defensive check-raise into your game and reap its many rewards.