When you bet or raise on an early-round in order to get checked to on the next round, you are not actually getting a free card. In reality, you are getting a card cheaply. If everything works, it appears as though you are getting a free card, but that “free” card cost you a bet on the previous round. If things do not work as hoped, the free card you are trying to get may become quite expensive. (Your opponent might reraise and then bet into you on the fourth street.) However, there are many situations where trying for a cheap card is beneficial. (And from this point on we will refer to it as free since it is standard poker jargon).
Since getting a free card is often advantageous when your hand is weak, it should be obvious that when you have a legitimate hand, it is usually to your disadvantage to give any free cards. Specifically, you should bet most of your legitimate hands to give your opponent a chance to drop. This includes holdings like four-flushes or open-end straight draws with two cards to come. By the way, be willing to bet open-end straight draws with two flush cards on board as long as there are two cards to come, unless you feel that there is a good chance that you will be raised. It is true that you may make your straight and run into a flush. But remember that it is often correct to bet on the flop with a small pair and an overcard, a hand that has only five cards that will improve it. Even if a flush draw is out, you still have six cards that will make your straight draw a winning hand, and many times that winning hand will be the “nuts.” (Of course six outs against an opponent’s flush draw is not as good as five outs against a non-flush draw since you can catch and still lose.)
You also usually should bet top pair or an over pair on the flop, as long as your hand figures to be the best hand. The exceptions are when there is a lot of raising before the flop (indicating that you may not have the best hand), and those times when you have decided to check-raise. Specifically, resist the inclination to check to the before-the-flop-raiser. Checking and calling is rarely a correct strategy in hold ’em, yet this is precisely the way that many weak opponents will play.
However, there are three situations where checking and calling may be correct.
- When you are slowplaying.
- When you are fairly sure that your opponent has a better hand and will not fold if you bet, but the pot odds justify your calling in the hope that either you have the best hand or you may outdraw your opponent.
- When you are against a habitual bluffer.
Now, even though you risk giving a free card, checking and calling is probably the best strategy to follow. Another interesting concept is that even when you are a big favorite and want callers, but you think everyone will fold if you bet, giving a free card still may be incorrect. In this case, the next card might be a miracle card for someone else, but not likely to make anyone a second-best hand. An obvious example of this can be seen when you flop a small flush. A check could give someone else a higher flush, and that person would not have called your bet.
Specifically, suppose you hold 7s6s and three spades flop. If you bet, someone with the 8s, 9s, 10s, or Js most likely will throw his hand away. If you check and a fourth spade comes, you may have cost yourself the pot.
These examples illustrate the general principle of free cards. That is, if you check and allow someone who would not have called your bet to outdraw you, then you have allowed a “mathematical catastrophe” to happen. It is also a catastrophe to give a free card to someone who would have called your bet, and he fails to outdraw you. However, this second mathematical catastrophe is not as bad as the first. It can also be beneficial to give this free card if it makes someone misplay their hand.
There are four other basic situations where it is correct to check on the flop.
- CHECK, when you are sure that you do not have the best hand and especially sure that you will be called if you bet. This frequently will occur when you have several opponents and the board flops either three cards that rank close to each other or two suited cards.
For example, suppose you have 7h7d you are against several opponents, and the flop is Qc 9d 3c It is usually wrong to bet. There is little chance that everyone will fold, and you have almost no chance of improving to the best hand.
- CHECK, where it is generally correct to check is when you think it is likely that someone behind you will bet. This often occurs when you are in a two or three-person pot and were raised by an aggressive opponent before the flop. Some of these players automatically will bet on the flop when you check to them, no matter which cards have come. When this is the case and you have flopped a strong hand, almost always go for a check-raise. In fact, with a non-threatening flop, you sometimes should check-raise and then bet again on fourth street even when you have nothing. (However, don’t get carried away with this play. Make it only occasionally.)
- CHECK with a hand that should be slowplayed. But we want to add that one of the deciding factors as to whether to slowplay is not just the strength of your hand but also the chance that the next card will make someone else a second best hand.
- CHECK, when you have flopped top pair, either aces or kings, and you have a weak kicker it might be right to check and call. Notice that if you don’t have the best hand, you save money by not having to call any raise. Also notice (and this is extremely important) that few free cards can hurt you. Specifically, when you have aces and, to a lesser degree, kings, you are not worried about overcards beating you. But suppose you have flopped top pair, not aces or kings, and you have a weak kicker. (This usually happens when you get a “free” play in the big blind.) How should this hand be played? The answer is somewhat complex. Against a small number of opponents, you should bet so you are not giving a free card that could easily beat you. Against a large number of opponents, you should check and perhaps fold especially if it is bet in early position and you have players behind you yet to act. This is because with several players still to act, it is unlikely that the bettor would bet a hand that you could beat. (The pot is said to be “protected.”) Few players will bluff in this spot. Though your opponent may be betting a draw, the combination of factors should deter you from calling, unless the pot is offering very good odds. But if the bet comes from a late-position player after you have checked to a large number of opponents, you should raise. Even though you don’t always hold the best hand, there is a good chance that you do, and by getting the pot heads-up, you will maximize your chance of winning.
Here’s an example. Suppose the flop is Qc 7d 6s No one raised before the flop, many players are in the pot, and you are in the blind with a Q and a weak kicker. You should check, and if a late-position player bets, you should raise (regardless of your kicker.) You are trying to restrict the competition to a small number of players, most likely just you and the bettor, and since he bet after all or most of the other players checked there is a good chance that you have the best hand.
However, you must be cautious if you have top pair (with a weak kicker) that is below queens. Because it is more probable for someone else to have top pair in an unraised pot when the top card is a jack or lower. This is because good players are more likely either to raise or fold when they have an A, K, or Q in their hands (depending on their other card) and less likely to just call. Thus, when nobody raises before the flop, a flop like Kc 7d 3h is not likely to make a pair of kings for someone else.’ So if you played Ks5c in the blind, you should like your hand. However, if you hold 10s5c and the flop is 10c 3d 2h you must fear the possibility of a ten – unraised pot or not – since most players will just call with a hand like: J10off or 109s. In this case, unless you have a good kicker, or the pot is quite large, or you have a back-door flush draw, you usually should fold top pair when that top pair is jacks or lower. (However, if you do play, you generally should raise.)
One concept that we already have stressed is that you should avoid checking decent hands to the before-the-flop raiser in most situations. But most players do check. So if you are the before-the- flop raiser in a multiway pot, your hand is weak, and everyone checks to you, you almost always should take a free card rather than bet someone else’s hand. But under the same circumstances in a short-handed pot, you should usually bet because there is a reasonable chance that you can win the pot right there. Following is an example of this concept. Suppose you hold AsKs the flop is 7d 6s 2c and everyone checks to you. If the pot is being played short- handed, you should bet. The main reason for this is that you don’t want to give a free card to someone holding a hand like: Jh10d . This bet also might gain you a free card on the next round. In fact, betting or raising in late position with a hand that does not seem to justify it is sometimes correct if you think this may cause your opponent to allow a card to drop off at no further charge. However, keep in mind that if you take the free card, some opponents automatically will bet on the river, no matter what they have or what the last card is. Against these types of players, it is frequently necessary to call with as little as ace high after you have shown weakness by checking on fourth street.
If you hold the AsKs in the above example and you don’t bet the flop after it is checked to you be prepared to bet the turn not only if an A or K hits, but also as a bluff if a Q or perhaps a J hits. If a small card hits and it is checked to you don’t bet in a loose game since it will be very unlikely that you can pick up the pot. But in a tight game this bet may be correct. By the way, this play would be even stronger if your hand is QJ (since they fear AK). You will now have six legitimate cards to bet – your pair cards, and eight cards to bluff with.
It is also frequently correct to raise in late position on the flop with a four-flush. If the game is not tough – that is, you do not fear a reraise and your raise will encourage your opponents to check to you on the next round – you should raise more than half the time. However, you want players with this type of flop. Consequently, if there is a bet and several players remain to act behind you, it is often better to just call. (You still should consider raising if the pot is large, especially if you have overcards.)
Incidentally, even if you can’t get a free card with your flush draw, since the odds against making your hand are approximately 2-to-1, your raise is also correct if you are sure that at least three players will call. But not if a pair flopped. In this case, you can make your flush and still lose the pot, so you usually should just call.
Keep in mind that any time you are in a late position on the flop and have a hand that is worth a call, you should seriously consider raising. In fact, sometimes it is worth raising when you are absolutely sure that the bettor has you beat. Here’s an example. Suppose that five players have put in three bets each before the flop. You are in last position with QsJs and are sure that no one has AA or KK since you put in the last raise. The flop is: 10s 7d 3h If the player to your right bets after everyone else has checked, you should raise, even if you are sure that he has 1010. Since the pot has become very large, it is important that you maximize your chance of winning it, even if you often cost yourself a few more bets. In the example given, your raise on the flop probably has increased your chance from about 15 % (had you just called) to about 25 %. By knocking people out, you have made it more likely that you will win if a Q or a J comes. Though this play may cost you more money, it is well worth it.
Additionally, it may save you money if your raise has scared the bettor into just calling and then checking on the fourth street. As far as your back-door flush and straight chances are concerned, you probably would win with these hands, even if you let everybody in. However, the extra back-door chances are what made it wrong to fold originally, and as we’ve just shown if you don’t fold, it is better to raise.
Here is another example of how back-door potential can improve your hand and make a raise correct. Suppose you have Ah7h and the flop is Ad 9h 3s.
Notice that the flop includes an A and one of your suit. If someone else bets, you should raise. Now bet on the turn with the intention of just showing down on the river if you do not improve.
If you get check-raised on fourth street, you usually should fold, unless you helped or picked up a flush draw. You don’t have enough chance to draw out against a legitimate hand to make it worth calling the check-raise. But if your opponent may be bluffing or semi-bluffing, you’ve got to keep him honest. Had you not flopped a three-flush with your pair of A, a raise on the flop is less likely to be correct. In fact, without a back-door flush potential, it might be better to fold.