In this article we will look at the question of whether or not river check-raises are part of a balanced Limit Hold’em strategy. If so, we will try to determine the factors that need to be in place in order for a river check-raise to be considered. The idea of a “balanced” strategy comes from game theory, and it is opposed to the idea of exploitative strategy. If you are playing against an opponent who always bets when he’s checked to on the river, there is obviously a lot of value in planning river check-raises against him.
That’s not the kind of situation I’m talking about; that would be an exploitative strategy, not a balanced one. I’m asking the question whether you should ever (and in what situations) check-raise the river as part of your basic strategy, not as an adjustment to a weak or exploitable opponent.
There are a few situations where we might want to check-raise the river: when we hit a draw, when we miss a draw (a bluff), when we’ve been betting but want to make an extra bet and think our opponent might have something. The problem with going for a check-raise when you hit is that it can be an obvious play, so your opponent might wise up and not bet, in which case you’ve let him off scot-free. Check-raising when you miss your hand can be equally obvious, and it’s a very expensive bluff. Add in the good pot odds your opponent will be getting to call, and there’s not a great chance of success. Going for a check-raise when you’ve been betting the whole way is almost always a bad idea. Your opponent will wonder what’s up and you’ll fool him into betting once or twice at the most. More often than not he’ll simply check behind and you’ll lose a big bet.
When a good player check-raises the river, they have usually hit a draw that isn’t obvious. Most players avoid check-raising if they hit something like a flush because they correctly believe that their opponent might fear the check-raise and check behind. It’s in a situation where you hit a second pair or an inside straight that check-raising really makes sense. However, any time you only do something in a certain situation (in this case, you only check-raise the river when you hit a non-obvious draw), good players are going to catch on and start exploiting you. You need to start check-raising at least one other situation as well, to balance it out.
If your river check-raises are always value bets and never bluffs your opponents will start to fold unless they have a monster themselves. So you have to add in some bluffs, and you need those bluffs to balance out your river value check-raises. That means that you have to bluff on boards where you might have hit a non-obvious draw. Now it would make no sense to bluff when you have a pair (you would be bluffing that you hit a second pair), because your hand has showdown value. So you can really only bluff on hands where you missed a draw, but it looks like you could have hit a non-obvious draw. Going back to our value check-raises, it’s clear that we can no longer check-raise the river when we hit a second pair, because we can’t reasonably bluff the same situation when we miss.
The place of the river check-raise in our strategy is very limited. Basically we do it when we hit an inside straight or runner runner flush on the river, and when we’re bluffing having hit one of those hands. The only thing left to determine is how often we should be bluffing compared to value betting. Basically, we want the ratio of value bets to bluffs to be the same as the average pot odds our opponent is getting. Your check-raise should be a bluff only 5-10% of the time. And seeing as how you’ll rarely chase an inside straight and hit, you’ll very, very rarely be bluffing, much less than once per session. Probably once every couple thousand hands.