In poker, checking is one of the movements a player is allowed to make when no betting action occurred yet.
When you hear about what makes a good poker player, number 1 at the top of most people's list is aggression. Aggression is all well and good but in order to stop you from being an overly aggressive maniac at the table, there needs to be a balance.
That balance comes from checking and learning to play some spots passively.
Poker Check Explained
Checking, whilst being one of the five actions you can make in poker, is essentially a non-action. When you check, you decline the chance to make a bet and you do not surrender your hand. Instead, you defer your action to the next player.
To be able to check, a bet or raise cannot have been made in that round before your action. For example, if you are first to act on the flop you have the option to check as no one has had the chance to make a bet in that betting round. There is only one situation where a player can check pre-flop - this is when they are in the big blind and no one has made a raise, but players have limped in. In this scenario, as the big blind is the last to act pre-flop, they have the option of raising or checking.
If you want to check while playing live poker you have a few options to signal your intent. The clearest way is to verbally say the word "check". You can also tap the table with your fingers/hand, you can nod towards the dealer, you can make a hand motion - basically any significant body action that doesn't involve placing chips over the betting line when it's your turn to act will be interpreted as a check.
If all players remaining in the hand decide to check, the betting round is considered complete and the next card is dealt.
Checking In The Dark
Checking in the dark is checking your hand before even looking at it. Dark actions are not limited to checking, and they are commonly used to make a fun move or to show how confident you are in your lucky streak.
Checks vs Calls
Calling is not the same thing as checking. Checking is the deferral of action to the next player, whereas calling matches a bet made by another player.
For example, if you are on the flop and are facing a bet from your opponent your three options are to fold, call, or raise - there is no option to check. If you wish to call the bet, you must match the exact bet your opponent made unless the bet exceeds your remaining stack in which case you put in as much as you can.
These are two fundamentally different actions as checking can only occur if there has been no betting action, whereas calling can only occur if there has been betting action.
When to Check in Poker
Now that we've learned that checking is essentially a non-action, it might seem like a useless thing to do. However, there are some very good reasons why we might want to check:
When you have a mid-range hand
This should be your primary reason for wanting to check - if your hand isn't good enough to make a value bet and is too strong to bluff with then it should be checked. These hands are going to be ones in the middle of your range and have around 40-60% equity against your opponent's range.
There are some hands at either end of this spectrum that may want to check as they're "giving up" and not being bluffed despite how little equity they have, and there are some hands that want to be checked to check-raise your opponent.
However, the bulk of your checking range will end up being these mid-range hands that don't generate value from being bet.
Waiting for a Good Draw
If we have a drawing hand such as four to a flush or four to a straight, we can sometimes draw that hand for free by checking. If we're last to act on a particular street and we have the option to check, that means we can see the next card without having to put in any money.
However, if we're not last to act then there is a risk that a player behind us will bet, forcing us to call if we want to try and make our hand. Even with this risk, checking is sometimes advised with a drawing hand as they won't always bet and we'll get to draw at our hand for free at least some of the time.
By passing on the option to bet and letting the next player to act make a decision, we get some information on their hand based on their action. If they also check then we can reasonably assume that they don't have a fantastic hand as they would likely bet it for value. We can also assume that they don't have a terrible hand as they would have taken the opportunity to bluff.
The reliability of this information will depend on the player you're playing against - the trickier your opponent is the more likely they are to 'trap' by checking with a strong hand, so be careful!
Luring Other Players to Raise
50 years ago checking to raise or "check-raising" was considered an illegal move in a lot of poker games as it was considered bad etiquette to conceal the strength of your hand. We've come a long way since then and the check-raise is now a powerful tool in a player's arsenal.
By checking and allowing your opponent to bet before raising yourself, you can get multiple bets in on one street, against an opponent who may have only called if you bet yourself. Check-raising is often done with strong hands to try and build a pot but it comes with the risk that if the other players also check then you've wasted a round of betting.
Similarly to check-raising, you may want to check to feign weakness to an overly aggressive player. It's a great move to slow play a monster hand. Against these players, you may not want to raise right away as they'll likely fold whatever random hand they were betting. Instead, if you just check-call, you can give them the rope to bluff over multiple streets into your strong hand.
A lot of players, especially live players, don't like to bluff hands over multiple streets so you must know your player well if you're going to try this move. If the player is the type to fire off whenever they see weakness then you've found yourself a mark for this trap.
Poker Check: FAQ
Answers to the most common questions about checking in poker.
What is checking in poker?
Checking in poker is the deferral of your action to the next player. It means that you choose not to make a betting action yourself, nor do you surrender your hand. You pass on the ability to take any action to the player who is next to act.
Can you check when a prior player raises or bet?
No, you can only check if there has been no betting or raising on that street before your turn. If another player has made a betting action then you have the option to call that bet, however, this is not the same as checking.
Why are other players folding instead of checking?
Some players may want to fold instead of checking the river as then they're not obliged to show their hand, therefore hiding any information from their opponent. Whilst keeping your opponent in the dark about how you play is a good idea, it is often better for you to check the river instead of folding as there is a possibility - no matter how slim - that you may win at showdown.
How do you check when it is your turn?
If you wish to check when it is your turn then you can signal that to the dealer by saying the word 'check', by tapping the table with your hand, nodding towards the dealer, or by making a hand motion. A dealer will always confirm if your action means 'check' if they're unsure.
When should you check instead of betting?
There are several reasons you may want to check instead of betting such as wanting to draw for free, wanting to check-raise an aggressive opponent, wanting to gather information from your opponent, or letting an overly aggressive player bluff into you.
Whilst good poker requires a lot of aggression, knowing when to take your foot off the gas and play passively by checking is needed to balance your game.