Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Check in the dark

Sometimes I put a note on Twitter with no context, except that it's what happened to be floating through my mind at the moment. Friday saw such an example when I wrote: "I wish I understood why so many people think that checking in the dark is a smart move.... besides the fact that they see Phil Hellmuth do it on TV, that is."

One of my followers--one who is trying to make a living playing poker, in fact--responded with a serious query: "Checking in the dark isn't a good move?"

I didn't reply, for a bunch of reasons--Twitter not being a good medium for poker strategy discussions chief among them. But the question got me to wondering how I might explain the whole subject to a novice who asked me about it.

My first reaction to the question is to answer it with another question: "In a game in which information is money, why would you ever choose to make a decision without information when you could wait five seconds and make it with information?"

After mulling it over on and off for a few days, I think that remains a pretty solid generalization. It's not 100% true. Though I don't think I have ever checked in the dark, a handful of times I have bet in the dark, about which one could ask the same skeptical question. But I think these have all been all-in bets, in situations where it would have been apparent to any thinking opponent that I was effectively pot-committed anyway, so there was essentially no difference, in terms of either strategy or what information I was conveying about my hand, between betting in the dark and waiting for the card(s) to hit the board.

It's easy to list some downsides of the dark check. Most prominently: (1) You lose the opportunity to lead-bluff at a dry board against an opponent who has a tendency to give up if he whiffs the flop, and (2) you risk giving a free card to your opponent, one which makes his hand and costs you a pot that you otherwise could have won by betting the flop when you had the best hand (e.g., you have A-Q versus A-K, flop is queen-high, king on the turn). More generally, I would put it this way: Having to act first, rather than last, is only occasionally advantageous, but when it is, it's a potential disaster to have given up that advantage blindly in advance.

I find it harder to specify the advantages of a dark check. I suppose that, like most every other poker tactic, it has some useful role, even if only a small niche, but, frankly, I don't know how to list the set of conditions in which it should come into play--a fact that is undoubtedly related to the fact that I have never deployed it.

Perhaps I have missed an occasional opportunity when a dark check would have been advantageous. But even if so, I'm willing to make these three assertions categorically: (1) If one never, ever checked dark, it would be, at worst, a small mistake in one's game. (2) Using it habitually, rather than thoughtfully and selectively, is just plain bad poker. (3) Whatever marginal or situation-specific utility the technique may have, it is vastly overused. (This, of course, is true of several other tactics one could name, such as the min-raise. It has its place, but only really bad players employ it more than occasionally, and I suspect that very few of them would be able to articulate a cogent explanation of why they're doing it in any given spot.)

I suppose some players think that the dark check looks strong and intimidating. I never read it that way. To me, it looks weak and scared. It reeks of, "I'm really uncomfortable having to make the first decision, so I'm going to push that responsibility off onto you." Most players that I see using it regularly are weak and timid, and the check reflects that, I think.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm missing some terrific potential advantage here. I'd welcome thoughtful advocates of the dark check to explain why they think it's either a good practice to engage in routinely when first to act, or to delineate the specific circumstances in which it is smart to selectively use it (e.g., small pot or large? against one opponent or many? against what type(s) of opponent? deep-stacked or short-stacked? limit or no-limit? etc.) Perhaps I can be convinced that I'm missing out on a good thing by being a refusenik.

Incidentally, while looking for some sort of image with which to illustrate this post, I happened to notice that there is a band named "Check in the Dark": http://www.myspace.com/checkinthedarkmusic

As for the photo I found? Well, it's a dark check. Dark check--get it?


Grange95 said...

There are precisely zero justifications for checking dark that can't be satisfied equally as well by waiting an extra five seconds and checking after the flop is dealt, without forfeiting the ability to lead at a flop one would normally bet.

Anonymous said...

If the table has a couple super aggressive players that consistently and heavily bet the flop regardless their holdings, I occasionally pull out my big-ass dark-check-RAISE bat from under the table and knock'em upside the head once or twice a session. Of course I make sure to pick my spots (cards) carefully, but I have found that it works >80% of the time. I make sure to set them up first by checking dark once before when I'm in the blind and 99.9% sure that I'm folding anyway. I like to let the super aggro player think that betting my check dark will make me fold.

Rakewell said...

Anon: How does the dark check give you any advantage over just routinely checking after the flop comes out? You could take the same actions: fold sometimes, call sometimes, check-raise sometimes.

Freight Train said...

Grump -
I want to explore your posit that the min raise is bad poker. I personally don't use it very often, however I see it used a lot in the group I play with and also at the casino I visit. Can you give a post explaining your reasoning?

Alex said...

Don't play much so not really arguing for a dark-check but the thought I have when I see Hellmuth do it(too much) is it avoids giving your opponents info about how much you like/dislike the flop. How that compares to what you are giving up to do it, I couldn't say.

Pete said...

I also have never understood so many players fascination with the dark check. Often times they tell me that doing this steals the other players' position. But of course it does no such thing.

The first time I started seeing this I thought the players were doing it to confuse their opponents. And that may have worked 5 years ago when it was not common. But now it is so common that it doesn't confuse anybody.

It does however set a player up for an angle shot. Player who is first to act heads up smacks the table before the next board card gets dealt. he waits to see what happens if the player behind him checks he speaks up and says "I didn't check" if told that he checked dark he claims he was just calling for a card when he slapped the table. If the player behind him bets he goes goes along like he had checked dark. This effectively gives him first and last action (obviously this doesn't work with verbal dark checks)

Anonymous said...

The only reason I have ever done so is table image. Doing things like that at times they are neutral EV (i.e. you would always check, even to just change things up) can make the table drunks/fish more likely to do so at times they shouldn't.

Anonymous said...

I hadn't checked in the dark probably ever, until the second orbit of a game I played last week with a table full of complete unknowns.

The metagame was that the villain, a few seats to my left, was infuriated that I had stolen a big 3-way pot from him by raising him light, squeezing him out when a deep-stack called with a draw. My raise was a donk move made with less than top pair, but it was good first-orbit advertising on the cheap with my min-buyin. The customers were lining up.

Villain was not smart enough to hide his anger, although after a hand like that I already knew to gear-shift tight and trappy against him. My donk image was enhanced when I asked if the table benefactor on a smoke break was a good player. (I meant to ask if benefactor was merely drunk or just stupid, but it didn't come out that bluntly.)

The action: By the second orbit I had already quintupled up, covering the villain. I picked up AJs under the gun, raised, and villain called.

I then checked the flop in the dark because:

1) Villain was itching to get it all-in with me, and I wanted to give him the rope.
2) I wanted to read my opponent on the flop, rather than having him read me.
3) Villain would have no respect for my raises, although it would have been easier for him to fold to a bet which was not a raise. (He had already been made a fool of in his own mind by folding to my raise in the previous big 3-way pot.)
4) AJs sometimes flops a draw to the nuts, which would be good for trapping if I could get enough free cards.

Sure enough, a flush draw flopped. With a smile, the villain smugly checked behind to "exploit" my error of the dark check.

Unfortunately for him, he was also drawing to a flush, which hit on the turn.

Villain went all-in drawing dead.

Epilogue: Villain went on double-tilt and started betting $200 into $6 pots. The regular next to me assured me that usually the villain was normally a profitable player.