Is checking in the dark a sound poker strategy?

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You are in a middle-limit Texas hold’em poker game. It’s at a full table of nine players. You are the Big Blind.

The dealer deals out two down cards to each player. Four opponents limp in – no raises. The betting gets back around to you with the opportunity to raise if you want.

There are many possible reasons for raising before the flop: Building the pot; thinning the playing field (especially when you then come out betting on the flop after raising preflop); or preparing to pull off a bluff.

A raise would also gain you the respect (and perhaps fear) on the part of your opponents, making it easier to bluff and gaining control of the hand. You can also get valuable information about the strength of your opponents’ hands based on their responses to your raise from the Big Blind.

Checking in the Dark: Instead of raising, and without a peek at your holecards, you signal “check” by rapping your knuckles on the table. Some of your opponents – the more skilled, undoubtedly notice your check in the dark. One shakes his head from side to side, and thinks to himself: “How stupid!” Is he correct? Why did you check in the dark?

Almost every half-way decent poker player – even those new to the game – would want to see his holecards before declaring. That is highly valuable information. Why miss out on it? If you had pocket kings a raise would likely be in order, if for no other reason than to build a pot when you hold a made hand or a premium drawing hand preflop.

If you don’t look at your holecards, you are playing in the dark and not availing yourself of key information. As a general rule, do not check in the dark. Peek at your holecards before declaring preflop.

Why check in the Dark? Perhaps you are superstitious, hoping the flop will magically get you a monster hand. Trouble is your cards won’t change; not seeing them will not influence the flop. Perhaps you want to be surprised when you look at your cards after the flop. That could be exciting! Ignorance of your holecards won’t help your hand in any way.

An exception: Believe it or not, there is a good reason for checking in the dark before the flop: Tells! Yes, tells. Like anyone else, without realizing it, you may inadvertently give a tell – a physical motion – as you peek at your holecards. Some of us look for these clues from our opponents.

I teach my Claude Pepper Seniors Poker Group to look to their left as their opponent’s first gaze upon their holecards. If you observe a player sit up straight in his chair, or pick up a handful of chips, you have just gotten valuable information – a tell. That opponent likes his holecards and is planning to raise. Being forewarned, you muck your K-10 offsuit borderline (marginal) hand. Save yourself some chips.

By the same token, some of your opponents may be watching your reaction as you first peek at your holecards. Why risk the chance you will inadvertently give them a tell? They can use that information against you. That’s certainly not in your best interests.

On this basis, it might well be appropriate for you to check in the dark while you are the Big Blind, and there has not been a raise. But, before you take this action, it would be wise to observe if your opponents to the right are watching you as the betting gets around to you – looking for you to give a tell they can use against your best interests.

Is there any other viable reason for checking in the dark during the preflop round of betting? What do you think? There will be a valuable prize to the best response received at [email protected] within two weeks after publication of this column.

“The Engineer,” a noted author and teacher in Greater Los Angeles, is a member of the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame. Contact George at [email protected].

About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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