When Should You Check Your Cards?
This is a question that needs to be tackled because the advice on when you should check your cards tends to be very definitive. After analyzing tens of thousands of card checks by now I have a lot to say about when you should check your cards but I am going to approach this a little bit differently. I am going to discuss the pros and cons of each option in order to help support my argument for which method you should utilize.
The 3 Methods
- Check your cards as soon as you get them.
- Check your cards when it’s your turn to act.
- Check your cards some time in between.
In order to determine which one of these methods is the most effective you have to consider 4 core variables when making the decision for which to use.
- The availability of information in your opponents
- The amount of information you leak
- Likelihood for cognitive bias
1. The availability of information
This is the amount of information an opponent gives off when they check their cards. Considering that for the majority of players this will be the richest moment for behavioral information and tells, this is a VERY important factor. If we look at the 3 times you can check your cards at the table you will gain the most information if you wait for your turn to act. Without looking at your cards you can dedicate all your effort towards spotting behavioral information, shifts in bet sizes, looking for tells and trends in your opponents. The lowest availability of information is if you check your cards first, for two reasons. First, that eagerness to see what you have prevents you from critically examining the behavior of your opponents. Second, the fact that you don’t get two cards at once means that if you are in later positions you will be last to be dealt both cards, and a lot of players would have checked their cards already. Waiting for everyone else to check and then quickly looking at your cards is sort of in the middle. You won’t get all the information because you can potentially miss out on something valuable in that moment where you check your cards but you definitely will be able to get a good amount of information unless you are the kind of person who looks at your cards for a long time. When it comes to the availability of information waiting for your turn to act is the winner, checking your cards quickly after everyone else is a close second, and checking them right away comes in a distant third.
2. The leakage of information
This refers to how much information YOU give off when you check your cards. The amount of information you personally give off is not necessarily dependent on when you check your cards, the biggest factor here is the reliability of the moment. For this reason waiting for your turn to act can be absolute suicide. For most players the most important moment for tells is the card checking period. If you happen to give off a lot of information during this period and you reliably check your cards when it’s your turn to act, I will know exactly when you check your cards and I will always be looking at you when you do it. One of the best things is when you have 2-3 players at the table who check their cards when it’s their turn to act because it creates a very reliable and consistent source of information that I can exploit. If you don’t have any tells that revolve around this moment then it’s fine but in my experience the overwhelming majority of players do. From that perspective checking your cards when it’s your turn to act is the worst. Second would be checking your cards first, because it’s also a predictable moment. You will have the least reliability when you check your cards after everyone else or a certain number of people check their cards because that moment is going to be constantly changing making it difficult for people to predict when you will check your cards.
3. Likelihood for cognitive bias
Cognitive bias is concerned with how identifying events at the table can alter your decision making process. For example, you are card dead for 2 hours and you finally get dealt a small pair and you want to play it so bad so you start to rationalize the behaviors of other people at the table as support for playing the pair. Even though you know you shouldn’t actually be playing a small pocket pair in this spot. This is something that is just a facet of being human and is constantly going on at the table. The amount of bias is going to be the least if you wait for your turn to act. This allows for a clearer decision making process. Second is checking your cards after everyone else or a certain group of players check their cards and the worst is checking your cards first.
You can definitely make inferences about the player who is so eager to take a look at those two cards versus a player that may be more interested in the immediate table dynamic. The process of waiting for your turn to act is a facet of discipline and restraint, something that is extremely valuable in poker. When it comes to discipline checking your cards first is the worst. The middle, which is checking your cards after a couple of other people check their cards, actually requires more discipline due to the fact that the moment is always changing and you will always have to practice restraint and judgement. Checking your cards when it’s your turn also shows a lot of discipline.
How do you choose which method to use?
There are really only two options here. Either waiting for your turn to act or doing it sometime in between. Checking your cards immediately when you get them is just a bad practice. It would seem like waiting for your turn to act is the winner but here is the problem: the single most powerful moment for tells in poker is when a player checks his cards and what he does after that. By checking your cards when it is your turn to act it makes it really easy for your opponents to know when that event happens. If you have 2-3 players at the table who do this it’s a field day of information especially if you are in position. All you have to do is follow the action and you can pick up very valuable information before you even act.
The fact is that I don’t know you, but I have seen so many poker players give up information when checking their cards that I personally believe checking your cards when its your turn to act is dangerous. If you are controlling and standardizing your behavior consistently, waiting for your turn is the best. My advice for most players out there is doing something in between. That is also what I do. I usually focus first on the 2-3 people I am carefully watching then when they are done I check my cards.