The Crucial Expertise in Bluffing That Winning Poker Players Need
Published on May 28, 2018
Bluffing is both more important and less important than most novice poker players think. When you hear a great poker story, if it’s not a bad beat story, it’s a story about a big bluff.
Sometimes it’s a story about a bluff that won a pot. Sometimes it’s a story about someone calling a bluff.
A lot of the action at the poker table is boring. Many pots are won without a showdown. Most of the drama and the excitement at the table comes from people bluffing or trying to determine if their opponent is bluffing.
If you don’t play poker, or if you’re new to poker, you might only have the vaguest of notions about how bluffing works.
The purpose of this post is to explain in detail how bluffing works, why it’s necessary if you want to be good at poker, and how to optimize your results by using a little bit of deception and aggression.
The simple facts are these:
Here’s how to find that middle ground.
Bluffing is simple. You bet or raise with weak cards in the hope that your opponents will fold. If they do, you win the pot without even having to show your cards. If it weren’t for bluffing, poker would be duller than you can imagine.
Players would bet when they had good cards and fold when they had bad cards. The person with the best cards would always win.
In the long run, we all get the same number of great hands and the same number of awful hands. If there’s no chance that someone is misrepresenting their hand, eventually everyone would break even. No one would win money long-term, and no one would lose money long-term.
Bluffing isn’t the only factor that separates the winners from losers in poker. But it’s the uncertainty created by the possibility that someone is bluffing that creates such a dynamic game.
Everyone by now knows that in the long run, the players who win at poker are more skilled than the players who lose at poker.
If you never bluff, then you might as well be playing with all your cards face-up. Remember when I mentioned in the introduction that deception and aggression are what poker is all about? Bluffing is what creates the possibility of deception.
If you never bluff, it won’t take long for everyone to realize that if you’re betting or raising, you always have good cards. In that case, you’ll rarely get any action from the other players. Without action from the other players, you can’t profit. You NEED the other players to put money into the pot to be profitable.
If they know you’re capable of a bluff, then you’ll sometimes get paid off when you have good cards.
And you’ll sometimes get paid off when you have lousy cards, too.
The average new poker player probably shouldn’t bluff that often. In fact, if you’re playing at the lower stakes, you might be able to consistently profit from your opponents’ mistakes without ever having to bluff.
I’ve played in poker games in Oklahoma where the other players were so loose that it was impossible to lose money if you were just willing to stick with your starting hand requirements.
And those are the skills you should focus on initially—the basics. You should have solid starting hand requirements no matter which poker game you’re focusing on.
You should be able to calculate pot odds. You should be able to estimate the probability of getting the cards you need to make your draw.
Beginner poker players need to master the art of being selectively aggressive. That means you need to learn how to fold hands with only average or below-average potential. It also means that when you have an above-average hand, you should bet and raise with it, rather than checking or calling.
I remember a few years ago, a new online poker player asked me for my best advice for winning a freeroll tournament at one of the larger online cardrooms (I think it was PokerStars). My advice was simple. Don’t bluff.
My buddy laughed at me. But think about it. In a freeroll, you’re facing lots of inexperienced competition. And none of them have any real money on the line.
Bluffs only work if there’s a possibility your opponents will fold. In the online freeroll tournaments of the time, the probability of everyone folding so you could pick up a pot was practically nonexistent.
That being said, your bluffs can fail most of the time and still be profitable.
That’s what the next section of this post is about.
Before you bluff, you should have at least an idea about the following aspects of the game.
Of course, you can’t know the answers to any of these questions with any degree of certainty. How good your cards are depends on how good your opponents’ cards are—that’s a relative assessment.
How good your opponents’ cards are is an estimation that you’re making based on what you’ve noticed about how they play their hands in general.
But without being able to make some kind of rough judgment about these things, you can’t bluff profitably.
Some poker players just never bluff. If you’re paying attention, you can determine who those players are. When you know that they never bluff, deciding what to do when playing against them becomes simple. You just make a judgment about whether they have a better hand than you do.
If you think they have a better hand, you fold. If you think your hand is better, you bet, call, or raise.
Think about the other extreme, though. Suppose you face an opponent who bluffs on every hand. Of course, that opponent will win a lot of pots when he makes his hand. He’ll also lose even more pots when he doesn’t have the cards to back up his bluffs.
Playing this opponent is easy, too. You just decide whether your cards are good or not. If they’re good, you get into action with him. In fact, you might loosen up, because the chances that this opponent is betting with lousy cards is greater than with other players.
The optimum bluffing frequency is one that keeps your opponents confused about what cards you’re holding. I spent a week playing with the old regulars at the Excalibur poker room about 10 years ago. I showed my cards several times, and I got called to the river several times.
At one point, the player to my left muttered something about how I never had the cards in the hole that he thought I was going to have. He was complaining that I wasn’t playing “right.”
But the truth is, if he was surprised every time I turned over my cards, I was playing good poker.
I’ll quote my favorite poker writer (David Sklansky) here:
Sklansky calls this “the fundamental theorem of poker.”
That’s how you know when you’re bluffing optimally—when your opponents are confused about what cards you might be holding.
The other factor to consider is how often you need to bluff successfully to be profitable. This is a function of how much money is in the pot versus how much it costs to bet or raise.
If the pot has $100 in it, and it costs you $10 to bet into it, you’ll profit even if your bluff works 10% of the time. You’ll lose $10 on 9 of those bluffs, for a net loss of $90. But you’ll win $100 on one of those bets, which makes a net profit of $10 for you.
Also, if the other players realize that you’re capable of making a bluff, you get an edge just because they know that they might be making a mistake by folding. But they also might be making a mistake by calling your bet.
You lose this advantage if you never bluff or don’t bluff often enough.
Steve Badger says that . Bluffing isn’t supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be slightly unpleasant. But it’s good for you as a poker player.
How do you know if you’re bluffing often enough?
Steve says that if you never get caught bluffing, you’re not bluffing often enough. So that’s a simple guideline. Bluff often enough that you occasionally get caught.
Don’t worry about making mistakes when bluffing. You’re going to call someone you think is bluffing, and sometimes they’re going to have the cards. You’re going to bluff someone who won’t fold sometimes, too. That’s part of the game.
Not all bluffs are created equal. Here are some of the different kinds of bluffs you can make.
Betting or raising with a hand that’s almost certainly a loser is not as crazy as it might seem. You know your cards are lousy, but your opponents don’t. Unless their cards are strong, they might fold in the face of your bet or raise.
Also, there’s a concept in poker called “trapping,” which is essentially the opposite of a bluff. You give your opponents the idea that you have lousy cards when you actually have good cards. This encourages them to put money in the pot even though they’ll probably lose the showdown.
If it’s the end of the hand, and you have nothing, then this is the classic bluff you’re probably used to seeing on television and in the movies. It’s the purest form of a bluff.
Remember, if you never get caught bluffing, you’re not bluffing often enough. Once you get caught, you’ll start getting calls from opponents when they should fold. You’ll have the cards for real, but they’ll think you might be bluffing. And you’ll profit from that, too.
Bluffing to get a free a card is an important concept that David Sklansky writes about in The Theory of Poker—which, by the way, is the one poker book every serious poker player should read.
In the first couple of betting rounds in most forms of poker, the bets are half the size of what they are in the later rounds. By showing strength in the early rounds (while it’s cheap to do so), you can often get cards later in the hand because your opponents are playing more cautiously than they should.
Bluffing with a drawing is another concept David Sklansky explains in The Theory of Poker. It’s called the “semi-bluff.”
You bet and/or raise with a hand that’s almost certain to lose, but it’s also a hand that has the potential to improve later. An example might be 4 cards to a flush or a straight.
With a semi-bluff, you give yourself 2 opportunities to win. You win the pot if your opponents all fold. Or you win the pot if your opponents call and you then make your hand.
Any time you bluff when there are more cards to come, you have a chance of improving your hand to a winner. Does this make bluffing with more cards to come better than bluffing at the end of the hand?
No. But it does make it at least as good a move. Both kinds of bluffs should be part of your repertoire.
You’re not going to see me give advice about what percentage of the time you should bluff, though. Every game is different, so it depends on your opponents and your specific situations.
The standard line of thinking about position is that you benefit from acting later in the betting round.
But when you’re bluffing, the opposite is true. The earlier you act, the better.
Think about it this way. You have 2 or 3 players acting before you, and they all check. You bet. Those players realize that they showed weakness when they checked, so they often call your bet. After all, you might have cards that are no better than theirs.
But if you act first, they’re more likely to give you credit for having good cards. After all, you don’t know if the people acting after you have good cards or not. If you’re betting into them from early position, you must have great cards.
Of course, this varies based on your opponents. But you also need to be willing to accept that sometimes when you bluff from early position, your opponents really will have premium cards.
Your bluffs should increase as your number of opponents decrease.
It’s easier to win a bluff against a single opponent than it is to win a bluff against 2 opponents.
And it’s easier to win a bluff against 2 opponents than it is to win a bluff against 3 opponents.
Here’s how to think about it mathematically, keeping in mind that this is a simplification.
You’re facing a single opponent, and you think he’s going to fold 1/3 of the time. You don’t need much money in the pot to justify bluffing. If you’re getting 3 to 1 on your money, this bluff is profitable.
But if you’re facing 2 opponents, both of whom are going to fold 1/3 of the time, the probability that both of them will fold is 1/3 X 1/3, or 1/9. You need a lot more money in the pot to make this bluff profitable in the long run.
With 3 opponents, all of whom are likely to fold 1/3 of the time, the probability of successfully bluffing all 3 of them drops to 1/27. There’s probably not enough money in the pot to warrant bluffing against 3 opponents or more.
If you never bluffed when you were facing 3 opponents or more, you’d probably be fine. I don’t bluff unless I’m facing 1 or 2 opponents.
Some of these will be determined by specific situations. For example, if you’re on the end, and you think all your opponents missed their draws, it might be okay to bluff 3 players or more. This is a case where the probability of one of the players folding is closer to 100% because he missed his draw.
It’s not really 100%, though, because you can’t see his hole cards. You’re just making a judgment about what cards he was probably holding.
If you want to become a better bluffer, some of the skills are easy. Others are tougher.
One of these skills is simple awareness. Being aware that bluffing is the right move even when it fails is an example of that kind of awareness. Poker is a long-term activity. Just because a ploy lost money in the short run doesn’t mean it was the wrong way to play the hand.
Another skill is keeping up with how many players you’re bluffing. If you’re not paying attention, you might realize that you’re bluffing 3 or 4 players when you thought you were bluffing just 2 players. That sounds crazy when you read it in black and white, but it happens all the time.
Learn to bluff only when you think it might succeed. If there’s no chance at all of winning the hand with a bluff, don’t do it just to throw the other players off.
That’s a costly way to “advertise.” You’ll get caught bluffing often enough even if you only bluff when there’s a chance of winning, believe me.
Evaluating how skilled your opponents are is another essential skill related to bluffing. It’s better to avoid bluffing the experts at the table. It’s also better to avoid bluffing the real idiots.
The experts are more likely to realize you’re bluffing. The real idiots often call regardless of how you’ve been playing.
Paying attention to what your opponents are doing is another opportunity. If all you opponents check on the previous betting round, a bluff on the next betting round might just do the trick.
Steve Badger says that bluffing is like eating your vegetables. It’s good for you.
David Sklansky says you gain every time an opponent makes a different decision than he would if he could see your cards. Bluffing is one way to ensure that happens more often.
Bluffing is an important part of the game, but the trick is to avoid bluffing too often. Some bad players bluff just to advertise.
I don’t recommend that. Bluff when you have a chance of winning. That’s all the advertising you’ll need to do, because you’ll get caught eventually.
In fact, if you never get caught bluffing, you’re not bluffing often enough. Bluff more if that’s the case.