Introduction to Bluffing

There’s no escaping it - bluffing is an integral part of poker, and Hold ‘Em in particular. Successful bluffing can add a surprising amount to one’s win-rate, whereas unsuccessful, ‘silly’ bluffing can wipe out a few sessions worth of good work in a matter of minutes.

Many weak players don’t understand the mechanics behind bluffing. They’ve seen some guy on WPT go all-in with no pair no draw and force someone off a better hand and they simply think “Hey, I could do that!”. So they go and deposit a few bucks in a poker site or trek down to their nearest casino, try it, and seem aghast when it doesn’t work the first few times. “Oh well, I was just unlucky, that was just bad timing” they may think, and so they’ll try it again and again, and they will be unsuccessful more often than not.

So what’s the big mistake they’re making? Are they just “unlucky” and a victim of “bad timing”? Well, perhaps partly. A certain percentage of poker is unarguably luck-based, especially in the short-term. But more likely they’re bluffing almost randomly, and not taking into account many factors which would turn the odds of their bluffing being successful in their favour.

Good bluffing is primarily situational. A month or two ago I read a post on the forums saying something like “You should be aiming to bluff x% of the time”, and not a lot else. This is a rather silly way of looking at bluffing. If I said to you, “You should be voluntarily putting money into the pot about 20% of the time” and nothing else, you should be looking at me as if I were mad, because this statistic, much like bluffing, is primarily situational. If you’re at a tight full table or at a 6-max table, you should be raising more preflop and generally seeing more flops, so this figure will obviously be higher. If you’re at a loose-aggressive table, you will be more likely to want to wait for premium hands before playing, so the figure will be lower. Thinking something like “Oooh, I haven’t bluffed in a while, I’d better bluff now to keep up my quota” or “Hmm, I haven’t seen a flop in two orbits, maybe I’ll just limp under the gun with this 84 offsuit” is just ridiculous, and is one large step on the road to ruin.

So if we can’t determine how to optimally bluff in terms of a percentage, how can we determine it? There are a wide range of situations in which bluffing becomes more feasible and considerations to make before bluffing, some of which are listed below.

The players you are trying to bluff

One of the most widely used sayings in poker is “Don’t bluff a calling station”. This is quite simply because you are more likely to be called down by this type of player. This sounds like such an obvious thing to say, but you wouldn’t believe the number of posts I’ve read on various for a along the lines of “HOW COULD HE CALL MY BLUFF DOWN WITH THAT???”. One of the reasons you should be paying attention to your table and making notes even when you’re not in a hand is so that you know who can be bluffed off strong hands, and who can’t even be bluffed off Ace-high on a dangerous board.

Your table image

Self-explanatory. If you’ve just been caught bluffing, it’s invariably a bad idea to try it again until the table has had a chance to forget about it. If on the other hand you’ve barely played a hand in two hours at a table, people will respect your bets and raises more, so you’re more likely to get away with a bluff.

How many players you are trying to bluff

Again, this should be a simple thing to recognise, but I see people bluffing on the flop into five other players on a daily basis. It’s far easier to bluff one player than it is to bluff many. Even if you’re up against five players who you consider easy to bluff, the chances are that on most flops at least one of them will have some kind of hand with which they wish to continue.

The board

Do you think it’s easier to bluff on a QhJhTh board or a 6h6c2d board? The answer should be obvious - ragged boards are ideal for bluffing on. Low cards, three different suits, and paired boards are the main features to look out for. On a 6h6c2d board, nobody is likely to have hit a good hand unless they have a monster or an overpair, and in both of these cases it will be likely that you’ll find out about it sooner rather than later. Should you get a call from a habitual slow-player when bluffing at a big pot it’s usually time to give up and chalk it down to bad timing. Should you get raised, you obviously also have to give up barring any crazy reads on your opponent.

Your outs

The term “semi-bluffing” is thrown around a lot in poker circles, and with good reason. When bluffing it is always ideal to have outs to what you are confident will be the best hand if your bluff is called. Whether this is a flush draw, straight draw or just over cards is unimportant, but the more outs you have the better, of course. Bluffing when there is a distinct possibility you are ‘drawing dead’, or just to one or two outs is seldom a smart idea.

Your position

Sometimes, against an aggressive opponent, it can actually be in your advantage to act first after the flop, as you will have the first stab at bluffing on any ragged boards. However, in general, information is crucially important in poker, and acting in later position of course gives you more information on which to base your action. If you are heads-up with a very aggressive player who doesn’t seem interested in slow-play, and he checks to you on the flop, you can often bluff him. Position is also vital when considering preflop stealing, which will be discussed shortly.

Fold equity

Essentially the likelihood that your opponent will fold, and the extra value that you gain from this. If your big-stacked opponent bets 500 tournament chips on a flop, and you push for your last 800 chips, two things need noting. First, that he is unlikely to fold to your raise given his pot odds, and second that if you lose the pot, you’re out of the tournament. Would a bluff be wise here? Most definitely not. Even if you win the pot (either by your opponent making a silly fold or by ‘sucking out’ on him, you aren’t gaining as much value by winning (you’ll still be shortstacked and your chances of placing highly will still be small) as you are losing value by losing the pot (you’re out of the tournament).

Tournament situations

Bluffing early on in tournaments is generally unwise, as while the blinds are small you stand to gain very little by bluffing, and maintaining a tight table image is important for when the blinds shoot up and suddenly bluffing becomes more worthwhile. Bubble (i.e ‘close to making the money’) situations are ideal for bluffing, as most players will just be looking to make the money. By bluffing on the bubble, yes, you are running the risk that you will run into a monster hand and miss the money, but you are also improving your chances of building up a big stack, and going deep into the tournament where there is big money to be made.

These are just a few of the more important considerations to make with respect to bluffing. The main point to remember here is that you should always put a large degree of thought behind your bluffs. If you do, they are far more likely to be successful. Remember though that no matter how much thought you put into a bluff, there is always a possibility of you running into a huge hand. As long as you were confident in your thought processes regarding the specific situation, you shouldn’t get too down on yourself if and when this happens.

Article Written by Dorkus Malorkus.

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