Bluffing is one of the critical elements of poker. Players can't just rely on having the best cards all the time to win, either in tournaments or cash games. The ability to take down pots when you don't have the best hand is crucial to being a successful poker player, but bluffing is also a very risky play and perhaps the most difficult poker skill to master.
Several factors should be considered when you decide to bluff – your position, your chip stack relative to other players in the hand, your table image, and the table image of the other players in the hand, and the betting history of that hand. Table image is critical in successful bluffing, but position is also an important factor.
The purpose of a bluff is to get a player with better cards to lay their hand down. When you don't have the best hand, the only way you can win a pot is to bet your opponents off their hands.
The ability to successfully execute a bluff depends in large part on your table image. If your table image is of a tight aggressive player, your opponents will be more likely to believe that you have a strong hand when you put in a pre-flop raise or continuation bet after the flop and/or turn, and therefore they may be more likely to lay down a good hand.
If you have a loose image, i.e. if you are entering a lot of hands, folding to re-raises pre-flop, calling bet after bet without ever raising, and your chip stack is fluctuating wildly, seasoned opponents will pick up that you are a loose player and will be willing to call you down more often. The purpose of bluffing is to make players fold, so the less reason you give someone to call, the better off you are.
You must also take into consideration the image of the player(s) you are trying to bluff. A tight player will be more prone to fold even a decent hand against an aggressive bet. A loose player will hang on to his pocket 4s all the way through to the river, making him more difficult to bluff.
In one of the great ironies of poker, good bluffs tend to actually work better against better competition. Inexperienced players will throw away a lot of chips thinking their bottom pair is going to turn into three of a kind and will keep calling you. It is not a good idea to try to bluff a player who won't fold.
Most players do not enter a hand with the intention of bluffing (and in fact, that is generally not a good idea). Instead, they take advantages of opportunities presented to them. This is why position is so important.
Trying to bluff from an early or middle position is not recommended because of the many players yet to act. The best positions for bluffing are late – either the cutoff, button or small blind. If the action folds to you in either of these spots pre-flop, it is a good time to try to put some pressure on the rest of the players yet to act by putting in a raise.
Raising from the blinds can also be an effective bluffing technique if players are only limping into the pot before you. One of the keys to successful bluffing is figuring out when your opponents are not particularly strong. This will make them more susceptible to a bluff. The fact that players are just limping into a hand is generally a sign of weakness, which is what you need to execute a good bluff. Pouncing on a couple of limpers with a raise from either of the blinds can sometimes be enough to win the hand before the flop.
The downside to raising from the blinds is that after the flop you will be first to act, so proceed with caution.
In multi-table tournaments, it's generally not a good idea to try a lot of bluffing in the early levels, when blinds are low and every player is relatively deep stacked. Calling a 10BB bet when you've got 100 BBs is not nearly as daunting as calling a 4BB bet when you're down to 16 BBs. Use the early part of the tournament to build up your chip stack so you can afford to take a stab or two at a bluff in the later rounds.
The semi-bluff is less risky than a total bluff and occurs after the flop (preferably) or turn when you have a hand that could improve enough by the river for you to win the pot, such as four parts to a flush or an open-ended straight draw, but is most likely behind at the moment. Technically you are bluffing because you do not have a strong hand – yet – but you have a lot of potential to make a better hand.
A semi-bluff can help build up a nice pot in case you do complete your draw, but the ultimate goal is still the same – to get your opponents to fold. There is no guarantee you'll complete your hand by the river, but the fact that you could improve your hand makes a semi-bluff worth adding to your arsenal. (See also, Fighting Semi-Bluffs.)
The math of the semi-bluff is worth knowing.
You've got about a 30 percent chance of hitting your straight by the river. That means for every 10 hands, you'll hit the straight three times. To be profitable, then, you really only need the semi-bluff to work three times out of seven, or about 42%. That'll give you an overall win rate of 60%.
You've got a slightly better chance of completing your flush by the river – almost 35 percent. So for every 20 hands, you'll get the flush seven times. This means that in the other 13 hands, your semi-bluff only needs to work four times to push you above the break-even mark and five times to get you to an overall win rate of 60%. That means your semi-bluffs only need to be successful around a third of the time.
Sizing bets appropriately is key in bluffing. Many inexperienced players fail to make their bluffs strong enough to scare away the opposition in the early rounds, while others make them too large on the river and wind up losing a significant portion of their chips when a much smaller bet would accomplish the same goal.
You have to be committed when bluffing, and you need to be willing to lose however many chips it will take for you to do at least three rounds of betting. A good rule of thumb is to take the big blind and multiply it by at least 10. If you're not willing to commit that many chips to make the bluff work, then don't try it.
A common mistake made by a lot of players who have followed up a pre-flop raise with an aggressive continuation bet after the flop is to check or bet a smaller amount after the turn. Doing either of these screams weakness and will not convince your opponent you have a strong hand. This play is appropriate when you have a good hand and want people to call or even re-raise you, but it's not a good idea when bluffing. When bluffing, you do not want to put out any signs of weakness, which is why the price of poker should never go down (i.e. don't bet less on the turn than you did after the flop). Continual, accelerated pressure is key to a successful bluff.
The groundwork for a good bluff must be laid before and after the flop by either raising or calling another player's raise. It is not necessarily critical to be the aggressor before the flop, but it is important that somebody has instituted a pre-flop raise. This will help winnow the field and will also send out a signal that you have a good starting hand. A community pot with five or six limpers is not a good time to try a bluff.
Post-flop is the first real opportunity to start weaving your tale, but you have to take note of the flop. Is there an ace, or did the board pair up? If there is an ace on the board and it checks to you, or you are first to act, a continuation bet could convince the others in the hand that you just connected with your ace while in reality you missed the flop completely. A bet is also an excellent opportunity to find out if one of your opponents actually did connect with the ace, because they are almost certainly not folding and could even re-raise.
A lot of bluffs fall apart on the turn. You've bet aggressively for the first two rounds, but you can't get rid of one player. You're fairly confident she has you beat, but the key element here is to determine how strong she actually is.
How you interpret these actions, and your firsthand knowledge of her playing ability, will likely determine your next course of action.
If she strikes you as a solid player and is matching your aggression with aggression of her own, it might be time to call off the dogs. There is no real reason to waste good chips after bad. A critical component of bluffing is knowing when to call it off – preferably before you have wasted more chips than necessary.
However, if she has only been calling your bets, it might be worth it to try more aggression after the turn. She, herself, may be on a semi-bluff, chasing either a straight or flush or holding a mid-range pocket pair. If you make her pay to see that last card, putting out the infamous triple barrel bluff, she may decide you've already got her beat or that it's not worth it to continue chasing a flush or straight.
Remember, when bluffing you're not going to win if it goes to showdown, so the only option you have left is to bet. After the flop you only have two more chances to get her out of the hand. Don't waste one of them by checking.
When you are in late position, it folds to you and the players to your left have been fairly tight.
When you are last position and it checks to you with an innocuous board (rainbow, no pair and nothing higher than a Jack). There's always the possibility that somebody has just flopped a set and is baiting a trap, but there's also the chance that the other players in the hand completely whiffed the flop and are looking for an excuse to get out of the hand.
If there is a low pair on the board (say 7s or lower) and it has checked to you on the flop or turn, this is a good time to bluff. It's likely that the other two cards of the pair are in the deck or in the muck.
If you're in a multi-table tournament nearing the money bubble, players will tend to tighten up to make sure they get into the cash. This is an excellent time to try some bluffs against the short stacks that are in danger of busting out.
You've bet pre-flop, post-flop and the turn and you still can't get rid of that stubborn last player. This is when you have to decide if you are going to let it go. Some players are afraid of being found out and will bet one more time to save face. A common mistake made by inexperienced bluffers in this situation is the bludgeon approach. You shove all-in on the river in one last-ditch effort to make this bluff work, only to get called and see your chip stack pushed across the table.
Don't be afraid if the other players find out you were bluffing. It is part of the game. If a poker player is not bluffing, then he's not really playing poker.
Failing on a bluff can work to your favor. In a similar situation in the future, when you actually do have a strong hand, a player who remembered your busted bluff may be more apt to think you are bluffing again and call your bets.
Bluffing is a valuable (and profitable) tactic, but there is a time and a place for everything. It is as important to know when NOT to bluff as when you should be doing it. What follows is a list of situations when bluffing is bad and the only person you'll be fooling is yourself.
Too much action still to come. Remember that your goal is to get everybody else to fold.
No bluff has ever worked if you check the turn and check the river. There is always a chance your opponent is on a draw, too, and continued pressure could induce the fold if he never gets there, or decides you made it too expensive to keep playing.
Not every bluff is going to work. You may be in last position with what looks like a dry flop only to find out (eventually) another player flopped a set with his pocket 2s, hit two pair with his 8-3 suited (yes, people actually play 8-3 suited), or was slow-playing his pocket aces. That doesn't mean your bluff was a bad play. It just means it didn't work out that time.
The chances are just too great that somebody has connected with the flop. Bluffs have a much better chance of succeeding in hands when there are only one or two more players.
You are trying to instill fear in your opponent, and nobody's really afraid of a short-stack. A bluff generally takes a series of bets to be successful. If you go into a hand with less than 10 BBs, you are not going to be able to keep increasing the pressure on your opponents with each round of betting. Bluffing requires initiative, and you can't take a lot of initiative if you don't have a lot of chips.
If you are bluffing you should either be betting or raising. When you call, you have simply thrown away an opportunity to convince your opponent that your hand is really strong.
It is virtually impossible to know for certain when an opponent is bluffing. Calling a bet when you think your opponent is bluffing (the hero call) is always going to be guesswork, but that doesn't mean that you can't at least make it an educated guess.
Some experts will tell you there are physical tells or signs you can look for when playing live. A bluff is essentially a lie, and humans respond differently when lying. A player who starts fidgeting with his chips more than he normally does, or starts looking down at his stack, may be giving off information that he is bluffing. Some believe it is a sign of a bluff if a player places a bet and then immediately reaches for a drink.
But professional poker players are well aware of these "tells" and have been known to send out false signals in an attempt to make someone think they're bluffing when in fact they're sitting on a monster. So when trying to interpret another player's physical reactions, proceed with caution.
Instead, your best bet is simply to get as much information on your tablemate as you can throughout the session. Has he been playing a lot of hands? Where is his chip stack in relation to the tournament average? Is he in the cutoff or button position, positions where it is standard to bluff before the flop? If you're playing in a cash game, is he on his second or third buy-in? Did he recently suffer a bad beat that may have put him on tilt?
All of these should be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not you are going to make the hero call or – and this may be the most difficult skill of all – the hero laydown.
When bluffing, you are by necessity trying to convince your opponent that you have different cards than what you are actually holding because you clearly think the cards you have are not good enough to win. Mastering the art of deception is critical to becoming a winning poker player. Having a bluff go awry is one of the worst feelings in poker, but successfully executing a bluff or sniffing out an opponent's bluff is also one of the best feelings.