Ultimate Guide to Bluffing in Poker – How to Bluff
- Reviewed by WSOP Winner Chris ‘Fox’ Wallace
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, the table image of the other players in the hand and the betting history of that hand.
Running a successful bluff requires an awareness of all these factors, and once you start to notice when the conditions are right you’ll be able to regularly add more chips to your stack by seizing upon these moments.
What’s more, by learning to recognize prime bluffing opportunities you’ll be better equipped to spot the times an opponent is bluffing you!
Image is Everything
The purpose of a bluff is to get players with better cards to lay their hands 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, or, how the other players think you are playing. 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 lay down a good hand.
However, if you have a loose image, e.g. if you are entering a lot of poker hands, limping then folding to pre-flop raises, calling bet after bet without ever raising with a chip stack which is fluctuating wildly, then seasoned opponents will pick up that you are a loose player and 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. Bluffing is therefore much harder when you have a loose table image.
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, on the other hand, might hang on to pocket 4s all the way through to the river, making them more difficult to bluff.
In one of the great ironies of poker, good bluffs tend to 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 are more likely to keep calling. It is not a good idea to try to bluff a player who won’t fold.
How to Pick Your Spot to Bluff
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.
- Using your position
Trying to bluff from an early or middle position is not recommended because of the many players yet to act behind you. The best positions for bluffing are late, such as the hijack, cutoff, or button. If the action folds to you in one of these spots pre-flop, it may a good time to try to put some pressure on the rest of the players yet to act with a raise.
- Raising from the blinds
Raising from the blinds in Texas Hold’em 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 out of position, so proceed with caution.
- Bluffing in multi-table tournaments
Solid multi-table tournament strategy suggests 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 10 big blind (BB) 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.
What Is a Semi-Bluff?
The semi-bluff is a bluff that can still improve to become the best hand. It’s less risky than a total bluff and can be employed after the flop or turn, with a hand such as four to a flush or an open-ended straight draw. These are hands which would likely win if the right card comes, but are almost certainly behind at the time you make your semi-bluff. 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.
Let’s look at a couple of examples where a semi-bluff might be an astute move, and dig just a little into the math behind it:
Example 1: An Open-Ended Straight Draw On the Flop
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%.
Example 2: A Flush Draw On the Flop
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 your semi-bluff only needs to work four times out of 13 to push you above the break-even mark, and five times to get you to an overall win rate of 60%. Your semi-bluffs only need to be successful around a third of the time in this spot.
Sizing bets appropriately is key in bluffing. Many inexperienced players fail to make their bluffs big 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 apply aggression through 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 on the turn. Doing either of these indicates 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. To bluff successfully in poker, you do not want to put out any signs of weakness, which is why the size of your bets should get bigger, not smaller (i.e. don’t bet less on the turn than you did after the flop). Continual, accelerated pressure is key to a successful bluff.
Laying the Foundations
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 thin the field and build a pot worth winning, 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? 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. Let’s say you’ve bet aggressively for the first two rounds, but you can’t get rid of one player. You’re fairly confident they have you beat, but the key element here is to determine how strong they actually are.
- Were they the original raiser before the flop?
- Did they lead out with a bet after the flop and call your re-raise?
- Did they raise your continuation-bet?
- Or did they simply check-call your post-flop bet?
How you interpret these actions, and your firsthand knowledge of their playing ability, will likely determine your next course of action.
If they strike you as a solid player and are matching your aggression with aggression of their own, it might be time to call off the dogs. There is no real reason to throw 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 they have only been calling your bets, it might be worth it to try more aggression after the turn. They may be on a semi-bluff themselves, holding a draw or a mid-range pocket pair. If you make them pay to see that last card, putting out the infamous triple barrel bluff, they may decide you’ve already got them beat or that it’s not worth it to continue chasing their draw.
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 do so – don’t waste one of them by checking.
The Best Times to Bluff
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.
On a paired board:
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 more likely that the other two cards of the pair are in the deck or in the muck, than in an opponent’s hand – especially if they are happy to check both flop and turn.
On the bubble:
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, so long as you have them comfortably outstacked.
Bluffs to Avoid
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.
- Don’t try to bluff from an early or middle position
There’s still too much action still to come. Remember that your goal is to get everybody else to fold.
- Don’t try to bluff multiple players
The chances are just too great that someone has connected with the flop. Bluffs have a much better chance of succeeding in hands when there are only one or two other players.
- Don’t be afraid to keep the pressure on in later betting rounds
No bluff has ever worked that checked the turn and river. There is always a chance your opponent is on a draw, too, and continued pressure could induce the fold before they get there.
- Don’t try to bluff when you are short-stacked
You are trying to instill fear in your opponent, but nobody’s really afraid of a short stack. A bluff generally takes a series of bets to be successful, so 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.
- Don’t give up
Not every bluff is going to work. You may be in last position with what looks like a dry flop only to find out another player flopped a set with pocket 2s, hit two pair with 8-3 suited (yes, people actually play 8-3 suited), or was slow-playing pocket aces. That doesn’t mean your bluff was a bad play, it just means it didn’t work out that time.
- Don’t ever call when bluffing
If you are bluffing you should be betting or raising. When you call, you have simply thrown away an opportunity to convince your opponent that your hand is really strong. By betting or raising, your opponent is signaling strength; if they’re bluffing then a raise might win you the pot, if they’re not then you’re definitely beat so calling will only cost you chips.
Detecting a Bluff
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 involve some 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 have different, often involuntary, physical responses when lying.
A player who starts fidgeting with their chips more than they normally do, or starts looking down at their stack, may be giving off information that they’re 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 (“reverse tells”) in an attempt to make someone think they’re bluffing and weak when in fact the opposite is true. 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. Have they been playing a lot of hands? Where is their chip stack in relation to the tournament average? Are they in the cutoff or button positions, where it is common to bluff before the flop? If you’re playing in a cash game, are they on their second or third buy-in? Did they recently suffer a bad beat that may have put them on tilt?
All of these factors 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 you do, because you believe 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 can be one of the worst feelings in poker, but failed bluffs are a part of the game – if it’s not happening to you, you’re almost certainly not bluffing enough. And besides, successfully executing a bluff, or sniffing out an opponent’s bluff, is also one of the best feelings in the game.
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